Saturday, May 21, 2011

Little Conestoga

The Little Conestoga isn’t much to look at here. Its surface looks brown and the bottom is nondescript. It flows through a pastoral landscape and the region is picturesque. But the stream itself at this point doesn’t look like much. I debate about whether the effort of donning a dry suit is worth it, whether the rest of the bottom will mimic the featureless part I can see here at my neoprene clad feet. One way to find out: I spit in my mask, rinse it out, slip it over and tuck it under the wetsuit hood and splash into the fast moving stream. The force of the water is intense and I have a hard time holding my place in the stream against the current. My toes dig in and slide downstream through the gravel bottom. I struggle to the center of the river where the bottom becomes rocky which gives me something to hold onto. The force of the water mashes my mask to my face and the bridge of my nose starts to hurt where the plastic frame pushes against it. I really start to wonder if the effort is worth it. I wonder if someone driving over the bridge behind me will mistake me as a body and call 911, which has happened elsewhere. I wonder if an owner of one of the homes on the left bank is going to come out and try to shoo me out of their stream. It all makes me feel unsettled, and since I don’t see much life, feel like I went through all this effort for nothing. But as I relax my mind, focus more on the stream, and less on the things that may happen outside of the stream, life comes into view.
A tessellated darter, one of the most abundant bottom dwelling fish in our region, stares back at me inches from my facemask. This fish is so well camouflaged, I wouldn’t have noticed him if he didn’t move. Minnows I can’t identify lazily drift downstream in the current sideways, catch an eddy to point back into the flow, swim back upstream and repeat.
Tessellated Darters like the bottom of slower sections of the stream. Minnows hang in the moderate flow areas and the green sided darters seem to like the fast flowing riffles, and wriggle down into the nooks between rocks. I briefly saw a pair nestled into a water carved bowl on the lee side of a boulder. Green sided darters are elusive. I’ve been unsuccessfully chasing them for the last few weeks in Conowingo Creek just for the chance at a picture. I usually see them as dark green squiggles that quickly disappear somewhere into the bottom. Today I learned that green sided darters look like algae blowing in the current.
Green darters are one of those fish that, when in breeding color, don’t look like they belong here. They look tropical, like I should see them in the Amazon basin somewhere, or maybe the Congo. But they are here in this nondescript from the surface stream, and once I was able to decipher their flowing algae camouflage, I was finally able to recognize one before it disappeared so I could follow the fish and capture a photo of the elusive beauties. The life in our streams is truly amazing, and gives us more reasons to take action to protect water quality. There is life of worth and value in our streams that deserves just as much care and concern as the amazon rainforest.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Rainbow Ballet

Fishing Creek was clear after a week without rain. I took advantage of the visibility to explore another section of stream, just 100 yards downstream from my last trip. Each stream is unique. Even adjacent stretches of the same creek can have drastically different feels as was the case here. Just 100 yards upstream, Fishing Creek is dominated with finer gravels, and a three foot deep hole is prominent in the stream scape. Here, 100 yards downstream, and downstream of a short steep riffle, fishing creek is different. There’s less gravel bar and more cobble and bedrock. And the fish community is different as a result. Upstream the fish I observed were mostly white sucker in the bottom of the gravely hole, with some black nosed and rosy sided dace hanging around a large rock and tree strainer in the center of the stream. Here, one of the first fish I saw was a northern hogsucker. These fish are elusive. They are excellently camouflaged, and they usually rocket off into the hazy distance by the time I notice them.
White suckers and creek chubs are also present, and I enjoy watching them feed on the bottom in the current. But what really catches my attention is the rainbow under a rock as a school of rosy sided dace hold their position in the current. Their red sides seemed to glow from the dark. It is a colorful time to be in streams. These fish, like many others are in breeding coloration as attempts are made to attract mates.
A little ways upstream a group of rosy sided dace dance above a patch of clean gravel nestled between two slabs of schist bedrock. Rainbow squiggles of red, green and blue dart in circles above the sediment free patch. Rosy sided dace spawn over nests of other fish, and what looked like two creek chubs hunkered on the bottom. I wonder if their clean gravel nest was the site of this reproductive ballet. Spring is an amazing time. The world awakens and just as the great freshwater migrations trickle to an end, the dramatic flashes of breeding fish color take over. All in the streams right in our own region.

Monday, May 9, 2011


The shad have been running for a few weeks now, and I am as in awe of their migration today after being in the water with them a dozen times, as I was the first day of their journey this year. It’s the sign that I look for that says spring is here, though the water is still frigid.
I spent too much time in the water one day last week watching them, as I tried for the perfect shot that never arrives, and hauled out shivering. I stripped out of my wetsuit and laid on a warm slab in the sun. Four herons also watched the shad, with the intention of making a smaller one dinner. Caddis flies hatched and in the water beneath my rock, the fresh water miracle of spring continued - shad passed upstream. Others have joined the shad since the first day of their journey. I saw carp with the shad over the last week and a large eel bisected a school in an eddy.
The shad draw more humans as well, and available parking spaces became rarer as the shad run increased. Room on the river to snorkel between fishermen got a little tight. Herons and humans, shad and carp all participate in this rite of seasonal passage.
But the spring migration has crescendoed and is now trickling away. There are fewer fishermen, more parking spots, and less fish. I’m a little disappointed to see all the action and excitement of this incredible journey go until next year. Witnessing the upstream drama, and to experience a little of it by swimming with the fish on the journey makes me feel alive.
One of the thrilling encounters this year was swimming with a school of quillbacks as these tanks of fish made their way against a strong current through a rapid in Deer Creek.
I have been around for 45 years and still learned a lot this spring about who migrates. I never knew quillback traveled upstream in search of gravel beds to spawn. I never really looked for them. It was a true thrill to hold onto the bottom in the midst of 6 of these large fish. They seemed to acknowledge and accept my presence and kept on pumping their caudal fins against the current, right next to me, so that I could feel the pressure waves coming off their tails through my wetsuit. Learning like this makes life exciting.
I wanted to swim with the quillbacks one more time. These were my big discovery this run. I learned their ecology, where they fit into the stream system, where they migrate from and to and I learned how to swim with them, how they respond to my presence so next year I should be able to get closer to them. But I will have to wait 11 months to find out. In the meantime, the underwater seasons of our streams march on, and I am off to try to witness and capture the breeding colors of green sided darters.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Great Expectations

I expected to see lots of fish here today, specifically trout. I snorkeled the Tucquan Creek before. The water was muddier then following some July showers, and the shadows of larger fish stayed in view just enough for my imagination to identify them as native brook trout, but they never came close enough for me to confirm the fictional id. The water was clearer on this early spring day than that day last July, and showers threatened as I suited up along side the creek. Tucquan Creek is remote feeling and looking. It cascades over schist shelves through a steep sided hemlock and rhododendron valley. The spring forest floor is covered in may apple, tooth wort, trout lily and a few trillium. It’s easy to imagine the eddies and holes filled with trout nose up in the current waiting to pluck insect morsels as they drift by. I expect to not only see these fish, but capture their images since the last time I was here the murk made catching a shot of them impossible.
The native trout populations in most streams have been replaced by non native rainbow trout, raised in hatcheries and released for fishermen to fish out. The put and take ritual is repeated every spring. Brown trout, also not originally from North America, have established widespread wild breeding populations, and often replace the native brookies. Tucquan seems an ideal candidate for remnant native bookies, or wild browns, at least based on its setting. But looks can be deceiving, and while Tucquan is definitely a special place, it may not be special because of the trout it holds. Turns out that the Tucquan isn’t listed as a trout stream at all, in spite of its stereotypical LL Bean troutish appearance. Maybe it’s the largely agricultural watershed with resulting muddy water after rains that limits the trouts ability to survive here. Maybe it’s the shallow riffles. Whatever the reason, the reported lack of trout doesn’t make the Tucquan less exceptional. This feels like a wild stream and that does something for my soul. When I snorkel here, I snorkel alone. There isn’t anyone else around who I need to explain myself to, which is typical at most other streams I visit. The ravine is deep and sheltered, and I look over my shoulder frequently, just to make sure a bear isn’t watching. Every once in a while a bear is reported from this region, and it makes the news since they are not at all common. But still this place feels wild and remote enough that if a bear were to be in the area, it would like to be here. The wildness, the deep holes and forceful chutes, all remind me that I am just another part of the larger whole. My actions matter. But in the end, we all end up recycled back into the living fraction of the planet, human and fish alike.
I change my focus from searching for elusive trout to exploring all the components of the creek. The views underwater are spectacular. Clean schist glistens silver. Green, red and black algal clumps wave in quiver in the current. Stone and may flies crawl along water smoothed bedrock and are worth watching as much as trout. Ameletid may flies cling to submerged logs. A tan shape shoots from under a rock to under a short falls. Could it be a trout? I crawl upstream towards a chute that cascades water over a one foot falls. The environment here is otherworldly. It is loud. All I can hear is the rush of water that sounds like a train, and air bubbles blind me. I pull myself through the current to behind the chute and witness the force of the water as it carves smooth holes in the sparkly silver orange bedrock. I don’t see any fish. I drift with the current back down stream, let myself experience the freedom of getting spun in an eddy, and look under a lone rock in the middle to a pool to find a brown trout. Turns out the Tucquan does live up to its LL Bean appearance.