Big branch is really different than the last time I was here in August. The remnants of a hurricane came through and dumped 7 inches of rain in a short time. Big Branch took heavy flows, no doubt, and now the small creek is rearranged. Little is familiar. Logs that fall fish used for shelter are gone. New ones take their place. Holes are filled in, others are enlarged. Streams are dynamic places, and are supposed to change. The question is how fast, and as climate destabilizes and storms become more intense. I wonder if our stream ecosystems will keep pace.
I approach the first hole in the stream with a lot of anticipation. There have always been a lot of fish here. A school of common shiner usually hangs on the fringe, and large fall fish usually hold beneath a wide tree trunk wedged in the sand. It’s all different now. The tree trunk is gone, the hole is wider, but still only 2 feet deep and there aren’t any fish. I wonder if everything has headed for deeper water in Deer Creek with the arrival of colder temperatures, and if Big Branch will be fishless for the winter.
I head further upstream and slide into the largest hole in the creek, one that drops to 8 feet, and find out where all the fish have gone. Before me is a school of at least a hundred fish composed of at least 5 species. Common shiners, northern hog suckers, chubs, and white suckers all slowly move in unison away from me. And the large fall fish I liked watching and especially enjoyed showing to others who came out on snorkeling trips with me were there, near the bottom. Everyone I expected to be in this creek was, just all holed up in this single deep spot, which was just as deep but narrower than it was this summer.
Maybe this is the refuge the fish in this stream seek in winter, the deeper water they need to avoid freezing temperatures. It certainly appeared that way today. If it is that refuge, it demonstrates the importance a single stream feature can play in maintaining its diversity and health. This hole is still as deep as it was this summer, but it’s a little more than half its original width. The outside of it has been filled in with sand deposited during the last large flow. If that trend continues, the hole will fill, deep water will be gone, and these fish will have to find somewhere else to hole up for the winter. The sand that fills this hole all comes from us, upstream. Our streams start on our driveways and rooftops and what we do in our backyards matters. But for now there is a healthy fish community living in this hole and I enjoy watching the large school.