Updated: Jun 30
Notropis atherinoides, Emerald Shiner, are one of the most widespread, prolific, and important baitfishes. They have one of the largest ranges of fishes in North America. They range north, well into Canada, and south to the streams of the Gulf of Mexico. They occur throughout much of the Great Lakes and Mississippi River basins. They are largely - but not exclusively - fishes of large rivers and lakes. In Wisconsin, they are widespread and common - particularly in the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River and the state's larger rivers. This makes Emerald Shiners a common forage fish eaten by bass, Walleye, White Bass, and other predators. In many places - like the Wisconsin River - they are probably the most important forage fish for predators.
Emerald Shiners, like many of the Notropis shiners, are shiny little fishes that can be fairly difficult to identify. In fact, scientists are still working on the taxonomy of "shiners" - Notropis and other related genera which often were once part of the Notropis genus. They have few easy answers for how and why these species are related (for more details) and their taxonomy is in flux. The good news, the fish - and probably you - do not much care about the phylogenetics of "shiners". Fish certainly do not care if they are eating Emerald Shiners, Sand Shiners (N. stramineus), Mimic Shiners (N. volucellus), or some other species of the genus Notropis or fishes from another closely related genus.
In general, Notropis species are small, shiny fishes that tend to top out at 5 to 6 inches in length. Most Notropis are about as tall as they are wide - meaning that they have a slightly dorso-ventrally flattened body (they are a bit compressed, not quite round). And given the common name, they have an iridescent emerald green lateral line that often is seen in the top half of their bodies as well. Otherwise they often have a "dirty" silvery white/gray belly and a light grayish-tan (straw colored) upper body. As with most fishes, there is a good amount of variability in their coloration depending upon where they live. They often have an iridescence that helps give them the shiner name. Their large eye is a distinguishing feature of these fishes and one you may want to incorporate into your flies.
There is probably not a great need for the average angler to know much about the taxonomy of Notropis and the Emerald Shiner in particular, but in case you want to dig a little deeper, here are some links for further exploration.
Confusing Wisconsin Minnows - Field Guide (Wisconsin DNR)
Imitating Emerald Shiners (and other Notropis species)
There are tons of options for imitating these elongate, slightly dorso-ventrally flattened species. There are a huge number of fly patterns that generally suggestive of minnows - and any of these will work well to imitate Notropis spp. There is a great amount of overlap between saltwater flies and warmwater flies so grab those pattern books or get online and search for saltwater patterns and you will find a number of patterns that can be tied to imitate Emerald Shiners.
A few things I have learned through observation and experience are that you should carry flies that 1) cover the size range of these species from less than 2 inches long to maybe 5 inches, and 2) are able to cover the water column from the top to the bottom. The first recommendation comes from an experience with my friend Ben on the Lower Wisconsin River. We ran into some fairly "picky" crashing Smallmouth Bass that were only interested in our flies if they imitated the fairly recently hatched Emerald Shiners that were 2 inches long or less. My normal 3.5 to 5 inch adult imitations were largely ignored because I had done a poor job of matching the hatch and my imitations stood out as different to the fish, not in a good way.
Second, while fishing topwater for smallies is without question my favorite way to target them, however they often get wise and stop feeding at the surface and you need to "go down and get them". The typical way to do this when the topwater bite slows is to start with a lightweight streamer you can fish from between the surface to maybe 2 feet down. And then progressively change flies so you can continue to fish deeper and deeper. I might move from a simple, unweighted bucktail or craft fur streamer to a similar fly that is weighted. Lastly, I will probably switch over to a Clouser Deep Minnow. It seems that you can often pick up the most active fishes at the surface and continue work your way down to fishes that are often a little less active but often still willing to take an easy meal.
While I love the surface bite, fishing a streamer that is visible in the water column is, dare I say, almost as exciting as catching them on the surface. Almost... On stained rivers - like the Lower Wisconsin tends to be - you can often see bronze flashes as smallies come from below the fly. This is damn near as good as a surface eat - just be sure to wait for the strike then strip set and not "trout set". That's a lesson that I usually need reminding of the first few strikes of the day.
Fishing shiner imitations on the surface generally means that you are imitating wounded minnows or those that break the surface when fleeing from predators. Again, in general, both of these mean that the fly should behave somewhat erratically and unpredictably. And these two things go together - shiners are often injured when fleeing ambushes from smallmouth and other predatory fishes. On the Lower Wisconsin River, this explains the fishing around "The Crash" quite well but I have certainly experienced smallmouth and other predators coral baitfishes in the shallows or against steep shorelines like bluffs.
As mentioned above, by far my favorite way to fish for smallies is with topwater flies. There are tons of options but to imitate these elongate minnows, my favorites are flies like pencil poppers, crease flies, and Clouser floating minnows. If you want something a bit more aggressive, a popper with a larger face will provide that. Sometimes you want a fly that makes a significant "pop" and draws attention, other times you want something that just sort of sits there and is quiet and subtle when retrieved - like a Clouser Floating Minnow. Those four fly patterns would certainly cover topwater fishing from subtle to flies that provide quite a surface commotion. You can, of course, fish any of these flies faster or slower to alter how aggressive the fly behaves. There are many, many other topwater fly options but these four flies will serve you well.
Starting with poppers, there are a ton of options but if we are imitating shiners, it should start with a light belly and a slightly darker counter-shaded topside. You can get as creative and DIY as you would like in creating poppers - or, of course, you can buy them from your local fly shop or local tyer. Fellow Mountaineer alum, Jason Martina, ties some of the most lovely balsa poppers you will ever see. They are almost too perfect to fish - which is why I have a few saved for display and fish the rest of them. If you do not feel like creating your own bodies of foam, balsa, or other materials; there are many commercially available options. You will still have a ton of options in what materials to use for the tail and how you want to finish your poppers. I have used the Surface Seducer Howitzer baitfish popper heads to tie articulated poppers for a little extra random movement. The options for how to tie poppers is nearly endless.
I am sure there are no shortage of other options for topwater flies and many anglers have their own favorites and flies that they have confidence in. For example, The Swimmy Jimmy is not a fly I have much experience with but it sounds and looks like a winner.
There is most certainly no shortage of fly patterns that are effective shiner imitations that are fished from just under the surface to a couple of feet in depth. What flies you choose is really up to you but my suggestion is to carry them from an inch and a half to about 5 inches and have imitations where only the hook provides weight to patterns with extra weight added.
Starting near the surface, there are a number of flies that straddle the line between topwater and subsurface flies. Probably the most common and popular of these are Dahlberg Divers and similar styles. The Swimmy Jimmy which I highlight above is another fly that straddles the surface and subsurface. Todd's Wiggle Minnow is another pretty subtle option that will dive a bit and pop back up on a slack line.
Moving to flies that are designed to sink a little more and be fished from maybe a few inches to a couple of feet below the water surface, options abound. Materials to imitate shiners are many and diverse. Bucktail is my favorite material for streamers and there are many great patterns with nothing but bucktail and maybe a bit of flash. One pattern I will be trying this summer is the Buckeye Shiner, though for smallies I will probably tie it on a shorter shanked hook. Thunder Creek Minnows are another simple and versatile option to imitate shiners with mostly bucktail. And I wrote about Aaron Adams Mangrove Muddler, another versatile platform on which a great shiner imitation can be created. Those are but a few of the bucktail-based streamers to imitate shiners.
There are a great number of synthetics that can be used to create Emerald - or other - shiner fly patterns. The Murdich Minnow is a saltwater fly that has become a smallmouth staple. The Magic Minnow, a Swedish pattern I wrote about some time ago, is another wonderfully versatile platform to imitate shiners. Two patterns that are quite flexible and adaptable to shiner imitations are Lefty's Deceiver and Blane Chocklett's Game Changer. And a recent favorite is Jake Villwock's The Roamer (video above).
A few Wisconsin "guide flies" like Kyle Zempel's Wisco Cisco and Snowcone Bass Streamer and Tightlines guides have a number of shiner imitations such as Piette's Evil Snowflake and Bart Landwehr's Bart-O Minnow. Bill Sherer, who own and operates We-Tie-It in Boulder Junction, Tongue Depressor fly pattern is not necessarily a shiner imitation but this fly is seriously underrated and is a fish catching machine. And while Kip Vieth is now a Mud Duck, he has Wisconsin roots and his Wildwood 3M Minnow is a great shiner imitation.
Lastly, as mentioned early on, for subsurface flies, play around with how and where you weight your fly and see how that affects how they behave in the water and if that changes your success. To start, hook choice is the simplest way to alter the way a streamer will behave and sink. Second, tying more sparsely / eliminating bulk will allow flies to sink more quickly. Adding weight is by far the most significant way to get a fly to sink and really gives you the most options. These three things all interact to help determine how quickly and the orientation of how the fly will sink.
Flies to Fish Deeply / Sink Quickly
There probably is no fly better designed to imitate Notropis shiners that are near the stream bottom than the Clouser Deep Minnow. And as I wrote about in half a dozen posts now a few years ago, there is no more flexible pattern than the Clouser minnow (links below). A standard Clouser with a white belly; a bit of light olive, yellow, and/or emerald green in the middle; and a bit of tan, gray, and/or straw upper "wing". Of course, Clousers are in inverted fly so the first materials tied on represent the belly and you move towards the back as you continue to add materials.
Rarely do I think color matters all that much in fly patterns - shades and contrast certainly do matter however. So my Clousers to imitate shiners are pretty basic with a white or light gray underbody, some green/olive hues in the middle, and some tan-ish, gray-ish, olive-ish and/or blue-ish tones in the upper body. One of my favorite ways to accomplish that variability in color and iridescence is through mixing colors of bucktail in the top wing. To do this, I add a bucktail colors to an extra large hair stacker and give them a good spin or two. I do not know that there is a good reason why orange eyes tend to work best - other than in my experiences, they do, particularly on the Lower Wisconsin, the place I am most likely to be fishing Clousers for smallies. I'll certainly tie Clousers for smallies with eyes of other colors but orange-eyed flies are usually the first I tie on my line.
Lastly, hook choice for predator flies should be different from your choices for trout flies. Choose a stout hook with a reasonably large gape and not an overly long shank. I prefer that the hook is at about the one-third point of the fly whereas with trout, I more typically want the business end of the hook back a little further - halfway or further into the body of the fly. I prefer to tie Clousers for smallies on saltwater hooks (Tiemco 811S, Tiemco 800S, Mustad 34007, Umpqua 401, or equivalents) or "bass bug" stinger hooks like Tiemco 8089, Gamakatsu B10S, or a "predator" hook like Firehole 811 (or equivalents). Or give jig hook - particularly the 60 degree hooks like Umpqua XS506H, Ahrex PR370, Firehole 570, Gamakatsu's flat eye version, or others - a try.
Project Clouser Posts
Of course, there are more options than just the Clouser Deep Minnow to get your shiner imitations down to the fishes but it is certainly where most anglers begin - for good reason! Weight can be added through dumbbell eyes like in the Clouser style but wire, beads, cones, and things like Fish-Skull Baitfish Heads are other ways to get a fly down, quickly. Rather obviously, more weight will get the fly down faster and adding bulk will slow that descent. Putting the weight near the head will create a "jiggier" fly and distributing weight along the shank will create a level-sinking fly. Carry a few of each type - jiggier flies tend to draw more aggressive fishes and the level sinking flies can work better on fishes that are less active.
Patterns with a significant bit of weight like Cheech's Belly Scratcher Minnow or Baby Fan Minnow, Coffey's Sparkle Minnow, Kreelex, Fish-Skull Streamers, and others are good choices for getting down in the water column. Fished more quickly, these flies can cover from just a bit under the surface to the bottom.
Wrapping It Up
There is now way to cover all the options that the fly tyer (or buyer) have to imitate emerald or other shiners. There are many great patterns and tyers that are or can be converted to shiner imitations. Many of these patterns - like the Murdich Minnow - originated as saltwater patterns and have been altered and refined to target Smallmouth Bass, Walleye, and other predators of shiners.
In any case, your shiner imitations should be counter-shaded but know that many shiners are less distinctly counter-shaded than are other forage fishes. Have favorite shiner imitations? Share them in the comments.