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Big South Fork 2016 Fish & Fungi

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#1 Casper

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  • Chattanooga, TN alongside South Chickamauga Creek, just upstream of the mighty Tennessee River.

Posted 14 September 2016 - 05:17 PM

Big South Fork  2016  Fish & Fungi
It has been a long while since i have visited this portion of our beautiful National Park.  The north side is in Kentucky while the south side is here in Tennessee.  Years ago when i first became interested in snorkeling my brother organized family and friends group camping trips here.  New to snorkeling clear freshwater i spent most of my time in the river being amazed at what i could see.  It's about a 4 hour drive from my home in Chattanooga and was good to return.
Thursday afternoon i finished up my 9th snorkel of the year with the Cherokee National Forest program.  I had about 40 enthusiastic 8th graders from Chattanooga's Normal Park Middle School with their faces in the water.  After snorkeling and getting the students back on the bus home, Amanda and i loaded the wet gear and then i departed northward to rendezvous with Ed at the Bandy Creek Campground, where he had a dinner of red beans, rice and sausage prepared for us, just as the sun was setting low.  After catching up at the picnic table diner we enjoyed a quiet evening, walked awhile in the darkness and i laid under the starry milky way watching for falling stars.  Content with three and with a long day behind me i slept soundly with the cool temperatures that had thankfully just moved in.
The next morning Ed fixed us a hearty breakfast of ramps, bacon and eggs along with the last few paw paws i was able to shake out of the Conasauga streamside tree.  With the morning still cool, we took a short walk around the campsite perimeters looking for mushrooms and found several but nearly all were non edible species including stinky dark puddles of stinkhorns and a few bug gnawed chanterelles.  We loaded our lunches and snorkel gear into my van and drove down to the river, and after a short walk i quickly got into the water bare skin just below Leatherwood Ford.  The water was pleasantly warmer than the still chilly morning air and though my body was in cool bath water comfort my exposed wet back was chilled to shivers by the brisk, cool breeze.  The deep pool's boulders and substrate were unpleasantly covered by a half inch of silty brown fluff, organic decaying material Ed assured me, however in the riffle runs it was clear, clean and the red hued gravel was fine and interspersed gracefully between the boulders that were staggered in the flowing current.  The first fish i saw were pods of active but small Logperch, followed shortly by grazing herds of Stonerollers and then several large, active River Chubs feeding in the flow.  Hogsuckers were working the fine gravel runs and the ever present Whitetails danced midstream in the water column behind me.  Every once in awhile i would see a Darter peeking out from a shadowed crevasse but i was content to let their hiding stones lie and slowly explored the perimeter of the wide pool.  Ed was still sitting on the bank enjoying his sandwich while talking with the 2 oldtimers that had been taking a morning bath when we first arrived.  I started seeing Darters whose identity i was unsure of and called him in to assist my thinking as my bewilderment increased.  This time of year there are no fishy colors to speak of but the unique body shape and markings of an Ashy Darter is a pretty easy call.  Surprisingly they were out and about and allowed a fairly close approach with the camera.  I could make out the enlarged 2nd dorsal and the fine, intricate markings on their sides.  Ed informs me that these Big South Fork Ashys are now referred to as Redlips Darters.  Splitters continue to confuse and confound my limited knowledge.  What was especially throwing me were the groups of schooling Darters but after studying the photos i am confident they are the Channel Darters that i remembered and guess identified correctly from my visits long ago.  They stay in large groups foraging in the calmer, silty pool areas, and their identity is first defined by the wide dashed marking down their side, in addition to their behavior.  In the riffle hides i could make out blunt faced Bluebreast Darters but the pointy Redline like snouts of the other Darters mystified me.  After sharing my pictures with Ed he tells me they are Bloodfins, part of the Nothonotus clan that i favor physically.  In the deeper runs sharp marked Smallmouth Bass patrolled for prey and 2 distinct forms of Redhorse were actively feeding.  Though the anal fin was not blood red like those i see in the Conasauga, Ed assured me they were River Reds with their big chunky heads.  The other Redhorse were leaner and sharply marked with a diamond pattern but also had some red finnage.  Ed told me to study their heads and indeed they were much smaller, even sharp focused to the mouth.  These were Smallmouth Redhorse and the first i can say i have observed with knowledge.  Redhorses while snorkeling are a tough fish to ID but i am getting better over the years.  Fixing one for dinner has the bonus of an easier identity opportunity but we already had a menu established for the night.  It was a treat to see these neat looking Redhorse close at hand.
A fine morning breakfast of ramps, purple potatoes, bright yellow eggs and maple cured bacon.  The last of this season's paw paws to finish the meal.
A view of the Big South Fork River looking upstream from the high bridge crossing.
I count 10 Logperch in this one picture but at times there were 20 or more in my masked view.  They were all of similar size, smaller than typical adults and traveled as one.
One of the adult Logperch.  Much more intricately patterned than the Mobile Logperch that i often see at the Conasauga.
No red lips.... previously known as the Ashy Darter.  I would hope to capture a similar pose of a breeding male with a beautiful, clean substrate in the Spring of 2017, with a better camera in hand.
4 Channel Darters.  Very common here, traveling in large groups, foraging in the silty substrate about 2 or 3' deep.  Their pattern camoflages well with the substrate.
Bluebreast Darter, blunt headed, tiny red dots.  Camera yielding weak coloration to what i saw as vivid vermillion red.
Bloodfin Darter, sharp headed, handsome pattern on their forehead.  These darters offered very few photo opportunities.  As soon as i would turn a stone exposing one, he would dart beneath another.
Lurking Smallmouth Bass, keeping an eye for opportunity.  They like when i turn stones.
Smallmouth Redhorse.  A new favorite for me.  These would actively peck at the rocks just inches beyond my fingertips.
I snaked my way down through the pool's lower run, grinding myself on the smooth rocks.  The stones felt to have diamonds embedded on their otherwise smooth surfaces.  In this pool i began to actively turn stones and found a few photo opportunities.  We talked of Olive Darters and hoped.
I have seen a few white crayfish in my cave adventures but do not recall many whitish cray like this living in sunny water.  He offered several nice photographs and i have selected this one.  I know very little about Crayfish identity and understand there is great diversity in the Southeast, i have a book and poster somewhere that i could study.  Sometimes it is more enjoyable just to simply admire their beauty.
Turning another stone i saw a flash of movement and after another wiggle the Channel Cat settled under one stone.  Gently easing up the stone, just a bit, while using the camera's LED feature, i illuminated him for a couple quick snapshots.
River Snail.  Another life form of which there is much diversity to identify.  I am always on the lookout for some of those spiny versions, a rare treat.
After about 3 hours being immersed i had obtained a thorough, deep body chilling.  Ed had relented about 45 minutes earlier and i figured it would be a shivering afternoon but i quickly warmed up walking in the sunny parking lot while enjoying the last of my yesterday's sandwich.  I spotted a Woolly Caterpillar and took an interesting photo of him in the sunny glare as we discussed options and decided to explore the old O&W railroad bridge which crosses the river a few miles upstream.  After a slow, hour long drive through the forest, pausing here and there, then test walking the bridge and cautiously crossing it we eventually made it to a small tributary stream were 3 children were playing in the swift, shallow run carved into the bedrock.  Though i could see many fish in the current i had enough snorkeling for the day so i enjoyed watching the kids play and admired the plants, trees and flowers growing along the banks while Ed listened to their nonstop chatting Mother.  However, she did provide a couple interesting leads for dry land fishing.   :)
Woolly Booger Glare.
Some of the boards were a bit iffy, but we followed others, thus had a degree of confidence.
Cardinal Flower.  I don't think there is a richer velvet red anywhere.

Casper Cox
Chattanooga, near the TN Divide on BlueFishRidge overlooking South Chickamauga Creek.

#2 MtFallsTodd

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  • Mountain Falls, Virginia

Posted 14 September 2016 - 05:36 PM

Great pics, sounds like a fun time. Thanks for sharing.
Deep in the hills of Great North Mountain

#3 mattknepley

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  • Smack-dab between the Savannah and the Saluda.

Posted 15 September 2016 - 05:01 AM

Beautiful-looking country and lots of fish- great stuff. Mushrooms and ramps? Bonus! Did you have to take a vow of secrecy as to Ramp locale? In WV that kind of intel is jealously guarded.
Matt Knepley
"No thanks, a third of a gopher would merely arouse my appetite..."

#4 fundulus

  • Global Moderator

Posted 15 September 2016 - 12:24 PM

I like the idea of large groups of channel darters moving together.....

Bruce Stallsmith, Huntsville, Alabama, US of A

#5 Isaac Szabo

Isaac Szabo
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Posted 15 September 2016 - 06:43 PM

Very nice!

#6 Matt DeLaVega

Matt DeLaVega
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  • Ohio

Posted 18 September 2016 - 04:56 PM

Is that the O&W bridge outside of Oneida? Been at least 15 years since I was there. Camped back there under a rockhouse, and saw my first spotted skunk. Quite a different critter than a striped skunk. The road back to there is really neat as I recall. Interesting to drive the old railroad cut.

The member formerly known as Skipjack

#7 Casper

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  • Chattanooga, TN alongside South Chickamauga Creek, just upstream of the mighty Tennessee River.

Posted 23 September 2016 - 10:36 AM

Ramps.  We have the annual Polk County Ramp Festival down by Greasy Creek not too far from the Conasauga River.  A Spring Tonic.  Lots of folks hunt them and over harvesting would be a negative, so sites are quietly guarded.  You can volunteer but it is a lot of steep mountainside walking.


Channel Darters are wide ranging, yet in isolated regions.  A mystery as to why the populations are so disconnected.  It is nice to see a group moving in mass.


O&W... one and the same.  A few details are in the weekend account.  We drove the old railroad bed for miles til it dead ended at the bedrock creek ford.


The weekend continues...

Edited by Casper, 23 September 2016 - 11:10 AM.

Casper Cox
Chattanooga, near the TN Divide on BlueFishRidge overlooking South Chickamauga Creek.

#8 Casper

  • NANFA Fellow
  • Chattanooga, TN alongside South Chickamauga Creek, just upstream of the mighty Tennessee River.

Posted 23 September 2016 - 11:32 AM

The day complete we had another cool night's sleep in our vans and after another fine breakfast, this time banana pancakes, met up with the Cumberland Mycological Society for a Saturday morning foray.  Oddly, though we had found mushrooms around the campsites, we had found none the day before walking along the river nor during our long, slow forest drive to the O&W Bridge.  Attending were about 40 members and students on this day and we broke into 4 groups of walkers.  I led a group of university students along a river trail and finding nothing after 1/2 mile i took them to another site where we were finally able to pick a few to display on the tables for discussion and identification.  The Society has permits to collect fungi in Tennessee's State and National Parks as they provide the identity data collected after each foray in return for the opportunity.  Ed and i had hoped to find a few edibles the day before to compliment our 2nd evening meal of venison but even with 40 foragers walking the forest today we found very little, and even fewer edibles.  The most common mushroom was a concentric ringed Milkcap that will make your tongue tingle, burn and commence a serious spitting session.  This has been an extremely dry year and the rare thunder showers are a hit and miss.  Nonetheless we had a good time, split a few raw slivers of Fistulina hepatica and after the fungi folk departed we ended our afternoon voting for the people's choice photograph which awarded a $50. shopping spree from submissions gleaned to about 50 from visiting photographers of Big South Fork, both TN and KY.  Ed's pick nearly won and visiting voters were offered cake, lemonade, toothpicks with cheese and front porch folk music.  As the evening arrived we and 2 friends drove west and enjoyed a wonderful German meal complimented with Elderberry wine, picked, fermented and bottled by Mr. Ed himslf and then back to a darkened parking lot for a telescope viewings of the vast cosmos presented by a regional astronomy club.  Saturn's rings, M # Something or ninety two 3, and the Andromeda Galaxy 2.5 Million light years away all appeared as fuzzy blurs.  I would much rather lie on my back in a dark field, lay still for a long minute with my eyes deep in the star fields and hurtle through space.  Or perhaps sit quietly at a coffee table studying through a book of carefully tracked and timed nebula photographs. However peering through a telescope's fuzzy eyepiece with glaring headlights sweeping by and little children running rampant with LED flashlights is not too conductive to my notion of cosmic bliss.
A sampling of the day's collecting.  Only the upper right offers a culinary treat, a yellow Russula, AKA Brittlecap.  If we had been here a week before most species encountered would have been in their prime.
The Milky Way.
With the Sunday Fungi Foray cancelled, Ed and i reviewed snorkeling options and he suggested visiting nearby Rugby and the Gentleman's Swimming Hole.  There is quite a bit of interesting history here, Rugby being established as an 1880 Utopian English colony, but that story will be left for another day.  After an old world lunch at the Harrow Road Cafe, Ed left me at the Laurel Dale Cemetery and the Meeting of the Waters trailhead, requiring a steep 200 foot descent with a challenging 1/2 mile zigzagging walk to the colony's swimming hole.  In the past the ladies were sent further downstream to a second swimming hole, but today after a bit of Women's Suffrage it was populated with women too, some in 2 piece swim suits, several children, some happy, some unhappy, barking dogs and as noted in the old literature... several male animals of varying age.  I walked a bit downstream, avoiding the activity, waded in, pulled my mask down and promptly found an old Coca-Cola bottle marked Cokeville.  COKE ville?  Coke?  I thought it must be a misspelling of the nearby town of Cookeville, TN.  Upon reviewing the photo later it is clearly embossed with WY, that being a long ways away from Rugby, TN.  Cokeville Wyoming must be the epicenter for all things Coke.  Silty, organic fluff covered everything and the waders, splashers and barkers were sending plentiful plumes of it downstream.  I worked upstream along the far side and arriving at the Gentleman' Swimming Hole's headwaters and crawled into a bedrock carved, channeled riffle corridors lush with river weed where Bluebreasts peered out at me.  Plenty of Greensides too, Hogsuckers, Stonies and Galactura cruising high in the steep runs.  The canyon carved bedrock and stones were smooth and with the fine red gravel gracefully contoured between as a substrate.  It was quite beautiful, the light streamed in and i settled in for a series of photos, but within minutes a family of waders moved into my snorkel zone stomping and stumbling their way upstream.  I decided to leapfrog beyond, hopefully making my way to unpopulated waters upstream.  But after about a quarter mile of challenged exploration i had near enough.  The steep walk down, the silty fluff in all the slow, low flow pools, avoiding human activity and the near constant barking of dogs, my slow upstream advancement requiring slippery cautionary rock hopping, climbing in then out of repetitive mini  pools, the lack of any new species encountered, with no clicking sounds of Redhorse... but plenty of horse apples, freshly dissolving, deposited from somewhere unseen upstream, after almost 3 hours in cooling waters and a lowering afternoon sun... all converged to reduce my motivation to advance.
A painted promised view of the Gentleman's Swimming Hole from the trailhead high above.
I did find several of these interesting heavily clawed Crayfish, certainly on the larger side of these Tennessee  freshwater lobsters.  A few lost claws were scattered about as well.  I started studying gaps under slabs wondering if Devil Dogs would be found here.
One of the fine views looking downriver while in the Clear Fork River gorge.  A full day spent here in the Spring would be a rewarding experience i do suspect.
Well it was a steeper climb up than it was going down and being near 60 i stopped and leaned on trees many times while catching my breath and letting my thumping heart settle.  Arriving at the top, with a prayer of thanksgiving, i walked the old Laurel Dale Cemetery, drying in the late afternoon sun and rested under an angel.  I had considered camping another night but 3 were enough and i made my way home and here i be today recounting the days.
A stern angel watches over me.
How can that be?  And Ed tells me the so named Laurel Dace has recently been found in these very headwaters.  Until it is settled with DNA and counting details it is currently referred to as the Rugby Dace.

Casper Cox
Chattanooga, near the TN Divide on BlueFishRidge overlooking South Chickamauga Creek.

#9 James

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Posted 27 September 2016 - 04:34 PM

Thoroughly enjoyed the write-up and pictures. Anymore fish? 

"meet me in the creek"

#10 Casper

  • NANFA Fellow
  • Chattanooga, TN alongside South Chickamauga Creek, just upstream of the mighty Tennessee River.

Posted 03 October 2016 - 03:35 PM

Thanks James.  I only got one reasonable fish photo from that day but it is very glarish.  I also got this other shot and though the Chub's head is cut off it shows a bit of the "canyon's" beauty i was getting settled into... before the waders moved into my zone of comfort and clarity.  It would have been nice to work the canyon for quite awhile.  Very pretty but a minimalist site, being very little room to maneuver.





Edited by Casper, 03 October 2016 - 03:39 PM.

Casper Cox
Chattanooga, near the TN Divide on BlueFishRidge overlooking South Chickamauga Creek.

#11 Khai Wan

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Posted 08 October 2016 - 07:32 AM

I always enjoy your reading your adventurous writeup, Casper. Thank you.

#12 Casper

  • NANFA Fellow
  • Chattanooga, TN alongside South Chickamauga Creek, just upstream of the mighty Tennessee River.

Posted 29 November 2016 - 08:34 PM

In the Chattanooga newspaper the other day, the Times Free Press, featured on the front page a story about the Laurel Dace... a fish i mentioned in the trip report above.  Drought conditions, which thankfully are being relieved as of yesterday, warranted the "rescue" of whatever individuals a few seiners could catch from the drying streams.  It is good to see conservationist concerns printed on our front page, but terrible this drought has been so extended.


Years ago i snorkeled with these dace, interested and motivated by the site being just a few miles from our family farm on the Cumberland Plateau.  I worked myself into frustration that day jabbing a dipnet for over an hour into the sharp rocked culvert outlet hoping to catch one of these dace.  Etnier had mentioned them in his new book and being so close to the farm i wanted to see one for myself.  Finally exhausted from all the hunched over thrashing i stood up, and re-evaluated all the unsightly trash thrown into the pool from passing cars overhead.  "What the heck" i decided and put on my mask and snorkel, laid in the water and lo and behold was instantly circled by Laurel Dace!  I caught a couple to study but they died, soon covered with a white cottony fungus.  an interesting fish to observe but i was just learning then and could not care for them properly.  While in a 10 gallon tank the pair circled each other in a rapid fashion, perhaps some kind of spawning desire.  Ashamed of my failure i finally revisited the site a few years later.  Unfortunately the property owner across the street had built a high dam blocking the stream on his side of the road.  I laid in the same culvert pool and could not find a single dace.  Not giving up i walked for a precarious mile downstream laying in every small pool that was big enough to lay in.  Nothing.  I suspect and fear the dam builder abruptly blocked the flowing water, thus drying the small stream bed up as his desired lake filled.

Hopefully i will give it another try in the future or check on some of the other nearby streams we played in during our youth.  Several other locations have been found since, well beyond this site, running quite a ways northward on the plateau.







Casper Cox
Chattanooga, near the TN Divide on BlueFishRidge overlooking South Chickamauga Creek.

#13 Isaac Szabo

Isaac Szabo
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  • The Ozarks

Posted 03 December 2016 - 04:49 PM

Thanks for sharing your story and the article. I'm glad you're finally getting some rain over there!

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