NANFA-- Okefenokee II - The Return (way long)

Rose Lawn Museum (
Mon, 07 Apr 2003 11:45:44 -0400


Hi All,

The weekend of 3/28-3/30/03, a number of us traveled to the Okefenokee
Swamp, repeating a successful visit from March of last year. A split squad
of campers and motel dwellers worked out of Folkston, GA, on the east side
of the swamp, including two father and son teams.

The crew this year numbered 18 from seven different states:

AL - Charles Ray (Auburn) & David Smith (Mobile)
FL - Jim & Nancy Capelle (Gainesville), Doug Dame
(Interlachen), and Paul & Jerome Sachs (St. Augustine)
GA - Steven Ellis (Kennesaw), Harvey Langabeer
(Lawrenceville), Henry Wolfe (Bethlehem), and Michael
& Andrew Wolfe (Statham)
KY - Geoff Kimber (Lexington)
MI - Philip Kukulski (Detroit), winning the distance award!
OH - Klaus "Dead Man Walking" Schoening (Cincinnati)
SC - Dan Hagley (Columbia), Chip Rinehart (West Columbia),
and Dustin Smith (Newberry).

Rather than just repeat the itinerary from last year (out of Waycross, GA),
we researched a whole new area that included the Okefenokee National
Wildlife Refuge and its periphery. So, on 3/1/03 Chip Rinehart and Paul
Harney (Clermont, GA) joined me for the scouting run.

During the course of the day, we completely circled the swamp, locating
several promising sites. Even in a near-constant downpour we were able to
do some pre-trip sampling with excellent results. We encountered so much
high water it was often difficult to determine where normal shorelines
were. We were delighted to find banded topminnows (Fundulus cingulatus), a
species that eluded us last year.

On Friday morning (3/28/03) I rolled into Folkston to find that Philip
Kukulski and Klaus Schoening were there ahead of me. I was more than a
little impressed that Philip made the long drive down from the University
of Michigan.

If the entire rest of the weekend had turned out to be a total flop (it
didn't!), I would still have counted it worthwhile just to see Klaus back
in the game. His near-fatal illness last summer gave many of us quite a
scare. Though still not 100%, he handled the strain of the trip quite well.
Welcome back to the land of the living, Klaus!

As one might expect, a NWR is not normally accessible to fish collectors.
An advance written request is required and carefully scrutinized before
permission is considered. Although I had tendered such a request two weeks
prior to the trip, I didn't know until I arrived that it had been approved
under strict guidelines.

NWR biologist Sara Aicher met with me to issue the special permit and to go
over the limitations. She was an extremely helpful professional, providing
us with topographical prints of the immediate area, and granting us 500' on
either side of the navigable waterways in which to work. It turned out to
be more than adequate.

Elated by this rare opportunity, I returned to the motel for a 3PM
rendezvous with the first wave of collectors. Doug Dame, Paul Sachs & his
son Jerome, and David Smith soon joined Klaus, Philip, and me. We sampled a
small pond on the motel property, but it yielded nothing. Charles Ray and
Harvey Langabeer rolled in next and we were off to the first stop of the

St. Marys River, US Highway 1, south of Folkston at the FL line:

As with many of the streams we encountered, high water from recent flooding
covered the normal banks, creating steep, sudden drop-offs. This black
water river winds past a state park on the FL side. We collected/observed

Pygmy killifish (Leptolucania ommata)
Mosquitofish (Gambusia affinis)
Least killifish (Heterandria formosa)
Swamp darter (Etheostoma fusiforme)
Bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus)
Bluespotted sunfish (Enneacanthus gloriosus)
Everglades pygmy sunfish (Elassoma evergladei)
Chain pickerel (Esox niger)
Redfin pickerel (E. americanus americanus)

Mack Island Creek, US Highway 1, 5 miles NW of Folkston

Mack Island Creek was vegetation-choked and spread out along side of
Highway 1 due to the high water. The brush was thickest near the bridge, so
we had better success working ditches just north of it. We saw

Banded topminnow (Fundulus cingulatus)
Pygmy killifish (L. ommata)
Mosquitofish (G. affinis)
Bluegill (L. macrochirus)
Bluespotted sunfish (E. gloriosus)
Juvenile pickerel (Esox sp.)
Okefenokee pygmy sunfish (Elassoma okefenokee)

Spanish Creek, US Highway 1, 4 = miles NW of Folkston

What a difference a half-mile makes! Doug offered to speak his excellent
mock Spanish to the fish. It must have worked. We did much better there.
The creek was a lot easier to work, and the fish less displaced. We

Golden topminnow (Fundulus chrysotus)
Pygmy killifish (L. ommata)
Mosquitofish (G. affinis)
Least killifish (H. formosa)
Flier (Centrarchus macropterus)
Bluegill (L. macrochirus)
Banded sunfish (Enneacanthus obesus)
Bluespotted sunfish (E. gloriosus)
Everglades pygmy sunfish (E. evergladei)
Okefenokee pygmy sunfish (E. okefenokee)
Chain pickerel (E. niger)
Black crappie (Pomoxis nigromaculatus)

With the sunlight fading, and the mosquitoes forming attack squadrons, we
returned to the motel to find three generations of the Wolfe family waiting
for us. That brought our total to twelve for the customary group meal.

Earlier in the day, I had located a little mom 'n pop barbecue place (C&M
Barbecue) just off Folkston's town square. If I hadn't been there in the
daytime, I never would have found after dark! We arrived just 30 minutes
before closing time, causing the couple who ran the place to really
scramble to accommodate a dozen hungry fish folk. They were very kind to
us, and the barbecue was good enough to rank within my top five choices for
barbecue in GA.

Back at the motel, we were greeted by Jim & Nancy Capelle, Geoff Kimber,
and those wild-eyed SC boys: Dan Hagley, Chip Rinehart, & Dustin Smith.

On Saturday morning, many of us met for breakfast before taking to the
pursuit of fish. Soon afterward, our original plan for the day took on new
options. Making just a day trip out of it, the SC gang chose to skip the
Okefenokee NWR in favor of a trip to the Waycross area. Several others
joined them. Another group opted to work some of the local sites, intending
to link up with us later.

With that matter sorted out, seven of us (the Wolfe guys, Nancy, Geoff,
Philip, and myself) drove down to the NWR and boarded a flat-bottom boat.
After seeing our collecting gear, one of the park attendants asked to see
our special permit before letting us pass. Henry Wolfe agreed to drive the
boat for us.

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, East entrance, Chesser & Grand Prairies

We traveled only a short distance down the main channel before we spotted a
7-8' alligator absorbing sunlight on the bank. Unlike the ones we saw
later, this one stuck around long enough for photos. (Yes, Chip, there are
'gators outside SC!)

Turning left at the first opportunity, we began descending the narrow
waterway into Chesser Prairie. It was immediately evident that we were at
ground zero of the food chain. We visited at least five spots inside the
swamp, trying to vary the type of habitat.

Getting out of the boat for the first time was a bit unnerving, knowing
that the 'gators were all around. Not being able to see them was the spooky
part. However, when the others plunged in without apparent reservation, I
reminded myself that this is what we came for, and followed. As long as we
didn't step off into the channel, the water was usually less than waist deep.

There is plenty of solid ground to be seen we just couldn't reach it. Every
"true" landmass was ringed around the edges with impenetrable brush. Philip
made a gallant effort to break through, but fifteen feet in about as many
minutes was the best he could manage. The ever shifting waterlogged peat
beneath the surface bore our weight well most of the time.

The "floating earth" was very interesting. It doesn't look as though it
would support the weight of a man, but Philip proved to us that it would.
We got photos of him kneeling on a patch of it.

Cap'n Wolfe was patient with us and our navigational directions, often
raising the motor to allow us to tow the boat into fields of lily pads
without fouling the propeller. He and Miss Nancy used the field glasses to
locate wading birds. Although the birds would not allow us to approach them
very closely, we did get a fair look at a pair of ibis and a large white

Although the NWR boasts 37 snake species and 14 turtle species, we didn't
find any. Of the fishes, we collected/observed

Banded topminnow (F. cingulatus)
Pygmy killifish (L. ommata)
Mosquitofish (G. affinis)
Many hybrid sunfish
Dollar sunfish (Lepomis marginatus)
Bluegill (L. macrochirus)
Bluespotted sunfish (E. gloriosus)
Banded sunfish (E. obesus)
Flier (C. macropterus)
Black crappie (P. nigromaculatus)
Everglades pygmy sunfish (E. evergladei)
Okefenokee pygmy sunfish (E. okefenokee)
Chain pickerel (E. niger)
Redfin pickerel (E. americanus americanus)

While we were enjoying this vast, untamed wilderness, the Carolina
renegades were thrashing the waters around Waycross. Chip was kind enough
to submit the following report of their activities.


Dan Hagley, Dustin Smith and I arrived in Folkston about 10:30pm Friday
night and checked into our motel. As Dustin was checking us in, I walked
over to the motel next door where I knew Steven and some of the other guys
were staying. We talked about what they had done that day and what their
plans for the next day were. We arranged to meet at a nearby diner for
breakfast the next morning around 7:30am to talk about where we would be

Saturday morning we all enjoyed a nice breakfast with some of the best
company a person could ask for. Due to Dan's and Dustin's need to be back
in SC that night (honey-do list?), and the species they wanted, we had to
pass on Steven's Swamp Tour. David Smith, Klaus Schoening, Charles Ray and
Harvey Langabeer opted to follow us as well. Doug Dame, Paul Sachs, his son
Jerome, and Jim Capelle also followed us to the first site but split apart
for awhile until again meeting, much later in the day, at our final
collection site.

Our first stop was at Spanish Creek; a site visited the previous day by
some of our group. The sun was shining, the sky was clear, the water
tannin-stained to the color of strong tea, a perfect day for collecting. We
stopped here to get some Okefenokee pygmy sunfish. These were found along
with several other species. Here's what we saw:

Site 1: Spanish Creek _at_ US 1/US 23

Elassoma evergladei - Everglades pygmy sunfish
E. okefenokee - Okefenokee pygmy sunfish
Aphrododerus sayanus - Pirate perch
Enneacanthus gloriosus - Bluespotted sunfish
E. obesus - Banded sunfish
Leptolucania ommata - Pygmy killifish
Gambusia holbrooki - Eastern mosquitofish

At this time, Doug, Paul, Jerome, and Jim headed off on their own. After
leaving here, we dipped into Florida then back up into Georgia to a spot on
the western side of the swamp that Steven and I had visited on our scouting
trip several weeks earlier. This area was basically ditches alongside the
road heading into the NWR but outside of the park boundaries.

On our scouting trip it was raining most of the time keeping the insect
population grounded. We weren't so lucky this time, as it appeared every
mosquito from the state was here. At least we found many fish that prey on
the larvae of this blood-sucking hoard. I guess this means that, since
mosquitoes don't lay eggs until they've had a meal of blood, we were
providing the food for the next generation of fish here, at least in a
roundabout sort of way.

We found some really nice banded topminnows with blood-red fins as well as
nicely colored pygmy killies and everglades pygmy sunfish. Eastern
mosquitofish were very abundant here as well. Klaus found some nice aquatic
plants here as well as several male Gambusia with black spotting on them.
Also found were a ribbon or garter snake, small siren, some cool water
insects, and many frogs and tadpoles. Here's our list from this site:

Site 2: Roadside ditch _at_ GA 177 approx. 7 miles from intersection with GA 94

Elassoma evergladei - Everglades pygmy sunfish
Enneacanthus obesus - Banded sunfish
E. gloriosus - Bluespotted sunfish
Leptolucania ommata - Pygmy killifish
Fundulus cingulatus - Banded topminnow
F. lineolatus - Lined topminnow
Gambusia holbrooki - Eastern mosquitofish

We turned our vehicles around and drove a short way back out to a stream
that we had seen on the way in. The bloodsuckers were even worse here and
it was getting pretty warm in the sun so we didn't spend a lot of time at
this spot. Klaus also found some more plants here.

Site 3: GA 177_at_ Sweetwater Creek

L. ommata - Pygmy killifish
F. cingulatus - Banded topminnow
G. holbrooki - Eastern mosquitofish
Esox sp. juv. - pickerel

On the way to the next site, we stopped in Fargo to eat lunch at the
Sportsman's Cafi operated by Ima Jean Knowles. This was a small place but
it was apparently the only "eatin' joint" in Fargo. The food on the buffet
was pretty good if a little on the expensive side. We must have been
charged the "tourist price". The waitress was a young girl with a
distinctly south Georgian accent, a "tb" tattoo on her wrist (I'm not sure
I want to know what it stood for), and a belly button visible to all (no
lint was seen).

Uh, at least the sweet tea was good. We were unsuccessful in our attempts
to get Dan to eat collards, a southern dish that he has never tried.
Somebody needs to do something with this boy!

After eating, we headed up towards Homerville. Along the way, we stopped at
Tatum Creek, another spot Steven and I had visited. This time the water was
much lower than before. The crayfish from this spot were very interesting.
Several blue crayfish were found along with dwarf crayfish and some other
variety with red lines and spots on them. Also found were several F.
cingulatus as well as one red spotted F.chrysotus.

Site 4: US 441/GA 89 _at_ Tatum Creek

Elassoma evergladei - Everglades pygmy sunfish
Leptolucania ommata - Pygmy killifish
Fundulus chrysotus - Golden topminnow
F. cingulatus - Banded topminnow
Gambusia holbrooki - Eastern mosquitofish
Esox niger - Chain pickerel

After leaving here we headed towards a site that we had visited last year
that was loaded with L. ommata. Upon arriving, we immediately noticed the
water level was much higher than the previous year with very little
vegetation to be seen. Nevertheless, we started working our dipnets and
soon found the ommata we were after. We also found F.cingulatus, a species
that we didn't find here last year.

As we were preparing to leave, a young boy and his father pulled up to do
some fishing. We showed the boy some of the fish we were keeping and he
goes running to his father yelling, "Dad, look at these fish!" Maybe a seed
was planted for a new generation of fish collectors. Across the road, Klaus
and Charles started dipping in a ditch, looking for daphnia. They found an
ample amount to take home and start new cultures with.

Site 5: Swamp Rd _at_ pond at intersection with 12-Mile Post

Leptolucania ommata - Pygmy killifish
Fundulus cingulatus - Banded topminnow
Lepomis auritus - Redbreast
Enneacanthus gloriosus - Bluespotted sunfish
Elassoma evergladei - Everglades pygmy sunfish
Esox niger - Chain pickerel
Etheostoma fusiforme - Swamp darter
Lepomis macrochirus - Bluegill
Gambusia holbrooki - Eastern mosquitofish

The last spot we visited was also one sampled last year. As we were
pulling in, just ahead of us was the group that split off from us earlier
in the day. Talk about timing!

On the previous trip, the water level was so low (due to the drought) we
could walk across the river. This year the water was about 15 to 20 feet
higher so we had very little luck getting the much desired taillight
shiners that were so numerous last year. We did find some nicely colored
brook silversides again as well as a few new species,
including a very small bowfin of about 1 = inch in length.

Site 6: US 1/US 23 _at_ Satilla River

Cyprinella leedsi - Bannerfin shiner
Notropis maculatus - Taillight shiner
Gambusia holbrooki - Eastern mosquitofish
Enneacanthus gloriosus - Bluespotted sunfish
Lepomis auritus - Redbreast
L. macrochirus - Bluegill
L. marginatus - Dollar sunfish
Erimyzon sucetta - Lake chubsucker
Amia calva - Bowfin
Esox niger - Chain pickerel
Labidesthes sicculus - Brook silverside
Pomoxis nigromaculatus - Black crappie
Another shiner

Jim was helping Doug pull a seine and had a neat "over the waders"
experience. Actually, it appeared to be more of an "over the head"
experience. I still haven't figured out how his hat stayed dry. I hope the
pictures turn out on those shots! After a while we all decided it was time
to call it a day. We all said our good-byes (at least the ones of us who
had to leave) and headed on our way.

Thanks to Steven Ellis, our awesome NANFA GA representative, for hosting
Okeefest II.


Although collecting in the NWR was anything but easy, it was still
difficult to leave. Nevertheless, we had other sites to hit before
nightfall. Heading north, we returned to Folkston for lunch at the Huddle
House about 3PM. Miss Nancy bailed out right after the meal. We let her out
at the motel and proceeded to the next stop.

Double Run Creek, US Highway 94, 5 = miles SE of Fargo, GA

Since there is no road directly across the Okefenokee NWR (that's a good
thing), we had to circle around the lower end of it to reach the next
location. This required taking a stretch of highway across the top edge of
Florida before re-entering GA just SE of Council.

Double Run Creek was not on the original itinerary, but it looked promising
as we approached. True to the name, a long bridge spans twin channels of
the same creek. Once again, high water blended the two into one and swelled
the ditches on either side.

The fishes seemed badly displaced, as we only found a few near the edge of
what might have been their original territory. Thus, we didn't stay long.
We saw

Banded topminnow (F. cingulatus)
Pygmy killifish (L. ommata)
Mosquitofish (G. affinis)
Banded sunfish (E. obesus)
Juvenile pickerel (Esox sp.)

By the time we left, the mosquitoes were growing more aggressive. The
repellent slowed them down a bit, but as they continued to fly "touch 'n
go" passes on us, it was clear we hadn't heard the last of them.

Cypress Creek, US Highway 94, 3 miles SE of Fargo, GA

Cypress Creek was a much better stream, but we found mostly the same fishes

Banded topminnow (F. cingulatus)
Pygmy killifish (L. ommata)
Mosquitofish (G. affinis)
Dollar sunfish (L. marginatus)
Bluegill (L. macrochirus)
Bluespotted sunfish (E. gloriosus)
Banded sunfish (E. obesus)
Chain pickerel (E. niger)

Sweetwater Creek, GA Highway 177, 4 miles NE of Edith, GA

We made a fairly brief stop at Sweetwater Creek. The mosquitoes began to
ignore the repellent, and we found few fishes. We saw

Banded topminnow (F. cingulatus)
Pygmy killifish (L. ommata)
Mosquitofish (G. affinis)
Juvenile pickerel (Esox sp.)

Suwannee River, US Highway 94, = mile SE of Fargo, GA

At the final site of the day, we pulled up at the wide overflow that ran
the entire distance between the bridge over the Suwannee River and the
junction with GA Highway 177 leading to Stephen Foster State Park. Since,
sport fishermen and boaters occupied the area north of the bridge, we chose
the south side.

Once again, the original shoreline was not even visible, but dropped off
treacherously into very deep water. The boldness of the mosquitoes
increased in proportion with the approach of nightfall. We rapidly went
from test dummies for West Nile virus to bait.

In spite of that, the collecting was good. We even found the much sought
lined topminnows. A mystery shiner caught in near-darkness turned out to be
a taillight shiner! We collected/observed

Lined topminnow (Fundulus lineolatus)
Banded topminnow (F. cingulatus)
Pygmy killifish (L. ommata)
Mosquitofish (G. affinis)
Bluegill (L. macrochirus)
Bluespotted sunfish (E. gloriosus)
Banded sunfish (E. obesus)
Chain pickerel (E. niger)
Taillight shiner (Notropis maculatus)
Brook silverside (Labidesthes sicculus)

After that, the bugs were at absolute swarm stage. I let dozens of them in
the car just getting seated, and had to drive at top speed with the windows
down just to clear them. We risked anemia if we stayed any longer! So, we
made the long trek back to Folkston to find the other fishheads.

Once everyone was cleaned up and fed, the fish swap began. Bags of fish,
stories, plants, and assorted foods from around the country changed hands.
Everybody involved seemed pleased with what they got. It was a hoot to watch!

On Sunday morning, after picture-perfect weather the previous two days, it
was a bit of a shock to awaken to a cold rain driven by strong winds. Many
of the fish folk had already taken their leave to begin the long drive
home. The ugly weather reduced that number to four (Doug, Klaus, Philip, &
me) for the final assault.

Perch Creek, US Highway 82, 17 miles west of Waycross, GA

Perch Creek was one of the most productive sites of the 2002 trip. It is
fairly small, but deep, running under the bridges of a divided highway. The
woods on either side are beautiful, conjuring up images of fairy tales. I
thought about this place a lot during recent cold winter days.

I already knew that the SC boys had passed this one up on Saturday, and I
wanted to take advantage of the abundance of lined topminnows living there.
We found plenty, but it took awhile.

Similar in behavior to blackspotted topminnows (Fundulus olivaceus), adult
lined topminnows will swim just out of reach of dipnets and hover just
beneath the surface. Longer-handled dipnets provide only a slightly greater
advantage, because they are also very quick. By the time we had our fill,
only Philip and I remained. The sun had broken through once again,
prolonging the urge to explore. We observed/collected

Lined topminnow F. lineolatus)
Pygmy killifish (L. ommata)
Mosquitofish (G. affinis)
Bluegill (L. macrochirus)
Bluespotted sunfish (E. gloriosus)
Banded sunfish (E. obesus)
Chain pickerel (E. niger)
1 red ear slider

We decided to try an alternate approach to the nearby Satilla River than
the one used by the SC boys the day before, still seeking the elusive
taillight shiners. In that respect, we fared no better. The water was swift
and deep. Unwilling to risk drowning, we passed on the attempt and called
it a day, finally putting a lid on Okefenokee II. Thanks to all of you who


Special thanks are due to Fritz Rohde and Dr. Bud Freeman for technical
assistance, Chip Rinehart and Paul Harney for accompanying me on the
scouting run, Sara Aicher of the USFWS for facilitating our sampling inside
the NWR, and Klaus "Miracle Man" Schoening for not dying!

I'd also like to take this opportunity to call Casper Cox a horse's patoot
for bailing out at the last minute! (-;

All The Best,

Steven A. Ellis
NANFA GA Regional Representative
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