Water temperatures are in the low 40’s already, and life is slowing down for the winter. Soon I will have a hard time finding fish, but there are still schools around, often tucked into the crannies. A banded killifish wriggles out from under the rock my hand is using to keep from getting swept downstream, and ambles upstream a few feet against a stiff current. It wriggles back into the cobble bottom.
A school of mixed species – banded killis, common shiners, black nosed dace, even a few small bluegill, hang motionless behind a large rock. In warmer weather this school would scatter but with the colder water temperatures, these fish lazily drift away from my approach. They finally escape me by wriggling into the cobbled bottom. Half of the school squeezes between the boulder and the bedrock wall.
I have seen these fish school up this time of the year in other rivers. Seems they collectively head for the same place to ride out the winter together. I just saw a puddle full of dead banded killis on a Susquehanna River gravel bar. They chose the wrong place to shelter and water levels dropped, which left the entire school stranded.
I pull upstream, squirm over a line of exposed rocks and slide into the next pool. A darter hops onto the open exposed slab of smoothed bedrock. Another one joins. They were there on the bottom all along. I just didn’t see them wedged into the gravel. It wasn’t until their tubular bodies landed on the bedrock and broke the flat plane that I noticed them. And once I saw one, I saw dozens. They were nestled between cobbles and among gravel. Almost anywhere I looked I saw a darter or killifish settled into the bottom and I questioned whether they are here through the whole winter, just well camouflaged and out of sight.
I have often wondered where all the fish go in winter and have conjectured that they either head for deeper water, hunker down into the bottom, or both. I just witnessed more evidence that some of them ride out the cold in their home stretch of stream tucked into the bottom. I have been here in this river hundreds of times, but never right at the moment when life slows down and prepares to wriggle into the crannies for the winter.