By Mark Fike
I enjoy catching all kinds of fish to include shad. While shad are not high on the palatability chart, they are fun. Some years ago I caught a few shad that had hitchhikers on them and since then I have heard of other species of fish being caught with these same hitchhikers on them.
During the spring many anadromous fish, those that leave saltwater to spawn in freshwater, are making their runs upriver. For much of the country, this is happening in March and April.
In my area, the shad run is in full swing and I recalled those times I caught shad with a “tag-along”. Imagine what it is like to be busy casting and catching shad and a few herring when suddenly a snake-like creature drops off your fish and into your bucket. That is precisely what has happened to me over the years and I am sure many others fishing in rivers in the spring near the coasts have experienced this from time to time.
When it happened to me I was in such a hurry that I almost did not notice the creature. The fish were hitting and the rain was coming down steady, which motivated me to keep casting and reeling so I could get to the warmth of my truck with a full bucket of fish.
Just as a fish flopped loose from my hook and tumbled into the bucket I saw it. The slimy gray creature slithered to the bottom of the bucket in a matter of seconds. While I was interested in seeing it, I already had a suspicion of what it was and decided to wait until I got home to inspect things a little closer. Cold rain and biting fish will do that to you sometimes.
Upon dumping out my bucket at the house, my suspicions were confirmed. The creature was an Atlantic Sea Lamprey and had attached itself to one of the big hickory shad that I had brought home to salt down and harvest roe from.
Atlantic Sea Lampreys are eels with a twist. They have a fin but an abnormal-looking head. Basically they are a jawless fish that live in the Atlantic Ocean and can be found from the Mediterranean Sea to the Florida coast all the way to Labrador.
They can be dark brown colored, but most are a lighter gray/yellow with dark spots. Their bellies are pale or creamy. They grow to be a foot to almost two feet long. They are detested by all because they are parasites of larger fish. I have yet to meet anyone who likes the creepy looking creatures.
In fact, some guys don’t like getting into the water because they fear the lampreys will attach themselves like a leech and suck their blood out. That is unlikely to happen but I guess if it clears out my fishing spot so be it.
The lampreys come into freshwater to spawn each spring and end up mating in the upper reaches of freshwater streams or rivers. Unfortunately, they can lay over 100,000 eggs at a time. Their sucking mouth is circular and has rows of teeth that allow them to scrape off scales of fish and then attach themselves, so they can remove the fluids out of their host which either kills the fish or permanently scars them. Their eyes are reddish in color.
I can recall seeing some very large specimens when I was a kid. We used to go to the dam on our local river to catch the large American shad each spring. When I got bored with that I would wade to the dam. On one side there was a large, rather flat piece of concrete just under the falls and the lampreys were congregated together breeding on or around that rock.
It was disgusting to see that many lampreys in one spot and made my wading expedition back to where my father was fishing go quite a bit faster than the trip over. If you happen to be fishing this spring and see one of these guys you will now know what they are. The small ones are rather interesting to examine and I bet they would make great catfish bait once killed.