Tessellated Darter – How to Identify, Catch, and Care


The Tessellated Darter (Etheostoma olmstedi) is a commonly occuring member of the darter family. These darters can be found all along the east coast stretching from Massachusetts to parts of Florida. Like most other darter species the tessellated darter can often be found in riffle zones and other fast flowing waters. They also commonly take up residence in slow moving waters with sandy, rocky, or muddy bottoms. Catching these fish without a trap isn’t easy as they’re quick and can easily hide under structures. The two best ways to capture a tessellated darter without harming it is with some variation of trap or a small hand net. Use these three steps as a guide to successful hand net catches.

Spot your target. This is obviously the most important step as you can’t catch fish if you don’t know where they are. Spotting darters can be tricky as they blend in well with most substrates and are no more than a few inches in size. There’s no way to improve at this other than experience but this is what a darter might look like when viewed from out of the water.

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Approach carefully. Once you’ve set your sights on a fish it’s time to close in. Take your time with this as the fish will be unlikely to move unless something disturbs it, which in this case is likely to be you. Before entering the water take note of any obstructions that you’ll need to get past and try to plan a path around them. Enter the water in the deep side of the stream so that if you miss on your first attempt the darter will swim into shallower waters and becomes easier to pursue.

Go for the catch. Assuming your approach has gone well and the fish is now within catching range, it’s time to use your net. Lower the net slowly into the water away from the darter to avoid spooking it before bringing the net around behind the darter. Push the net into the ground, making sure to leave no room underneath where the darter could slip through. Use your free hand to shoo the darter into the net. You’ll need to be quick with your net hand as the darter’s first move will be to swim around it. If everything goes according to plan your free hand should drive the darter into the back of the net as you sweep the net up out of the water. Quickly remove the fish from the net and return it to the water.


The above method for taking tessellated darters is legal in Virginia as stated here, but may not be in other states. Check your local and state laws before trying to catch any fish.

Proper fish identification is important for a number of reasons, the major one being that you want to be certain you aren’t taking a threatened or endangered species. Tessellated Darters can be easily identified with these key features: dark x and w markings on their sides, pale/khaki sides, dark lines running from the eye to the nostril. They often get confused with Johnny Darters who share almost all visual features. The easiest way to tell them apart is the shape of the snout and dorsal and pectoral ray fins. Johnny darters have a stubbier snout and fewer rays in their dorsal and pectoral fins.

Sexing tessellated darters is rather simple, males have dark markings on their pectoral and caudal fins and females have very light colored fins.


I have kept tessellated darters for over a year now. They make excellent tank inhabitants and thrive in a multitude of tank styles. Like all fish under your care, you should strive to create a home that simulates the fish’s native environment. Luckily, the tessellated darter lives in almost all kinds of North American stream habitats. I keep mine in a planted 40 gallon breeder with a gravel/sand mixed substrate. The only other fish in this tank are my guppies. The darters lay on the bottom of the tank and graze on the guppy fry that venture too close. I also supplement their diets with cut worms from my worm farm and the occasional frozen blood worm. Below is a quick summary of my darter tank.


Temperature: 76°F (24.4°C)

PH: 6.8-7.6

Substrate: Gravel/sand mix

Diet: guppy fry, earthworm, frozen blood worm

Light: Medium light, 9 hrs
Read more on how to care for darters here with NANFA’s care guide.


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