Monday, June 11, 2007

River of Late.......

The following is from the latest river observations of Ben Williams, former Riverkeeper Board member, avid fisherman, and owner of Fisherman's Dock seafood market.

Ospreys - Though over the last few decades they have become pleasantly ubiquitous, they can still serve as barometers of things. In that vein, it's worth noting that of late we've noticed at least a couple of nests where the parents have managed to rear 3 chicks to fledge. I'd venture that this is a result of the current conditions in the river. Both because of the great schools of mullet, and because of the large number of distressed freshwater fish, easy picking abound. I should also add that, because of the good crab season we're having, there are more traps around, and therefore, more discarded bait to be scavenged each morning. Less chance of a young osprey not getting a full belly and, therefore, less need for his less strong sibling to go even hungrier.

And speaking of traps and discarded bait, gators love it too. We've noted gators working away from the bank at sunrise in Lake George, precisely when you'd usually expect to see them going in the other direction, and they're working out towards the trap lines.......think they've learned something?

And it is that salt water that is of special note. Marker 18, on the north head of the bar at Browns landing, which is about a dozen miles south of the 17 Bridge at Palatka, had barnacles on it as of Saturday. Not little tiny pinhead ones either, but rather barnacles of BB size or larger. NEVER seen them so far south. Asked around. Found a few fishermen older than I to ask and their response was the same. In the old days, 30 years ago, even the docks in the Toccoi area were barnacle free. And it was big news when, a decade ago, barnacles were growing within sight of Palatka, way beyond that now.

And with those barnacles, riding too on the salt, have come the fish. Tarpon, 3 I know of hooked by one bass fisherman on Friday last. And snook, and porpoise south of Green Cove, and jellyfish to the Shands and beyond, and the crabs are carrying sponge south of town, which pushes the crabbers farther south to escape those they can not sell legally. And here at the house, Fruit Cove, a few hundred yards south of Julington Creek, the fish feeder's school of bream has dwindled. Driven from the constant source of food by the salt, I assume. And I think it a good assumption for, and trust me I know what I am looking at, as I look off the dock I see few freshwater fish. Where a couple of months ago there would be groups of small bass and sundry panfish species wandering the shallows, today, none.

But it's not as if there is no life there, for the saltwater species have replaced them. Mullet, and schools of small croakers, and spots, and pinfish, and all sorts of minnows. And where we would see shad, we're now seeing porgies. And a few hours ago I noted vast numbers of tiny marine shrimp, the result of the spring spawn, moving along the bank. And their general direction of movement, as is to be expected this time of year, is south.

And the eel grass is in full retreat here near Julington. Since January, it's transitioned from lush to sparse, with gone on the way. It's headed where it was a decade ago, white sand and sight casting reds off the dock................... But to the south, Lake George and the river proper, there the grass is coming back with a vengeance. The bars in the river, bars which for the last 4 or 5 years have been just that, sand bars, are now sprouting grass. And in Lake George, how beautiful it will get is anyone's guess. We were there yesterday. Along the east shore, there are places where it extends hundreds of yards from the bank, farther than we can ever remember seeing it. And the west shore, according to reports as I've not been over there lately myself, has recovered nicely from the lashing of the hurricanes. The grass, which had been rooted up in mass by the waves of those storms, is well on it's way to lush also.

And more good news. With the exception of a report or two from Crescent Lake, there has been no sign of our ugly green friend. Of course, it's only in the last couple of weeks that the water has hit the mid 80s steady, which may change things, but then the salt will have some effect?

And the mullet.............! If there have been more mullet in the river in recent years, we missed it. It's hard to explain this, but generally while we do see some significant size variation in the mullet populating the river, the mullet in the river will be more of the larger and fewer of the smaller. Of course, the river harbors mostly black mullet and not the silvers that tend to run smaller. But what we're seeing is a population structure with a far greater number of small, as in what fishermen call "finger mullet", than usual. And the numbers are huge. Doctors Lake is literally seething with them. How this unusually large population of vegetarians will effect things, who can tell.

And then there is the bottom in the shallows. When we have grass, the grass tends to impede the passage of sediments down the river. Here at the house, and in many places, a muck layer will develop behind and amongst the grass. The bottom not covered by grass will be dark. Now though, even in the shallows, sand is much more visible. And where did the muck go? And where did the nutrients bound up in that muck go? And is this good? And is this a natural cycle that allows the river to purge to some extent? Questions that prove we need science and scientist because we fishmongers can only guess. I guess it's a good and natural thing, guess being the operative word.

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