Flying Fish on the Big Muddy
Saturn calendar shot
I got this crazy idea about visiting some prospective horridus dens along the Big Muddy River down in southern Illinois.. Rather than hike in, I thought it might be fun to take my canoe and paddle upstream to the area. I hadn't had the chance to take out my canoe this year and here was the opportunity to kill two birds with one rock.
Why look for Timber Rattlesnake dens in late July? The females return to their hibernaculums in later summer to give birth. It it is thought that by doing so, the neonate rattlers can 'imprint' on the den site, besides giving the mama Timbers sunny, secluded spaces to thermoregulate and thereby incubate. A good enough excuse to get out in the field during hot, sticky July.
I was able to talk Rick and Tracey into coming along. We headed south on Friday evening, and pulled into a nearby campground for the night, in order to get off to an early start in the morning.
We put in at a boat ramp and headed upstream. The Big Muddy looks more like a big ditch than a river in places, and the big flood back in '93 left the banks lined with the skeletons of dead trees. We kept an eye out for turtles and water snakes, but did not see anything for quite some time. As we went along, we could see carp rise to the surface and gape, and large silvery fish jumped out of the water from time to time, coming back down with a solid smack. Like most river trips, Great Blue Herons and Kingfishers flew upstream ahead of us, scolding the boat for disturbing their fishing - 'Hey, I'm WORKING here!'
A few miles upriver we made our first stop, tying up the canoe along the bank and hiking up towards some wooded bluffs with a west-southwest exposure. There were lots of lovely cracks and crevices, a number with good sun exposure, but no crotalids or other serpents showed themselves as we worked the rock faces upward and northward. As we went along we could hear the regular slaps and splashes of big fish exiting the river down below.
In our scrambling around on shore we managed to scare up a few Fivelined Skinks, Fowlers Toads, and Leopard Frogs. Typical 'bread and butter' herps for the area, and it's always good to see them, although we would trade the lot for a fat rattlesnake.
We ran out of bluff and so it was back to the boats for us. The fish smacking continued as we paddled upstream to the next place. I had switched seats with Tracey, taking over duties as 'ballast' in the middle seat while he took over back paddle. There was a watery explosion of noise behind me and as I turned to look a two foot long silvery torpedo caromed off Tracey's chest and hurtled into the water. Now Tracey is unflappable as they come, but he still needed a minute to regain composure. What the devil was going on here? They looked like Buffalo Shad to me - was it spawning season? Attack Canoeists Season?
Further excursions on shore were not productive, and we ran out of gas about 5-6 miles upstream. The temperature had broken 90 under a cloudless sky, and we still had a long paddle back in the slow current of the Big Muddy. We spotted one water snake swimming our way, but it crash dived to the bottom when we got too close. This was our only water snake on the trip, unusual since the Big Muddy usually has a good number of Diamondbacks and Yellowbellies present. Fortunately, water turtles were beginning to show themselves, the ubiquitous Redear and some Map Turtles.
Map Turtles are notoriously shy, dropping into the water quickly at our approach. We did run across one Map who let us get a bit closer, and getting some binoculars on it we could see head markings typical for Graptemys pseudogeographica kohnii - a yellow crescent posterior to the eye. That was a new turtle for all of us, and we jockeyed the canoe against the current, staying close enough for pictures and more observation. Eventually we crossed that invisible line that turtles draw, and off the log he slid.
A big fish broke the surface, skipped twice like a stone, and slammed headfirst into the canoe stern. "A little higher and to the left", I imagined his buddies were saying. A bit further on another leaped across the boat right in front of my knees, slamming into the gunwale at mid-body and then toppling into the drink. I don't care who you are, that's gotta hurt. Good thing it didn't drop into the boat I guess.
We made it back to the boat ramp without further incident and loaded up the canoe on my vehicle for the long trip home. No pit vipers, but we did add a new turtle to our lists and we'll be taking a closer look at any Graptemys on future visits. No Cottonmouths either - it looked like I was finally going to get skunked (in 27 years of trips down here, from March to November, I have always seen at least one Cottonmouth). However, heading down the two-lane we spied a dark chunky snake in the oncoming lane, and pulled over to safely escort a small adult Moccasin to the side of the road. The streak stands!
Next time I think we'll avoid the fish barrage and hike in...
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