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NFC: Snorkeling for natives

John P. Baker

National Wildlife:December/January 1982

SEVERAL summers ago, I went snorkeling in Southeast Missouri's Current
River. The water was only two or three feet deep, but it was so swift
that I had to wear heavy lead weights to keep from being swept
downstream. Even then, I had to cling to some rocks to hold my position
while I viewed an astonishing sight:hundreds of small fish glistening in
the sunlight. All around me, shiners, chubs, dace and darters hovered in
the racing water or hugged the bottom with little apparent effort. Once,
I became so engrossed in looking that I turned my head too far, and the
current nearly ripped the mask from my face. I didn't know it then, but I
had missed an even better show -- one which these same fish put on every
year when they change into their spectacular spawning colors.

I later learned from Bill Roston that these normally drab olive or silver
denizens of Ozark streams change into a rainbow of colors rivaling those
of many tropical species. Roston, a former high school biology teacher
and now a family physician in Southwest Missouri, makes a hobby out of
diving in streams similar to the Current, and photographing aquatic life.
Roston snorkels year-round, and often at night, when he uses a flashlight
to mesmerize the fish so he can move in close with his camera.

Although the spawning phenomenon and the associated color changes aren't
news to scientists, Roston says many people are completely unaware of
what is occurring practically underfoot. "I've seen fishermen
accidentally catch darters while fishing with worms and then wonder what
the heck they've got," he says. "Some people have thought they made a
scientific discovery. They're the forgotten creatures."

These often overlooked species can be found elsewhere in the country,
especially where there are relatively unpolluted streams, but in my
opinion, nowhere else is the display more vivid than the Ozarks, where
stream conditions are often perfect -- shallow water, a minimum of
pollution and a great variety of species. Two of the more common ones are
the hornyhead chub and the bleeding shiner. Both are minnows, a group of
species that, with some exceptions such as carp and squawfish, are only a
few inches long at best. As with most fish, the males turn the brightest
hues -- probably in order to attract females. Male bleeding shiners
change during the spawning season to crimson. The hue is so intense that
schools of the three to four-inch fish are clearly visible from shore.
Among hornyhead chub males, yellowish tints intensify during spawning.

Most of the brilliantly colored tropicals you see in aquariums remain
colorful all year, but shiners, darters, chubs and the like only begin to
acquire their brightest colors a few days to a few weeks prior to the
spawning season. Bill Roston says that the most intense shades appear
during the spawning act itself which, in some instances, "is over so fast
you hardly realize what's happening." Within days, the colors begin to

A favorite of mine is the southern redbelly dace, another minnow. By May,
the lower part of the fish's head and body change from silvery to a
bright red while the fins become a bright lemon yellow. Two long black
stripes run along each side and are separated by a wider gold or yellow
band. Bill Pflieger, a Missouri Conservation Department biologist who is
a leading authority on the region's fishes, considers the minnow to be
one of the most beautiful in the state. He points out that little
research has been done on most species that aren't popular sport fish
like bass and trout. "The funding for a lot of research in the past has
been based on the recreational and economic importance of a particular
fish," he says.

Another little studied group noted for astonishing color changes is the
darters. These two to five-inch-long fish are bottom dwellers named for
their habit of flitting about rapidly from one spot to another. One of
the most vividly colored is the male Missouri saddled darter which, by
April or May, goes from olive brown to intense green with reddish orange
bands along the sides.

In the Ozarks, half a dozen or more different kinds of darters, several
varieties of minnows and other brightly colored fish can be concentrated
within a 50-yard-long stretch of creek. Some major systems, such as the
White River, have been dammed up, creating large, deep lakes in the
Ozarks. But these lack the varied fish life of free-flowing streams.
During a single night dive with Roston in one of his favorite haunts,
Bear Creek, I saw more aquatic life in one clear, three-foot-deep pool
than I've seen while diving in Missouri lakes over the past 12 years.
Large smallmouth bass lurked beneath boulders and the creek banks; rock
bass darted to and fro in the open; map turtles and a snapping turtle
scurried across the bottom, along with crayfish that are reclusive by
day. Besides innumerable minnows and darters, we even found a harmless
water snake. All this we saw by snorkeling in an area about 30 feet wide
and 60 feet long, in crystal-clear spring-fed water.

Although photographing some of these fish takes a lot of time and
patience, finding them is somewhat easier. In the Ozarks, most of the
streams are easy to get to, and you don't need a lot of equipment to
explore them. Most are so shallow that it's easier to leave scuba gear at
home and simply use mask, fins, snorkel and a weight belt. Winter
snorkeling may require a dry suit, but unless a stream's main source is
an underground spring, a snorkeler most likely wouldn't even need a wet
suit in the summer. In some places, the shallow creeks flow over wide
expanses of solid rock or gravel bottoms so the water warms up quickly in
the spring and summer. The fish are so conspicuous because of the clear
water which, in parts of the Ozarks, comes from cold, underground
springs. Many of the springs aren't much more than seeps, but a few, such
as some in the Current River area, discharge tens of millions of gallons
of frigid water a day.

Because they must survive such temperature extremes, freshwater fish from
temperate climates are hardier than some tropical species and therefore
may be easier to maintain in an aquarium. Freshwater fish may prefer live
food, but Roston says those he keeps in an aquarium do well on frozen
brine shrimp. In Missouri, individuals may catch nongame fish to keep in
a tank. A fishing license is required and legal catching methods include
use of a dip net, minnow trap and seine, and other fishing laws apply. A
note of caution! Several of Missouri's more colorful minnows or darters
are classed as endangered by the state. That may not be true in your
area. And there may also be local restrictions on capturing fish or
diving. Even so, wherever you live, there's usually little to stop you
from simply looking or trying to take underwater pictures of this
colorful and diverse world that exists only a few feet underwater.

John P. Baker is a newspaper reporter and free-lance writer living in
Forsyth, Missouri. He has written a number of articles on snorkeling and
diving-related topics.

Robert Rice
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