Freshwater Cadence

I do not speak
the bubbling language
of fish underwater

I do not even speak
the language of the caster,
selecting lures, keeping
hooks out of low-hanging

My voice is the one
that stands, wading, still,
right by the shore, watching
a school of waving shapes
float gently by.

By JD DeHart

JD DeHart is a writer and teacher. His poems have appeared in Gargouille and The Other Herald, among other publications. DeHart blogs at JD DeHart – Feature Poems.

Catlike Whiskers

In the bottom of the lake,
your whiskers rub gently
against the turtle’s crusty shell
with an amorous touch.
The turtle knows not
what to make of the affection
and squirms its way
among the waves,
paddling its way
toward shore.

I sense its bewilderment
in its attempt to escape
the passionate pursuit
of the catlike barbels.
It is unquestionably shell-shocked.

By Harding Stedler

After graduating valedictorian of his high school graduating class, Harding Stedler went on to earn his B.S. in Ed., M.S in English Education, and his Ph.D. in English Education as well. He taught writing courses under the umbrella of the English Department in universities where he taught. In 1995, he retired from Shawnee State University in Portsmouth, Ohio, with 34 years of service. He now makes his home in Maumelle, Arkansas, and is an active member of the Poets’ Roundtable of Arkansas as well as the River Market Poets in Little Rock.

Oldmans Creek

In South Jersey, Oldmans Creek provides part of the border between Salem and Gloucester Counties, as it meanders it’s way through farms and forest and brackish marsh on its way to the Delaware River. This is old colonial country, Swedish, Dutch and English colonists buried beneath crumbling headstones in church cemeteries. Often beneath the boughs of old growth forest, pre-dating our Independence. My wife and I had been hiking along the creek banks here and doing a little fishing one September evening some thirty years ago. Upon arriving home, we learned my father had suffered a stroke, one that would take his life before Christmas, and before the birth of his grandson. That could have been the end of the story of Kag-Kikwizachens-sippus as the First People, the Lenape, called Oldmans Creek. But it was not.

fisherman in boatMy father and I are anglers (death does not alter that) and know the things that those of our clan know. The cup is not only always half full while out fishing, but the stuff in it tastes pretty darn good as well. Life itself tastes better, both the earthly realm in which we pursue our sport, and the spiritual one in which among other things we consider our sport. Dad knew this and so do I. And it is not all exotic locations that are the key, it is the ability of an angler/naturalist to easily perceive the beauty wherever fish exist. More often than not, it is not exotic and far. I can show you things like drainage ditches, outflow pipes and swamps that have beauty, fecundity and joy far beyond their initial comprehension. One can ask for no more than to have gained the sight to see this. These places of beauty are where our passion for fishing and the outdoors created an enduring bond between my father and I. They includes a place called Oldmans Creek, where one evening a part of our lives changed, but not our shared angling passion.

The stretch of Oldmans Creek I am writing about is a part of the Harrisonville Lake Wildlife Management Area. It is a small piece of public land, at 213 acres, comprised largely of its namesake Harrisonville Lake. But the potential for some good fishing and an enriching nature experience is great. Although I do catch bass and pickerel in the lake, my affection for this area lies along the banks of Oldmans Creek. The section that I usually fish and hike lies below the dam spillway on the lake, through the main pool and into the hardwood forest downstream. The dam has been rebuilt in recent years, and the pool below the spillway has a different look these days, but it still offers fine fishing. When we fish here, it is most often for the abundant panfish population. Bluegills and crappies dominate the main pool, along with catfish, perch and carp, as well as bass and some early season trout. And beyond the tail of the pool, the redbreast sunfish thrives, along with smaller populations the other species.

Redbreast fill a niche for me in this region, where rock bass and smallmouth bass are absent, and this combined with my general fondness for the species make it the main target in Oldmans Creek. The downstream pursuit of the redbreast here usually involves hip boot wading over the gravel bottomed creek, alternating with bankside hikes along stretches where the bottom is mostly composed of detritus or mud. Eventually, the WMA ends, and private property signals the reversal of the fishing, as you work your way back to the main pool.The lush canopy of trees overhead make it an especially nice place to fish in bright, hot weather, but it is a productive stream year round.

This is an intimate and personal place for me, which has provided much beyond the fishing over the years. For example, on my most recent trip there, I spent time observing a “fellow angler” ply his craft. Along the edges of the riprap in the main pool, a large Fishing Spider (Dolomedes tenebrosus) chased some water striders and a then a pod of miniature bullheads in pursuit of a meal it eventually obtained. The spider scurried out of the water onto a large flat rock and commenced feasting. It was a unique experience to witness the hunt, kill and meal of this creekside companion.

The creek has been a classroom in the food chain on other occasions as well. There is a large bluff on the south side of the creek as you exit the tail end of the pool. One warm October afternoon as I brought a hefty redbreast to hand, I heard a loud rustling sound. A sound not unlike the sounds kids would make demolishing the leaf piles I had raked earlier on my lawn. Glancing upwards and to my left towards the source of the sound, I beheld the largest Great Horned Owl I have ever seen. And it saw me as well, it’s stare locked into mine. The wings were extended, and it beat them once and again, producing the sound that had first attracted my attention. I lowered myself down onto a log, and fixed my gaze, determined to see how this encounter would play out. The owl’s head swiveled to the left, but it seemed to keep looking at me, looking out of the corner of it’s eye perhaps. With a final more measured flap, the owl bent down and picked up a muskrat in it’s beak, and resumed it’s perusal of my position. Apparently sensing I posed no danger from my position on the log some forty feet below, the owl commenced to consume the muskrat. it paused a moment to fix gazes with me again before noisily sweeping off the bluff and soaring downstream out of site, but not out of mind.

Two pools downstream from the main pool, the water is deepest and blow down filled, an almost pond like portion of the stream. It is your best bet to hook up with the creek’s alpha fish, the largemouth bass. While casting from the bank crouched behind an old hemlock, the water mid pool suddenly exploded and a nice size stream bass of perhaps fifteen inches arched into the air. What made this a rather singular occurrence, was that protruding from the bass’s maw was about a foot of Northern watersnake. Now this is not a large pool, and I was immediately creekside, and have seen more snakes and eels than most. I am fully confident in my identification of the snake. What happened next was unique in my experience, as the bass breached twice more, each time with more of the snake inside the bass’ mouth. Finally the commotion ceased, and the rings on the surface of the pool subsided. No bass from the honey hole this evening, but a sweet memory of the encounter I witnessed.

I guess it was at that point when the thought first occurred that Oldmans Creek was the type of place that Dad would have enjoyed spending time on. The intervening years since his death have convinced me of this fact, and it remains one of my most frequently fished waters, season to season. When I talk out loud to my father while reveling in both the fishing and natural rhythms along the creek, he replies in words only I can hear, and the sound is a good one. In those moments, we are both speaking from the best possible place we can be in.

Swimming and Running: Ways Into Nature

“We were born to run; we were born because we run.” Christopher McDougall, Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World

“Perhaps swimming was dancing under the water, he thought. To swim under lily pads seeing their green slender stalks wavering as you passed, to swim under upraised logs past schools of sunfish and bluegills. . .” Jim Harrison, The Man Who Gave Up His Name

Two men celebrate running to Mt Elbert PeakOne may argue, and I will, that the two purest forms of sport are swimming and running. I guess they are the oldest too. Neanderthals must have run, or they couldn’t catch game to eat, or get away from game trying to eat them. They’d run of course until they got to water, and got in over their heads. Then they had to swim, or drown. I have written this and you are reading it, ergo the Neanderthals survived. And they did it by running and swimming among other things, and so it continues. As to the purity, well that’s pretty simple: no accoutrements, just who gets from point A to point B the fastest, by stroke or stride. No scoring, judging, balls or pucks, just speed, which translates to time. And that singularity of the two sports allows any runner or swimmer, at any level or skill, to compete against or compare themselves to, anyone who has ever run or swam the same distance that they are attempting. Compete against the greatest of all time. Just you and Bolt or Phelps, and a hundred meters of track or pool. Pretty cool when you actually stop to think about it.

I have always gone fishing, so have always been around water. Wading in rivers or ocean surf, paddling canoes, rowing boats, scrambling along seawalls and jetties, and bracing against the gunnels offshore in a gale. Fact is, you can end up in the water, so if you want to fish for a long time, it is a good idea to learn to swim. Your motivation being more akin to a Neanderthal (survival) than to an Olympian (medals) in this scenario. Being able to swim is helpful for the fisherman in another important way too. By entering the watery element voluntarily, you can get to places you might not be able to otherwise access.

There was a small stream in the Pequannock Watershed that I would wet wade during the warmer months, It was a delightfully varied watercourse, no more than waist deep in the rocky area where I would first enter, abounding in rock bass, chubs, smallmouth bass and trout. As I worked further down the current, the character of the stream began to change to a slower and deeper flow, with high mud banks on either side. The only way to continue downstream through the deeper pools and glides, where I was literally in over my head, was to do as the Neanderthals did and swim. So with rod gripped firmly between my teeth I would doggy paddle downstream until I hit bottom, then begin to fish again, now catching largemouth bass, bluegills and catfish more commonly. If you fished far enough downstream, the river narrowed and flowed under a small bridge. Exiting the water here, you could jog back on a Forest Service road, if you didn’t mind the squishing sound your tennis shoes made.

Similarly, my cousin and I would swim out to the concrete bridge footers in the Navesink River near Red Bank (Monmouth County) at high water to set up a chum slick as the tide ran out. We had to swim out at high tide, because you could only climb up onto the footers when the water was nearly to the top. You simply dove off the footer when you left after the tide fell. As the flow of the river reversed itself, we would toss handfuls of bunker chum into the water, which slid down to join the Shrewsbury before emptying into the bay near Sandy Hook. Our bait was spearing or grass shrimp we had seined earlier in the day, We would impale a whole spearing or a few (depending on the size) grass shrimp on a simple Aberdeen hook, and suspend it under a torpedo shaped cork float. As the tide carried the odiferous bunker chum down current, we would begin to see silver flashes as bluefish and weakfish would follow the scent towards its source. We’d toss our rigs into the flow and wait for the float to be yanked under by the strike of a snapper blue or pan sized weakfish. In a tide, we could usually catch a couple of fish for supper if we needed them, although most of what we caught was released. Fishing finished for the day, we’d tie our minimal gear in plastic bags, and along with any fish on the stringer, jump off the footer and swim the fifty or so yards back to the bank, rods, gear and fish (sometimes) stowed in old canvas Army surplus rucksacks..There were variations on this theme in other waters, but you get the idea.

Just as swimming can expand your interaction with fish, running can do the same in terms of your wildlife viewing. Especially if the type of running you do or have done is some form of cross country, trail or mountain running. Hiking obviously does this too, but will either cover less ground in the same amount of time or the same amount of ground in much more time. We’ll stick to the running in this narrative though, because we all love to hike, but far fewer feet fly through the forest faster. Say that five times, fast. And besides I’m promoting pure sport here, previously identified in the first few sentences to include running, so let’s lace ‘em up, keep your eyes open, and run. The beggars in our National Parks and the geese in our neighborhood pond notwithstanding, most critters are shy of people. It’s almost like they know what words like Thanksgiving or venison, or field dressing mean. So they avoid us, but by running we can find them both sooner, and more frequently.

There is a life in the desert that you are unaware of unless you’ve spent considerable time there. Say like working ten day hitches every two weeks under the auspices of the Desert Restoration Corps or the Bureau of Land Management, and sleeping nights with only the stars above and a tarp beneath. Day trippers out of San Diego, or even residents in desert towns like El Centro or Brawley, don’t often encounter the wildlife to be seen while doing trail maintenance on the East Mesa of the Yuha in California. Sidewinders, kit fox, pack rats, tarantulas and coyotes are among the many interesting life forms who share the neighborhood of those engaged in such field work. So too are Border Patrol agents, illegals, and yahoos shouting threats from speeding OHV’s in the middle of the night, but that’s a story for another time. Point is, if you spend a lot of time out in that dusty, starry wonderland, you can see a lot of neat stuff. Especially if you run towards it, and away from the roads.

A young man who did just that, once described a couple of his encounters. I actually have photographic evidence of one. He is crouched down on a gravely side road, gently shooing an absolutely huge tarantula from the middle of the road with his cowboy hat. He had to move the arachnid down into an arroyo to allow the work truck to pass without squashing it. Sidewinders were encountered frequently, and along with scorpions were a concern to the crew members when they bedded down. Cowboys used to sleep while encircled by their lariats, snakes not seeming to want to pass over the rough hemp. The young man told me they skipped that step, finding the rattlers, and the scorpions, similarly avoided the plastic tarps they slept on. Not so the kit foxes who would snatch and run off with unlikely items such as socks, and urinate on shoes and notebooks. Nor the kangaroo rats, who would help themselves to any insufficiently secured food, and steal various objects as well. Like stop watches. Why would you need a stopwatch in the desert? Pure sport is the answer, it had nothing to do with the work being done, just the pure sport.

After the work day concluded, and either before or after the camp meal, the young man would run. Not just random jogs, as it turns out he was training for the Catalina Marathon, and the stopwatch was for timing his workouts, at least until the rats found it. He ran alone through the arroyos and ravines, often guided only by starlight and moonglow. And as he came to realize, not always alone. He would hear the sidewinders rattling on the side of the trail, sensitive to the vibrations of his footfalls, even in the most sandy stretches. And after his eyes became adjusted over time on these night runs, he became aware of the fact that he was not the only one running. Most nights a coyote would pick him up somewhere beyond the first mile out of camp, running abreast and parallel for the most part, sometimes disappearing briefly ahead, sometimes running directly behind. He could track the creature’s movements easiest on bright, clear nights, when it would become silhouetted while cresting a small dune. Sometimes the dim light would reflect from its eyes.

His fellow SCA crew members doubted the tale at first, but as they watched him return one following night, they greeted him by turning on the headlights of the truck. Caught in the beam of light was our marathoner, and the coyote twenty meters behind him. The thought process of that coyote remains a mystery, but then again the thought process of a person who runs fifteen miles at night in the desert after digging with MacLeods and Pulaskis in the Southwest heat for ten hours, is similarly unfathomable to most. So, if your running isn’t restricted to a track or your swimming to a pool, the exercise you get may have an unintended benefit, in a new way to connect with nature.

Photo of runners on top of Mt Elbert, Colorado, USA, by the author

Glacial Fish

“River scenery has, unquestionably, within itself, all the main elements of beauty, and, time out of mind, has been the favourite theme of the poet.” Edgar Allen Poe “The Elk” aka “Morning On The Wissahickon”

Those words come from one of Poe’s least known short stories, “The Elk,” also known as “Morning on the Wissahickon.” He wrote it during the years he lived in Philadelphia, just off Spring Garden Street. Walking distance to Independence Hall, and a short carriage ride to the Wissahickon Creek near the western city limits. His fondness of the place is evident in those words and others, and I love it there as well. But this story is not about Poe or even the Wissahickon solely, but about a pair of its resident fish that I love as well.

Beginning about 800,000 years ago, and culminating about 21,000 years ago, the three generally acknowledged glaciation events that took place in New Jersey are going to once again impact my fishing this spring. Specifically, it wasn’t what the glaciers did that matters, it is what they didn’t do, and that was to keep moving southward. They stopped instead. So thousands of years later, this South Jersey angler is blessed by miles of coastal beach, ocean and estuary fishing, miles of slow moving meandering cedar stained rivers and creeks, a plethora of manmade impoundments, but nary a natural lake. They exist only in the northern half of my state. But below the Sourland Mountains in the Princeton / Hopewell area, the contour of the and changes dramatically from largely Piedmont to a coastal plain.

Without the rocky substrates gouged out by the glaciers, the topography is generally flat. The various slopes of the land greatly define the hydrology of the state’s southern half. The resultant riverine environments lack the flow and discharge to support certain population of fish. A lot of my fishing is warm water, small stream fishing, and two of my favorite targets are rock bass and redbreast sunfish. Of these two fish, rock bass rarely exist in South Jersey, although curiously, an invasive sunfish relative, the warmouth, can now be found in a few waters. So if I want to catch some rock bass from my home base in South Jersey, I will drive north to where the species next occurs, the Stony Brook watershed. A lovely productive stream, although a little far off for a quick trip.

Fortunately, a shorter hop across the Delaware River into Philadelphia or Delaware County in Pennsylvania, provides good rock bass fishing as well, as the stone substrate of Wissahickon schist provides streamflow conditions and gradients favorable to the red eye (local appellation) on that side of the river. If you are not familiar with the rock bass in the wild, it is similar looking to the oscar (Astronotus ocellatus) a popular home aquarium fish that shares similar body type. That is not the only similarity, for at the above mentioned Stony Brook, I have caught several “feral” oscars, from amongst the pods of rock bass I located. These appeared to be fish that had grown too large or too agressive for their aquariums, and were released into the stream at some point. As of this writing, still coexisting with their red eye cousins, although an ichthyologist might bristle at sunfish and cichlids being called cousins.

The rock bass (Ambloplites rupestris) I target there are usually found in the company of smallmouth bass, trout (seasonally), and the second half of my dynamic duo, the redbreast sunfish. The redbreast are more widely dispersed in riverine environments than are rock bass. And although redbreast will often congregate in a deep pool, or in a rocky chute below some rapids, they are more free swimming than rock bass. They will frequently chase down a lure or fly that passes their feeding station, or cruise around a pool or run in search of food, often feeding on or near the surface. The rock bass however, not as strong a swimmer than the more fusiform redbreast, is an ambush feeder. And in the swifter waters they prefer, rocks are often provide the ambush point, easy to remember, rocks equal rock bass. Not exclusively of course, but if are in a stream with little rock cover of some sort, boulders, ledges, outcroppings etc, there will probably be fewer places for the rock bass to live, hence fewer rock bass. Large logs or deadheads, heavy brushpiles, and man made structure such as low head dams, weirs, bridge supports, can also function as ambush points for rock bass as well. Glacial Fish

Places the rock bass congregate may also be one of the places where the other stream residents can be caught, but usually the only place rock bass will be caught. Especially in terms of numbers of rock bass. And rock bass are often of a demersal nature, preferring to feed lower in the water column than most of their finny neighbors, save the catfish. So not being free- ranging, preferring heavy cover and depth, the rock bass profile suggests not only where, but how you should seek them. Small jigs and spinners and various traditional baits would work well, but I prefer to stalk these fish in southeast Pennsylvania or central New Jersey with a fly rod. The waters are generally shallow enough to be waded with hip boots, and small enough to allow you to cast over any spots you can’t wade. A good rule of thumb is that if it is too deep to navigate with hip boots, you shouldn’t be wading that stretch, you should be fishing it.

My go-to fly is a cone head Muddler Minnow, a Western fly originally, but very everywhere. Wading close enough to your target area, makes it easy to roll cast the fly to the rock bass, let the weighted fly sink. and slowly retrieve it through the rock bass’ lair. On a limber six foot rod, the red eye will give a good enough account of itself, but that is not the real attraction. The quarry will rarely exceed ten inches, but it’s unique habitat requirements, the lovely brooks and creeks it inhabits, are what you come for. That and the coppery gold hue and singular features: the red eyes, large mouth, sweeping dorsal and caudal fins. A creature uniquely suited to it’s particular niche in the ecosystem, as you are now as well, as you remove the barbless hook from the corner of the fishes jaw. And smile as it silently glides to the bottom and straight for the cover it had recently occupied.

So at this point, let’s insert Lepomis auritus into the narrative, the redbreast sunfish, a species related to the smallmouth bass and rock bass. And although the redbreast shares its range with these fish, it can tolerate and thrive in environments the other two cannot. Happily for me this includes most of the rivers and creeks in my section of the state, so I can do a lot of fishing for the species, and very close to home. From the Rancocas drainage to Big Timber Creek, to Almonesson Creek and the Maurice River, to Oldmans Creek and the Salem River, the redbreast sunfish is one of our most abundant species. it would supersede the bluegill and pumpkinseed sunfish as the most common catch overall, except for the fact that those fish are the most abundant in the ponds and lakes of the region and more accessible to more people. As primarily a stream borne fish, you have to work a little harder to catch redbreasts, but that is part of the attraction of the game. Redbreast

Eco-tourism is a growing industry in South Jersey, nicely complementing the traditional beachfront summer economy that was one of the first in our nation. Originally centered in the legendary Pine Barrens region, the eco-tourism initiative has overspread the entire southern half of the state. One aspecct of this has been what is termed locally as water coursing, not anything more or less than hiking not along a creek, but in it. This affords a very cool and comfortable outing from late spring until early fall, offering a unique perspective on the flora and fauna of the various ecological zones that exist in the region. Naturalist led group water coursing hikes are available for those who prefer the expertise and educational benefits that experience offers. But to many, myself included, I just like to get in the water, “up the creek without a paddle” (or canoe) and revel in the nature I know. And seek my quarry along the way, the ubiquitous redbreast sunfish.

Depending on conditions and seasons, I usually utilize hip boots or waders when fishing these waters. But the much simpler gear I use during the summer is my favorite. These warmer summer months offer prime fishing for redbreasts, especially large specimens (hand sized for this species). I will wear baggy swim trunks, dark colored in deference to the wariness of the redbreast, and a pair of surf mocs, which afford superb footing along the mostly sand and pea gravel creek bottoms. My shorty wading vest carries the minimal fishing gear I need for the species, and a small daypack with food and drink (more drink in the hot weather, (I’ve become part of the hydration nation) cell phone and camera.

In terms of the pursuit, as there is more than one way to catch redbreasts. Here is how I do it. In some waters, the redbreast is an ideal fly rod fish, but in many of the creeks I wade, the overhanging vegetation and narrow twisting confines of the watercourse render that method a second choice. I prefer to use one of my 4 1/2’ ultra light spinning outfits, loaded with 2# test line, to which I attach a small 1/64 ounce jig head. I fasten a small plastic grub to the head, and I’m ready to go. The plastic grub should be 1-1/12 inches long, and for this region a selection of a few grape/purple, brown, or motor oil colors is all you will need. Don’t get too hung up on the exact color or shape, as every lure manufacturer has their own version of these tiny fish catchers, and you can match the color closely enough. I have found that the redbreasts in these small creeks seem to prefer a thinner profile lure than a fatter one, so you might want to keep that in mind while making your selection. This is not technical fishing by any means, and the creeks are small enough so that you can cover the water bank to bank as you move along. The redbreast will tell you soon enough where they prefer you to toss your lure. They will chase down your life in these clear, cedar tinged water. Just follow their lead, and the next thing you know, you are not just water coursing, you are fishing, and catching fish. The one real hotspot is the occasional run of fast water along an undercut bank. These spots not only hold numbers of the redbreasts, but often the larger specimens as well.

There is usually something interesting to see while fishing small streams, sometimes something spectacular. Whether in the swifter freestone streams of Southeast Pennsylvania, or Jersey’s meandering cedar waters, your quiet waterborne approach through often trailless woods reveals much. Whitetail deer may be drinking at the creek bank, and red tail hawks are frequently spotted. Muskrats and even otters and beavers offer glimpses, and maybe a fox or woodchuck. Various turtles, frogs and watersnakes are pleasantly common enough. And sundry ducks, geese, herons, egrets, upland birds in the trees, and the occasional grouse or turkey in the underbrush need only be noticed.

So as pertains to the redbreast, which I pursue in an epoch of global warming, my catch of the day comes courtesy of the Last Ice Age, and the day the glacier stopped. Isn’t that ironic, don’t you think?