Sharing the excitement of spawning fish with youth

Try exploring a local fish “run” with youth to help them become more fisheries knowledgeable.

The rock circles in this photo are fish nests. These fish are getting ready to spawn. Image courtesy of Brent Myers via Flickr, CC BY 2.0.
The rock circles in this photo are fish nests. These fish are getting ready to spawn. Image courtesy of Brent Myers via Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

Spring is a time of transition on the landscape in Michigan with weather, new growth and numerous animals showing outwards signs of this change. Below the surface of many Michigan lakes, rivers and streams is the spawning of numerous fish species throughout our state. Serious fishermen are in tune with this annual phenomenon, but many folks are unaware of the “run” or are under-informed. This is an excellent opportunity to introduce youth the pursuit of fishing, an exciting phenology event, and help them understand the circle of life.

Spawning times vary by weather, water temperature, daylight and other factors. The majority of fish spawning takes place in spring and early summer. These are mostly warm water species of fish, for example walleye, bass, suckers, catfish and species collectively referred to as panfish. Some cold water fish also spawn in spring such as rainbow trout (steelhead) and northern pike, but most are fall spawners. Female fish are typically larger than males due to the amount of roe, or eggs, they contain.

The ritual for spawning varies between species, but typically one or both gender of fish will build a nest or redd. The female will then deposit eggs and the male will fertilize the eggs externally with “milt.” Some species, like northern pike and walleye, abandon the nest while others, like bass, have one of the two parents guard the nest until the fish are hatched. Nests can be easily identified by seeking circular areas that are clear of mud and debris, which exposes sand and gravel.

Youth can have a particularly interesting and exciting time researching and investigating the various spawning behaviors of different fish. Of course, researching local fish from their geographic region makes this part more relevant, interesting and fun. Seeking advice and knowledge from a fisheries biologist is very useful. These Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Forest Service and Sea Grant employees are often willing and excited to help as guest speakers and provide tours to fisheries facilities.

Once youth have investigated and found good information about fish runs, the next step is to get outdoors to experience these first hand. Dress warm and be prepared for the challenges Michigan weather offers in spring. Late spring and early summer are a bit easier as water temperatures warm and fish can be seen in shallow water. The chance to catch a fish is always good at these times as fish are in shallow water, are often hungry and can be found rather easily. Plus, fishing is fun! Michigan youth do not need a fishing license until age 17, but be sure to follow all fishing and boating regulations.

Michigan has an abundance of opportunities to experience a variety of fish spawning activity. Numerous rivers emptying into the Great Lakes offer runs of walleye and steelhead. Many inland rivers and lakes provide excellent chances to see northern, bass, bluegill and perch. One very exciting fish spawning viewing opportunity is at Black River to see sturgeon. There are many more sites to see, so be sure to contact your local DNR, Sea Grant or Michigan State University Extension county office for more information.

MSU Extension encourages participation in new experiences that are safe and expose youth to science involvement with 4-H Science: Asking Questions and Discovering Answers. Please contact me at for ideas on spending time outdoors with youth.

Michigan State University Extension and the Michigan 4-H Youth Development program help to create a community excited about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). 4-H STEM programming seeks to increase science literacy, introducing youth to the experiential learning process that helps them to build problem-solving, critical-thinking and decision-making skills. Youth who participate in 4-H STEM are better equipped with critical life skills necessary for future success. To learn more about the positive impact of Michigan 4-H youth in STEM literacy programs, read our 2015 Impact Report: “Building Science Literacy and Future STEM Professionals.”

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