Lime Hollow Nature Center
Covered Bridge at the Lime Hollow Visitor Center

From My Sit Spot

by Pete Angie

FishWe are bundled together, my infant daughter and I, sharing the warmth of a large winter coat that encloses both of us against the frosty air. She sleeps soundly on my chest, held securely in a carrier, while I stare down into shallow water. Scanning the bottom of the pond, I recognize a dark, still shape as a fish. Did it swim into my line of sight, or had it been there all along? So matched is it to its surroundings that it's nearly unrecognizable. Very slowly it glides toward deeper water and fades fantastically away, as though dissolving.

When approaching a body of water, author C. Lavett Smith implores us to start by assuming that there are fish. The next step is to find them. Taking that approach this fall at stream side, or in my kayak, permeated even the most familiar waters with a sense of excitement. Perched on the trunk of a fallen tree over a pond, watching a school of minnows dart in unison through the submerged branches below, ignited me with child-like zeal. Look! Look! I said to my son, who gazed quizzically at me from shore.

The nicest thing about looking for fish this fall was how it didn't really matter when I didn't spot any. Gazing under the surface of the water provided entrance into a realm that I don't often take the time to notice. It was a silent, otherworldly place, with liquid light that played on stones of soft green and gray tones, of shaggy weeds, gauzy algae, and suspended, sunlit particles as fine as dust. I felt like an angel looking down from a cloud, or a reader opening a story that had never been read.

Of course, anglers and scientists have read deeply into the habitats and lives of fishes. Oswego—the town where I grew up—sees thousands of fishermen line the river's shores every fall to try their hand at catching the salmon, steel head, brown trout and other species that brave the waters in driven attempts to procreate. The anglers sometimes walk away dragging salmon as heavy as thirty pounds, and with stories to tell. The fish, naturally, have their own harrowing tale.

In a fast flowing portion of the river, a female salmon will dig a shallow nest called a redd in the gravelly bottom, and lay thousands of eggs. She is followed by the male who spreads his sperm over them. Then, just upstream, the female will sweep the river bottom with her tail, causing gravel to be carried by the current and come to rest on her eggs—protecting them under permeable layer of stone. Then the adults will leave. If they are Atlantic Salmon they may return to perform this vital act for several more years. If they are of a Pacific variety, such as the Coho or Chinook, they will soon die.

The cool, rushing water provides a ready supply of oxygen, which penetrates the soft, translucent shells of the reddish eggs, allowing the embryos to grow. If the stream slows too much, or becomes stagnant or silty, the eggs may suffocate—if they are not eaten by other creatures. In each egg, the head and tail appears first, followed later by the eyes. When the shell breaks open in late winter or early spring, the young retains the yolk sack and lives off of it for weeks, hiding in the gravel and unable to really swim on its own. When the yolk sack is spent, the fry, only an inch long, must venture out to find sustenance. Of the thousands of eggs laid, perhaps only one will reach adulthood. When that adult is ready to breed, it will return to those same waters from which it was born.

In October and November the salmon spawned in rivers and retreated back to the deep waters of Lake Ontario, Cayuga Lake, and others. As the rivers grow colder, even icy, and the air bears the snows of winter, the embryos continue maturing, or dying. Other species of fish are following similarly daunting life cycles. As I stare at the place where the unidentified fish before me just faded from view, I sense that the existence of that demure creature is no less of a wonder than that of the child breathing softly inside my coat.

References:
Fisheries and Oceans Canada: www.pac.dfo-mpo.gc.ca
New York State Department of Environmental Conservation: www.dec.ny.gov
Smith, C. L. 1994. Fish Watching: An Outdoor Guide. Ithaca, NY: Comstock Publishing Associates.
Thinkquest Library: www.thinkquest.org
Werner, R. G. 1980. Freshwater Fishes: A Field Guide. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.