Bill Lynch Published

Interview With The Ichthyologist


They say there’s a lot of fish in the sea, but there’s also an awful lot of fish in the streams and rivers of Appalachia. A new book by fisheries research scientist, and WVU professor, Stuart Welsh showcases some of the lesser-known fish in the region. Bill Lynch spoke with Welsh about his book Hornyheads, Madtoms and Darters.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Lynch: Let’s talk about Hornyheads, Madtoms and Darters. Describe what a hornyhead or a madtom or a darter is.

Welsh: Yeah, so hornyhead is a name for a group of minnows. And these are minnows that the males develop these little pointed horns on their head during the spawning season. 

They develop these horns, grow these horns, and they use them to spar. They compete for females during the spawning season. In some ways, it’s similar to a white-tailed deer with antlers, in that, a deer grows its antlers and then loses the antlers after their breeding season. 

It’s same situation with these hornyhead minnows. They grow these bumps on their head. They use them during the breeding season, and then they’re lost afterwards. Then, they they regrow them the following year.

Lynch: Madtoms: what are they like?

Welsh: Madtoms is a name for a group of catfish. 

Most people, when you hear the word catfish, you think of big fish like channel catfish, blue catfish, flathead catfish, but madtoms are a group of catfishes. They do not get very large. 

Their maximum size, depending on the species, may range from three to six inches in length. 

Most people don’t see them because it’s not a fish that you would often catch on a hook and line. But we have quite a few different species of madtoms in the Appalachians. 

They’re very interesting little fish and certainly worth telling a story about.

One thing I wanted to do with the book was to tell stories about these small fish. So, people can maybe understand them and get to know them a little bit better.

Lynch: You’re an ichthyologist? Is that correct?

Welsh: That’s correct. 

Lynch: When, where, how did you first start taking an interest in fish? 

Welsh: I think it was when I was a young kid, you know? 

I really enjoyed fishing. And so, I spent a lot of time in creeks and, not necessarily fishing all the time, but flipping rocks and looking for crayfish, aquatic salamanders, and various critters. 

I think that focus at an early age kind of sparked my interest. And I was able to keep it going into a career

Lynch: Kicking over rocks and fishing is one thing but academic study is something else. What kind of path is that? 

Welsh: Well, it’s a long tedious path, I guess you would say. It requires a lot of graduate work. I got a B.S, degree at West Virginia University and then I went on to get a master’s degree at Frostburg State in fisheries management. And then I came back to West Virginia University for my Ph.D. where I was focused on fisheries work.

Lynch: How diverse is the fish population in central Appalachia?

Welsh: We have a lot of different kinds of fish. 

For example, in West Virginia alone, which is certainly the heart of central Appalachia, we have a lot of species – 195. 

So, there’s a lot of different kinds of fishes we have. And most people are familiar with the common ones, especially ones that you catch on rod and reel, but the smaller ones, a lot of people don’t know about them very much. 

So, I think that’s one of the opportunities for a book like this is to provide information about this fish: to let people learn a little bit more about them.

Lynch: Talk about the book and putting it together. 

Welsh: It’s a collection of stories on central Appalachian fishes. 

There are stories on some familiar fish – like the native brook trout, the smallmouth bass, the bluegill sunfish. But then there’s also several stories on fishes that people know less about, such as in the title – hornyheads, madtoms and darters. 

Also, there’s some fishes that are unusual that are discussed, like, for example, the lampreys, which are a group of fishes that are pretty small, but they have kind of an eel like body. Then you’ve got a fish called the trout perch that I talked about, which is really fascinating little fish of central Appalachia. 

Lynch: How did you narrow down which fish you wanted to deal with?

Welsh: Yeah, that was a challenge because I find all the fishes that we have to be fascinating and interesting and worthy of a story. 

But I tried to just focus on some of the fishes that I thought would make the most interesting stories, because what I wanted to do was to write stories that would be both educational but also interesting for a wide audience.

And so, I tried to select fishes that had an interesting story to be told often that was related to a certain type of behavior or maye a certain type of feeding strategy, a certain type of spawning strategy. 

It was typically some aspect of that fish that I thought was interesting that I emphasized in the story.

Lynch: What do you hope an average reader takes away from your book?

Welsh: What I would hope is that people would realize central Appalachia has a diversity of fishes. That there’s a lot to be learned. You know, often when you know more about something, you care about it. My hope, in the end, is that this book will increase the conservation of fishes in the central Appalachians by making people more aware of the diversity that we have.

Lynch: The book is called Hornyheads, Madtoms and Darters. Stuart Welsh, thank you very much.

Welsh: Thank you. I appreciate it.

A male candy darter. One of the fish featured in the book “Hornyheads, Madtoms, and Darters”

Hornyheads, Madtoms and Darters,” from Ohio University Press is available in bookstores.