NYMPHING FOR THE NATIVE, COLD WATER CREEK CHUB
A MEDIATION ON SPECIES AND UNNATURAL SELECTION
I’ve been trying to decide whether the common creek chub is an ugly fish. It certainly is not attractive in the way the brook trout ‒ a sleek, hallowed missile of color and panache ‒ is attractive.
Still, as fishes go, the chub rivals a bass, though in miniature, and is hands down more handsome than the catfish with its wormy whiskers, Apollyon skin, and trash receptacle of a mouth (imagine the halitosis). So mirror, mirror on the wall, which is the fairest fish of all? Maybe not the creek chub but others are far uglier. The piranha is no Prince Charming though, if you think bulldogs are cute, the piranha is your fish with its ridiculously exaggerated overbite. The sturgeon gives us caviar but there must be an inverse proportion in nature to exquisite tasting eggs and monstrously menacing looks. The Bass Pro Shop guide to fish describes the sturgeon an “ugly lout with armored skin, a bulbous nose, a Hitler-like mustache of barbels.” The male chub sprouts little horns on its head during spawning season for sex appeal, a sort of two-day stubble. Female chubs might go hog wild in the presence of a stud sturgeon. Alas, Ms. Chub might dream big but, as happens in other species, she’s destined to settle. At seven inches to his seven feet, she isn't likely to get right swiped.
I am not claiming beauty for the common creek chub, Semotilus atromaculatus. But I would like to claim some redemption on its behalf. Having just returned from a trip to catch trout and catching only creek chubs, I have a very personal stake in this. Those would denigrate the creek chub might also denigrate me for catching them. So, chubby, we’re in this together.
I’ll begin by asserting that any fish that takes a nymph hand-tied with intricate precision and designed to catch trout must have some modicum of class. Turns out, according a scholarly paper published in 1962 by the Iowa State Academy of Science and titled, with all the beauty a prosaically inclined scientist could muster, “Life History of the Creek Chub, with Emphasis on Growth,” documents the fact that S. atromaculatus, whom I may henceforth just call “S.”, consumes nymphs, just as do the finest trout. So, among the finned, both are finical about their diet.
The article was the work of by James J. Dinsmore, now a retired professor and then a graduate student at Iowa State University. Allow me to quote the future Dr. Dinsmore: “Food items found most important for the creek chub were plant material, especially Cladophora sp.; insects, with mayfly naiads and Coleoptera being the most important; and small fish, especially in larger chubs.”
Big chubs even eat little chubs but let us look past the cannibalism. What fish species doesn’t practice that? It is an ichthyologic thing, like Mormons and their sister wives. No offense intended, since to my knowledge S. doesn’t, as a species, practice polygamy. Why would you if you are just going to fertilize eggs by swimming over them and spitting sperm out your ass end at them? There may be lots of good reasons to be a fish. Seeing clearly underwater. Living in beautiful places. Not minding the smell of fish. But fish sex holds no appeal. The old insult of calling someone as cold as a fish when describing their sexuality is bad enough but it pales in comparison to thinking about the actual disappointment of fish sex. No candlelight. No wine. No linen bedsheets. If there is Chanel No. 5, there best be a lot of it. All I’m really saying is that S. is on equal footing with trout when it comes to coming. Both swim and squirt.
So our humble fish is doing fine so far when measured by its food and sexual habits, and you certainly cannot fault it by another measure ‒ where it chooses to live. Trout are persnickety about their habitat, insisting on cold, clear water in mountains and meadows. Urban streams with run-off and industrial waste need not apply. S. and kin might not be quite so discerning, but they certainly thrive in beautiful places and, by adopting when such places are degraded by human indifference, they are vestigial reminders of what was.
My interest in chubs was ignited after finding them in Cane Creek in southeast Kentucky, as pretty a stream as exists on the planet were it not for the local predilection to trash it. Particularly offensive are the Diet Mountain Dew bottles. Diet? So those consuming this poison are worried about their waistlines but could give a damn about the woods and waters?
It really is kind of hard to swallow. Not the Diet Mountain Dew, although that is, too, but the notion that we ask Middle Eastern kingdoms to drill for oil and readily sell them modern weaponry to protect that enterprise, then ship it across the mighty oceans and use all of the talent and enterprise our century can muster to convert the oil in a plastic that we can mold into an easily held, aesthetically pleasing 20 ounce (Mountain Dew drinkers don’t think 16 ounces is enough) bottle full of fake citrus which in actually is carbonated water flavored with processed orange juice (its only known natural ingredient, and barely natural at that) combined with proportions of potassium benzoate, aspartame, potassium citrate, sodium citrate, acesulfame potassium, sucralose, calcium disodium EDTA, brominated vegetable oil, Yellow 5 and, finally, “to preserve freshness,” sodium benzoate. Who knew that potassium benzoate required sodium benzoate to stay fresh.
This witch’s brew is marketed with millions of dollars in advertising to “Do the Dew,” the current campaign for which includes an online video featuring attractive young people doing interesting things, like swinging on a rope across a bottomless rock canyon with one hand holding the rope and the other a basketball on the apparent assumption that a goal and backboard are on the other side of the canyon. This is done by a professional athlete, which I know because I read the ad’s footnote, which warns against attempting such feats since those doing so in the video are professional athletes. The man on the rope is Joel Embiid, a star forward-center for the Philadelphia 76ers. I wonder if his team knows he is engaging in potentially career-ending activities in a canyon. I watched the 76ers the other night. They lost to the Milwaukee Bucks, 128 to 122. Embiid seemed hobbled. Just sayin’.
There is a bigger question. Do the 76ers know about Embiid’s contributions to the degradation of Cane Creek, which he likely doesn’t even know about himself?
The common creek chub has done nothing to undermine Cane Creek. It does not import petrochemicals from afar to make Mountain Dew bottles that will not biodegrade, even after infinity has come and gone. And it certainly does not use its celebrity to promote Cane Creek’s demise, wittingly or otherwise. If fact, S. has no celebrity – though I am trying to remedy that.
There is a current exhibit at the Cincinnati Art Museum celebrating the art of Paris, 1900. To see this exhibit is to strip away 119 years and transport a visitor into the city’s opulent world of cafés, opera, and galleries. There are paintings, drawings, lithographs, sculptures, stained glass, dresses, and jewels. The artists are A list: Renoir. Toulouse-Lautrec, Rodin. Bourdelle. Claudel. Against this display of culture, 2019 seems deprived if not depraved. The Parisians of the Belle Époque strolled in splendor along the Champs-Élysées. We Tweet and wear hoodies.
Among the paintings is one by Jean-Jacques Henner called, “Recumbent Nymph." It is a gorgeous painting, a little ghostly in its brush strokes but no less of a tribute to the female form for being a simulacrum in the old-fashioned meaning of that word, which was more celebratory of art imitating life. A boy looking at it would feel himself mature in its presence. A man might turn 15 again, his juices reheated. The painting has allure, and its execution required exquisite skill with brushes, which at the time had bristle made of quill and of stiff animal hair.
For those who don’t fish, let me explain that I’m not talking about that kind of nymph. But in its own way, the nymph I am talking about is no less magnificent. It, too, has allure though to fish not boys. It requires skill to execute – that is, to make it. And it is made with quills and the stiff hairs of an animal, often from the hind end of an elk or deer. The nymph I’m talking about isn't generally found in an art museum, though the best example might deserve to be there.
What it is is this: A fly, tied with the delicate finesse of surgeon suturing an artery. Thread is wrapped around the shaft of a hook to hold in place feather, a few strands of hair or perhaps a dubbing of wool yarn. The recipe, and that is the correct term for the roster of materials used to tie a fly which seems appropriate since it is made to be eaten, varies depending on the fly and what bug it is designed to match. It is tied by placing a tiny hook in a tying vice. How tiny? You might sooner find a dropped contact than a dropped size 20 hook. It is small because it is meant to imitate the nymph phase of an insect, and particularly of insects such as the midge, the mayfly, stonefly and caddisfly each of which lays its eggs in streams. Those hatch into nymphs, which rise from the streambed to the surface to emerge as airborne bugs.
Trout feast on these bugs in all phases of their life cycle but especially at the bugs' birth, when they are called nymphs. Hence, a fly fisher’s arsenal includes an abundance of nymph imitations with names like Hare’s Ear, Prince Nymph, Copper John, and Pheasant Tail. The names can get more creative: Flashback Scud. Zug Bug. Green Weenie. Picket Pen. Girdle Bug.
Trout fishermen are a snooty lot, and as one among them, I’ll quickly defend the arrogance. The pursuit of fish with a fly rod takes knowledge and skill, including understanding the life cycle of bugs. Since trout eat more underwater than above, nymphs make up more of their diet than adult bugs, with perhaps 80 percent of what they eat being subsurface. To most people, bugs are pests ‒ so much so that bug became a synonym for pest. Trout fishermen (and women, the sport was first written about by a woman, Dame Juliana Berner, in her The Treatyse of Fysshynge with an Angle) get excited in the presence of bug. A hatch! Underwater, the action isn’t so evident but it is more constant. The fish know that, and so they forage. If you want to catch trout, learn to tie or buy nymphs and learn how to fish them.
Because of what Dinsmore confirmed all those years ago (i.e., 1962, when JFK was in the White House, Bob Dylan was releasing his first album, mostly with song he didn’t write, and five research groups had just announced the discovery of anti-matter), we know that Semotilus atromaculatus also eats nymphs. So, by inductive argument, a trout eats nymphs and is an extraordinary fish, and since a chub eats nymphs it, too, is extraordinary.
Over the centuries of human pursuit of fish, certain species are elevated to mythical status. Barracuda. Swordfish. The Great Blue Marlin. Moby-Dick. Atop the freshwater hierarchy is the trout. Other species are ignored or worse, perhaps being labeled as trash fish or, in today's fish and wildlife bureaucracies, as Aquatic Nuisance Species or ANS for short, so as to confuse the issue as such pointless combinations of letters do. Excuse me, you seem to have caught an ANS. To which you might reply, Come again? Something about bureaucracies. They just love to talk dirty like that. Maybe it’s better than calling them trash fish. A species that leaves its Mountain Dew bottles hither and yon might not have the moral standing to attach “trash” to another species’ name.
The anti-ANS movement is national. There is a federal ANS Task Force, which reports to the AIS Program, AIS being short for Aquatic Invasive Species. It worries not only about fish but also about plants that go all Alien in the bellies of America's waters. With names like giant salvinia. hydrilla, and melaleuca, these plants are, at the very least, taxonomic tormentors of the tongue. Pity the poor ANS Task Force member who must memorize and spell their names. More seriously, they take over from native plants and reproduce prodigiously.
As for fish, the reigning ANS kings is the silver, or Asian, carp. They jump out of the water en masse as if they were popcorn in a pot missing the lid. The sound or vibration of a boat motor seems to set them off. It's weird really, the sight of their frenzied jumping. Sometimes they smack an unwitting angler in the face, fins slashing and gashing like Freddy Krueger rendered aquatic.
What happens above water is mere spectacle compared to what happens below, where the carps' rapacious dining disrupts the ecosystem as they collectively consume algae, bacteria, and mussels that younger, native fish need to survive. Bass get caught as babies in the silver carp’s gills, a cruel end to a favored sports species that is supposed to grow up and die by biting a rubber worm attached to a big, barbed hook tied to fishing line spooled onto a spinning rod held by a human being aboard a gas-powered speedboat equipped with electronics to find the fish and a live well. The live well is misnamed, by the way. It’s where caught fish await destiny – a date with the fillet knife. It’s at best hospice care. Would you tell a dying man, “We’re going to check you into St. Mary’s Live Well?” Doubt it.
Don’t misunderstand. I’m anti-carp. Send them back to China. Build a wall. Detain their children. Outlaw chain migration, especially to the heartland. Bus them all to sanctuary ponds. But I have also found myself reflecting on which fish we welcome and which ones we do not. Just as we have relegated the common creek chub to the bottom shelf of fishdom, we are going crazy about the “Chinese invaders,” as Fox Business report called them. A crawl beneath the screen said, “ALERT: Asian Carp Fish May Enter Great Lakes and Destroy Fishing Industry.” The correspondent assigned to this important investigation is breathless as he exclaims: “This is the enemy right here. This is the Asian carp…. Look at ’em jumping! Holy crow!” Holy crow?
The common creek chub is a victim of this same bigotry. The most elegant of fish, the brook trout, is considered a grace wherever it is found. Being smaller, more tolerant of fouled water, and born to the colors of Casa Blanca rather than Gone with the Wind, as the brook trout is, our S. receives no such appreciation.
In his "History of Angling," Charles F. Waterman (love the name) takes note of what he calls the "strange polarization" among anglers, and then captures succinctly the status held by those who fish for trout: "The literary writing has been mainly about trout and trout fishing, much of it in moody flights of rather flowery prose." Later he reports in the unflowery prose of a Jack Webb assigned to a case of a species' demise, of the brook trout's abundance in Eastern streams in the colonial times. Detective Waterman reminds us that the brook trout, though rarer today, were once an easy mark and Early Americans fished for them almost with distain. With just the facts, ma'am, Waterman hits on something that would contribute to the brook trout's elevation in status in the years to come: "The brook trout requires cold, clean water and was unable to compete with the early industrialization of the East."
That has been the brook trout's fate on the American continent. First, glaciers compressed and reordered its range, then industrialization delivered a hit from which it nearly failed to recover, and now the Mountain Dew culture with its casual disregard for the pristine is combined with man's larger footprint on the planet to squeeze the brook trout toward extinction. Not to extinction; but toward it ‒ which is the wrong direction.
A CANARY IN THE COAL MINE?
Within the boundaries of Kentucky, the extinction may be complete unless you count brook trout raised in hatcheries and, in one odd case, transported here by an enterprising fisherman who caught them in Pennsylvania and loaded them in his station wagon for the trip south, thus creating his own little surreptitious Eden in the Red River Gorge.
It may be disingenuous to use the word extinction regarding brook trout in Kentucky, first of all because extinction usually is reserved to describe a species' absence on the planet and not simply within a state. Even allowing for some literary license regarding the geographic application of the word, there's a more significant issue, and that is whether the brook trout was ever native to Kentucky in the first place. Here, the evidence is scant, missing, or contrary.
I have long thought of the brook trout as the canary in the coalmine. If the canary dies, something's happened to the oxygen supply. The miners need to get to the surface immediately. Likewise, if a stream's brook trout population dies off, then the warning siren is sounded. Other species will survive for a time. Perhaps even a very long time. Species more tolerant of human activity may even arrive and thrive. But something will have been lost. Maybe for good. Applying this to Kentucky, the absence of native brook trout in my lifetime, I am 64, might be viewed as a warning that logging, mining, and sewage practices in the mountains, where my family roots are deep, are an abomination that, if not abated, will erase more species.
It doesn't work to call the brook trout Kentucky's canary in the coalmine if the brook trout wasn't here in the first place. Therein lies an unanswered question. Brook trout have been all around Kentucky for eons, and native brook trout are established today in Kentucky's neighboring states of Virginia, West Virginia, and Tennessee. They are also in North Carolina, which at its nearest point is just 70 miles away. The 70 miles between North Carolina and Kentucky borders is prime eastern Tennessee brook trout territory. There are waters in this patch of Appalachia where the abundance of brook trout is reminiscent of colonial America.
It seems a reasonable assumption that brook trout were once in Kentucky, given that the commonwealth shares a mountain range, the Appalachians, and, more or less, a climate with states where a native population of brook trout still exists. A few maps showing the brook trout's range include a bit of Kentucky around Big Black Mountain, the state's tallest peak at 4,145 feet. It is situated on the Virginia border.
What is known about Appalachian brook trout is that the late 18th Century was hard on them because of logging. The mountains are rich in natural resources and our immediate ancestors had no compunction about harvesting those resources. Forests were clear cut, removing the canopy that cooled the mountain streams to a temperatures the trout could tolerate. Making matters worse was the way a mountain was logged. The first trees felled were used to dam a stream, creating a pond or lake to hold the next logs. The loggers then dynamited the dam, and the torrent of water released carried the logs down the mountain to be loaded up and hauled away. It was efficient and, in its way, clever. But the rush water erased the fragile, pebbled breeding grounds of the brook trout. As if logging were not enough, coal mining followed and it gives no quarter to clean water. A few years ago, the Sierra Club sent volunteers into the field to find mountain water where brook trout might be stocked. Use a conductivity test, they found stream after stream too polluted with heavy metals to sustain brook trout. Coal's damage was depressingly vast.
Perhaps logging and mining were worse on brook trout in Kentucky than in the other states. Or perhaps the brook trout was never here in the first place. On that latter point, the record is silent. By the time fish surveys were made and kept in the 1930s ‒ the earliest reference biologists can find ‒ no brook trout were recorded. As for Native American records, they are archaeological and do not answer the question. Mostly, it appears their diet was mammals and plants. When those became scarce, they moved. Daniel Boone, too, came for the game, not the fish so the extensive record of his Kentucky adventures tell us nothing of the fish he may have encountered.
One accomplished fisheries biologist admonished me to stop worrying so much about the brook trout and instead turn my attention to other species because trout are the most studied of fish and the world doesn’t need another word written about them. I should, he counseled, turn my attention instead toward Kentucky’s stunning aquatic biodiversity. There are more species of fish, he said, in a mile or so of a healthy Kentucky stream than in all of Europe.
Bass, catfish, crappie, muskellunge, and bluegill are widely pursued. But the inventory of fish is much, much greater. Darters. Sculpins. Shad. Sticklebacks. A genus of small catfish, Norturus, or in common language, the madtom, is scattered about and provides a roster of names that shout out the joy of those who got to name them: the tadpole madtom, the least madtom, the brown madtom, the northern madtom, and even the freckled madtom not be confused with the brindled madtom.
A little known sport has developed, micro fishing, built on a macro appreciation for the little fishes of Kentucky and elsewhere. There’s a Reddit page, and it explains the passion well:
“Micro-fishing is the pursuit of small commonly overlooked fish that are usually less than six inches in length. This type of fishing requires innovative and unusual angling tactics as many species rarely exceed two inches as adults. Understanding methods of micro-fishing opens the angler up to a wide variety of new species of fish often overlooked with conventional tackle.
“With micro-fishing you can catch hundreds of fish most anglers are unaware of. Since the typical angler catches less than twenty species of fish over his lifetime, the possibilities are tremendous.”
The micro anglers are the birders of the fish world, compulsively and impressively searching out species and subspecies to add to their lists, and sharing each find, usually with photographs collected in blogs and other online portfolios. The orangethroat darter especially caught my eye as I perused micro-fishing sites. It’s green and orange yellow, and not just green and orange and yellow but the best possible shades of those colors. It’s also tiny. About the size of the common creek chub.
Score another point for S. He is, in size, close to the orangethroat darter and its many fellow gems of the water.
CANE CREEK, WHERE CHUBS ENCHANT
At Cane Creek, we did not come to micro fish. We came to catch trout, Eric Krosnes and I. We did this once before in the fall of 2017, when we caught a few rainbow trout. Cane Creek is a stocked stream and stocked under the charmless method know as put-and-take. Rainbow trout are fed nutrients in an array aerated concrete tanks until growing to certain size when they are harvested for transport. The trout are loaded into truck might look remarkably like the kind used to transport gasoline to a Shell station. The truck comes up beside a stream that, if it had once been filthy, has been cleaned up enough that these fish can live for a few months until they are either caught or die when the stream gets too warm for their survival, which in inevitably will come summer. A few hearty souls will find the coolest, deepest pockets of Cane Creek and last longer.
Hatchery fish don't behave the same as wild fish. They are more docile, and even in the 19th Century, as trout fishing took hold in America as sport rather than sustenance, anglers sought out wild trout or streams stocked by hatcheries known for breeding fish with attitude.
A modern hatchery is a bit of a fish factory. Underwater tubes shoot pellets of food to nourish newborns into fingerlings. Where such fish are stocked, the guides know to advise their clients to use wet flies (they sink) rather than dry flies (they float) because the factory fish are conditioned to expect protein pellets delivered the way cheerleaders shoot t-shirts out of handheld air canons at ballgames. A native trout bred by the tried and true swim and squirt methods might be looking underwater for a nymph but also looks up for a bug floating on the water's surface, it unsuspecting legs dangling and enticing.
Think about all of this and ask again: Why are we hell-bent on loving the trout and hating, say, the silver carp, ennobling one and castigating the other?
Having fallen in love with the trout myself, and especially the brook trout, I am not sure of the answer. The trout's affinity for clean, cold water is absolute, which means that when you go trout fishing you are going to a beautiful place. The fish itself is regal, there's no denying that. Their torpedo bodies make them the Ferraris of freshwater fish. The fight with a ferocity few fish can match, no matter how small. I once caught a seven inch brookie in small stream in southeast Virginia and it ran more patterns than an NFL tight end, slicing and darting this way and that and jumping, turning flips. In contrast, the walleye, though superior to eat and much larger and stronger, barely resists until the last minute, and then makes an effort. And there is no denying the beauty of a brook trout, its skin a garden of wild flowers in bloom.
With all that going for it, the brook trout gets extra attention by state wildlife departments. Precious few streams in Kentucky can sustain brook trout. With the irony you could not make up, the best of them is Bad Branch in Letcher County. Another is Parched Corn Creek in Kentucky's Red River Gorge, a place ever in danger of being loved to death. Parched Corn is where, in the 1960s, a lone fisherman began his own stocking program, flying under the regulatory radar but, in the end, demonstrating what could be done. Today, state game officers, biologists, and volunteers hike to Parched Corn carrying brook trout in bags of water. Plastic bags. Bags made of the same material as a Mountain Dew bottle. So much effort goes into this that special regulations are developed to prevent anglers from diminishing the population too quickly. In some streams, only barbless hooks are permitted. Some months are off limits to fishing. Creel limits and size limits are posted. A special license called a trout stamp is required just to try and catch them. In Parched Corn, it is illegal to keep even one fish to eat. Everything is catch and release.
Creek chubs get no such love. No hatcheries produce them. No state wildlife employees find suitable streams for them. No regulatory apparatus exists on their behalf. Score another point for S., who survives on the strength of his own wit and grit.
Fishing is a pursuit. Someone catches, someone gets caught, if I might engage in some minor anthropomorphism with pronouns until I resolve who catches whom. We humans imagine ourselves the catchers, the fish as the caught. But in those most perfect of days, the roles are reversed. The fish catch us. We are smitten. Consumed by the beauty of their world, and trying to enter it with nothing more than a nine foot rod, some string, a spool, and small lure tied to look like a bug. We come to places as primordial as we can find within driving distance to escape voice mail and Outlook and meetings and 12-hour days and Starbucks and the news about Trump or, as I write this, about Joe Biden smelling women's hair.
When Eric and I arrived streamside on Cane Creek, he stood on a boulder and cast his fly into a pool below where I was walking. As I stepped into the stream, he called out that he had a fish. I looked over and could see in splashing in the clear, rippling water. This is one of the great sights in fishing: a fish fighting with all of its might to resist this bizarre thing that has happened to it. Hell, it was just trying to eat a bug. Now something is stuck in its lip and it is being pulled from the bosom of beauty, where life-giving oxygenated water rolls over ancient rooks, changing speeds to conform to the structure it passes through. It roils through a rapid, then slows to form pockets and pools sheltered from the day's heat.
Eric had caught a creek chub, the first of several we would catch on this day, a day the weather forecasters had written off as likely to be rain drenched. It didn't rain, aside from a few drops early. The sun shone, warming us to the point of shedding our jackets. No one else was fishing Cane Creek, so we had our Eden to ourselves if we ignored the refuse those who visited before had left behind. Mostly, their garbage was strewn beside the blackened logs and grey ash where they’d built a campfire, 50 yards or so above the water. A few beer cans and soda bottles made it into the stream but mostly not.
Cane Creek is a glorious brook, worthy of trout by everything the eye can see, though it cannot sustain them given the heavy metals, the acids, or any of the other alterations our Mountain Dew culture has inflicted on places like this. We are to blame and yet the stream, and the creek chubs, have welcomed us here.
S., we owe you.