Articles, Blog

Headwaters (1966) – MDC Film Archives

(music) This is a rural community, one we’d all like to share. . It is the headwaters of one of the more
fabled streams of the eastern United States. Such streams are clear, fast flowing, with gravel bottoms
and a unique beauty all their own. Too often, this beauty is appreciated only in spring and summer, but each season has its own attractions for
the eyes of a careful observer. Autumn leaves underscore the season’s beauties. And winter models the water and land with the
starkness and simplicity of a Japanese print. A lovely community the whole year through. People view a stream in different ways. It may be just a place to cross, perhaps without even a
bridge to take a load of wood to market. Some people see it as a landmark, a place
to toss an empty beer can. To this couple, it is the pure pleasure of fast water. A
tranquil campsite is another face of the same stream. The waters themselves are an invitation to investigate the sights and sounds and to test an overhanging bank or log for what it might offer. Float fishing in a canoe is a way of casting
oneself upon the waters in search of fish. Quite the loveliest way to go fishing. In late autumn our streams are never crowded, except with beauty. Let’s get acquainted with a prominent citizen of our headwaters community: the smallmouth bass. His assertive pace, as he patrols a portion of
the stream that is his home, reveals assurance of his worth and place in his world. The size and shape of the home range of a smallmouth varies, but is seldom longer than six hundred feet and
is usually contained within a single pool. Its bounds may be difficult for humans to discern, but the bass regards this place as its
own. Here are food and safety. Moving into the smallmouth’s world underwater makes both the
fish and its neighborhood look different. The smallmouth bass belongs to a large family of fish called sunfish. Although large in our headwaters community, smallmouth bass are not especially big fish. Its common name comes from the size of its mouth; the upper jaw extending only as far back
as the pupil of the eye. Mostly the bass likes to live alone, a rugged individualist. The green sunfish somewhat resembles its relative, the bass. This highly colored longear sunfish is yet another of our community citizens. The slender madtom is a pigmy catfish, hiding
by day in the rocks and gravel. Tiny darters crawl almost lizard-like over the rocks of the shallows. Here they feed on insect larvae and other small animals. The sculpin is also a bottom dweller. In our headwaters are many kinds of minnows, moving in schools. They may compete at times with the young of other
game fishers for space and for some foods, but generally they graze sheep-like on algae and small plant life. Two common minnows of our hill streams are the stoneroller and brilliantly colored bleeding shiner shown here in breeding condition. Hornyhead chubs are another common stream minnow. Hogsuckers, with their snout-like lips, seem to vacuum the stream bottom. They are a clean stream fish, always associated with clear, unpolluted waters. Warm, shallow waters are nurseries for toad tadpoles. Although adults are not aquatic, they must return to water to breed. Tadpoles of the bullfrog like deeper water and are bound
here until they transform into fully developed frogs. The banded water snake puts pressure on creatures like the bullfrog. A flat, streamlined body helps the softshell turtle
spend most of its life underwater. Shy and retiring, it can dig itself into loose gravel. Almost completely buried, it lies in wait for prey, with
only its nose and alert eyes showing. Water striders are only one of many insects that live here too. Crayfish frequent the stream bottom and often become food
for many other creatures, even birds. Along the little highway of the stream bank is
evidence of other denizens, raccoons and mink. Here, an albino mink, an oddity in the wild,
forages along the stream for its meal. The shallower parts of the stream, with partly submerged logs, sheltering rocks, overhanging banks, assume new importance to citizen smallmouth when spring is well advanced and water temperatures stay steadily above 50 degrees. This male has chosen this log as a focal point for his nest, which is always located in quiet water, fairly close to shore. Using his tail, he vigorously cleans silt from the gravel. This action also sweeps out a saucer-shaped depression about
two feet wide and four inches deep. The sheltering log is a haven when resting or when danger threatens. The male displays by languidly floating on his side motionless, for a second or two, as a female is attracted to his nest. What influence this has on the female is unknown. We do not yet understand all that we see. The hornyhead chub also feels the spawning urge, but the male hornyhead’s approach is the opposite of the bass’s. For his nest, he builds up instead of down. He laboriously carries pebbles in his mouth, one at a time, making trip after trip, selecting just the right pebble. Other fish will profit from his labors by
using the same nest for spawning. Over a period of several days, the hornyhead
chub may carry thousands of stones until he has erected a conical nest mound over
40 inches across and seven inches high. The male orange throat darter displays and wards off other
males by blocking them from the female. He indicates possessiveness by this gesture and dominance by placing the fore part of his body across the female’s. This elaborate ritual is perhaps important only to darters, but nevertheless adds its vital part to the
tapestry that is the whole stream. Back under the sunken log, the female smallmouth
is ready to lay her eggs. Under the stress of spawning, females assume splotched markings markings on back and sides and are now easy to identify. These markings will fade immediately after leaving the nest. While on the nest, she extrudes a few eggs at a
time, which are fertilized at once by the male. The fertilized eggs adhere to the gravel where they will develop and hatch. Occasionally two females may be attracted to the same nest. The male gently herds them within the nest, spawning with both. In one mile of good headwaters habitat, there may be 50 mature smallmouth bass and half as many nests. Most nests contain an average of 2,500 eggs. Sometimes even three females may use the same nest,
and the male spawns with all. This mass of smallmouth bass eggs will hatch out many
more bass than the stream can support. Over 98 percent of the young from this nest
will die before a year has passed. The steady struggle of life in the stream will
reduce the thousands of smallmouth bass spawned to the 50 mature bass that can exist in
a mile of good smallmouth water. Though the smallmouth is a solitary nester, his
cousin, the longear sunfish, is gregarious. Nests may nearly touch. Such closeness apparently spurs breeding activity. The longear male is one of the stream’s most colorful citizens. His iridescence rivals tropical fish. Females are not so brilliant, but are beautiful creatures too. The longear male’s protective efforts are more energetic than the smallmouth’s and he prods and herds the female over the nest during spawning. He makes frequent side excursions to drive off other males. Longear nests and eggs are much like the bass’s. Red horse suckers, colonial spawners, take up spawning stations on shoals. Males await females, which drift onto the shoal from deeper water above. Usually two males share spawning duties with a single female, but sometimes other males may join the trio. After spawning, the adults abandon the shoal and the
eggs are left to develop unattended. Once she has spawned, the female smallmouth leaves, and it is up to the male to care
for the nest full of eggs. With undulating motion of tail and fins he hovers over the nest. This may aerate the eggs and keep a
certain amount of silt off them. One thing his presence does is guard the
eggs from predation by other creatures. The male is belligerent and doesn’t tolerate any intrusion into the nesting area. Other bass, hogsuckers and all, are kept at a distance. A blundering tadpole is chased gently at first, but if not
fast enough, will get a more severe nip. The male green sunfish also has domestic duties. Like the bass, the female forgoes any responsibilities and leaves
the male to tend the nest and young. This sunfish has his nest in a secluded spot in
the headwaters, the eggs incubating in the gravel. Although his nest is less than a foot across, he guards a wider area around it, making frequent forays out and back. The green sunfish is almost as aggressive as the larger bass when it comes to protecting the nest and eggs. Colonial nesting continues to have its troubles. Non-nesting longear sunfish attack other longear eggs until the
harassed male manages to drive them off, not without some loss of eggs however. Predators of nests aren’t necessarily sunfish. Here minnows of several species gather over a hornyhead chub’s nest. Some may be here to spawn, but most are seeking unprotected eggs. Now and then, one of the school dislodges a bit of the
gravel and there is a frenzied feeding on exposed eggs. The smallmouth continues his vigil, gently fanning the eggs. Despite his efforts, which cannot be so violent as to dislodge the eggs, a slight film of silt accumulates, though it will not prevent their development. Some nests are less fortunate. This one is covered with a whitish fungus; no bass will hatch here. In two to three days, the eggs hatch. . The tiny bass have a yolk sack that
will provide food for about ten days. The fry, as they are called, change almost hourly, and within a day blood can be seen coursing through
tiny vessels where the gills will be. The mouth opens on the fifth day. The patient male continues his watch. About a week after hatching, the fry become pigmented. They are still only a little over a quarter inch long. By the tenth day after hatching, the pigmented
fry appear as a blackish mass lying on and in the gravel of the nest. If there have been no drastic changes in water—changes
due to flood, drought, or temperature fluctuation— and if the male has not been forced away or killed,
the chances of survival so far are good. Actually, more than 90 percent of the eggs survive to this stage, which means such a nest can easily have over
2,000 young bass clustered among the gravel. Once the young become more proficient in swimming, they begin to rise up from the bottom, still guarded by the male. The yolk sack is nearly used up and they
start to feed on tiny animal life. Their predatory life has begun. Above the bass, another school of tiny fish swims. Protected by the male bass now, they will become
prey of the bass fry later. The male will guard the bass fry for about two weeks
and then the young will disburse on their own. There could now be 45,000 young bass in a mile of headwaters. From here on, although they are capable of finding
their own food and making their way, they face a formidable host of enemies, and chances of survival become slim. Baby smallmouths are voracious feeders, tackling up to and including fish their own size. If weather conditions are favorable, a second spawning and nesting period may follow the first. Its additions may boost the total number of smallmouths to as
many as 75,000 in a single mile of stream. More bass are produced than can live here, obviously, but what is it that reduces that immense population down
to the relative handful that manages to persist? We just do not know. By the end of their first year, smallmouths are about three inches long. Slow growing, they will be only six inches long when two years old. Once spawning and nesting are over in midsummer, , life in the stream settles into a steady
individual fight for a place to live. Deep holes and protection of logs, rocks, roots and overhangs are sought. Bass show strong attachments to home pools, and the best pools are occupied by the biggest fish. Smaller ones are forced out to less desirable, and more unstable, pools. In this dreamy summer lull, let’s look at some of the
things that make these headwaters uniquely a smallmouth stream. For one thing, it has food for fry and for larger fish. Minnows are one such food. Crayfish are important too. Frogs sometimes become victims of the bass’s gluttony. Dobsonfly larvae, called hellgrammites, are eagerly sought. So are dragonfly nymphs. And even terrestrial insects like grasshoppers may be unlucky enough to fall
into the water and end up as bass food. Gravel is important too, providing nesting sites and habitat for creatures bass eat. But too much gravel can choke out pools and ruin a stream. A small headwaters like this one that has everything for bass can be totally destroyed by man’s thoughtless use of a resource. Gravel dredging at spawning season has wiped out
nests, developing young, and even adults. No bass will be produced from this stretch of
stream that has become a trucker’s highway. No bass will be produced from this stretch of
stream that has become a trucker’s highway. Rocky outcrops are another factor in a smallmouth community that afford
a sanctuary for many creatures living in the stream. Bass search for their food here and also utilize its protection themselves. A flood-deposited tree makes a wonderful bass hangout after the
water scours a deep hole around the roots. From this shadowy haven, a smallmouth can sometimes be enticed. Living trees will tie down banks and prevent erosion, but man’s
mistaken cutting here will have no lasting good effects. There are other things that threaten the smallmouth stream. Stream straightening to speed water away can produce a monotony of gravel
and water with little to entice bass to live here. These are direct attacks on the stream, but indirect effects of man’s use of the stream
and watershed may be more serious. Clear cutting, and unwise livestock use around a stream, reduce plant cover and the land’s ability to regulate drainage. Fire is the enemy of the smallmouth and stream, as well
as the woodland, because the watershed is damaged. . Fire destroys leaf and twig litter that acts as
an absorbent sponge to hold rain. Without it, runoff is accelerated. The soil, in the form of silt, rushes off
the burned-over land, resulting in flooding. Too much silt can destroy nests and eggs of fish and
eventually disrupt the harmony of the living stream community. Clear water streams are threatened in other ways too. Various pollutants are serious enemies. Strip mine drainage with its high acid content can wipe out all life
forms in a stream and turn it into a sterile ditch. Subtle poisons, like lead mine drilling wastes, may
kill links in the living chain, from the tiniest creature to the smallmouth, and destroy
the things we desire to keep. Some pollutants, like human sewage, may be beneficial to a few organisms, so much so that the stream balance is upset and other creatures suffer. In any event, the charm of the stream is lost. Death may be a poisonous cloud from some industrial accident that
drifts down the stream, leaving disaster in its wake. Every citizen of the headwaters community succumbs, from tiny madtom
minnow and darter to the sculpin and bass. We must constantly fight to prevent tragedies like this. Our headwaters community is delicate and vulnerable, which
makes it all the more precious. What’s a smallmouth bass worth? Difficult to answer, but these fellows know. They
might quote you the old cliché, inch for inch and pound for pound, the
smallmouth is the gamest fish that swims. Words may not nail down its worth, but they know. What are they biting on? Something yellow, you say? Yellow’s always good in autumn. Where were we? Oh, yes, what’s the smallmouth bass worth? Well, what’s its stream worth? A great deal to most of us. We can say this at least: what affects a stream affects a smallmouth. And what affects a smallmouth bass affects us humans. He’s no record fish, but every smallmouth fights like a champion. A headwater stream is something special to just about everyone. Clear water and the unique life along such a stream
add up to the best quality fishing anywhere. Big lakes have their fans, and farm ponds their devotees, but the moving, fleeting, delicate essence that is a
smallmouth stream makes for quality fishing. What’s a smallmouth bass worth? ? If can you ask the question without an answer
surging silently within your own mind, you’ll never know. But those who cast themselves upon the waters in pursuit of him
know that he and his stream are beyond price.


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