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Natural North Dakota

Johnny Darters

Most everyone is familiar with the larger fish in our lakes and rivers. Northern pike, walleye, perch, bluegill, to name a few. But what about the smaller fish? Our lakes, rivers, and streams have an abundance of smaller fish such as chubs, shiners, and my favorite the johnny darter.

There are several species of darters native to North Dakota. The most notable species being the johnny darter. They are small slender fish, around two inches long, with rather large eyes. They are brown to yellowish on the top with lighter sides and whitish belly. They have two dorsal fins, and the back and sides have conspicuous “W” or “X” shaped spots along the lateral line.

Johnny darters may be found across the state. Although they can be found in lakes and streams with a variety of substrates, they prefer clear slow flowing water with a sandy or gravelly bottom. They stay on the bottom with their heads facing the current where they look for prey such as small insect larvae and other invertebrates. But as you may assume, as a small fish, they must be constantly on the lookout for predators such as walleye and perch.

My mom taught country school, and I still have her copy of the Handbook of Nature Study, by Anna Botsford Comstock (1931). One of the nature studies is about Johnny Darters, and it gives an interesting description of this little fish. Here is a part of it.

“The johnny darters are, with the sticklebacks, the most amusing little fish in the aquarium. They are well called darters since their movements are so rapid when they are frightened that the eye can scarcely follow them; and there is something so irresistibly comical in their bright, saucy eyes, placed almost on top of the head, that no one could help calling one of them “Johnny.” A “johnny” will look at you from one side, and then as quick as a flash, will flounce around and study you with the other eye, and then come toward you head-on so that he may take you in with both eyes.”

Johnny darters can be good entertainment! Find photos and descriptions of the johnny darter and several other fish here, courtesy of North Dakota Game and Fish.

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