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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

As this infreqently seen perch matures, its anus migrates from the usual spot near the tail and ends up below the pectoral fin. The reason for this unusual development is still a mystery. © Konrad Schmidt
As this infreqently seen perch matures, its anus migrates from the usual spot near the tail and ends up below the pectoral fin. The reason for this unusual development is still a mystery. © Konrad Schmidt

April 2004

Pirate perch

A story and a remembrance of
a rare breed.

George S. Bachay

Observations of a nighttime raider

Editor's note: We remember George Bachay, 87, a wonderful friend and contributor to this magazine who succumbed to cancer on New Year's Eve. Bachay was a Renaissance man – a lifelong outdoorsman, former fisheries biologist, game warden for the old Wisconsin Conservation Department, reporter, painter, craftsman, trapper, angler and hunter. George was a great storyteller and loved to share his enthusiasm for conservation. He wrote the outdoors column for The Janesville Gazette for more than 25 years, hosted an outdoors radio show, painted outdoor scenes in a folk art style and in his later years started writing western romance novels.

Bachay's house on the shores of the Sugar River was a mixture of art museum and science lab filled with specimen jars of the fish, insects and mammals he had collected over the years. He delighted in remaining a lifelong learner and keen observer of nature just outside his window, and he spearheaded many conservation causes to improve water quality, protect wetlands and promote outdoor learning.

Here is the last manuscript he sent us just a year before his passing about an unusual fish he had found earlier in his career. Bachay's great skill was finding ample subjects for his writings and broadcasts from the Sugar River area home near Albany that he and Theresa kept for 33 years. He had a way of teaching several lessons at the same time, as he did here, all wrapped in an entertaining narrative.

My daughter Kathleen from Waterville was dusting shelves in my studio. She stopped to examine a specimen preserved in formalin.

"Dad, how come you never wrote about these unique perch?" she asked, studying the glass jar containing five small fish. "It's marked 1947. Where did you catch them?"

"I found them when you were only four years old," I replied. At the time I was a game warden working in La Crosse. I remembered it was in February when Dick Lipinski, owner of the Delta Fish and Fur Farm near Marshland called to ask if I could bring some biologists to see the northern pike and bullheads in one of his ponds along the Mississippi River near Trempealeau. I asked what the problem was, and he said the fish had some kind of worms under their skin.

So, with Dr. John Greenbank, biologist for the Wisconsin Conservation Department, and Melvin Monson from the Minnesota Biology Department, we went to visit the fish farm.

The ponds were covered with a foot of ice, but in one pond, where the artesian well flowed, fish congregated by the thousands seeking the oxygen-rich water.

Lipinski was in the fish house dressing bullheads for the market. With his knife tip, he pointed to a separate pile of fish infected with grubs for the biologists to examine.

"There's nothing you can do about these grubs," Dr. Greenbank said sadly, examining several of them. "It's one of nature's magic tricks." He explained that the life cycle of this yellow grub begins in the mouths of fish-eating birds when they lay eggs that fall into the water as the birds feed. The eggs hatch in the water and become host to snails. After leaving the snail, the small eggs attach themselves to fish, birds pick up the fish and, as they enter the bird's mouth, the cycle begins all over again.

While Greenbank explained the life cycle details to Lipinski, Monson and I netted some bullheads from another pond. Sorting the fish from the net, I found some pumpkinseed sunfish, crappies and some small purple fish resembling bass.

Examining the fish, we noticed that the biggest of the purple ones (five inches long) had the anus just under the gills. Monson said they were pirate perch, so I dug deeper into the silt with the dipnet and came up with more specimens. The adults were dark purple with green and gray bellies.

Dr. Greenbank was amazed to see them and explained that the pirate perch (Aphredoderus sayanus gibbosus) belonged to a genus that contained just this one species. When the fish are young, their anus is located near the anal fin, like most ordinary fish, but as the young grow to adulthood, the vent migrates forward in front of the ventral fins.

As I told the story to Kathleen, I recalled that the following summer her mom and I found pirate perch while seining minnows in lagoons along the Mississippi River south of La Crosse. The small fish were feeding on aquatic insects in the deep muck.

Kathleen and I cleaned out many of the old specimen jars, but thanks to her, we saved the pirate perch. I remember later in 1947 collecting pirate perch for Edward Schneberger, then superintendent of Fish Management and also collected some for Dr. Breckenridge of the Minneapolis Museum.

Observations of a nighttime raider

Pirate perch are mainly found east of the Mississippi. In Wisconsin, they inhabit the Mississippi River, lower Wisconsin River and Lake Michigan drainage basins. They are more commonly found in quiet waters – oxbows, sloughs, marshes, and ditches. The species is nocturnal and derives its common name from aggressively feeding on live foods: small minnows, earthworms, small crustaceans, water fleas and mosquito larvae.

Fisheries biologists speculated that the unusual migration of the fish's vent forward was an adaptation because pirate perch eggs were incubated in gill cavities, as is common among closely related cavefish. However, incubation studies by Ray Katula as reported in 1992 to the North American Native Fishes Association indicates that pirate fish raised in an aquarium clearly laid eggs in mossy, bottom substrate, so the reason for this adaptation remains a mystery.