Chi Council for the Clear Lake Hitch

 
In the spring of 2008, for the first time since Chi Council observations began five years earlier, fish other than hitch were seen moving up the creeks during February and March, and perhaps even spawning. Some of these specimens have been conclusively identified as Sacramento suckers (Catostomus occidentalis), the larger specimens of which can approach the size of Clear Lake hitch (Lavinia exilicauda chi). Especially in murky water and poor light, a certain degree of uncertainty is probably inevitable even to expert observers, but the pictures and descriptions on this page are provided in hopes of maximizing the number of correct identifications.

The photograph of a dead hitch above was taken by Bill Combs of Big Valley rancheria on February 29, 2008, on the banks of Adobe Creek near Soda Bay Rd. The wound could have been made by a heron, or perhaps a raccoon (tracks were seen on the bank). Overall length about 13 inches.

 

Clear Lake Hitch, Lavinia exilicauda chi

Description: body moderately elongated and thick, almost oval shaped in cross section, with a relatively small conical head, small upturned mouth and long slender gill rakers. Young fish are silver and have a dark, triangular blotch on the caudal peduncle extending forward as a black stripe that gradually fades. As fish age, they become duller in color, with the back turning brownish-yellow. Mature females are noticeably larger than males.

 

 

Spawning hitch at right: the noticeably larger female is flanked by two males.

Biologist Tom Taylor (who took the photograph) also provided this description:

"Hitch are grayish in color, have slender bodies (less slender when swollen with eggs) with pointy heads and their sizes are generally in the 8-12 inch size range. Spawning runs are large (hundreds of fish) and they spawn in large aggregations in riffles and runs. Hitch schools will move into deeper water if disturbed and move off of riffles if approached, but the movement is not rapid or sudden. If approached slowly hitch will remain active."

Check the Chi Council photo gallery for additional hitch pictures, both closeups and migrating schools.

   

Sacramento suckers spawning (photo by DWR Environmental Scientist Dave Bogener, provided by Bonnie Ross)

Sacramento Suckers, Catostomus occidentalis

Description from Tom Taylor: "Suckers are brownish in color, have stout bodies with a blunt head and their sizes generally are 12-20 inches. They may have a distinctive stripe on the posterior half of each side (in fish parlance stripes run from head to tail, and bands run from top to bottom). Suckers have a very long whitish anal fins, but this can sometimes be hard to detect when viewed from above. Spawning aggregations of suckers will consist of smaller males and large females and the groups typically consist of 10-20 fish. Suckers may spawn in similar habitat later used by hitch. Suckers are usually easily spooked and will quickly head for cover (deep water, overhangs or woody material) if disturbed. They are usually one of the earliest spawners and may begin spawning in January or February."

From the field guide on the UC Davis website:

Appearance and Identification Sizes up to 56 cm FL; Fleshy or "swollen" lips on sub terminal mouth; Upper lip is covered in 4-6 rows of papillae, bottom lip symmetrically separated by deep indentation and lined with single row of papillae; Dorsal fin longer than it is tall, positioned closer to tail than snout; Green to brown back, yellow-gold to white underside; Breeding fish develop red stripe on sides, both males and females may develop breeding tubercles; Juvenile suckers gray in color, slightly darker dorsal side; Juvenile fish have 3-4 dark splotches on their body wall; Lateral line scales: 56-75; Fin rays: dorsal 11-15, anal 6-8

Life History: Sacramento suckers are capable of thriving in diverse conditions within streams, lakes, and mild estuarine environments. Most suckers are found in clear cool streams and in lakes at moderate elevations. Sacramento suckers often share waters with pikeminnow, roach, and hardhead. Young larvae typically begin their life in streams or lake tributaries by hiding and remaining in the gravel substrate. The post-larval and juvenile fish are often swept downstream in the current when they enter the main flow. Sacramento suckers have a diet made up of mostly algae, invertebrates, and detritus. The larval suckers feed on detritus and browse the bottom in warm protected streams, while juvenile fish forage along the bottom of stream banks of these warm streams. Young fish may stay in this warm water for several years before moving into lakes or larger rivers. Adult fish typically rest or hold in the deeper water during the day and feed during the first and last hours of the day. The larger fish may occupy pools, runs, or riffles in area where vegetation or rocks provide cover from birds and other predators. Their diet consists mostly of diatoms and detritus, with invertebrates playing a smaller role. The fish tend to grow larger and more rapidly in warmer streams and lakes as opposed to streams that are cool year round. At age 4-6 Sacramento suckers become sexually mature and begin a spawning ritual that may involve a migration to a warmer and smaller stream. Spawning is triggered by the onset of warmer water temperatures and usually occurs between February and June. Suckers spawn in groups, sending fertilized eggs down into the substrate and out into the current. The eggs settle in gravel and slackwater areas, hatching after 2-4 weeks.
Below are two closeup photographs of suckers taken by Rick Macedo in Middle Creek in 2004. Note the extreme size variation

Large mouth Bass photo taken by Dave (Gio) Giordano and provided courtesy of the University of California. To be used for educational purposes only.

Largemouth Bass, Micropterus salmoides

Bass description from Tom Taylor: "Bass (largemouth) spawn in the lake not in the streams. Smallmouth bass can spawn in the lake or the streams depending on the species. Both species of bass can be identified by a black stripe along each side and by the black distal edge on the tail. All bass are nest builders (bowl-shaped depressions about 12-14 inches in diameter in constructed in sand or mud substrate). Bass do not make spawning runs but spawn in pairs and remain at and defend the nest site (if you scare a pair of spawning bass off the nest site, they will return to the same spot again and again). When at rest (not moving) bass often curl their tail to one side or the other. They will not be observed in large schools."

Carp, Cyprinus carpio

Carp description from Tom Taylor: "Carp are orange to pinkish on their body and fins and are very large fish (16-24 inches or longer). They have distinctive large scales. Carp spawn in non-flowing water, usually in amongst vegetation typically in backwater areas along the lake shoreline or in creek mouths in slackwater. Spawning carp do a lot of splashing about in shallow water among submerged vegetation usually with their backs, dorsal fins and tails showing above the surface of the water. A few large spawning carp can make a lot of noise splashing in the shallows. Carp may move upstream in the spring to feast on the eggs spawned by hitch."

Carp photo taken by Dave (Gio) Giordano and provided courtesy of the University of California. To be used for educational purposes only.

Pikeminnow photo taken by Rodney J. Nakamoto and used by permission

Sacramento pikeminnow, Ptychocheilus grandis

Decribed as a "voracious minnow with pike-like habits," the pikeminnow inhabits the Sacramento-San Joaquin drainage and other northern California bodies of water including Clear Lake. It inhabits rocky and sandy pools and runs of small to large rivers, and is common in clear, warm streams. Pikeminnows may be found in the same waters as migrating hitch and could be confused with them by inexperienced observers.

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