I rode out of Chattanooga at 8 Saturday morning and headed south hugging the
Alabama Georgia line. Blooming trees and shrubs led the way. The Redbuds,
Azaleas and Tulip Magnolias were not yet in full bloom but quickly approaching
with another early spring.
I arrived at Ponce De Leon Springs and already Floridians were taking
advantage of the beautiful day by swimming in the 70 degree water. I suited up and
found the water a little cool but refreshing. Clear water is such a wonderful
beacon. White sand. Lush plants. Tall Cypress' with dark twisted roots.
I explored the pool's perimeter adjusting myself from gritty road wear to a
peaceful, calm float. Thousands of shiners milled about me. Nearly all the same
but unknown to me. A spattering of Silversides, Red Eye Chubbs and a singular
iridescent purple sheened minnow of the common markings. Gambusia in the
shallows, a few darters in spawning mode... large males courting and mounting
small females and challenging any other approaching males. Not swamp darters,
these fellas sported a red flagged dorsal fin. Several species of Sunfish were
about but i could not be sure exactly what they are, certainly not what i am use
to seeing here in east Tennessee. Spotted Suckers remniscent of Red Horses
stirred the sand at the springs deep cave entrance.
Lots of turtles, both Musk/Mud and Sliders. I picked up a 12" Slider and he
proceeded to rake my hands with his sharp clawed toes leaving red scratches.
Big Bullfrog Tadpoles perched on snags and scattered when i approached them.
Several large bass lurked off to the sides. A Chain Pickeral allowed me to
approach within a few feet and i observed the wonderful pattern on his side.
Gleaming in the sunlight it offered a distinct contrast to the muddied, bland pattern
of the Redfin Pickeral which seemed to prefer the shadows.
The spring's depth is enhanced by a 2' dam and spillway which creates a
tumbled riffle below the pool and swimming area. The flow is shallow but several
spots offered plenty of room to lay and observe from. Here other species were
noticed. First, many Black Banded Darters rested on the clean substrate and were
nosed to the oncoming current. A common fish in many flows of water on my
journeys in the south. Additionally a new Darter... mostly white with a distinct
black line running his length. I was not catching anything and relied on my
eye to retain characteristics which i promptly forgot while studying my Alabama
book that evening! I also observed what i first thought were speckled Darters
though without their typical rectangular markings. Their undersides, gills and
pelvic fins were a beautiful translucent tourquise. Brian told me what they
probably were that evening but i have forgotten. Dang i'm getting old and
feeble minded. Bill Gates and the IRS are sucking the last of my brain cells.
I walked the trail downstream and found an intense flow through a log jam in
a deep bend. I entered the water below and pulled myself with effort into the
structure and amongst a school of Sailfin Shiners vigorously swimming to stay
in the central rush of water. Such a beautiful fish they are! I found more of
the Darters mentioned before and was again sure i was not looking at a
variation of a Blackbanded though that fish does offer a lot of variation in pattern.
These reminded me more of a Sand Darter with Muscadine Darter markings.
Another call for a snorkelcam.
I exited and again followed the clear water trailside downstream where it was
now tea colored. Still clear enough i thought and eased in from a sandy
shoal. I lay down and could see nothing but a foot or two before me. Immediately
concerns of alligators and the posted sign warning crowded out my peaceful
thoughts and i quickly pulled, walked and thashed myself up to the junction of the
2 flows. Ah... back into clear water! I played around the delta juncture of
the two flows watching all the activity. I felt i had observed all that was
easily viewed and the gator creepies were getting the best of me from the shadows.
I worked and snagged my way up, out and through the brush and briars, made
the trail head and eased in for another look at the cobbled riffle below the
spillway. Another school of Sailfins though not near as big nor colorful as the
ones downstream greeted me.
I remember the first time i came across Sailfins. It was a couple years ago
and we were working the back and head waters of the Appalachicola River. The
summer had been hot and dry and many flows were reduced to tiny trickles through
wide expanses of white sand columned by massive Bald Cypresses silouetted by
cobalt blue skys. We worked our way up to several pools of dark water and
ahead of us rippled a school of fish. We herded them back and approached with a
low slung seine. The water ahead rippled with metallic dark blue. In the net
were masses of Sailfin Shiners! I kept several and they did well for a couple
years in my heavily planted Florida tank. A very beautiful fish!
DeFuniak is such a nice spring and is the second time i have visited it. The
first time was years ago, 1997 after i first became a member of NANFA. I had
just visited Robert Rice in Pensacola. The way home offered Defuniak Springs in
passing and i was and am glad to have experienced it again. It's a great
place to chase the winter away and get an early start on the season.
I headed on into DeFuniak proper to get a room and rendevous with the other
Florida NANFA guys. There was still a bit of light left in the day and they
were using it. It gave me a bit of time to get settled in and make some field
notes. They had broken into 3 groups and began to arrive sporatically over the
next hour or two. It was nice meeting several of them for the first time and
enjoying some old faces from previous activites. We broke into a couple groups
for dinner, mexican vs seafood, and afterward returned to the motel for stories,
fish photography and IDing. Im glad to see most everyone struggles with IDing
as i. Fish appear different from the photograph, the illustration, to the
net, to the tank, and and while snorkeling not to mention male, female, juvenile,
age, habitat and spawning or mood color! And then we have the pickled
specimens too. Whew, it can be a challenge and perhaps this is one of my ongoing
motivations in this activity.
The next day offered a packed Huddle House filled with locals, boy scouts and
fishheads, so not being much for breakfast i spoke with Charlie N. and he
marked my gazateer for the first location. Wanting to get an early snorkel and
beat the muckers i raced on and found a family fishing the tea colored boat ramp
on this early Sunday morning. I commented on the lack of clarity and they
pointed over my shoulder to the Cypress canopied spring head. I walked to the
edge and boils of dancing sand well over 6' deep greeted me. Enchanting! I
quickly suited up and eased into the water from a rooted structure trying not to
stir anything up. The clearer the better. Always. I worked the perimeter and
again saw most of the species from the day before with the addition of StarHeads
at the top edge, Bluefin Killies who were sporting and sparing with their
fellow spring mates, tiny Pygmy Sunnies, dark purple Pirate Perch hiding in the
shadows and a few Least Lillies at the shallowed edge.
Plenty of Turtles ranging in size were foraging and beautiful Crayfish with
pinchers marked with tiny white knobs protected their lairs. As i free floated
looking down into a boil i cocked my head and was approached within inches of
my mask by a 12" Long Nosed Gar. I could not believe how confident he was in
his steady approach as they can be quite skittish. I was offered a multitude of
viewing from his head on to a full broadside. An amazing, beautiful creature.
The others arrived and quickly descended with nets and gear from every
approachable angle. A good time to get out before i got mistaken and wacked w/ a
dipnet. We played around a bit checking each others catch and bags comparing
stories and such. We hit a few more spots and since they were not snorkelable i
just watched others muck about and seine up a few critters from the boat ramps.
Hog Chockers... minature Flounders were pretty neat.
Looking ahead i choose to skip the lunch social and run to the next site
marked on the map with 3 springs. I should have stayed for lunch! The first site
was inhabitated by the oiled, fat bodies of locals crowding a small spring head
and walled pool, the second was marked by "Keep Out!" signs and the 3rd
looked to require a boat for access. Frustrated. I tried to make contact using my
mobile phone and alert the group to the situation and to suggest several lakes
i had passed on the way in. The lakes would probably have made for great
siening. I studied the map and found a network of streams nearby and worked my way
to a bridge crossing. Clear, very shallow water but some movement beckoned. I
regeared and found the small school to be Silversides. I was hoping for Welaka
as the rumor there were local was about. The stream flow was pretty, sandy
and clear but a tangled, snagged mess. Certainly a dangerous place to be in
during the heat of summer. Very snakey... with Water Moc possibilities it
appeared. Nonetheless and because of the coolness of early spring i began to work my
way upstream using the bank to minimize disturbance. I entered a couple pools
and found a small group of Sailfins. This motivated me to move on upstream. At
about hundred yards a big debris strewn log jam filled the 2 or 3' flow. Very
difficult to work through but i could see more shiners and minnows ahead.
Blackbanded Darters began to populate the shallow shaded areas. More and larger
Sailfins. Some new larger, huskier Shiners. Unknown. Somewhat like Golden
Shiners but lacking the keeled breast. I crawled through the snags as the fish gave
way just beyond my thrashing. This would not be a good situation in a hot
summer with snakes out. Through the snags and out i crept up to another
shallower, edge flow and ducked my head in. Smaller, narrower Shiners appeared.
Slender, silvery, with a somewhat rectangular black caudal spot delicately streaked
with fine lines. Familiar. Weed Shiner? Bluenose Shiners? I looked about
carefully and could see no higher marked individuals. I observed below and above the
run in the accompanying shallow pools to no avail. I've kept both species and
i remember the Weed's being much deeper bodied. That caudal spot... i've seen
it before. I had not carried a net on this small stream excursion and did not
want to rethrash myself again through the obstacles. Hum. Another mystery.
I headed back through the snags hurridly, climbed out to the bridge and
regained my van. At the main road i tried to call again hoping to hook up with the
group. No response. The last selected spot was near Hosford, a place ive
visited a couple times while in Carrabelle. After a bit of driving i arrived there,
scouted a few sites for snarelability, tried another couple calls and decided
to make a final run before the light faded to Lost Dog Lake, an old snorkel
site. While headed that way i passed a sign marking a restoration to a borrow
pit by the Appalachicola Forestry. I did a quick U turn, hopped out, a waded
out into warm, clear and very vegatated water. The pit appeared to be a bit
flooded as the shallows crept out to the road ruts. It was several acres in size
and rectangular. Alligators again became a concern. I was well out alone in an
isolated location but the sky was clear and i have watched plenty of Johnny
Wizemeller movies so know a few tricks :). A quick looksee should be easy i
figured. I swam through the weeds and grasses out into the open shallow water. A
small bass meet me. Another 2 and 3 beyond him. Nothing in the shallow grasses.
Where are the natives? I crossed the narrows to the steep bank and struggled
out for another view from the high bank. Back in, where are the fish? Just a
few bass. I crossed back and approached the reeded shallows. A moving shadow
swarm of tiny tadpoles appeared before me. i approached closer, swimming and
flowing with a unified movement they were not tadpoles but the tinyist of Bass
fry... a great cloud of them. I looked about for the parent guardian but neither
were seen. For a restoration project this lacked any diversity at all. Ive
snorkeled several borrow pits and they can be excellent sites. I should call the
individuals involved in this site to see what their goals are, its location
is convenient for a return visit to the region.
I fired up my phone, stood in the center of nowhere and called my buddy for a
rendevous that evening to see The Passion of Christ in Tallahassee.
Afterwards on to Carrabelle, Tate's Hell's ditches and the awesome Wakula river!
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