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.

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