2002 Memorial Day weekend at the
by Bruce Stallsmith (Huntsville,
AL), Steven A. Ellis (Kennesaw, GA) and Casper Cox (Chattanooga, TN)
Bruce Stallsmith offers his account of the weekend
It wouldn't be Memorial Day weekend locally without a group collecting trip, and sure enough three of us got together on Sat., May 25, along the Little River in Cherokee County, AL. Steven Ellis, Casper "Fins" Cox and myself met at the Little River Canyon Mouth national park in the morning. I got hung up in "Super Yard Sale" or whatever traffic for 45 minutes along Highway 11 in nearby Collinsville, AL; this is the annual mega yard sale that stretches along this highway for some ungodly length of Highway 11 ("Lee Highway" to those who read the signs...).
Anyway, once we rendezvoused in the parking lot we entertained picnickers with Steven and Casper putting on their wetsuits; even more entertaining was me trying to put on one of Casper's extra suits which didn't quite work since I'm about 4 inches taller and I still have linebacker thighs. With that we hiked up along the river to a beautiful clear pool and the others started a leisurely snorkel circuit while I waded around in the water and watched fishes in the shallows. This must be about the only place where you can sit in knee-deep water and watch colored-up blue shiners (a Threatened species) chase bronze and greenbreast darters around your ankles.
Steven's daughter and her family joined us as we rested from several hours of drifting around and staring at fish (netting/collecting is illegal but fishing is legal...). So, I met 3 of Steven's grandchildren(!). We left the park to collect fish from the river just downstream from the park. Where we used to park along Route 273 is now blocked off as part of a gated community (in Cherokee County?!? the cancer know as Atlanta seems to be spreading) but we found access through a vacant yard. An hour of seining and slipping around on the rocks yielded only 3 species--Alabama shiners, Blue shiners and bronze darters. We very carefully sorted out the Blue shiners and Steven and Casper kept some of the others.
All told, we caught or observed 20 species of fish:
Strange, but none of us saw any Dambusia in the river... and more organized seining at our second spot would probably have added species. This was a fun day along a drop-dead beautiful river that runs through a protected 21-mile-long canyon and has the crystal-clear water to prove it. So I finish this prequel to Casper's rainbow shiner homage; see ya later!
Additional notes from Bruce:
The other mistake was my miscomprehension of recent new species designations within the darter genus Percina: the "logperch" in the Coosa area is now (since 1998?) considered to be Percina kathae rather than P. caprodes, historically a more inclusive taxon. I had thought that kathae was only north of the Tennessee. I'm still adapting to living in an area that has more than two species of darter after my time living in low-biodiversity Massachusetts(!).
Steven Ellis writes about the same trip
I left early enough Saturday morning to stop at the falls that begins the descent down into Little River Canyon. My wife and I discovered it by accident almost a decade ago, and it remains one of my favorite spots in the South. Back then, the area really wasn't regulated that much and folks were free to climb the rock face beside the falls. I still had three kids at home at the time, and they all made the climb with me. Beneath the falls is a very deep pool that was a favorite with swimmers. A huge rock juts up from the middle of the pool, allowing adventurous swimmers a 30' plunge into the water below. Unfortunately, through the years some dummies insisted on jumping from the falls. That's okay if you clear the rock face, but some of them didn't, and hit the rocks instead. Now, jumping in the area of the falls is forbidden and the park rangers keep an eye on it. Anyway, I took some pictures, remembered other times, and headed down to the park several miles away.
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Three different parties got lost on the way over, and I suspect that they went to the falls area by mistake. Only one of the three eventually found us. My daughter Andrea, her husband Anthony, and their three kids finally showed up late in the afternoon.
After failing to get Prez into a wetsuit (a feat that would have necessitated neutering, liposuction, and a mastectomy), Casper and I reluctantly left him in the shallows, and began snorkeling the crystal clear water. It was a long time before I even considered the water temperature (I think Casper said it was 69F) I was so caught up in what lay below us. The water was quite deep in places, but the bottom was almost always visible. This view of the true bottom of the canyon is one that only a handful of people ever see. Jagged rock shelves would drop suddenly into 15-20' pools inhabited by trophy-size largemouth bass, freshwater drum, and channel catfish. I was so busy trying to follow the catfish that I completely missed the gar Casper tried to show me. Large AL shad flew passed at incredible speeds, far less tolerant of our presence than the slower bottom dwellers. The tranquility of this underwater world is hard to adequately describe, because you feel it as much as you see it. The sense of touch becomes secondary only to vision, making aquatic life much more understandable.
In the wider places the current wasn't too strong, but it was still not easy to remain in one spot without holding onto something. In the shallow riffles, however, I had to really hang on to keep from being tossed around. That's where we began to find the shiners and darters, some of the latter displaying brilliant coloring. At the edge of a reedy area a small turtle swam right in front of my mask. I grabbed it quickly and turned to show Casper, only to find him coming toward me with the exact same kind. What are the chances of that?
We reached a spot where the river forked around the park. The descent begins with a stretch of surprisingly swift water where the channel narrows. The stones on the bottom are mostly smooth, so it's possible to ride it out without injury. Nevertheless, I went down feet first through the roughest part. As soon as I dared, I switched back to the head first position. Wow! What a ride! No theme park ever came up with a ride like this. I suddenly found myself flying though a narrow chute, dodging underwater logs and boulders wishing that I had a video camera strapped on, 'cause stopping was not an option.
All too soon, the stream broadened out again and the current relented, giving me a placid drift back into the picnic area. For Memorial Day weekend the crowd was surprisingly small, but the "bubba factor" was still in effect. I was certain that I had spotted Jabba the Hutt among the swimmers until it bellowed, "Day-um it's cold!" Bruce found me as I exited the stream, and we returned to the picnic tables to wait for Casper who emerged shortly afterwards. My daughter and her family showed up about that time. After about a million rapid questions from the grandkids, they headed to the water, which they found a bit too chilly.
In order to collect, we had to go outside the park boundary. Trying to walk in the river proved much more difficult than snorkeling it. Round, slick stones reminiscent of the Little Sequatchie challenged every step. Still, we came away with some AL shiners, various darters, and a quick look at a spectacular blue shiner. My two grandsons were delighted to have their picture taken with the President of NANFA. As the daylight faded, I headed back to GA, tired and pleased. This place is so close, I know I'll be back soon!
Steven A. Ellis Kennesaw, GA
Casper Cox adds his account of his adventures in the day after their outing:
I decided to spend another day in the area. After a evening meal with president Bruce and our good bye I booked a room and did a short run to Ft. Payne for an airpump, toothbrush and clothing since I had not originally intended on staying overnight. K-mart had a nice 1 gallon acrylic tank w/ an airpump, tubing, airstone, hood and under gravel filter with the gravel for 10 bucks! It makes a good travel tank... even better if I had a lighted hood. They make a bigger one which I will check out later, perhaps its hood is lighted.
Sunday, Full Moon, May 26. That morning I ate a good country breakfast and headed to a site I had scouted before. It is at a bridge located next to an old brick African American church. While putting on my gear I meet a church elder as he was about to ring the big cast iron church bell. We talked a bit about life and growing up playing in the creeks, fishing and getting baptized in the pool just downstream. He told me the stream was much wider and had deep pools before the roads and building all pushed in its sides. I thought a lot about that during the day and mankind's impact on natural sites. He invited me to a late afternoon picnic celebrating the church's 120 year anniversary. I'm sure it would have been very good but with all my gear on I would have left quite a puddle on the dining hall's floor. I had a lot of sites I wanted to visit this beautiful day and once my gear is on it stays on. I appreciated his Christian southern hospitality with not a hint of the always media mentioned racism. Church dinners are one of the best places to get a home cooked meal and with all those pie baking ladies out to impress your in for a good meal and fellowship!
The church is right by the highway where 2 spring fed creeks converge. Clear water flows through grasses, mint, cattails and watercress tho it is a bit trashed out... as it flows though the center of this small town. Still I immediately observed lots of unknown small fry, of which I collected a few and have put them in a flowing pool next to my cement pond proper. Perhaps they will develop and I will ID them later. A single male Mountain Shiner with his hot white blue head rode the flow. A speckled Darter danced on the silty sand and plenty of Coosa Darters appeared... a very close kin to my TN Snubnoses. Big suckers or Red Horses... I still can't ID them yet lounged about. Bass and Sunfish... I didn't pay attention to which species they were as I was keen on the active shiners. A few Rainbows, Creek Chubs, Black Nose Dace and herds of Stonerollers. Lots of Striped Shiners... a few massive ones tho not much pearlescence on their bodies. I picked up a big 12" long turtle of which I don't know... kind of a yellow bellied pond slider but this turtle had red markings on his shell. Both Steve and I had both picked 2 up the day before... little baby hatchlings. He was quite content as I turned him every which away trying to gather clues for his ID later. I worked my way upstream to the convergence and lay there for a while and collected seven rainbows w/ a dipnet and watched the activity.
I drove upstream to an abandoned railroad bridge where I was able to lay in a flowing deep pool and observe peacefully. Dozens of long clawed crayfish munched on the puddled debris littering the pools floor. One move would send half a dozen tailskirting away from me. The fish soon accepted my presence and all came to investigate my actions. Full tilt Southern Studfish and their harem finwaved in the shallow distant, still a bit wary of me. Coosa darters all came to my hands, Rainbow shiners where all around but looked to be somewhat past their prime. A bit worn and tattered, the colors were kind of patchy. They were congregating but only loosely, no intensity. I wandered up and down the stream a bit watching for movements or color. Lots of fish but no spawning masses of rainbows.
I loaded up the van and headed towards Ft. Payne and the K-Mart parking lot. I had snorkeled and collected this site a few times but I had become disenchanted last year when the canopy protecting the stream had been stripped and the vegetation close cropped. Before when I was down in the gully stream I had felt sheltered from the outside world. No more, it is right in the full sun now and in plain site of K-Mart shoppers and gawkers. I had found a site downstream where this small stream joined the larger river stream. I've never been able to snorkel in the larger stream cause of the opaque green water but the little stream is excellent. Small springs continually feed the sides. This is spring country. I put my mask on and started working my way upstream. All the standard locals were there. A few Rainbows were congregating in a long, smooth gravel flow along with Stonerollers and BlackTail Shiners. They had a bit of color but nothing intense. I would have to walk up some lengths and only then be able to lay in pools just down from riffle flows. After several up and downs I came upon a few frenzied Rainbows darting about. Poking my head beyond a large boulder I was stunned... probably 20 intensely colored individuals were all jostling for position. Noses were facing downstream against the big boulder. At the base of the boulder was a Stoneroller excavating a pit... all the Rainbows noses were pointed to his workmanship. The intense individuals bodies were very hot magenta with lavender purple pectoral fins. Scattered iridescent blue flecks adorned the tops of lesser individuals. Definitely different than what I saw in the Little Shultz last year. The colors, pattern and intensity on these fish varied from individual to individual. Magenta was the color of the swarming mass as one looking down on them from the surface would see. Flecks of iridescent white blue. Amazing. I observed them quietly for 15 minutes or so and then carefully netted 3 different specimens ranging from very intense to mild. These I returned home with to observe in a tank. Sadly though one thought that I can not shake is that perhaps I am a witness to the last wonderful vestiges of these beautiful fish. How many spawning masses could have been observed here 200 years ago? The substrate was just silted up. Bank sides were step. Trash, tires, grocery carts and glass littered the sides and bottom. How pristine this must have been for hundreds and thousands of years. Every time a piece of property is developed adjacent to a stream bulldozers push the ground that much closer... building the structure's foundation up with fill dirt. Before long the meandering wide stream becomes a rutted, silt laden ditch. My feeling is that suitable spawning sites are being destroyed. In the 200 or 300 feet I walked only one site seemed suitable and I could easily observe that it was unique. One good thing though is that stonerollers are survivors and they seemed to be doing their best at nesting and clearing gravel. Often in our local urban streams they are the most plentiful along with Striped Shiners.
I loaded up and headed North towards Chattanooga and thought of other sites to take a quick look at. Near Rising Fawn there is a trout farm that is fed by a massive spring coming from a cave. Downstream of this I found several pools to lay in. Now that I was in the Tennessee River drainage I saw breeding Rosy Fin Shiners... a very stunning fish. White head, red fins, vertical zebra stripes, blueish sides and a unique body structure. A couple War Paints... great name for this shiner. Greensides, Snubs, Rainbow and some massive honcho Redline darters. A lot of diversity was here. I had suspected less cause of the potential Rainbow Trout escapees upstream. I also found a pair of unknown mussels. The visibility was not as nice as expected but I could still see a couple feet which is fine for a stream this size. I ended up collecting a medium sized Greenside and a stunning Rosy Fin male for the pool.
I stopped and looked at another creek but it was to opaque and green to jump in. I have never snorkeled here but dipnetted and seined it a few times. I'm always looking for something new and getting much better of knowing when I'm seeing something new. I have decided in the last couple of years to really know and learn my immediate region and its diversity. Outside of Chattanooga I stopped at a favorite site to collect a few Black Spotted Topminnows and some Shrimp in a quiet vegetated pond. I wanted to add these Topminnows to the pool. Last year the small pools I had set up on the side while draining and demucking the pool had iced over. Killed the Topminnows dead. They had spawned in the cement pond last year and I had a handful of 1.5" juveniles develop. Pretty cool until the ice killed them all including their big, healthy parents. I figured they would have been fine since their native habitat sometimes freezes over. I think that this year in the big bio cement pond they will be fine even if it freezes over do to its depth and size. I returned home as a thunderstorm cleared and started drying my gear and acclimating the fish and planted a few plants I had found. A most excellent two days of wandering snorkels.
This morning, Tuesday the Rainbow Shiners had taken up positions in the concrete riffle run I had constructed. I have set several rocks in there covered with water mosses and river weed. Their colors were bright and perhaps they will spawn again. The 3 specimens taken from the area of the spawning frenzy I placed in a tank set up with calm Florida fishes. This was a mistake but was all I had to observe them in. I removed them this morning to the cement pond's riffle run as they were high gear panicky as compared to the peaceful Florida Killies. All three's colors had somewhat standardized and did not exhibit the intensity or variation I had seen 2 days before. I hope to snorkel in the pond soon and maybe see how they appear now. One concern is however the water temp was about 8 degrees higher and summer is not here yet. I may end up building some kind of gazebo, latticework or awning type shelter over one end of the pool.
And that's about it except for last night's silverside foray... :)
Caper Cox, Chattanooga, TN