The Duke: the little toy bringing big attention to non-game fish

Written by guest authors: Luke Etchison & Drew Holloway

Editor and Contributor: Patrick Cooney

“You, Are, A, Toyyyyy! You’re not the real thing. You’re an action figure. You are a child’s play thing!”

For those of you unfamiliar, the above quote of this article comes from the childhood Disney and Pixar classic, Toy Story.  It felt like a good place to start before talking about a recent endeavor we started in the spring of 2019.

Social media has become a great platform for people to highlight, share and humble brag on their successful fishing adventures. It doesn’t take long before you are sucked down a fishing wormhole on Instagram looking at a beautiful mountain landscape with a “PR” (Personal Record) trout and a #thetugisthedrug hashtag (459k posts on Instagram).  After seeing all of these posts, we decided that maybe we could turn our fascination with non-game species into a fun and intellectual Instagram account.

It all started with a miniature fishing rod and a Whitetail Shiner (Cyprinella galactura). The picture made its way through the inboxes of fish scientists in Indiana and our spring meetings at our local Chapters of the American Fisheries Society.  Laughter ensued and the rest is history.

Believe it or not, it’s harder than you think to find an action figure with waders. After a few unsuccessful google searches, eBay saved the day with a “12” Outdoor Sportsman Action Figure by Ertl Collectibles”.  Lucky for us, the seller had 2 available and we couldn’t have bought them any quicker.

Meet Duke Hollison, PhD.

This fisheries biologist, multispecies angler, and PhD degree holder can be found on Instagram, @duke_hollison_phd, showing off his recent catches and adventures.  He often highlights his catches with a scientific name, habitat selection, and if you’re lucky, a fishy pun to really bring it all home.

We decided that using an action figure to scale our favorite non-game species, as well as the use of appropriate angler poses and hashtags, that Duke might be able to infiltrate some of the top searches on Instagram. Neither of us are social media influencers but with over 150 followers in a few short months we think that Duke is finally starting to hit his stride as a perfect tool for science communication in a lighthearted but informative manner.

Why Non-game?

Historically, game species have dominated fisheries communication and management discussion while non-game species have been working their tails off to get the same appreciation. When we got our jobs as fisheries biologists, we both gravitated to the diversity and niche-filling minnow, darter and sucker species. We would often send each other pictures of our favorite species and not understand why people didn’t want to focus on these “bait fish” rather than game species.

Recently however, there has been a surge of anglers targeting non-traditional fish species often described as “roughfish” or “microfish”. These species are typically targeted for an angler’s lifelist. 

Example of people targeting small fish and doing their best to showcase the detail of these creatures. A smaller individual, like Duke, better illustrate the beauty and need to protect these often overlooked fish.

Whether you are targeting roughfish, microfish, Southern Brook Trout in North Carolina, or Greenback Cutthroats in Colorado, there has been a shift in appreciation of native species, big or small. Our hope is to ride the wave of enthusiasm for native species and encourage more folks to advocate for the recovery and protection of native biodiversity with Duke as our guide.

The need for Science communication that’s not just for scientists

We live in a polarized world where many folks are completely disconnected with the natural world around them. Finding new ways to connect to an ever evolving demographic is a challenging endeavor but we think Duke is the man for the job! It’s easy for people to see the larger game species that dominate the headlines and “likes” and not even blink at a smaller “less important” fish. We believe that if we can change the prospective, or size of the angler, we can highlight these non-game species in the same light. Their importance to our ecosystems often goes unnoticed by the general public. Finding ways to get this information to them is challenging if they cannot relate to the topic. For us, we think that Duke’s Instagram account can be the introduction people need to dive into the world of non-game fish. 

We try our best to keep up with the ever-changing trends, apps, etc. One of our favorite posts was when we jumped on the “Faceapp Challenge”. We aged Duke using the app and added the recently popular quote “feel old yet?” while holding a larger Grass Pickerel then one of his previous posts. Although it was silly, when we combined that with some traditional muskie/pike lingo as hashtags it earned us a few new followers. 

Thinking outside the box allowed us to start this account and we hope that it will inspire other people to do the same. Earlier we mentioned that we live in a world with people who are disconnected with the natural world. It’s a catch-22 because the advances in technology give us more information at our fingertips than ever before. As scientists we need to realize that traditional methods of scientific communication have changed and take full advantage of these trendy and non-traditional methods to reach new audiences.

It doesn’t have to be as obscure as a fly-fishing action figure but we encourage our readers to take their passion for the field of fisheries biology and try something new to get their message across. We think you will find that it’s sort of fun to step away from yearly reports for a while and try to come up with a creative and fresh take on the same information.

Please feel free to pose your favorite action figure, Barbie, WWE wrestler or G.I. Joe with your favorite organism and tag us on Instagram. We would love to see how many friends Duke has inspired to spread the gospel that is native aquatic biodiversity. Don’t forget to use the hashtag #FishingwithDrDuke

Beyond “Dr. Duke”

There are a host of others who are using action figures to bring attention to fish and other organisms. Attach your action figure photos in the comments or go to The Fisheries Blog Facebook page and post it as a comment to this article and we will add your pictures to the bottom of this article.

This video, inspired by Duke Hollison, was produced just last week in order to increase awareness of fish science:

Additionally, here are some other photos from folks embodying the spirit of Duke:

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