SCOTT SHALAWAY Fishwatching: Cool diversion for a hot summer's day
As summer settles in and temperatures rise, think cool thoughts. A great way to stay cool on a hot summer day is to find a spring-fed stream., With just a face mask, a snorkel, and an old pair of sneakers, you can observe aquatic life on its own terms -- underwater. Snorkeling opens a whole new world to the curious naturalist.
Though many people associate snorkeling with the Florida Keys, coral reefs, and tropical lagoons, cold shallow streams offer great local snorkeling opportunities. Regardless where you snorkel, however, make safety your primary concern. Never snorkel alone. Stay in shallow water. And never explore under large rocks or submerged logs.
Before getting wet, walk a length of stream, and notice it consists of two parts: slow moving pools and rapidly flowing riffles.
Pools may be as small as a dish pan or as large as a swimming pool. Sometimes they cut under the stream bank or into the roots of giant sycamore trees.
Avoid these areas unless you're an experience snorkeler and a strong swimmer.
Inviting pool: When I find an inviting pool, knee to waist deep, I put on my mask and snorkel, float face down, and watch. Within seconds, fish approach. Often they seem curious. After two minutes, a six-inch bluegill, the most widespread of the sunfish, brushes my dangling fingers. Its orange belly flashes in the sunlight. Another swims past my face. Soon the fish ignore me, and the adventure begins.
Slowly I crawl and swim toward a pumpkinseed sunfish. Its earflap, the rearward extension of the gill cover, is trimmed in red. It waves its fins to turn and face me. When I get too close, a powerful twitch of its tail propels the fish out of sight.
I drop a few wriggling earthworms to the bottom of a pool, and they trigger a feeding frenzy. By observing foraging behavior, anglers can learn the kinds of prey movements that attract attention.
Deeper parts: Now I search the darker parts of the pool. Bigger fish seek refuge under lips of large rocks, in a tangle of roots, or under floating logs. Any of these spots may hold an impressive bass or trout. For safety's sake, resist the urge to dive into these deeper spots. Watch from the edge.
These dark nooks and crannies provide excellent cover where larger predatory fish await passing prey -- insects, smaller fish, frogs, snakes. On this day I'm patient and lucky. A largemouth bass (really a large member of the sunfish family) shoots out of the shadows and swallows a scavenging crayfish, one of its favorite foods.
Even more interesting are the small fish found in the shallow, rapidly flowing riffles. This is the noisy, & quot;gurgling & quot; part of the stream. Here, where the flow rate is often so rapid it seems every living thing should be swept away, is where the beautiful and fascinating darters live.
I lay down in a riffle, facing upstream, to view the darters. Inching upstream, I scan the rubble from side to side. Soon I see small fish darting among the stones.
Darters abound: Darters are suited to life in swift currents. Some position themselves on the upstream side of larger rocks where the current is significantly slower. Others wedge themselves between the stones on a tripod consisting of the tail and both pelvic fins (the lower pair of fins just below the head). Still others bury all but their heads in fine sand or gravel.
Masters of disguise, darters can be difficult to see. Browns, greens, and grays color most species. Some, though, display almost gaudy patterns of reds, blues, and oranges. I remember the first time I saw a rainbow darter in breeding colors in an Oklahoma stream. It remains among the most beautiful fish I've ever seen. But among the brightly colored stones and pebbles of the riffle, even colorful darters are challenging to spot.
When summertime heat gets unbearable, try snorkeling for a cool diversion. For more information, consult Fish Watching: An Outdoor Guide to Freshwater Fishes by C. Lavett Smith (1994, Cornell University Press) or Fishwatching: Your Complete Guide to the Underwater World by John R. Quinn (1994, Countryman Press).