Aug. 29 near Beaverdale, Georgia--I have been a fish fanatic as long as I can remember. During my childhood, there were many summers when not a day went by without me casting a line in the water. In sixth grade, my parents presented me with a field guide to freshwater fishes for Christmas, and I became obsessed with the book, memorizing scientific names like Lepisosteus osseus (longnose gar) and reciting facts like: the longnose gar actively feeds at night.
I knew then that I wanted to study fish the rest of my life. In school when the teachers asked us to write essays about “what we wanted to do when we grew up,” I always wrote about fish. My senior year at Cedartown High School, I even wrote a paper about the feeding behaviors of gar.
I went on to the University of Georgia to study fisheries. In one class we had to learn the natural history of seemingly every animal in the southeast, including the nocturnal behavior of the longnose gar. I have held jobs with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the University of Georgia dealing with fish studies. Today, I read fish literature so that I can stay as knowledgeable as possible. Somehow, all this “education” could not prepare me for the full realization that longnose gar actively feed at night.
Last night I set up camp near a deep pool on the Conasauga. Before bed, I enjoyed observing the gar, which can get oxygen both from the water with their gills or from the air with their swim bladder, occasionally break the surface of the water getting a gulp of fresh air.
After I finally wrapped up in my sleeping bag for the night, the gar decided to go hunting. During the night, I might have slept an hour, waking every 15 to 30 minutes to a sound that can only be described as someone doing a cannonball off the high dive. The gar chased the minnows and sunfish near the water’s surface and whipped their powerful tails out during the pursuit creating the loud splashes. Needless to say, I was quite tired today.
But, as always, the Conasauga teemed with life and that put pep in my paddle. The turtles must have slept through the gar concert because river cooters, loggerhead musks--and even a painted turtle—crawled every where.
Beneath my canoe, I saw huge schools of redhorse, a member of the sucker family, that scours the river bottom in search of its favorite food—freshwater mussels and snails. And, at one of the river’s islands, I admired some true architectural ingenuity in a system of beaver dams.
The river itself was full of bends, so much so that I thought it was spiraling inward. Many trees had uprooted and fallen in the river, narrowing the canoe path, but at each log jam, by some miracle, a narrow strip of water appeared, permitting passage with the help of a few well-placed paddle-stroke, parallel parking moves. Luckily, I never had to carry my canoe—or the heavy gear inside it—around these obstacles.
In the past 24 hours, the Conasauga has continued to reveal its secrets, but I hope its next secrets aren’t revealed when I’m trying to sleep.