I have been talking a lot lately about our native trout species, so I wanted to switch it up and talk about something different. Part of my quest to catch all of these native fish includes catching some of the little guys. Although I omitted the tiny minnow species from the list, there are still some that just never get large. Like the Stonecat (Noturus flavus), which happens to be the smallest catfish species in Montana.
Here are a couple of interesting notes about the Stonecat in Montana. The fish is widespread through out the Missouri River drainage even into the upper reaches as far as the headwaters of the Ruby River. The mystery is "how did it manage to get over the great falls?" This natural barrier has blocked all other species from working up the Missouri, but not the Stonecat. Also, I found a mention that the first Stonecat to be caught in the state (and recorded) was at Craig in the summer of 1892...at night.
For many anglers in Montana, the stonecat is called a variety of names such as bait-robber, bait-pecker, and a mix of others with the same theme. These obviously reference the ability and frequency with which these fish can find your bait. I admit, having experienced it, that these fish can turn into pests. I remember fishing on the Missouri this spring at a great looking spot, and catching nothing but Stonecats which seemed to find my bait the second it hit the bottom. I just had to move on, as I couldn't catch anything else. I find it amazing that these little fish can swallow such a large hook. You would think that they would realize that something was wrong, but they don't seem to mind large metal objects in their food. The other fact about these fish that tends to annoy fisherman is that they have venomous spines on their dorsal and pectoral fins. These spines are capable of inflicting a painful sting about like a bee's. Handled carefully, however, the odds of feeling this is very small. Just be sure to hold the fish behind its fins.
It is important to remember that many of our native species are rather small, but that doesn't make them unimportant. Stonecats are food for other species in the river...like Sauger and even Freshwater Drum. I remember catching a nice sauger that had a large stonecat in it's stomach and still had the tail sticking out. So, if you happen to catch one of these little guys remember to handle with care (for your sake) and throw 'em back. You might consider throwing 'em back with a hook as bait...you might catch a big sauger.