Thursday, June 24, 2010

Nothing Common About the Common

I dug my wet boot covered toes into the rocky bottom as I struggled to keep my position in the current. It was hard to hold the camera broad to the flow with one hand, and every time I let go of the rocky bottom with the other to help stabilize the camera, the current turned my body sideways, and forced me down stream. Yet the fish I was working so hard to photograph held their position without much more than a few flicks of their tails. I finally pushed myself upstream, flowed back down partly through the beginning of the riffle and wedged myself, feet upstream, between two larger rocks. This gave me a great vantage to watch the fish dart through the current to pluck whatever morsels of food flowed downstream, and my feet took the brunt of the buffeting which freed my hands to work the camera. I swore I was watching something beyond the ordinary – shad, or at least river herring. The way these fish darted through the current with the greatest agility, surely they had to be something made to migrate upstream long distances with such grace, something like a shad, or other migratory fish in the herring family. Their body shapes were a little more rotund than the characteristic thin herring body form, but their aquatic dexterity surely put them in same group as these great upstream migrants. I was disappointed when a biologist friend confirmed their identity from one of my pictures as common shiners. Nothing more than common shiners. The same fish I have captured in nets and traps from creeks from all over the mid Atlantic for more than 30 years. I didn’t think there was anything particularly special about these common fish. Not until I witnessed their swimming prowess that day in the riffle. All of my experience with shiners took place on my turf, in my dry element, on my terms. This was the first time I watched them in theirs, and my perception of them has been forever changed. These aren’t the clunky non-descript, unexciting silvery tubes flopping in the gut of a seine net anymore. They are fascinating accomplished swimmers, and I can’t wait to swim with them again. There is nothing common about the common.

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