Saturday, April 27, 2013

Aint Nothin O What It Used To Be

A guy stood by a pool a hundred yards downstream. He had a full grey beard, wore a dirty t-shirt and jeans and a worn baseball hat. He sipped on a beer while he looked into the water. I searched the pools closer to the falls. We were both looking for herring. “See any?” I called over the roar of the river. “Nope.” I could tell that he cared for this river very much, just like me. A few herring were here two weeks ago, and I hoped it was the start of a strong run for this river. I got distracted by a few other streams that were full of fish and have been snorkeling them for the past two weeks so I wasn’t able to see if this trickle of fish picked up into a good flow. It didn’t. This river used to host an amazing herring run, fish so thick they would bump into me as I watched their upriver procession. Last year I didn’t see any, so this year’s small run was improvement over last, but nowhere near where it was. Another river I snorkel regularly followed a similar pattern but a third had an incredibly abundant run this year. Regionally herring numbers have significantly declined in the mid-Atlantic over the last few decades. I am hopeful that the great runs will return, and as long as there are herring making their way upstream to spawn, there is promise. We watched the water in silence, and wanted to see the splash of a tail or the flash of a side. Any sign that the fish were running upstream. Nothing. It seems the small run I witnessed two weeks ago was it for this year. I felt disappointment, and significant concern. There were more fish here this year than last, but that’s not saying much. And once again I have to wait a year to see if the run will return. “It aint nothin o what it used to be.” My new friend said. “No it’s not.” I replied. “But hopefully they’ll come back.”

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Thick Herring and a Couple of Shad

I heard there were tons of herring holding in the pool at the base of the falls near the Amtrak bridge on the North East Creek. The last time I was in the North East I admired the alien stream scape of a significantly degraded creek, just upstream of the falls. The bottom was a flat sand, mud and gravel plane that was covered in tan and olive algae. Oxygen bubbles formed on the algae and added quicksilver highlights. Castle spire fronds of algae reached toward the surface where enough bubbles formed to provide lift. The North East is pretty significantly degraded by sedimentation and eutrophication, over fertilization that makes too much algae grow. Still this section was interesting, messed up as it was. It was a nice place to visit once but there were many other streams for me to explore, so I never returned. Until I heard about all these fish holding at the base of the falls. A thick furry growth of too much algae covers everything. I can see it from the surface and I wonder if this trip will be similar to my last…a swim over an interesting stream scape, but one that really didn’t hold much diversity. Then a few tails slapped the surface as the fish struggled their way up through the rapid. The herring were here. The bottom is angulated fractured bedrock and drops to a 4 foot hole. The first fish I see is a large log perch, large as far as log perch come. A school of some kind of medium sized minnow swam upstream along the bottom. A few sunnys held in a corner of the deeper pool. A hefty eel hunted. I couldn’t believe the diversity here. In just a few minutes I saw a half dozen species of fish. Then the herring arrived. Schools of the silver fish swarmed around me in an energetic mating frenzy. Many of the silver torpedoes swam into me. I never swam with so many fish. The four foot hole became filled thick with herring and a couple of shad. Herring and shad numbers have been tenuous over the last decades and seeing these fish here is reassuring. This is not a throw away creek. None of them are. There is incredible life here, amazing ecology. And this should give us hope at a time when it seems all the news about the environment is negative. This creek and all its extraordinary ecology, should give us hope. Hope that we can restore what we degraded, and hope in the knowledge that even in their degraded states, our local rivers and streams are pretty amazing places.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Monsters Real and Imagined

A dark green smudge darted across the gravel flat as soon as I stuck my face in the water of the Brandywine at the Natural Lands Trust Stroud preserve ( I barely saw it so a positive ID wasn’t possible but based on the little that I did see, (dark green color, robust but small body, and fast bottom swimming), I was sure this was a green darter. I hoped it was a green darter. The males get brilliant emerald green vertical stripes in spring and early summer. I really wanted to see this fish, and maybe get a picture of it if I was lucky so I searched the flat gravel bottom for 15 minutes, and didn’t see a thing. Not even other fish. Maybe seeing the possible green darter was wishful thinking, imagined. I inched my way upstream, looked to my left and saw a hefty tail sticking out from under a rock ledge. I peered into the void and saw a large chub staring back. The fish watched my every move, but held perfectly still which gave me the opportunity to take a few pictures of the sizeable minnow. We perceive minnows to be these tiny things, when in fact members of the minnow family get pretty big, like this beauty. I continued upstream searching for more fish. I was distracted by some braches from a fallen tree on my right. These make great habitat and I focused on seeing some sunnies holding in the cover. When I looked back in front of me, right there, just inches from my hand was the largest hog sucker I have ever seen. I fumbled with my camera, to try to get a picture of this fish, but all that commotion sent this giant off upstream with one flick of its powerful tail. I have seen hundreds of hog suckers. They are a common fish and I expect to see at least one just about every trip. But common doesn’t mean mundane. They are perfectly adapted for their bottom dwelling life. I turned and let the current carry me downstream. The feeling of weightlessness is always relaxing. The bottom started to pass by more quickly and I realized I was approaching a deep riffle. I came out of the fast moving water on the left side of the river and the bottom dropped out of sight as I drifted through a large circulating pool, formed by a strong eddy. It was a little unnerving. I don’t know how deep this hole is. I don’t know who lives on the bottom or what “monsters” lie below. My imagination is pretty active. I do know that our rivers always hold surprises, even our common ones. The Brandywine is a common river, and hog suckers are common fish. But seeing that large hog sucker directly under me, then watching it fade into the murky distance was thrilling. And wondering who lives in that next deep hole, or under that next rock ledge keeps me coming back to explore again.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Hunting Ground

I have been waiting for these fish this year. Last spring I couldn’t snorkel here without seeing a least a half dozen. Eels are supposed to be the most abundant fish in the Chesapeake watershed, but they are secretive and largely nocturnal so they aren’t as obvious as the less abundant but move visible ones. I don’t know why they are attracted to this rapid. It’s not the easiest place to swim. The water is fast and turbulent, so I didn’t expect to see a fish that slithers more than swims hunting here. But there they were, in the middle of the rapid, poking their heads into the nooks and crannies of the boulder bottom, looking for a morsel to eat. They were usually so intent on the hunt, I often went unnoticed. As I watched, their use of this rapid started to make sense. Their bodies are perfectly shaped to hug the crags on the bottom largely out of the flow. Their slim shape allows them to probe the depths of each potential fish hiding spot. When they finally recognize me, they slither along the bottom, fight the current and disappear. I wonder how many eels live in this rapid, and it’s one of the fish I expect to see on each visit spring summer and fall. I haven’t seen these fish here this year yet, and it’s getting late. I hoped they were present. It’s a strange thing, knowing that rivers and streams change. Knowing that the life that is there changes too. Unfortunately, most of the change that happens in our rivers and streams occurs at our hands, so when one of the members of the fish community doesn’t return the next year, I worry that something happened to eliminate them. Eel numbers are dropping due to dams and sediment clogged steams. I worried that the eels in this creek were gone. I slid into the rapid and hung on as usual. The water wanted to peel me off the rock I was clawing and throw me down stream. I darted into an eddy that gave a little protection from the strong flow, and inched upstream to the downstream side of a large boulder that formed the eddy. I was hoping to see sculpin eggs, which have coated the back face of this boulder for the last 2 years, but instead found eels. I saw the first one probing the crevices between rocks in the eddy. It didn’t even acknowledge my presence. The second one was out in the main part of the rapid, poking its head between rocks. I was relieved to see this fish here. All was right with the world. I have a lot of concern for the future health of our rivers and streams. And seeing fish return to their springtime place in the river after a winter slumber gives me hope.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Exciting Times

Our rivers are amazing places in winter, but I love watching them emerge from the cold into the warm. These are some of the most exciting times on what many perceive to be the mundane rivers among us. Resident fish become more abundant and active as they emerge from their winter holding spots. Black nosed dace play again in the current rather than hunker in the cobble. Common shiner pluck food morsels from the water column and as they drift past. Soon their tan olive sides will glow red, green, and yellow breeding colors. Darters shoot from rock to gravel and back. A school of large river chub fly past, and one individual bumps into my arm just as I am trying to take a picture of the school. I got a picture of his tail. Migrants fill pools as they wait to make their way upstream. Herring swirl in small schools and shad make steady upstream progress. The river is a very different place today, and it will be altered again tomorrow. While it seemed that things weren’t moving in winter and the scene appeared static, now I can’t keep up with the pace of change. Watching the cyclical procession of our streams and learning how each season looks underwater is amazing. Even better is realizing there are incredible things happening in our common rivers and streams. They contain remarkable life. Get out there, enjoy and protect them.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Shifting Baselines

Mrs. Beck used to show me photos of stringers full of native trout that came from what was now not much more than a trickle of a creek. At the time her and her husband caught those trout, the watershed of this stream was forested and theirs was the only house. By the time I came to know the Pumpkin Patch, it was degraded by decades of suburbia. I still loved that creek though. I stood on the bedrock that overlooks Principio falls and hoped for herring. I wanted to capture these fish in photos, not on stringers. It has been two years since I last saw herring in this stream. These are migratory fish. They spend the majority of their lives at sea and come into fresh waters to spawn in the spring. It is an eons old ritual I look forward to witnessing every year, and start counting days to their arrival long before the end of winter. They were so thick two years ago I could see enormous schools from the surface. Their eggs covered the bottom like a fine sand. They didn’t show up last year. They are in trouble and their numbers have fallen significantly mostly due to overfishing. I hoped their absence last year was just an aberration and not indicative of the precipitous decline in their numbers. I hoped the principio still had a herring run, and I had to wait an entire year for this moment, to get into the water and see if these fish returned. I scanned the stair step waterfall pools for any sign of herring, and found none. If they are here, they aren’t as abundant as ’11. I suited up and slid into the water. There weren’t any fish. Not even darters which have been abundant on almost every snorkel exploration here. I crawled upstream against a strong current, slid up a short falls and dropped into the first pool. Initially I just saw water clouded by algae fragments and fine entrained air bubbles, but then the first silver shape came just barely into view, then another. There were about six herring in this pool, where at least 50 held last time I snorkeled with them. But six was better than the none I saw last year. I floated and watched for a while, absorbing the sight. Six fish acted out on ancient instinct to get to clean freshwater gavel beds to spawn, to start the next generation of herring that will return to this river to start the next generation and so on. There was something immortal about the whole thing. I ascended a three foot bedrock ledge and slipped into the next highest pool and found more herring, acting with the same singleness of purpose to get up the falls to their spawning grounds. I felt better seeing this other dozen or so fish. Maybe the Principio herring run was intact. Maybe I would be able to share this incredible feat with my grandkids. Maybe I could pass this legacy on. There is something immortal about that too. I snapped photos as fast as the camera would allow. It’s the idea of shifting baselines. My baseline, my memory of what defines a healthy stream, is actually a degraded condition compared to what once was. The knowledge Mrs. Becks photos provided was the only way I knew what I perceived as pristine was far from it. I want my photos to serve the same purpose. I want my photos to remind us not to settle for less than what could be, because that’s all we remember. But unlike Mrs. Becks photos that show a lost abundance, I really hope my photos show a return to improved stream health. I hope my grandkids look at my portfolio and say can you believe how few herring there were compared to now? I hope the base line shifts to the positive.