Friday, April 26, 2013

Suckers Spawning on Virginia Tech Campus in Stormwater Inlet, by Don Orth

On Wednesday, April 24th, I hiked over to the VT Veterinary Medicine stormwater pond to check for spawning activity.   In April 2010 I got an email from Mike Rosenzweig, Director of Blacksburg Nature Center and Biology Instructor, who asked me about the identity of large fish in the pond inlet.    When I went to investigate I discovered these were white suckers and they were spawning in the inlet.    I have been watching the inlet since late March but have seen no evidence, presumably because of our cool spring this year.  Last Wednesday I observed at least 2 dozen large adult males congregating near the pond inlet.   Two had already swam up the bedrock shelf that separates the pond and the culvert under the walking path.   So sucker spawning season has begun and one can easily observe this phenomenon on campus.   
Male white sucker with breeding coloration pattern.  Photo by Ryan McManamay.

In 2010, Ryan McManamay, Tyler Young, and I took advantage of the opportunity to ask several questions:  Was this suboptimal spawning microhabitat or is it similar to habitats where white sucker normally spawn?  Did the spawning result in successful fertilization and development of embryos?   Are the reproductive needs of this population being met in small remnants of a natural channel in an otherwise human created system?     Over a two-week period we counted spawning suckers, collected and measured males and females, described spawning habitats, and collected drifting larval white suckers.  These observations are summarized in “Spawning of White Sucker (Catostomus commersoni) in a Stormwater Pond Inlet,” published in the American Midland Naturalist.  
We learned that the water source for this stormwater pond originates in a heavily modified subwatershed that is 41% impervious surfaces; the remainder is the VT baseball and softball fields, sports practice fields, track and football stadium, all of which are designed to rapidly shed rainwater.    The upper areas of the watershed include Stadium Woods and many grated inlets that intercept runoff and route the flow to a cluster of culverts that merge in to a concrete-lined tunnel feeding the inlet.  The day-lighted portion of the inlet is only 45 meters before entering the pond.   Stadium Woods, a controversial site for expansion of athletics practice fields, is a forest on the border of campus, and features 46 white oaks that are over 250 years old.   From a hydrological standpoint, this forest is the source of the cool, perennial flow that enters the pond inlet, yet the original spring and stream channel is buried, replaced by culverts.  All that remains of the natural channel is the 45 meters stretch.

Stormwater pond inlet stream used by spawning white suckers.  Photo by Ryan McManamay.

White suckers are known for their migratory runs in spring.  They spawn in swift flowing, shallow waters over gravel or cobbles, where they deposit adhesive eggs.   On a single day we estimated there were between 200 and 300 white suckers spawning in this small inlet.  We believe this to be the peak day of spawning as numbers dwindled appreciably thereafter.   These fish were demonstrating all the classic sucker spawning behaviors in the inlet stream as well as in the concrete tunnel, which has a thick deposit of fine gravel.    The stream temperature at this time (12.4 C) was 7.6 C cooler than the pond’s littoral zone.    Further, we documented fertilized eggs in the drift 8 days later and larval stages 12 days later.   Although I have unwittingly driven by this small pond inlet numerous times, I have never sampled it for fish.  But at least once per year it becomes an essential habitat for completing the life cycle.    It is shallower than other streams where white suckers spawn, but the velocities and bottom sediments were within the preferred range established by other investigators. 

Underwater photo of white suckers in inlet stream. Photo by Ryan McManamay.

The good news is that this highly modified watershed and pond system has a remnant 45-meter natural channel that sustains the reproductive needs of the pond population.  For local fish enthusiasts, now is the time to sit near the bank and observe the spawning behavior.   It will be over soon.     Observe and report.   I think you will agree that "Fish are awesome!"

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Story of the First Virginia Tech Mudbass Classic

On Saturday, April 20th, the Virginia Tech Chapter of the American Fisheries Society will sponsor the Annual Mudbass Classic at the Virginia Tech (VT) Duck Pond.  This free fishing tournament has been held annually, with few exceptions, since 1983.     Here I tell the story of how the Duck Pond and the Mudbass became the target of this popular annual event.   
Common carp Cyprinus carpio  photo:
The Duck Pond is a focal point on the west edge of campus and popular for picnickers, joggers, geese, ducks, and turtles.   It is not a pristine water body that you might prefer as the venue for a major fishing tournament.   In fact, the Duck Pond was created in 1937 as a stormwater retention pond for the town of Blacksburg and VT Campus.  Several spring arise in Blacksburg to form the two branches of Stroubles Creek which flow through town and the Virginia Tech campus and merge to form the Virginia Tech Duck Pond.   Most residents do not perceive the incoming branches as they are covered and culverted, one under a large parking lot and one under the VT drillfield.   The stormwater pond regularly fills with sediment and nutrient-laden flood waters and had to be dredged in 1950, 1960, and 1986 to maintain the capacity to absorb flood waters and trap sediments.     Water quality was historically impaired from chemical drains from Davidson Hall in the 1970s and a variety of accidental spills in the watershed.  Stroubles Creek is included on the Virginia DEQ 303d list of impaired water bodies, based on analysis of benthic macroinvertebrate data.   Yet the Duck Pond will be teeming with fish enthusiasts on Saturday. 

 If the Duck Pond is an unlikely location for a fishing tournament, then the target of these fishers is even more unlikely.    The "Mudbass" is the name used by the first tournament organizers to popularize the Common Carp Cyprinus carpio for local anglers.  Common carp is not a popular target among North American anglers and tournament fishing is unknown on this continent.   Only in the U.K. can a carp fisher fish competitively for carp.    Common carp are native to Asia but were introduced  as a food fish throughout much of Europe during the middle ages and, by 1877 after heavy lobbying by European immigrants, the US Commission of Fish and Fisheries imported carp to the US.      Carp rapidly spread across the continent and are now naturalized in the continental US and  targeted by the few specialized bowfishers and carp anglers.

Canada geese are residents of the Virginia Tech Duck Pond

Carp have extremely sensitive  hearing, making  these fish difficult to approach.  They also have sensitive smell, via their nares located in front of their eyes.   Their lips and barbells are covered with tiny taste buds.   Taste buds are sensitive to acids, bases, sugars and amino acids.   Inside the mouth of the carp, the buccal cavity is lined with membranes and ridges with microscopic papillae, filled with mucus goblet cells and taste buds.    The palatal taste organ is a fleshy muscular area at the top of the mouth and traps food against the bottom of the mouth.  Here the carp can grip the food particle while rejecting non-edible particles.   Anything that is not “food” is spit out.   This means hooks, especially large hooks, are detected and spit out, and further explains the popularity of hair rigs for serious carp fishing.

When Don Hershfeld, arrived as a student on the VT campus in 1982 and began sampling local fishing spots, the common carp was the dominant large fish in the Duck Pond.        Without a car to travel to the New River or local trout streams, Don found that the Duck Pond was the closest fishing pond.    The only problem was it was shallow, muddy, and it smelled.   Don quickly learned that catching carp with corn or dough was not as simple as catching largemouth bass with a spinner bait.  He began his newfound mission to popularize the sport of carp fishing.   He began referring to the carp as the 'golden freshwater bonefish' and started his newest sporting challenge of flyfishing for carp in the Duck Pond.   In an email to Mudbass Classic organizers a few years back he wrote that “It can be argued that a carp on a fly is right up there with the most difficult of angling feats - they seem to possess a protective sixth sense and tolerate no errors in presentation whatsoever.”    

As he learned that he could be a successful carp angler he talked up this activity.   He wrote a letter to the editor of Collegiate Times concerning the state of the Duck Pond and his recent carp fishing.   A student responded in the next issue with a screed on the carp and insulted Don for wasting time fishing for them.    Worst of all some of his fellow fisheries students mocked his pursuit of the lowly carp.    Rather than continue to be ridiculed, Don reasoned that he could challenge these detractors to some head-to-head competition pursuing the carp in the Duck Pond.    It wasn’t hard to convince a group of fisheries student to go fishing, but Don had a bigger vision in mind and turned a little ridicule into the big event that continues today.

Don Hersheld  made a number of enduring decisions as the first organizer.    At the time the Bass Anglers Sportsmen Society (B.A.S.S.) was the largest organization of anglers in North American and were promoting tournament angling (fish for cash prizes) as well as the practice of catch-and-release angling.   Ray Scott, founder of B.A.S.S., was a man on a mission to revolutionize sport fishing and Don Hershfeld saw carp fishing as the the poor man’s answer to B.A.S.S. tournament angling.  Don had some experience organizing fishing tournaments as an employee of a fishing tackle shop and he knew the challenges of emulating the the biggest tournament of the day, the Bassmaster Classic Bass Fishing Tournament.   

Don renamed the creature as the  "mudbass,''  which I believe was a significant and important choice that led to the success of the first event.   Don’s recollection was that “Calling the competition the Mudbass Classic leveraged the excitement and prestige."      Don Hershfeld singlehandedly promoted the first event with posters, salesmanship, and daily carp teasers.   Each day a new puzzle would appear in the student lunch room.   For example, one such clue might be ”What is a sudden emotional renewal brought on by the experience of carp fishing?”   And the answer would later be posted as   “Carptharsis.”         

On the day of the first Mudbass Classic, Don dressed in suit, tie and cowboy hat, so he would be identifiable as the promoter, reminiscent of Ray Scott himself.   The first event attracted only 40-50 entries with a $5 entry fee.   Yet many were no shows because the night before the first event we had heavy spring rains and continued rain throughout the morning.    Some believe that poor weather conditions increase the probability of catching a carp, but those are mere beliefs often held by the intrepid who continue to fish through the rain.   The rain actually slowed down a bit during the event and continued soon after the weigh in was completed.   Cash prizes were awarded to the entrants with the most fish and the largest fish.   No chumming was permitted.    As it turned out there were no rules about watercraft, and on the morning of the first event two canoes were paddled out and anchored near the island in the Duck Pond.    The canoes held Clem Fay, Bob Graham, Bill Shoch, and  Don Orth.    In subsequent years, this practice was outlawed.  

Winners of the first Mudbass Classic, Clem Fay (left) and Don Orth (center), and organizer Don Hersheld (in cowboy hat) and his assistant at the weigh in (John Copeland, bottom right).

 On Saturday, April 20th, the Mudbass Classic will once again bring fish enthusiasts together to share their passions in the pursuit of fish to others.   The Mudbass Classic today is a free event and serves as an important educational outreach event, sponsored by the Virginia Tech chapters of the American Fisheries Society and the Wildlife Society, as well as the Virginia Tech Bass Fishing Team.     Every year a new organizing committee is appointed to do the marketing, fundraising, registration, and education for the local community.   These student organizers can thank Don Hershfeld for his  work in 1983 as first organizer.    Don was clearly ahead of his time.   The New York Times highlighted fly-fishing with an article Carp Gain as a Fly-Fishing Favorite, numerous fishing guides (even one named Golden Bonefish) teach the fine art of catching a carp on the fly, and several carp fly fishing books are in print. 

Don Hershfeld continues to be a teacher about all thing fish.    Today he runs a bed and breakfast on the Youghiogheny River in western Maryland, named “Streams and Dreams.”   Don also teaches his guests the fine art of flyfishing.  A recent guest writes  “… I now have a love and appreciation for flyfishing.  Don’s patience, love of teaching (even to the slowest of learners!) and wonderful way with words has left me knowing the basic fundamentals of flyfishing.“      His legacy continues each spring in the form of the Virginia Tech Mudbass Classic.      To those of you venturing out on Saturday,   “good luck and tight lines.”