Snorkeling in Southeastern Tennessee, July 21-22, 2001
I was in Ohio for a week-long visit and was wondering how I'd fill in some free time the weekend of July 21-22. I'd been reading the stories about Tennessee and snorkeling on the NANFA discussion list, so I couldn't think of a better way to spend a couple of days than to combine the two. And Casper Cox had previously invited me to Chattanooga if I was ever in the area. I figured Tennessee was in the relative area (considering I was flying from Washington), so I contacted Casper and lucky for me he liked the idea. He suggested snorkeling the Conasauga and Tellico Rivers in SE Tennessee. Excellent-- what an exciting prospect it was to visit these sites of high species diversity, unique fishes and beautiful surroundings!
I headed down Friday night, and after several delays (freeway construction in Kentucky, getting lost in Knoxville, no motel wake-up call!) I arrived over an hour late Saturday morning at our arranged meeting place: the Conasauga River east of Chattanooga, just north of the Georgia border in the small part of Tennessee in the Mobile basin. I was a little worried that we might not meet up, but there was Casper in the water and waiting for me. Since it had rained within the past few days, he had decided the water was too high for snorkeling. We first spent 15 minutes there dipnetting some fishes: Coosa darters Etheostoma coosae (we think); bronze darters Percina palmaris; tricolor shiners Cyprinella trichroistia, and Southern studfish Fundulus stellifer. In Tennessee all these fishes are found only in the Conasauga drainage. I had a makeshift photo tank, so I photographed the (possible) Coosa darters and Southern studfish.
Click on small pictures to display larger ones.
We then left for a location further upstream where Casper felt we'd have better luck snorkeling. It took us 30-40 minutes on a dirt road through the Cherokee National Forest before we reached the river. Lo and Behold-- we weren't alone! There was a group of snorkelers participating in a fish viewing day sponsored by the Tennessee Division of Wildlife, Tennessee Aquarium, the US Forest Service, and other groups. The site was designated an Underwater Watchable Wildlife Viewing Area. The snorkelers were having a great time it seemed, and they were using underwater viewing devices that looked like traffic cones. Everyone was wearing wetsuits in the 72 degree water. What a neat idea--if there could only be places like that all over the country for people to see first-hand the underwater life in the backyards, maybe they'd be as active in fish conservation as bird enthusiasts are with birds and bird habitat.
We watched and chatted a few minutes (and heard about JR Shute's great video of logperch behavior he had recently taken at the very spot). Casper talked to a biologist there about identifying the Mobile logperch, a fish found nowhere else but in a short 15-mile section of the river.
We arrived at a spot with faster water and more riffles, and within a few minutes we had our wetsuits on and I saw Tennessee underwater for the first time! Before I say any more, I should say that this was a special place. According to the webpage of the Conasauga River Partnership, Conservation Reserve Program (CRP): The Conasauga River rises in the Chattahoochee National Forest in Georgia and wanders in and out of Tennessee six times before heading southwest through Dalton. It is the headwaters of the Coosa River. "This 91-mile river ranks in the top 10 of 2,000 small watersheds in terms of diversity of species--mostly freshwater fishes and mussels," says George Ivey... adding that a number of species are endemic to the Conasauga.
I suppose all waters are beautiful in their own ways; one can own waterfront property where a clear cascading stream has been dammed into a muddy lake with cattails and redwing blackbirds, and see beauty there. But there's nothing like the knowledge that a river's history and the living organisms that evolved there can still be seen in the river's present status; that the living things in and around it aren't the few lucky ones able to survive human perturbations, or are diseased freaks or hybrids or exotics; but that the ecosystem itself has remained intact to a great extent. Here in the Conasauga watershed one can see just that (in spite of the fact that much of the forest was once logged). Within this relatively small area are many microhabitats-- one of the environmental ingredients for high species diversity. Add to that: time and isolation-- and this river and others in the Appalachian Mtns have become the sites of species diversity unequalled in North America.
The river there came down from the mountains fast and cold, with short series of riffles and pools. Large boulders were dominant in the riffles, and in the runs there was cobble and gravel. There was little sand and no siltation there. The river was forested right to the water, and it was hard to imagine a more impressive setting, but that was just ABOVE the water. Below the water it was another story indeed, one that was much more impressive. There, among the boulders and shifting gravels and often near-torrential flow, was an amazing community of fishes that kept us astounded and entertained for hours.
The Conasauga River herbivores were busy; small schools of central stonerollers Campostoma anomalum worked over the boulders. I thought they were striped shiners at first because they were so large, even after taking into account the magnification effects of my mask. They weren't particularly bold and when we'd approach them they'd move off still in their schools. They were in the deeper water generally, and they were fun to watch graze. Rather than stay in one spot, they used a hit-and-run feeding technique, and the rocks were covered with inch-long scraping bites. They darted, then stopped, then darted again, always in tight groups, and as Casper pointed out, always in groups of similar-sized individuals.
We saw a number of darters: bronze darter Percina palmaris, greenbreast darter Etheostoma jordani, bridled darter (an undescribed Percina), holiday darter Etheostoma brevirostrum, and the Coosa darter.
Pulling myself along the bottom I came across a Mobile logperch, and thinking it was a significant find, I flipped a pebble in Casper's direction. I guess I hit him on the head, but I normally have better aim than that. (In any event, I got his attention...) In some of the deeper pools we saw larger fishes: freshwater drums Aplodinotus grunniens, Alabama or northern hogsuckers Hypentelium etowanum or H. nigricans, redbreast sunfish Lepomis auritus, smallmouth bass Micropterus dolomeui, and in one pool a school of redhorse suckers Moxostoma sp. swiftly swam beneath us as we floated through it. Off and on we found stripe-necked musk turtles, partially concealed by large rocks and bolders.
Probably most impressive was the show the Alabama shiners Cyprinella callistia put on for us. The males were in courting regalia, and many times we came across males displaying for each other. Two were particularly spectacular-- their heads were covered with white tubercles and their entire heads glowed in the sunlight. These large shiners were generally in deeper water and often in troughs cut out of the bedrock by the water. These troughs ran perpendicular to the water flow and we found we could work back and forth across the river in them. It was kind of like moving through underwater canyons. They were approximately 4 feet deep and 3 feet wide.
Swimming about with the Alabama shiners were tricolor shiners Cyprinella trichroistra. They were less abundant, but hardly less impressive. Like the Alabama shiner, this is a robust and tall minnow. There were other minnows in the shallower and calmer areas-- more delicate species which we couldn't identify. Plus there were numerous emerald/silver/black fry that collected around us (they must have felt we offered them protection). It was fun to move around with a cloud of these small irridescent fry in front of our masks, and when we approached faster water they'd stay behind.
As the afternoon ended, we were tired and hungry, so we floated back downstream, snorkeling all the way and slithering through rapids and pools with the current. I went through one fast riffle head first-- like going through a water slide-- hitting the pool below with my arms outstretched in front of me to absorb (hopefully) the impact if there was a boulder there (There wasn't). Later Casper told me he had done the same thing.
We drove north to Tellico Plains and had dinner. I was exhausted and fell asleep early. Next morning I was rejuvenated and after breakfast we went to the nearby Tellico River. Casper was interested in scouting the area, so we drove around a bit. When we parked at one spot for a moment a game warden stopped us to check for fishing licenses. Casper expressed his disappointment about the turbid water, and the warden acknowledged that the problem was a 4x4 playground upstream. Apparently the 4x4ers drive their trucks in the river itself and have eroded the banks. The warden explained that rainfall a few days before had washed sediments into the river from that area. Later in the day as we snorkeled, we could see the effects of the sediments settling out in the calmer portions of the river-- the substrate was compacted in places, and rocks were cemented in place, making them unavailable to fishes, invertebrates, etc.
Okay, I'm getting ahead of myself. Casper finally settled on a place to enter, and I had my wetsuit on in a couple of minutes and entered the 70 degree water. I paddled upstream in the fairly deep pool and came to some large boulders. I noticed some minnows swimming mid-water, and when I got closer they settled on the rocks. I realized they weren't minnows after all-- but darters! Large darters, perhaps 6 inches long, maybe longer. As I moved through the pool I saw more-- perhaps 15 or so. I swam back to Casper and described them and he said they were tangerine darters Percina aurantiaca.
David Etnier in his book Fishes of Tennessee states that the tangerine darter is easier to catch with a dipnet while snorkeling, rather than seining. I could see why-- they were in deeper water that would have been tough to seine. Plus, they're agile swimmers for a darter. But if you snorkel with them, their curiosity (or hunger or something) brings them right to you and with patience you can often capture them in your net. Both of us had tangerine darters underwater in our nets that escaped and swam right back to us. Again, these darters were often swimming mid-water with minnows, so it wasn't as simple as dropping the net over them.
At one point Casper noticed a small creek entering the river and decided to check it out. Above us a waterfall tumbled down and several pools below had schools of fish. One pool lent itself to snorkeling, and we lay on the rocks and scooted forward into the water. First we recognized blacknose dace Rhinichthys atratalus and creek chubs Semotilus atromaculatus, but there were a few we didn't recognize.
The hours flew by and we left the water at 5:30. We were hungry and drove to a restaurant overlooking the river. In fact, it overlooked it so well we could see fish along the shore beneath our window table. While we enjoyed our meal, we used Casper's binoculars and saw several new species for the day. They were: striped shiners Luxilus chrysocephalus, common carp Cyprinus carpio, river redhorse Moxostoma carinatum and largemouth or spotted bass Micropterus salmoides or M. punctulatus. Also present were whitetail shiners, smallmouth bass, and central stonerollers, among others. Our waiter thought we were nuts, but we didn't care. That scene was unexpected and brought what had been a terrific weekend to a perfect close. I then headed north to Ohio and Casper went south to Chattanooga. I'm glad to know Casper and can't thank him enough for his friendship, patience and hospitality. Thanks for the memories!
Until next time,
Jay DeLong, I SEE (Inland Snorkeling Enthusiasts