NANFA-- NC Fish and Fungi - Day 1, 2
Mon, 25 Aug 2003 18:00:02 EDT

A North Carolina Snorkel and Mushroom Travel - Mid August 03

Day 1

I just returned from spending 5 days wondering though North Carolina,
mostly in the Smoky Mountains region. The first day, a Wednesday afternoon, was
spent driving up the beautiful Cherohala Skyway which links Tennessee's Tellico
Plains to just a few miles short of Robbinsville, NC. I switched off the
Skyway's NC end and dropped down to the Santeetlah lake near Joyce Kilmer's big
trees. I often like to camp here along a mountain stream that feeds the lake and
have always enjoyed snorkeling the clear water. It is a beautiful spot that my
family can rest and play at and then make explorative hikes from.

I was meeting a fella from the Tennessee Aquarium and he had not yet
arrived so i slipped on my mask at the secluded boat ramp and waded into the calm,
warm lake water. Suprisingly i immediately observed 2 HogSuckers which
promptly swam away. I did not realize HogSuckers would be content in calm lake water
as i have always see them in flows. A swarm of WhiteTail shiners surrounded
me. I have seen that they too can be in calm water tho i have never observed any
of the high, sparring males in such water. Plenty of multisized BlueGills
were also in the shallows. I paddled along the edge and saw juvenile Bass and
several Red Spotted Newts in the quiet silted areas.

Matt showed up and waved from the bank. I urged him to follow me as i
wanted to snorkel and explore the several hundred yards up to the mountain stream
feeding the lake. Last year i and Mark had observed an amazing bloom of tens
of thousands of freshwater JellyFish there. Though we were now a couple months
earlier than last year's observation time i wanted to see if any had yet
appeared. As i swam across the lake i felt as if i was being lightly peppered in a
mild sandstorm or pricked with tiny micro electrical shocks. I could see a
dusty snow cloud in the water but could not focus on the tiny objects directly in
front of my mask. When we settled on the other side of the lake Matt told me
they were indeed very tiny JellyFish and he had felt the peppering too. We
were perched in a submerged tree discussing this as beneath us swam a large
school of dark Bass. I had never seen Bass schooling figuring they were generally
uneducated and a somewhat solitary creature. ok...:) Before we swam across i
had noticed several nesting sites which i now attributed to them. Though old and
abandoned they were deep and much larger than any Sunfish nests ive seen.

We continued on along the edge slowly and crossed the lake again. Again we
were peppered by the mildly stinging drift. Generally the lake's edges seemed
devoid of any specie diversity only harboring Bass, BlueGills and an
occasional small school of WhiteTails. However as we approached the stream inlet i
could see several small darters scurring about just above the silt in the calm
lake water. They were a bit small for my blurring eyes but we were able to
capture a couple and decided from the markings they were Tangerine Darters. I know
that Tangerine juveniles are often in the calm pools below riffles and runs in
rivers and streams. We were well within the calm lake water but could see the
tumbling mountain stream ahead another 100 yards or so. We paddled on and
began to cross into the cold shimmering mountain water at eddies which increased
as we neared the inlet. This is where i saw the masses of JellyFish last year
caught swirling in the mix of the two waters. I was not in my wet suit and
could not stand the intense cold. I eased off to the other side of the outflow
and approached a large protruding tree stump. A SnappingTurtle lay at its base
in about 4 foot of water. I watched him calmly for several minutes then
grabbed a breath and pulled myself down alongside the platter sized Snapper. I
slowly reached out and touched his shell, tail, feet, and eventually stroked his
head and nose with no ill manner from either of us. A very interesting creature.
I'm sure he has no predators in this high mountain lake water thus no
concerns. However my bet is... get him out of the water and i could lose a finger.

Matt, donned in his wetsuit, swam on up into the cold mountain water and
excitedly called out of the adult Tangerines he captured. This has always been
a wonderful place to observe these beautiful darters. Amazingly they are
thriving trapped in a narrow run between an ancient high dam and a steep mountain
stream, probably occupying just a few miles of acceptable habitat. Where i camp
several miles upstream i have never seen any Tangerines but do see
Hellbenders, Rainbow Trout, WarPaint Shiners, GreenFin and Greenside Darters. I had
never suspected Tangerines were just downstream and was quite amazed when i first
realized it from the bank's edge a couple years ago. The substrate is so
beautiful and generally unsilted. Big boulders perch well above long cobbled runs.
This is one of the more beautiful places to snorkel i have found.

In the warm lake water i looked at a few more Red Spotted Newts and a
different small Sunfish which probably was a RedBreast and decided to walk back as
opposed to a tiresome returning paddle. The day was drawing to long shadows
and we needed to get back to Robbinsville to ready ourselves for a full day
Thursday. After rinsing off at the ramp i dried and put on my clothes. I had a
period of intense itchyness on my back which i relieved against a nearby coarse
barked pine tree. The JellyFish?

In Robbinsville we met up with 2 more Aquarium folk, had a salad, baked
potato and stuffed shrimp dinner and planned the next day's locations. After our
group discussions Matt and i returned to our room staying awake well into the
night sharing stories and asking questions of one another. As soon as we
would begin to drift off another round of words would fire us back awake. It is
nice to share with a fellow fishhead of equal enthusiasm!

Day 2

The next morning we awoke to a continental breakfast of mini muffins,
micro bagels and small packets of oatmeal. Another quick review and we were on the
road. The others had wanted to detour slightly and hike to the big Poplar
trees so i decided to stop earlier at another stream feeding Santeetlah lake to
see what was in that water. After getting my gear on and into the stream i was
quickly disappointed at how cloudy the water was. Barely 2 feet visibility and
it was those early morning cold water chills and certainly not a good way to
get started but it did wake me up pronto! I loaded back up and drove to the
preselected site arriving first.

Walking down the steep trail i began to scout the large pool bordered at
one end by a series of large waterfalls and on the downstream side a fast
bouldered rapid run. I snorkel cruised the length seeing what was up and about in
the early morning light. River Chubbs were hiding low and cautious, probably
swarms of Tennessee Shiners and maybe a low color Saffron Shiner. Big Rainbow
Trout. Big Bass. Plenty of Tangerines and Greenside Darters. Greenfins peeked
out from under stones though none were in the beautiful high color i have seen
at other locations. I eventually caught a very beautiful Greenside which
reminds me of one that Fritz and our group caught in the Little Tennessee last year.
It sported a anal fin flagged with green blue on the leading edge and dressed
with orange red markings. I took a picture of it and the guys kept it for
display at the Aquarium. It is one of the nicest Greensides i have seen and may
be a Blue Ridge subspecies mentioned in Etnier's book. The other guys arrived
and i lay back and watched them whoop and holler with excitment at the
Tangerines, the chase and beauty of the location. I decided to spend my time quietly
exploring the shadowed nooks and crannys out of the main flow hoping to see
something new. And i did. Along the calm, shallow flowing edges i came across 2
beautiful Tangerine darters equal in size and color, possibly brothers or twins
even. They were nestled in a shadowed crevase when i first caught site of
them. Out they came into a shallow open area and began to circle one another,
sometimes quickly darting up or down. I could not tell what was going on, it was
an odd behavior indeed. I patiently observed them and they showed no concern
to my presence. After a period of time i began to note a pattern in their
behavior. First one Tangerine would arc his body in a tight S shape and shimmer
sideways displaying towards the other Tangerine which was perched on his fins at
a perpendicular angle. Seemingly this behavior was to entice or intimidate the
other. At an intense moment of display the other perpindicular darter would
lunge forward striking at the midbody of the arced darter deflecting off it
into the substrate below or deflecting upward. A quick reprieve and they would
reverse behavior, taking fairly equal turns striking one another. Dr Bill Roston
told me that he had observed Blotchside LogPerch seemingly nearly kill one
another with this ramming type behavior. I watched them for 15 or so minutes as
they repeated the sparring jabs. I thought of Stags and Buck Deers fighting
with antlers and must presume it was some young male practice session for their
adult days ahead. They were indentical in color and midsized but not of the
very large, intense males i often see in the raging current just below
waterfalls. It was quite a treat to observe this and once again i yearned for a
snorklecam to share these witnesses. What a show it would be to observe large,
intense male Tangerines at battle.

We finished our work and climbed back up to our vehicles and had a
roadside lunch. We decided to let the 2 other fellas take a swim in the lake proper
to see the micro jellys. I paddled around another edge to a cove while they
scooped a fine meshed net full of the snow cloud. I snorkeled to a small, cold
stream inlet and at least a 100 of the Red Spotted Newts scurried away from me.
The water was warm but three or so inchs from the silty bottom the water was
icy cold where the Newts lay. The incoming water from the spring flow hugged
the substrate and the Newts seemed to appreciate it. I have never seen so many
in one location. Years ago i tried to keep a few in different aquariums but
they would quickly morph to the Red Eft stage and i would eventually find them
dried in a corner. If they would stay in the Newt stage they would seemingly
make interesting critters in quiet planted tank.

We put the Jellys under glass and found they were not jellys after all but
tiny shrimpish Water Fleas. ( if anyone wants to see these critters email me
offline and i will send you a hirez microscope jpg image. ) I attempted to
bring home a plastic bottle filled with them to add to my cement pond.
Unfortunatly, and perhaps because i had too many, they died during the 4 more days of
travel. I learned a cool trick from Matt where you can invert a pair of
binoculars and look through the wide end and hold it close to the object you wish to
magnify. It works great in a pinch though has a limited focus range. I also
learned that small magnifying lens are available to apply to the inside of my
snorkel mask, a kind of reading glass effect. This should help my ID ability a
lot while viewing small juvenile fish and their intricate markings.

We decided to head north to the Cheoa river where Matt had seen large
Tangerines the day before but the water had been murky. This was several miles
downstream and below the dam. I'm not to keen on snorkeling cloudy, murky water
and this was somewhat the experience. We saw a few very large Tangerines but
they were oddly very skittish. Tangerines are usually quite friendly and curious
and will often approach you. Matt had told me that this river had been
heavily shocked and sampled a few years back resulting in the deaths of many
Tangerines and other fishes. No small Tangerines were seen which makes me wonder as
to why and where.

It was late in the afternoon and the 3 TN Aquarists needed to get back to
Chattanooga to care for their catch. I was eager to work my way NE to some
waters that Dave Nelly had suggested. By sunset i found myself in Bryson City and
decided to rest at the riverfront motel that Fritz and i had stayed in last

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