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Jim Gronaw: Appreciating the fallfish | OUTDOORS COMMENTARY

Of the multitude of species that swim in our local streams and rivers, the common fallfish is the one that gets probably the least amount of ink.

You won’t read about “fallfish” tournaments, fallfish boats, fallfish angling patterns or even great fallfish destinations where this giant minnow can be found. Likewise, there are no fallfish guides or regulations regarding this specie.

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Fallfish are a given, especially among local stream bass and trout anglers who occasionally encounter them when pursuing other game. Some regional catfish hounds like them for a great bait for whiskered giants. But to most, the fallfish is just a mild interruption when out on the streams.

The common fallfish is actually the largest of the minnows found in the Appalachians and Eastern slope of the Atlantic states that inhabit free flowing streams.

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A native specie, they are of the Cyprinidae family and go by the scientific name Semotilus Corporalis. Locally, they are found in literally every central stream in Maryland and in some tidal creeks on the Eastern Shore. All tributaries to the Monocacy River and Potomac have them, as well as many feeders of the Susquehanna, Gunpowder, James and Shenandoah systems.

They can reach lengths of 16-inches or more and some trophy specimens can exceed 20-inches. The current world-record was a 3-pound, 9-ounce fish from the upper Susquehanna River in New York…a fish that measured 19-inches.

How they got the nick-name of “fallfish” is unknown, as they tend to bite both baits and lures throughout the entirety of the year. However, like many species, they do fatten up for the winter, with October and November offering “eleventh hour” opportunities to catch them. If you dig the late fall smallmouth and trout gigs locally, you will likely encounter these silvery fish as well.

I have had several small-stream wading trips during my lifetime where the fallfish saved the day, as those “high-brow” species (bass and trout) did not want to co-operate.

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Perhaps my skill level was a bit under the weather or perhaps those “dumb” fallfish and other rough species were more to my abilities. Whatever the case, those 12- to 16-inch fallfish had no problem smashing a variety of jigs, spinners and mini-crank baits. Subsequently, I had no problem enjoying their quick, powerful runs and spirited bursts for structure and freedom.

They are very game and a big one can make you think you have the biggest trout in the creek.

I believe I have caught as many as seven or eight in a single outing and some have been in the 15- to 18-inch category — easy two-pounders. They love the Rebel Crayfish and 1/16th-ounce jigs will get them once the waters cool. Basically, anything that will attract a stream smallmouth in the fall will take these fish as well.

Frequently, especially on small streams, the fallfish may be your biggest fish of the trip.

About three years ago, in early November, I was fishing a Monocacy tributary for smallmouth bass when I caught what may have (unofficially, of course) been a world-record class fallfish.

Using one of my hand-tied hairjigs for smallmouths, I got a solid strike just as I was about to lift the lure from the water. In the slightly stained conditions, the fish made a huge splash and boil, immediately ripping line from my ultralight reel at a frantic pace. Clearly, I thought, this must be the largest bass in the creek, or, a carp? A channel catfish? Something big for sure.

Finally, after a few tense moments of a give-and-take battle, the fish made a surface swirl and the largest fallfish I had ever seen came into view. Was I disappointed? Maybe just a little. But without a doubt this was certainly a very large and rare catch for the specie.

Jim Gronaw displays a gigantic 22-inch fallfish he caught in a Monocacy tributary.
Jim Gronaw displays a gigantic 22-inch fallfish he caught in a Monocacy tributary. (Jim Gronaw)

These fish have a tendency to gyrate and just go crazy when trying to land them. This one was no different. It was actually so big that I was able to put a lower jaw grip on the fish, just like you do with larger bass.

The fish eventually calmed down and I was able to photograph and measure the fish. At a stunning 22-inches, it was truly a remarkable fish. Not a scale missing, its’ sleek, silvery appearance was similar to that of a big shad rather than an overgrown minnow. The girth was amazing, and I estimated the fish at 4-pounds.

After a couple quick photos, I released the fish back to its’ home. I hope it’s still alive today. Even if it is just what others would call a “rough fish”.

Since that time, I have caught numerous 15- to 17-inchers throughout the Monocacy watershed, but nothing quite like that. I have great respect for that giant minnow. In all honesty, I have caught 4-pound largemouth bass that didn’t fight as well. Sorry, Bass Masters, it just happens to be true.

If you get a chance to fish the streams this fall, then realize that sometimes you just have to play the hand you are dealt.

It could be that big, stream brown trout, a colored-up brookie or a raging smallmouth bass that pounds your lure. Or, maybe, it just might be an overgrown minnow that is called the “fallfish”.

Just set the hook and enjoy the ride.

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