NANFA-- end of season snorkel
Tue, 4 Nov 2003 09:56:14 EST

The nearly always green South Chickamauga Creek cleared up recently. I
suppose the recent cooling weather curtailed the algae bloom and the lack of recent
rains have kept the water flow silt free. Visibility was only about 3 to 5
feet but enough for me to enjoy and again observe what lives in the creek just
below my home. The water temperature was comfortable this late in the season
wearing my lined full body wetsuit, gloves and hood.

I believe at one time this creek was a truly spectacular habitat. Today it
drains the flat, rolling plowed and fertilzed farm lands of North Georgia which
are bordered by scattered hills and ridges. Although several nice streams and
clear springs feed into South Chick nearly all the drainage is either farmed
or urbanized. Just a couple miles downstream of my home it joins with the
smaller but similiar West Chickamauga Creek and together they soon flow into the
wide Tennessee River.

The creek offers a diverse group of habitats as it flows though Audubon
Acres, a 250 acre wildlife refuge which borders my property yet is only 10 minutes
from downtown Chattanooga. The creek cuts along a very step rock exposed ridge
and thus offers both flowing pools and bouldered riffle runs. The substrate
is often exposed as cobbled fist sized jagged rocks covered in a variety of
snails and mosses. Many different mollusk shells are found though i am unsure of
their specie. Several miles upstream an old mill dam functions as a small
electricty generator for the current owner who has restored the mill into his
private residence. Fallen trees create snags and make the creek difficult to
navigate though some folks will canoe it. One day i would like to float from the
dam to my home on an inner tube with mask and lunch in tow especially if the
water is warm and clear. However this is an unlikely occurance since the higher
the temperature the more the algae responds to the excessive nutrients in the
water. Green water is the norm here.

The day was a beautiful, a sunny Sunday November the second. I had noted the
clarity of the water the day before while looking for fall mushrooms. About
1pm i headed to the creek in full snorkel gear and crossed the swinging bridge
and on upstream another 1/4 mile. Descending the steep bank and carefully
entering the water i still raised a cloud of silt. Laying down i gently pulled
myself upstream allowing the silt time to wash away. The water here was shallow
and heavily cobbled with gnarley, sharp rocks. Very little life was observed,
just Snails a plenty and a few Tennessee Snubnose darters allthough some Bandeds
could have been among them. I have yet to get the reading glass lens for my
mask. My age and thus my eyes have a difficult time focusing on close objects.
This inability to focus has begun to cause problems observing fish up close. I
came across a trio of River Chubbs working the cobble but was disappointed by
the general lack of life in this long flowing stretch of the creek. I turned
and allowed myself to float head first downstream just skimming above the
cobbled substrate. I could see well enough ahead and below but nothing appeared
and i began to wonder where the fish could be. Ahead of me i could see about 10
turtles sunning on a log just before the sharp bend of the creek that leads on
under the bridge in the distance. As i raised my mask to again check the
turtles location they caught sight of me, perhaps by my mask glinting in the sun
and into the water they all went! I was hoping to do a stealth stalk like a
herp fella from the Tennessee Aquarium had advised. Often turtles will dive and
hide near the log but this time i could find only one. However large Drum,
Channel Cats and Carp dartered out of the deep shadows. Big beasts! With a spear
gun i could feed the whole family on Thanksgiving. They were all lingering in
the pools surrounding the tree snags. Unfortunatly they did not offer clear
views and often only appeared as ghosts coming out of the silty mist they lifted.

Satisfied with the limits i allowed myself to be carried on downstream and
under the bridge. Scattered debris form the previous wooden and steel cabled
bridge littered the substrate. Redline darters hid in the cobbled flowing
shallows while BlueGills hovered in the sun peppered deep bouldered pockets. A large,
wonderfully patterned Rock Bass dashed downstream as i rounded a wash tub
sized boulder. Still i had yet to see any Shiners, Minnows or Stonerollers.

I drifted on downstream along another shallow flowing stretch. Finally
resting in a steep flow bordered by a submerged log a myriad of fish began to work
their way upstream responding to the silt and debris i was dislodging. Log
Perch oddly patterned in their evening saddles, a couple Warpaints, a small group
of Steel Colored Shiners. Lots of River Chubbs, some marked more distinctly
with reddish tails and bolder stripes running their lengths. Other River Chubbs
were straw colored and most offered the range between the two extremes. I
easily caught a couple of the smaller and distinctly marked juveniles and placed
them in my collection bottle. More species began to make an appearance. A large
Greenside Darter dartered and rested in the near distance. I remembered that
Snail Darters have been caught just downstream and had hopes of seeing one.
The water was not clear enough for distant viewing and i had to generally ease
along and hope that fish would come within my viewing range. Wow! A pair of
Riffle Minnows. Quick and sporting unique heads, snouts and mouths. Uncommon and
a treasure to see. White Tail Shiners in a variety of sizes. More and bigger
Snubnosed Darters. Crawdads grew in size as i approached the bouldered riffle
run. Nicely patterned and displaying elongated pincers.

A group of young people had gathered on the graveled bar ahead and across and
began to question me. I lay back into the water and a beautiful Redline male
appeared and with a quick net plant and swish i had him in a plastic bag. I
carefully staggered to the bank as on a recent occassion i had stumbled, fell
and embarrassed myself immensily and i did not want to repeat that in front of
these tattooed young folk. Wide eyed they enjoyed the wonder of such a living
jewel easily plucked from the stream they were standing by. We talked and i
shared a few bits and experiences with them such as the Horny Headed River
Chubb's nest building and the colorful breeding frenzies that incurred. I told them
of the massive, prehistoric Gars and the Redlines color morphing from shadows
to light. Most of the 5 were from just north of Atlanta but a young beauty had
recently moved from Miami. The Florida Keys, being just south of Miami, she
herself had snorkeled and was suprised, as most folks are, that one can enjoy
the fresh water here as i do. She was enchanted by the stories and full of
questions. I shared some Bowater pocket wilderness hiking locations along with the
Conasauga River during mid summer as a premium snorkel site due to its
warmth, great beauty and diversity.

I had begun to shake and ch ch chat chatter and wished them well and got back
into the water for a quick look in the best habitat along this stretch of the
creek, the flow just downstream of the cobbled, bouldered riffle run. Bigger
Crawfish, lots of Asianic Clams spread just under a fine layer of clean
gravel. A medium sized Redhorse appeared. More Greensides, Warpaints and Steel Color
Shiners. A single Stoneroller. A large, light straw colored Sculpin. No
bright spring breeding colors on any fish but many carried distinct patterns and
muted colors. I tried to find the long twisted pincered crawdads hiding in rock
crevases as i had seen a year before, and i wished to flow on downstream
another 1/2 mile to the railroad bridge. However the sun was setting and this
portion of the creek runs in the ridge's shadow. I was cold. Shaking cold. I
floated a brief stretch on downstream and climbed out onto a rocky protrusion called
Resurrection Rock aptly named for the dried masses of Resurrection Fern
covering it. When rains fall the fern lushly opens and carpets the rocks and
surrounding tree trunks. Very pretty. Climbing out of the ravine and onto the ridge
where our home sits i was able to catch the last rays of the day and strip my
gear alongside the cement pond.

This may be my last snorkeling of the season though if conditions stay right
i might hopefully float the creek futher downstream this next weekend...
though scattered rains are predicted. Cold rains? Still it is a nice ending to a
quiet but eventful season.

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