This is an account of my 3 days wandering up highway 27 of which one day was spent with fellow NANFA members near Big South Fork...
Everyone else planned on spending Saturday only in the water but I got an early start by leaving Friday morning so as to explore and scout the waters on my way up. I followed highway 27 stopping at just about every bridge beyond my normal range for a quick look. Dave Neely had told me about the Emory River a few months ago and I had kept a copy of his e-mail in my gazeteer. This was a river I have been keen on snorkling. At Harriman I took a look but it was slow flowing and deep green. I decided to detour off 27 by running up 326 to Oakdale for another look. It was much more inviting but I decided to continue on to Camp Austin.
Here I found a nice sandy beach about a 1/4 mile off the main road and bridge crossing. Folks had been camping at but it was not to trashy and felt safe, comfortable so I put on my new full body poly skin w/ my old shorty wetsuit over it and waded in. Immediately I saw Tangerine Darters. Dave said there were bucketloads and that there were! By far the most visible darter there. I did not see the intense orange color I've witnessed in the Tellico or Hiwassee. It seems as if I've been told by Ed Scott that they are much redder in the Emory but I did not see this. In fact they seemed paler. Perhaps the breeding colors were not in full bloom yet... I think the most intense color I've seen on Tangerines has been in Tellico and Hiwasee during late summer, early fall? Anyway I first eased into a backwater area and found several large Longear Sunfish guarding their nests or trying to get in. Several of them had ears that were much squarer than I've seen around Chattanooga. I wonder if ear shapes vary a lot w/ this species? Their colors were quite beautiful, certainly one of the prettist fish I've seen in my regional wanders. I did not see any eggs or fry tho and I looked closely into the nest, even gently stirring the surface.
I was tempted to try and catch one of the square eared but already have 3 regular Longears back at home. I also caught a 6" Midland Spiney SoftShell Turtle who was cruising the silty sand who was quite eager to bite me. I've been told they will tho all the little ones I've caught have never tried to bite me. Animated Flapjacks is the funnyist description ive heard of these interesting characters. The rocks were all covered w/ silt... very unpleasant to look at but the Tangerines were everywhere and with them were Gilt Darters... just like family members they stayed alongside the Tangerines. Several males were in full gaudy breeding colors. I like this darter much better in its regular color but they are not trying to attract me! They are always interesting to see tho. I worked my way up to some riffle rapids... here the stones were clean and the water flowing. I turned and postioned myself feet upstream and began to clear smallish rubble from the substrate. Within seconds dozens of shiners were swarming all about my face. Whitetails mostly, with 2 or 3 males in breeding form. The colors were not near as pretty as the pearlescent spectrum I see on the males in the Little Sequatchie (just a week ago was the most recent). They were still impressive however in form and tuberculed head. I began to pick out other species but could not ID anything. I still have so much trouble IDing fish and am constantly struggle with it.
Dave had mentioned lots of Turquoise Shiners and I was trying to see anything with that color. I had been watching for several minutes when Wow! there it was... in the distance, sometimes getting closer then Flash!... the sun would strike just right and every feature would be outlined in brilliance, blues and whites... hints of emerald. It is a truly beautiful fish. This is the spotfin chub I've always wanted to see...and was featured on the cover of the Tennessee Aquarium's Riverwatch Quarterly a few years back. Its new common name must be the Turquoise Shiner? I spent 15 minutes in this spot just watching these guys. A move from me and they would be off in the distance again. Patience was important here. I've never seen any fish so beautiful, but I tend to say that quite a bit! ...and probably will the more places and systems I explore! In Etnier's book he says they are difficult to catch w/ a siene... and I can see how. They seemed more wary than the other shiners that come to play in my disturbances. Historically they were just upstream from Chickamauga Creek, which is in my own backyard. Now, however there nor many other places they have been lost. It would sure be nice to see them return, and I will certainly watch for them. I know J.R. Shute and CFI is doing their part. It seems like I heard they are trying to return them to the Conasauga? That is a different river system. Were they found there as well? After spending some time in the riffles I floated down stream along the bank's rocky edge with willow grass holding the rubble in place. Another unique shiner was here and I think it was the Spotfin Shiner in color. Nearly every fin was tipped in hot white. They seemed to enjoy the calmer flowing water. Sometimes all the species would be together downstream of my activity but more often the school would be dominated by one species... which was usually the Whitetails. They are always quick and real intense on any thing you expose while turning stones. If I can find any small asian clams I will sometimes crush them and the shiners will go into a frenzy tussling with the bits. I probably spent 4 hours snorkling here and about a mile downstream... all together I saw... Tangerine, Snubs, Logperch, Gilt, Greenside and Redline Darters. a couple other darters I could not ID. Longear, Redear, Red Breast and Rock Bass... along w/ typical bass which I have not learned to ID properly. Hog Suckers, Stonerollers, River Chubs and a redhorse type sucker which I can't ID. The dorsal fin was red edged? Whitetails, Spotfin and Turquoise Shiners. Probably many others. There were about another dozen species that I could not ID. Bluntnose minnows, drums, shiners... speckled darters? I try to memorize their features, return to David's book and then I'm befuddled again! Im slowly expanding my reckoning but it is difficult for me. Sometimes its best just to relax and enjoy the life. I do try.
I stopped at a few other creeks on my way up... scooped up a net full of shiners in a nice vegitated stream... from looking at David's book I would say they were Sand Shiners. This water was in the Cumberland drainage, but again... my ID could be wrong. I sure see why they pickle them but I don't have the heart to but it would sure make it easier to ID. I didnt want to fuss with keeping anything at this point so returned them to the stream after studying them thru a plastic bag and dripping it all over the shiner pages of my Tennesse book! I got a motel, meal and studied the days viewing w/ The Book, made some notes and fell asleep. The next morning I drove up to Steve's campsite which was crowded w/ tents, cars, family and a little dog tied and twisted around a post. :) I've never liked camping in "Camp Grounds" proper. It always seems like you're camping in your own front yard, waving to the neighbors! BTW...the site I snorkled on the Emory would be a great place to rendevous and camp in the future. I hot-footed it back down to Leatherwood Ford and meet up with Geoff. We talked a bit and I got my gear on for a underwater look around. The water did not appear clear in the early sunlight and the visibility was only about 2 feet. Not exciting...I was expecting far more after such a long drive to the fabled site. We did see the Bluebreast Darter right away... which I had remembered from my first visits years ago. Tough, fast and dark fellows living in the fast current beneath large rocks. Beautiful vermillion spots on their sides. Lots of YOY Greensides... about 1 inch long. I kept thinking these others were Channel Darters but I'm thinking now they may have been Ashy Darters... but I did not see the large 2nd dorsal. Schools of Whitetails again. I always see Logperch just about everywhere I go, but never see little ones... well here they were. Dozens. Downstream of the rapids in a shallow graveled flow they were. Cute as a Logperch could be! Something that was odd was darters I kept seeing w/ bright blue white crescents behind their eyes and a blue white line at the dorsal base. Was this some kind of fungi? The more we looked the more irregular the marks appeared... like a fungus. It was my first time to see anything like this.
Steve showed up in his garage sale $30 full body wetsuit. He was looking fine and ready! What a deal! I told him he should mark his calander and go shopping on that lucky day every year. The 2 boys got in and promptly stained their t-shirts with rock slime but they were wide eyed! I promised them the next site would be spectacular. Geoff got in and watched the blue breasts and shiners. After Arizona this is paradise. He is getting the hang of this and a welcome member. President Bruce showed up from his 5.5 hour maddog nothern run up to see the Cumberland waters. We have a dedicated bunch of guys here. All eager to go anywhere to see what we can find. Two more outing are planned before this summers NANFA meet. We all played around in the Big South Fork for a hour or two, stripped our gear and made plans for clear water.
We continued waiting til after 1pm wondering if Klaus was ever gonna show up. An Ohio van was there but neither Klaus nor a note was so time was being wasted. Promising great visions beyond we loaded up for a 4 vehicle caravan to Wionna... higher up and clearer water to be promised. J.R. had told me of this place and it was only 30 or 45 minutes away. And thus began the great Saturday trek of disappointment! And I am sorry to say I was leading the way... looking for greener grass-- I mean clearer water. Just over the next rise, next stream. Chocolate milk water was the norm. Steep poison ivy banks. Barking dogs. No Trespassing signs. Stagnant back waters. Moo mowing cows. Well... I was in for a lynching. It seems rain had fallen on this land all the previous week... but this day was pretty. We eventually settled on a creek named Paint Rock Creek in the gazeteer. A glimmer of hope. A remembrance of our last trip to the Paint Rock River in Alabama beckoned us onward. Missing the turn on the first pass we backtracked to the... well... it was a... well... it had accessible water in it and that's all we needed at this point. We grabbed our gear and tumbled down the steep bank to the water... and began to look at each other with twisted nostrils. What is that smell? After this experience we were looking forward to a good swim anywhere! However being the dedicated enthusiasts our little group is we proceeded to see what could live in a place such as this. Jonathan immediatly jerked up a Creek Chub w/ his hook and line. Some yelps of excitment were heard downstream from Geoff. A siene was run from one end to the other. a riffle was kicked. All and all found living in that flowing, rural, farm, septic draining ditch of a creek we collected amazingly a yellow catfish, white sucker, stone rollers, creek chubs, striped shiners, breeding colored rosy fin shiners, rainbow darters and a very speckled darter which may be parasited with shell larva (we could not find it in Etnier's book ), red breast sunfish and a unknown shiner... perhaps the sand shiner. 10 species or more. All common at home in Chattanooga urban streams. We were amazed that they could survive here. After we climbed up the bank and began to try to ID the odd specked darter a local drove up and warned us not to get in the creek. He had a crooked smile and twisted his nose. He pointed us down the road to the local swimming hole and off we went with Bruce saying he had had enough and was headed home, well almost...:)
Well, off we went with a new navigator at my side. After a couple wrong turns we were looking at a unfordable crossing to deep to drive a borrowed museum van thru. In we waded into this supposedly local swimming hole. I'm beginning to think "Is there any good water in these hills?" Plenty of monsterous pollywogs and lots of red spotted newts. Another Rainbow Darter. The same shiners, a few unknowns. Lots of vegatation downstream but the water was to deep, log jammed and murky to wander up or downstream much. We did get to rinse off most of Paint Rock Creek tho... even murky water felt clean after that bit of wading. We loaded back up with promises of a better day in the near future. I think I will disavow any leadership roles on the next foray! I know this area has great potential but what a fiasco this day was.
Bruce got some stonerollers for his students, Geoff was just eager to see after living in a desert for years, and Steve got a few fish of interest to free from the cesspool to his bedroom of clean tanks. Myself... I had experienced the glory of turquoise the day before... and I was headed back that way tomorrow. We said our byes with Geoff heading north and Steve and the boys back to Big South Fork for a night and early morning breakcamp. Myself... I headed south to Wartburg. Arriving late afternoon I grabbed a map at the Obed ranger station and headed toward Captain Nemo's crossing. In the distance I could hear the roar of massive engines. Country stock cars... good old boys driving fast. Clay track, a vast pit in the ground. For 14 bucks you can pull your car right up to the edge of a multi terraced hillside and look deep down into a smoke filled arena as they battle their way around the track... sliding thru every turn... roaring back out for another lap. Crunching metal and flying sparks. I've never seen anything like it! I think the entire town of Wartburg had arrived to view this extravaganza. Fireworks were promised and I bet it would have been a full blown cultural experience... but I was after fish... and I was told they were another 6 miles down the road. I got there just as dusk was filling the sky and rain was falling... but the water looked fairly clear and I had had a full day of murkyness behind me and tomorrow's promise lay before me. Back to a motel, a ruben and salad, more book review, attempted education and hot shower... not in that order! Sunday morning I woke to church bells, breakfast at Angies and a trip back to the Obed Ranger Station. A beautiful rangerette named Kim was womanning the station. Cheerful and with knowledge she showed me a tank in the center of the center filled with shiners and darters. Emerald, Blue Breast, Ashy, Greenside, Speckled... Hog Sucker, Buffalo... Rosyfins, sand? shiners. A very nice tank put together and maintained by a Ranger Rob who was on vacation. Kim feed them some typical fish flakes and we enjoyed the frenzy activity. That was cool, I like seeing a ranger(s) that really goes all out in their work and it showed with Rob's tank and her interest, knowledge and enthusiasm. Frozen blood worms kept the darters healthy.
I had been studying the maps on the wall and only one stream was marked excellent and was noted as a reference stream. Inquiring about it she said it was in Frozen Head State Park... just 5 miles in the opposite direction. She had never been snorkling and I did my usual motivational speak without the arm waving part Ranger Rob does and I'm gonna give him a ring for my next return trip. Debating I decided to detour to this reference stream. This is a term I learned while helping with the urban stream survey in Chattanooga. Basically it signifies a stream in its pure, unaltered state! Along the way I passed James Earl Ray's last residence. Plenty of barb wire, but it was visitor's day and the picnic tables were full of families having a few hours together. Kim had said the stream was too small to swim in but if I can lay my body down and raise my head that is all I need and am often blessed when I do. I asked bike riding Ranger... oops I've forgotten his name... and he pointed at a deep pool just across the street where 2 streams joined. I asked him what could be seen and he said a dace and some local standards. I pulled out David's book... the Tennessee Dace was found here. What a picture that is. I've been trying hard to see a Red Bellied Dace of late with some success as well as the recently described Laural Dace (which I snorkled with a few years ago)... But the Tennesse Dace... Oh my! Getting my gear on in the parking lot I crossed the street and eased into the water. Immediately there they were. Not with blazing color but marked so as their full potential was obvious. What a beautiful aquarium fish this would make... tho listed and not to be had. In the same pool were cruising Rainbow Trout deep in the center, I presume waiting for anyone to wander too close for a quick snack. Creek Chubs, Stonerollers, Striped Shiners, Sunfish. Oddly, no darters were seen.
I wandered upstream on what would have been very slippery rocks. Let me say now that anyone who has not tried felt soled shoes should and should soon. My old pair of velcro tennis shoes blew out the duct tape for the last time. My friend has the same size feet attached to his legs and lent me his trouting footwear for the weekend. He may not get them back! I've been worried about really twisting my bad knee or an ankle while rock hopping or hyper siening with some of these young bucks... I've been well overdue for a good hurting. These felt soles are great and I'm trying to purchase a velcroed version found at a Dick's Sporting Goods Store. The brand is TopLineUS.com but i cannot get them to respond to my emails. :( Anyway it was a pleasant suprise to witness those dace and the water was very clear. I was keen on making it back to the Emory for great diversity. I got there about noon but already families were showing up for picnics and wadings. I headed upstream to get away from the gawking and silt stirring body flounderings. A series of riffles and a quiet pool lay ahead. The only new fish I saw were a couple Warpaints cruising with the Whitetails. Lots of silt, I began to get concerned wondering if I would ever see pristine flows in this life again.
In the Conasauga however, certain stretches have vast moss-cushioned architectural boulders, canyons and flows. Full of life and glory. Here was not much vegetation... just stands of willow grass. I headed back downstream and submarined past the frolicking tubers and floaters. Deep and dark beyond, visibility had been reduced in the 24 hours I reckon by the inflowing rains upstream. I could only see what was directly in front of me... 2, maybe 3 feet. The locals I talked to said visibility was usually to the bottom... which I will someday return for.
Downstream I came to some intense rapids, 3 foot drops. Kamakazee canoe stuff. Dave Neely had told me about Olive Darters in raging, torrential current. I held on and stuck my mask in places I should not have. All I saw were Redlines and Tangerines. No Gilts, no Turquoise, no Olives. Pretty dissapointing. I started playing human surfboard making a few downstream runs when i caught a glimpse of a fishing rod in the depths. By the time I was through I had pulled out 3 fishing rods, a roll of duct tape and a fully geared tackle box! Why I might could have financed my whole trip with this stuff at a resale shop! I kept the duct tape (You know that is always handy!) and gave everything else to a young fella on the bank who was playing with his little boy and his wife that day 9 months due. I could fill a sporting goods store with the stuff I've found snorkling... it's a treasure hunt down under! I had had my fill of river water for a few more days, got to see some new cool little colorful beasties, learned a bit more about whats under there, visited with my fellow Fish Heads, made some new contacts and got return plans for the near future. I think I will give Ranger Rob a call a bit later on. Hey! I hear the water is gonna be clear at the Sipsey! Lets go!
Casper Cox, Chattanooga, TN
JR Shute had a few comments in response (Click HERE)