Fishermen line the banks of the White Clay on one of the first days of trout season. I quietly hiked upstream on the dry silty trail and found a 50 yard section that was unoccupied. I suited up, and gently slid in. I didn’t want to disturb my fishing neighbors.
Some small fish shot off into faster moving water from the rocky riffle. I assumed they were darters based on how they swam. I was looking for put and take trout – fish that are hatchery raised and released for the purpose of getting fished out rather than restoring depleted populations. Not that there are depleted populations of rainbows in the east since they aren’t native to here. I traversed the riffle a few times, checked in the eddies behind larger rocks and crept upstream into a larger, deeper pool all in the hopes of spying a pink and silver sided speckled beauty. None were there. I did confirm that the fish I saw earlier were darters and one of them had a calm personality that allowed me to closely approach and watch. It wasn’t a trout but darters are cool too.
“Now that you swam through my favorite hole what is in there?” a fisherman shouted as I waded back to shore.
“Here it comes.” I thought. I usually get along with fishermen, especially fly fishermen. We have a lot in common with what we do. Snorkeling explorations are methodical, take patience, and result in an intimate knowledge of the stream, just like fly fishing. Fly fishermen and river snorkelers love rivers and what lives in them. But sometimes, rarely, fishermen don’t appreciate my presence. I was worried this was going to be one of those times.
“Not trout” I said.
“Where did they all go? They just stocked this last week. There’s is no way they were all fished out. Did it flood?”
“I don’t think it flooded.” I said.
We conjectured on why the fish were absent and ruled everything out except they must have been fished out. I enjoyed our conversation. I always like talking to people who love rivers as much as I do and this gentleman knew the white clay much more intimately than I did. I gleaned as much knowledge as I could.
There is a growing body of evidence that shows hatchery raised fish can have a negative effect on native populations and river ecology. Rainbows aren’t a native east coast fish, so when we stock them not only do we stand the chance of changing river ecology, we are putting a non-native fish onto our streams.
I’m not a fan of hatchery fish, but I’m not an opponent either. They bring people to the river and that is the first step in forming a connection. The white clay doesn’t have any native trout left, so in this case the non-native rainbows don’t compete with the natives, though they could affect other fish and the benthos. Still I wanted to experience the thrill of capturing an image of a put and take rainbow, native or not, just like my new fisherman friend wanted to experience the thrill of capturing one on a hook. The search for that perfect rainbow continues because it seems all the put and takes were taken.
They are back. Finally after a long wait the first run of herring have returned to Principio Creek.
I watch as the first fish make their way back into the creek after what was perhaps a thousand mile journey. The pioneers battle current through swift riffles. The majority of the fish swirl into the rocky shallows where a number of smaller males chase larger females. Tails beat the water into a boil, but I don’t see any spawning and I think this might just some courtship behavior. Black tipped tails beat hard to propel the fish upstream and the school looks like blurry lines as I swim upstream with them. Their bronze backs and silver sides glow in shafts of sunlight that penetrate the water.
Thinking about the immensity of their journey makes me feel small in comparison and inspires awe at the complexity of the cycle. These fish started here, in this riffle 4 or 5 years ago as sandy colored eggs. The eggs that aren’t eaten and remain viable hatch into frail two eyes and a squiggle of a fish. Of the millions of eggs laid and fertilized, maybe 1% survived their journey to the ocean, and a fraction of that survived running the oceanic gauntlet to return home. These aren’t just a bunch of fish. These are the survivors. I can’t understand how these fish knew to return to the stream they were born. The intelligence it took for these fish to arrive here, in their natal stream, is beyond my comprehension. Some of these fish won’t survive to return to the sea. Others will. Either way these fish have a singleness of purpose: procreate. Perpetuate the species. There is a kind of immortality in that.
This moment of being in the water with thousands of fish was a celebration. Mid Atlantic herring populations have declined by 95% over the last 2 decades. But they still return in spite of us, and our dams, our over fishing and sediment clogged gravel bars. That they are so thick is hopeful that we can reverse the declining trends. I am watching the alpha and omega, finality and immortality. The beginning and the end of thousands of lives, the end of one generation and the beginning of another
Rain dimples the surface of the pool at the Amtrak bridge. This is one of my favorite spots. Largely because there is such an amazing hidden world right under the noses of people using the Amtrak rail line above and they have no idea how amazing this world is. How many similar non-descript unnoticed creeks does this train cross in its travels? How many thousands of people don’t know what they are missing?
The cobbles are covered in a thick emerald green shag algae. Days are lengthening but the winter is protracted by low temperatures so everything is delayed. Herring aren’t running yet and the crew of grazers that would normally keep this algae in check aren’t active due to the ongoing cold. The river is only 40 today. The result is thick billowy green covering anything hard in this section of creek.
A small fish darts from the shallows. I can’t identify it, but the background shows through its translucent body. I am able to follow the fish for only a few minutes before it blends into the stream bed and I lose it.
A serpent like creature emerges from the green and swims at me. This is the second leach I have seen in a week after never seeing any in the 7 years I have been exploring rivers. They have probably always been here just not seen. The lack of herring makes me look at other life that was likely here this time of year in the past, just not noticed due to the prevalence of herring that drew my attention away from the more cryptic.
The leach startled me. It looked like a long streamer in the wind when it swam and seemed to intentionally search for something. Seeing this leach spawned a bunch of questions. What is their ecology? How does it live? Can it make its way back upstream?
A sawdusty clump of beaver feces lay on the bottom beneath a floating beaver chew. The single small fish I saw earlier found a few friends and the 3 fish school nearly disappeared over open sand bar habitat. Sometimes the most amazing sights are out in the open just waiting for us to see them. Like this small stream under the Amtrak bridge.
Forty eight degree water proves what I felt and saw. The warmer water signals the beginning of the end. Wood frogs call for mates in beaver canals that connect a flood plain wetland to the stream. Spring is emerging and the stream is changing. What is usually a clean gravel bottom is covered in strings of emerald green algae.
A darter perches on a tangle of twigs wrapped in green strands. Minnows collect in large schools in bank den debris piles. A school of big somethings swim in the green depths of the large pool and are hazily outlined by shafts of sunlight that pierce through the pastel milky green murk. The biology of the stream is starting to reassemble.
The stream is rearranged again, significantly, and a new deep pool is formed upstream of the existing one. The restructuring has uncovered long buried stumps and they provide convenient holds against the strong flow. The large sand and gravel island that formed a good part of the dam that creates the large deep pool now has two streams braiding through it. The beaver have dammed one of them and the other cuts a deep channel through layers of deposited cobble and gravel. The stream is always changing and I wonder if it is the beaver that are responsible for changing the stream or if the stream changes and the beaver adapt. It’s probably both. The beaver influence the stream and the stream influenced the beaver.
I float into the outlet stream that has carved a walled sluice barely twice as wide as my shoulders and the trip feels like a crazy underwater log flume ride. I drop a hand and a foot to hold in the riffle. The water is forced under me and it scours a bunch of sculpin from their hiding spots between and under smaller cobbles. Sculpin are abundant in the races below beaver dams, probably because of the abundance of their preferred clean cobble and gravel habitat. The fish accidentally forced from their homes by me vary in sizes and I am surprised to see a lot of little ones. Everything has an effect, even the innocent act of putting a hand down in a riffle.
This river is very different again. Seems to be the only common theme in big branch. Every time I return it’s seriously rearranged and I wonder what it will be like underwater. The holes that I knew well and understood their ecology - where the fall fish held and the common shiner schooled - are filled in and new ones appear in different places. I don’t know what to expect. But every time change is just change. Fish are still there, living in different places to match the altered structure. The new tree that fell across the stream and the sands that filled in the deep hole just means the fish are redistributed. It adds a level of newness to a river I have visited a hundred times, and makes me realize that I will never really know a river. It changes too frequently. And I am reminded that change is a part of life. I get to witness how life goes on every time I snorkel a river. Things change, life responds and recovers. I watch the sculpin I accidentally flushed out of their holes wriggle back into the cobble.
A thick biofilm covers everything in the river. It shimmers in breezes of current like wheat in a field. The covering is probably thicker than what should be here since a component of biofilm is algae, fueled by excess nitrogen. Still this thick furry growth is normal this time of year, and it is critically important for nutrient cycling and spiraling in streams. It makes the river furry and so slick that I have a hard time walking. I had to crawl to avoid an uncontrolled descent as I made my way back downstream from a mid falls pool. If I floated, I wouldn’t have been able to control my speed. Not enough friction on the rocks.
This was another fishless trip and while I really miss seeing fish, I enjoyed the alien stream scape caused by the excess biofilm growth. Motion sticks out from the undulating background and I see something I have never witnessed before underwater. A leach stretches out from under a rock into the current. I’m not sure what this invertebrate is doing but it is fascinating. I have seen leaches on rocks picked from the stream, but never one under water, in its element. A friend showed me a picture of a giant Amazon leach last week, a full foot long blood sucker, and I would like to see that in the water too, just like most Amazonian species. My leach stayed attached to the bottom on one end and only stretched a few inches into the current, then retracted.
I have been talking a lot about another blood sucker, sea lamprey, lately. I became fascinated with this fish when we found one during a fifth grade trip last May, and concerned about them while I worked on curriculum for an upcoming Freshwaters Illustrated movie about efforts to protect Pacific lamprey. I have included the lamprey story as part of a presentation I do on our declining migratory fish. Even outdoors lovers, and folks committed to conservation get a twisted look on their faces when I tell them about the importance of protecting lamprey. Granted, they feel like muscular tubes of mucous, and the way they make a living is freakish, unless you are a lamprey.
These organisms might not be the most beautiful or cuddly, but they are all critical parts of the stream system, and their biology is fascinating. The world would be a lesser place if it didn’t have biofilms, leaches and lamprey. It’s all about perspective. Yuck is in the eye of the beholder.