Texas Native Fish
Over the weekend of June 14-16, 2002, members of NANFA and the NFC embarked on the first of what will hopefully be many native fish forays in the state. This event was held at the Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge (FWNC&R), which contains a long and relatively natural stretch of the West Fork of the Trinity River. This is our story...
Friday, June 14
It was well after dark when John Bongiovanni pulled into camp. He and his wife had made the long journey from Tyler, TX to find the original four sitting at the campfire enjoying a cold libation or six. John works in Athens, TX home to the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center. He and Steve had some friends in common who work there and we discussed a group visit to the site at some future date. The calls of barred owls accompanied the crackling of the fire as we shared fish tales and discussed the next days' activities before finally turning in sometime after 2 a.m.
Saturday, June 15
At the interpretive center, FWNC&R staff members John Shaffer and Travis Tidwell joined us. John is a junior high school science teacher most of the time but has worked as a seasonal naturalist for many years. He runs the FWNC&R canoe program and is intimately acquainted with the local waters. Travis is a summer intern who has been on the job for a week. He was told to come prepared to get wet and really had no idea what was in store for him. Also joining us were Dan Northcut (Dallas), a new NANFA member and president of the Dallas chapter of the Texas Master Naturalist program, and Karen Green (Keller, TX), a member of the Friends of the Nature Center who had seen an event notice posted in the interpretive center and just thought that it sounded like fun. Dan, it should be noted, is also an environmental science teacher at St. Marks School of Dallas and has several native tanks and an outdoor pond on exhibit at the school. Matthew Fisher also caught up to us and John B. got back before we left. Our group now numbered 10 as we loaded up into a caravan to head to the first site.
We started on the south end of the Refuge in an area known as Greer Island. The Greer Island area is at the head of Lake Worth, a reservoir that was constructed in 1914 to provide drinking water for Fort Worth. Greer Island was originally a wooded hilltop along the West Fork but is now an island that is accessible via a causeway. Our intent was to sample along both sides of the causeway and along the adjacent shoreline.
After some initial hesitation at wading into the murky waters of the West Fork and a bit of instruction (for the novices) in how to operate a seine, we plunged in. The first run with the seine pulled up a beautiful orangespot sunfish and everyone was hooked.
The species list for this area included:
Non-fish fauna observed or encountered included: Glass Shrimp, Dragonfly and Damselfly nymphs, various crayfish, water scorpions, various diving beetles including Belastomatids, and one unidentified water snake which Charlie wisely did not scoop up into his net.
One of the highlights of our time at Greer Island was having a news crew from the Fort Worth city cable channel in attendance. Rob Denkhaus was interviewed regarding why the event was happening and what we hoped to find. John B. was interviewed to apparently learn why someone would drive so far to look at fish. They promised to give a copy of the feature to the nature center when it's finished and hopefully this will be available for viewing at the convention in August.
By chance, while they were filming Charles and John B. were making a run with a seine through water that suddenly became deeper than they were tall. As Charles tried to save his cigarettes from floating away, they managed to hang onto the seine and regain their footing. When they brought the seine up they had caught one of the most beautiful longears and the first redear sunfish known to be collected on the Refuge. The camera was able to capture the vivid colors of the fish and the excited reactions of the participants. In addition, Dan had managed to catch an 8-inch gar complete with all the frills on the fins.
Before leaving Greer Island, Karen, who had come along because she thought that it might be fun, had learned how much fun it really is and Travis, who was told to be prepared to get wet and so had brought waders, had experienced the joy of not being able to stop sinking into the muck bottom as the water reached up and over the top of his waders.
Next, we moved up river to another causeway which divides the West Fork from an area known as Lotus Marsh. This site offers easy access to two very different habitats. Now that everyone was experienced in seine operation, we spread out more and worked both sides of the causeway.
The species list for this area included:
Non-fish fauna collected in the area included: damselfly and dragonfly nymphs, dobsonfly larvae, various crayfish, and glass shrimp. One of the highlights of the area was watching a large clubtailed dragonfly nymph catch and consume young Gambusia. Dan wanted to keep the invertebrate predator for his classroom tank but when it went after one of Charles' topminnows, Dan wisely released it.
The news crew had followed us to the site to finish their filming. Proving that they were not true outdoors people, the reporter tried to film his intro and conclusion while standing on a fire ant mound. Since he was wearing sandals, we recommended that he wade into the water to rid himself of the biting pests but he refused saying that he didn't know what might be in the water...
Young Travis also encountered a biting pest as he learned how not to pick up a dobsonfly larva. When Dan pulled the invertebrate from the net and asked what it was, Travis volunteered to take a look and received a painful slit in his finger for his trouble. The offending larva later became food for a hungry fish.
Before finishing up in the area, Rob challenged anyone to seine a particularly thickly vegetated backwater slough on the river side of the causeway. The vegetation, primarily hornwort, makes seining difficult but provides plenty of cover for fish and invertebrates. Not wanting to pass up a challenge, Dan and Charles waded in. The area proved to be full of crappie and other sunfish. Keeping any required a gallant effort on the part of Karen who fought her way through shoreline brush and an aquatic jungle in order to get a bucket to the intrepid fish collectors.
After Dan and Charles had climbed out of the slough, we headed up to the interpretive center to sort the catch and have some lunch. Charlie A. and Steve C. had to say goodbye because of other commitments but Dr. Lou Verner, Urban Wildlife Biologist for TP&W, then joined us. Lou had recently removed the tropicals from his 125 gallon tank in preparation for going native!
We then moved northward into an area that lies below Eagle Mountain Dam and is the area where alligators are most commonly seen on the Refuge. Rather than walk the 2 miles to the site, we all loaded into a 4wd S-10 pickup (yes, 10 of us) and made the long journey complete with having to stop and move trees out of the way and using the 4wd to get through mud holes and over rock piles.
No alligators were seen but the fish were plentiful. The area's species list included:
Non-fish fauna observed included: glass shrimp, dragonfly and damselfly nymphs, water scorpions and crayfish.
The highlight of this area was catching a 2-feet longnose gar and an approximately 2-pound black buffalo while seining. Seeing a big fish in the net was quite a thrill for those that had never experienced it. Another highlight was finding the blacktail shiners as they had not been recorded for this area before.
After returning to camp for a quick and refreshing cold drink, we reconvened at the interpretive center to sort the new catch. Lou claimed a number of fish to stock his 125. Dan claimed one of the 8" gar and the 2 lb. buffalo as well as others to put in a 240-gallon tank at school. Karen chose not to take any fish...yet. Matthew had to go but promised to return in the morning. John S. and Travis, having put in a full day's work, left for home. Our group was down to Rob D., Charles A. and John B. and we still had our speakers for the night!!
Once again, because of the small group, the presentations became more like conversations. Dr. Tom Hellier, of the University of Texas - Arlington, spoke with us about the impact of exotic introductions on natural systems and a variety of other interesting topics. One unrelated, yet fascinating story that Dr. Hellier related was that he was the person who first introduced Archie Carr to sea turtles. Dr. Carr then went on to become the foremost authority on sea turtles.
Our second speaker was Armin Karbach, former curator of fishes at the Fort Worth Zoo. Armin discussed some of the history behind the now defunct zoo aquarium and how it operated. He also discussed some of the projects that he had been involved with in both the US and in Mexico.
After the speakers, we retired to camp where shortly after we had retreated to our tents, a mighty storm blew in. Rob's tent was lifted and twisted and finally demolished by winds that were reported to have reached 80 mph. Rain fell and lightning flashed as the intrepid fish enthusiasts cowered in their tents. When morning finally dawned, it was as if nothing had ever happened during the night. Deer were wandering around the edges of camp. A Carolina wren was busily working on a nest under the cover of the picnic shelter and barred owls continued to call throughout the morning.
Worn out from the previous day's activities and a restless night, the remaining three, Rob, Charles, and John B. decided to call it a weekend and all returned home but not before making tentative plans to do it all again.