Why do we consider some fish iconic and others aquatic refuse? In this series, we focus on American fishes not officially designated as “game fish.” These species, though native, get lumped into a category of “trash fish,” a distinction that’s more than just semantic. Game fish are managed differently by state and federal agencies. They get protection, research, money, and love. Trash fish don’t. We think that’s wrong.
Trash Fish Tuesday investigates and celebrates fish that are just as American as bass and walleye but suffer from a long-standing PR problem.
If you walk into any self-respecting fishing bar across the Great Lakes Region, there’s a high likelihood you’ll find a walleye mounted on the wall and a fried version on the menu. Like cheap beer and matching bar mirrors, it’s the lay of the land. But the common name “walleye” actually has nothing to do with a wall they might hang on—the name stems from a Middle English translation “wawil-eghed” of an Old Norse word vagl-eygr meaning “beam” (vagl) “eyed” (eygr). Some people think that name refers to the way their peepers gleam in the dark.
While you might hear various opinions from the MeatEater crew on the joys of walleye fishing, the fishes’ general popularity can’t be refuted. Badmouth their palatability in such an establishment and you might get much more than a stink eye from the old-timer local seated across the bar.
Less widely recognized though, there are other species of ‘eyes that sometimes swim alongside the revered walters. However, it’s quite unlikely you’ll find them on the menu. It’s even more unlikely you’ll find collecting dust amid taxidermy displays. Those ‘eyes—goldeye and mooneye—are often unknown, forgotten, misidentified or otherwise disrespected as “trash fish.” However, the value of mooneye and goldeye is not to be overlooked. They are native species with plenty to celebrate from all-encompassing ecological, angling, and culinary perspectives. It’s also possible they helped to grow that wall-hangin’ walleye.
Aside from monikers of an optical nature, goldeye and mooneye are not closely related to walleye, but they are very closely related to each other. They are the only two living species in the Hiodontidae family of fishes, which is derived from Greek etymology for the Y-shape of their teeth (“odous”) along roof of their mouth and their tongue, a bone arch called a hyoid. The common names are an ode to their relatively large and reflective eyes, akin to a full moon. Unsurprisingly, the goldeye’s visual organs are a distinct yellow hue. The eyes of mooneyes are more silvery with just a tinge of gold. As visual predators, the size of their eyes is an adaptation for feeding in low light conditions. Additionally, just like walleye, their eyes also have a tapetum lucidum—a reflective tissue layer aids lowlight vision and gives walleye their “beam-eyed” name.
Both goldeye and mooneye are silvery, flat-sided fishes that are often confused with better-known herring or shad species. In fact, goldeye or, taxonomically speaking, Hiodon alosoides, are named from the genus Alosa (the river herrings) meaning “shadlike.” Mooneye, H. tergisus, means “polished.” Aside from differences in eye color, side-by-side comparisons reveal that dorsal fins of goldeyes have 9 or 10 rays that originate evenly behind their anal fin. Comparatively, mooneye dorsal fins have 11 or 12 rays which originate forward of the anal fin. Goldeyes also have a flatter back (dorsal profile) relative to mooneyes, which are a bit more curved in appearance. Adult goldeyes generally get a little bit bigger than mooneyes—a record goldeye can touch the 20 inch mark or slightly longer, while mooneyes max out around 17 inches.
These days, for as little as they are known and as much as they are misidentified by casual anglers, goldeyes have an intriguing history. Their appeal to consumers and anglers has fallen in and out of favor for just about as long as they’ve been known to settlers in North America. They were first described during the Lewis and Clark Expedition in June 1805 when Meriwether Lewis compared them to hickory shad of the East Coast.
The first commercial harvests of goldeye dates back to 1876, but they held little value aside from use as dog food and fertilizer. However, their culinary allure was soon recognized when the hot-smoking process was used to firm up their soft and bony flesh. With a robust population, Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba soon became the goldeye epicenter and smoked “Winnipeg Goldeye” converted the frequently discarded fish into a soughtafter delicacy for elites in Toronto, Chicago, New York, and beyond.
As described in a 1950 article “That Glamorous Goldeye” by Fred Bodsworth published in Maclean’s aka “Canada’s National Magazine:” “[this] Canadian fish started its career as one-cent-per-pound dog food and wound up in the continent’s swankiest wine-and-dine spots at $2 and up per plate…U. S. millionaires, Hollywood stars, European playboys have all at various times had iced cases of smoked goldeye flown or sent express to their dinner parties.”
At, say, one pound of smoked fish per plate, that’s approximately a 20,000% increase in value in a few short decades. Goldeye commercial harvest boomed in Lake Winnipeg through the 1920s, when over one million pounds were harvested annually. However, the overexploited commercial fishery collapsed by the 1930s. Today, smoked goldeye can be purchased for approximately $15 per pound, though harvest from Lake Winnipeg is still low. However, the lore of the goldeye lives on in the region with the Winnipeg Goldeyes, a baseball team in the American Association of Independent Professional Baseball.
Commercial harvest still exists in portions of Canada, and targeted sport fishing for goldeye is relatively popular on the Saskatchewan River in Alberta and Saskatchewan, while incidental catch happens throughout their range. The historic range of goldeye extends throughout the Mississippi, Missouri, Yellowstone, and Ohio River drainages, as well areas of the Great Lakes, Hudson Bay, and Gulf drainages. But, like many native “rough” fishes that are plagued by mismanagement, invasive species introductions, and habitat degradation, goldeye populations are generally in decline and unstable across many states and provinces in their range.
The native range of mooneye is similar to that of goldeye. While goldeye may have a more illustrious history, the ecological importance of mooneye is still significant. They are often an important food source for desired sportfishes like northern pike and walleye. Mooneye prefer cleaner and clearer water relative to goldeye and, accordingly, their populations are vulnerable to changes in water quality due to increasing development, agriculture, etc.
As an added level of importance and conservation concern, mooneye, along with goldeye, serve as obligate hosts to federally endangered spectaclecase mussels. In fact, just recently a small population of these mussels was located on the upper St. Croix River bordering Wisconsin and Minnesota—and the population was determined to be over 100 years old. The ‘eyes play a critical role, acting as host during the parasitic portion of the mussels' life cycle, and haven’t be able to access waters above the St. Croix Dam during spring spawning migrations since the dam’s construction in 1907. Below the dam they are critical to maintaining remainant mussel populations.
In other areas where their populations are more plentiful, mooneye are popular cut bait for catfish. Anglers in the know even recognize mooneye for their own prestige on rod and reel. With impressive aerial displays and a similar look, albeit much smaller body size, mooneye have been dubbed “freshwater tarpon” in some angling circles. Certainly not a “trashy” comparison to a fish that’s often considered high among the world’s greatest sportfish.
If you’re interested in seeking out angling opportunities for “the other ‘eyes” it’s important to understand local populations and fisheries, which might not always be straightforward since they’re are commonly not designated as sportfish with clearly printed regulations. As we’ve alluded, their populations vary throughout their ranges—for example, mooneye are listed as threatened in waters of Michigan and New York, but available for commercial harvest in Minnesota, even though their population status isn’t widely understood. Accordingly, if you are fishing waters where goldeye or mooneye may be caught incidentally, knowing how to identify them is important. Regardless of population status, there’s no reason to treat these “rough” fish as trash. If you’re not going to eat it, release it.
Should you find yourself on waters with healthy, fishable populations, anglers can easily be rewarded. Even if you’re fishing for other underappreciated species, you can happen into goldeye or mooneye, as evidenced in this episode of MeatEater’s B-Side Fishing.
Both goldeye and mooneye are often found in deep reaches, pools, and backwaters of larger rivers and lake systems in their ranges. Tributary confluences with main channel rivers can be especially fruitful, especially in late spring and early summer as they move upstream for spawning migrations. Fishing remains good throughout summer months, and these feisty fish will take just about anything you throw at them—small spinners and worm rigs work well at many hotspots. With their prominent eyes, goldeyes and mooneyes are frequent surface feeders, so dry flies, especially during mayfly hatches or during ‘hopper season can be an exciting approach. In one study examining mooneye diets, all nine individuals sampled on a particular day had a mouse in each of their stomachs. I don’t know about you, but mousin’ for “freshwater tarpon” on a lightweight fly rod is a damn good time in my book.
All told, goldeye and mooneye might not hold space in the hearts, or on the walls, for most anglers like walleye but they’re important links in the food chain, fun to catch, and even a tasty, smoked treat. And I certainly wouldn’t go bad mouthing these ‘eyes in a fishing bar in Manitoba—you might be very politely corrected by the old-timer local seated across the bar.