Tracking the Elusive Flagfish

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St. John's River drainage, home to the American Flagfish. Matthew Wittenrich
Matt Wittenrich wades into the water hyacinth. Alexandra Didoha
Jordanella floridae male.jpg
Male American Flagfish, Jordanella floridae. Matthew Wittenrich

"Alligators are After Me!"

by Mary E. Sweeney

Sometimes you just have to go right to the source for a good photograph.

Having looked at countless thousands of aquarium fish images over a career of editing books and articles, I had yet to see a picture that did justice to the American Flagfish. To accompany my account of keeping and breeding this native species, I wanted something better than the faded, unhappy-looking specimens in most shots.

I had recently got to know Matt Wittenrich while helping to edit his wonderful book, The Complete Illustrated Breeder's Guide to Marine Aquarium Fishes, and knew he has a willingness to wade, camera and net in hand, into the Florida swamps within striking distance of the Florida Institute of Technology campus at Melbourne.

Here follows some highlights from e-mail messages back and forth between Matt and me after I had asked him if he could find and shoot some wild American Flagfish to illustrate Secrets of the American Flagfish.

Mary Sweeney (MS): Hey Matt—I hear you have way too much time on your hands. How would you like to get me some Flagfish shots?

Matt Wittenrich (MW): Hi Mary—Life has been hectic these past few days. I keep making more picky mouths to feed. Between late-night plankton tows and the end-of-the-semester drill of tests, I've been busy. Tuesday my schedule is cleared and I will certainly battle the alligators for a few Flagfish. ('Check out the "picky mouths" Matt has been nuturing at: Breeding the Green Mandarin.)

MS: Brilliant!

Tick, tick, tick… Matt's next report:

MW: Quick story, because you know they happen when I go out collecting for you. So I had a free minute before the sun went down, and I heard on good authority that Flagfish may be in a small ditch behind my apartment complex.

Bucket and net in hand, I walked the road to the ditch getting some pretty strange looks along the way. The ditch is one of those really steep-banked ones with a shallow layer of fluorescent green water sitting on top of three feet of black mud. Well, you know what happened. My prickly-weed handhold gave way, and I fell into a smelly pile of ooze. I figured that since I was in there I mine as well start scoopin'.

No flagfish, but what I did find were: Least Killifish, Heterandria formosa; Bluefin Killifish, Lucania goodei; two species of Gambusia; Sailfin Mollies, Poecilia latipinna; Blue Tilapia, Oreochromis aureus; Hoplo Cats, Hoplosternum sp.; and Plecos.

MS: These are the events that separate the men from the fishkeepers.

You've earned your stripes by me, buddy. Yes, these species are most welcome, and I promise to write up each and every one of them in honor of your dunking. Are you close to the St. Johns? A photo of the river would be excellent as well. That’s where Jordanella floridae was first described from.

Mind the gators!

Ah, prescience…

MW: Here is the progress report...Still no flagfish.

Yesterday morning I headed south to a large expanse of marshes and irrigation ditches near some orange groves. I stopped at over a dozen water holes and at the last one I found a fish I have been searching for since I was 16, Elassoma evergladei, the Pygmy Sunfish. The females are sort of bland, but the males in nuptial colors are amazing. They are jet black with neon blue and green. They only grow to about an inch, but are incredible fish. I haven't seen any really good images of them. All I have seen have been bland. I set them up in a natural bog tank, and I am hopeful that they will color up and initiate courtship in the tank. These are incredible fish worthy of good photos and a nice write up.

So where are the Flagfish?

I will go out for Flagfish again this week. I put a query into the local fish biologist at the St. Johns so hopefully I won't keep coming up empty handed.

MW: Hi Mary, I could just send you the pictures of the Flagfish, but that wouldn't be nearly as much fun as telling you how I caught them. And besides, it's rare that I get to embarrass someone other than myself.

Zad Didoha, marine biologist, stuck in mud.

My girlfriend, Zan, decided to tag along for a little adventure and was quite comfortable following me into the muddy sloughs of the St. Johns watershed. We drove around for two hours, stopping at every ditch, canal, and puddle looking for signs of Flagfish.

Finally, we stumbled upon a long, dirt road that paralleled two canals. The canal to the north was pretty deep and wide and the half dozen 8' gators there suggested we find an alternate spot.

Twenty feet away, on the other side of the road, a shallow, muddy, lily-filled ditch that was low from drought lured me in. The Flagfish were everywhere cruising in schools just above the muddy ooze on the bottom.

I caught a half dozen, and Zan followed me in, wanting to try her hand at Flagfish netting. About three minutes in, she took a swipe at a water lily and scared the pants off of a baby alligator. Well, the baby alligator went zipping one way, and Zan went screaming the other way...straight into a patch of mud that stopped her dead in her tracks.

What a good sport!

Matt gets his fish..

It was really a fun day, and even Zan loved the experience. I enjoy these photo missions as it gives me a reason to get out and do the things I love.

MS: Thanks a million, Matt. Until next time…

Matt's images can be seen at: American Flagfish and Secrets of the American Flagfish .

Mary E. Sweeney is the author of 101 Best Aquarium Plants, with images by Matt Wittenrich and others. (Publication date: Summer, 2008)

Matthew L. Wittenrich is a Ph.D. candidate in marine biology at the Florida Institute of Technology and the author of The Complete Illustrated Breeder's Guide to Marine Aquarium Fishes.

Image credit: MW
Text credit: MES