Wednesday, July 9, 2008

An Adventure With The Fishes of Phelps Creek

Fish Watching at Scenic Phelps Creek
Ashtabula County, Ohio
By: Rob Carillio

I have always loved the many kinds of streams located in Ashtabula County, Ohio, mainly for the interesting geological features, but one stream in particular that has always stood out among them is Phelps Creek, located in the deepest S.W. corner of this Amish influenced county. The creek, with it's highly visible evidence of "natural artwork" sculpted by glacier activity, boasts thick, mature, and healthy streamside forests. It is undoubtedly one of the higher water quality and scenic streams in North East Ohio.

The medium sized tributary is a major tributary of the State Scenic and Wild River, The Grand River, and is part of the Lake Erie drainage. (water drains north to Lake Erie) The particular site I would visit on a beautiful early October afternoon, welcomed Myself, Trumbull County Metroparks Board Member Bill Flynn, NANFA'S Nick Zarlinga, his wife Linda, and of course, the best wild bird sound impersonator east of the Mississippi!!! This "birdman" , among us "fish heads", was none other Cleveland Metroparks Naturalist Jeff Reibe.

Ok everyone, moving right along, we gained access to the stream near the old 1867 covered bridge, spanning Windsor Hollow, which had long been closed off due to liability situations. Ashtabula County is well known for it's several covered bridges, sixteen, to be exact, but Since we couldn't cross it, we had to literally climb down a steep embankment of sandstone rocks to the creek bed. Although somewhat challenging, this only added a spice of adventure to the outing! Taking a moment to reflect, I feel compelled to recollect memories of that wonderful historic covered bridge I mentioned a moment ago near the stream access point. This bridge was constructed with huge wooden beams, well tanned and weathered from time. It was well over 40 feet above the stream, at least 70 feet in length, and was supported by large tan sandstone block columns! Looking at this bridge would remind one of a simpler time when cars were merely something someone only heard about occasionally. Oh well, I could go on and on about this bridge, alone, but I'd be drifting off the focus of the stream in this story! In any event, that old covered bridge was a classic sight, this alone was worth the trip, to at least get some post card perfect snapshots with my camera!

The trees surrounding the bridge and stream wore foliage which was in blazing Autumn colors of red, yellow, brown, orange, mauve, and green. All of this, coupled with the rocky cliffs, (Chagrin Shale and Siltstone) and Phelps Creek lazily flowing below, was an enchanting and stunning sight to behold! By this time, I was already through my roll of film! I wanted to save some for the fishes we would observe today, but as always, when I "fishwatch", I am left with permanent photos in my mind from their always splendid and memorable appearance. Looking around the creek, Summer's end was evident as the waters were very low.

Seeing that it was almost 6pm, at this time of year, we obviously weren't going to have much daylight left. For this reason, we started doing what we visited the creek for in the first place-- we began wading the stream to look for fish and other aquatic life. Outdoor temperatures were in the high 60's to low 70's,. water temp was around 65 degrees. Nick, Bill and Jeff were the primary fish seekers, as I basically handled the buckets! Hey... I'm for hire. Ha! Now totally relaxed in the palms of Mother Nature's hands, all of us suddenly heard something raising quite a ruckus in the hemlock and sycamore trees high above the gorge... Look up in the sky! Up in the forest canopy... what did we see? No...not Darterman...but... four wild turkeys! This was quite inspiring, seeing that in recent times, these birds were absent from Ohio.

After the turkey distraction, our attention turned back to the waters. While shuffling and seining with our fish nets in Phelps Creek, another impressive sight was the small waterfall up stream a short distance. As we were hiking the streambed searching for suitable fish sampling spots we were captivated by all the overwhelming natural beauty that surrounded us. As we were lost in our own little world making way up stream, we were informed by a woman atop the gorge banks that we were venturing on private property. Nick Zarlinga took the liberty and explained to the wary property owner that "her stream" was the subject of "high naturalist interest", and that we were just trying to see what species of fish and other aquatic life inhabit the diverse habitats in the stream. Nice job Nick-- this lady was now seemingly proud that the stream which ran behind her home, was of major interest and "in the spotlight" of naturalist interest!

Focusing back our attention on the search for Phelps Creek aquatic life, we finally discovered some rather healthy looking habitat areas. Nick, Bill, and Jeff, were able to sample various pools. These were mostly the only habitats available due to the low water levels. By the way, Linda Zarlinga, Nick's wife, who in recent days has not had much luck with hiking in natural areas (she broke some bones on a recent trip!), found safe solitude on a large stream rock which made a perfect sitting spot. Linda had the right idea, as she knew how extremely slippery the stream rocks were, due to algae growth. I will verify this, because I almost fell twice! Photos courtesy of Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

Colorful trees along the rocky cliffs near Phelps Creek 
Picturesque Countryside within The Grand River/Phelps Creek Watershed

Finally, the fish finding would begin!!! Using various fish collection methods taught by "The Nick Zarlinga School for the Inseine" (By the way, "seines" are fish nets, for those of you not aware.. hence my little joke..), In approximately two hours, we managed to retrieve and identify only 10 species of fish, among other various aquatic life, such as crayfish, insects, etc. This low number of fishes netted was largely due to the nets getting caught on large rocks, causing us to struggle when handling them, allowing the fish to escape under them! Score one for the guys with the fins! Photos by B.J. Casseday and Mike Wolfe.

Although Phelps Creek boasts a diverse assemblage of native fishes, on this late afternoon, our sampling inventory read like this.... Johnny Darter, Rainbow Darter, White Sucker, Common and maybe Striped Shiner, Blacknose Dace, Bluntnose Minnow, Central Stone Roller, Mottled Sculpin, Northern Hog Sucker (a big fella!), Creek Chub, Sand Shiner, Green Sunfish, Fantail Darter, and among the other aquatic life we caught, some various Crayfish. Pictured below, are some of the fishes which inhabit Phelps Creek. How many pictured, did we find on this day??? Do you remember??? You can click on the fishes below to enlarge the picture. Illustrations by Joe Tomelleri Other photos by Rob Carillio and B.J. Casseday.

After taking species inventory, and as darkness began to cast foreboding shadows and eerie sounds upon Phelps Creek Gorge (actually Windsor Hollow), we thought it best to pack up the gear and begin climbing out. I thought it was difficult climbing down with empty hands... try climbing UP with buckets full of fish and water! Add to this, the fact that Phelps Creek Gorge, in the early evening, can appear quite spooky. This was so fitting for October, however, as I now know what Ichabod Crane must had felt as he was riding his rickety old horse fearfully slow when heading home from the Village of Sleepy Hollow! Despite the spooked feeling that overcame me on the way out, I hope to return to this extremely picturesque stream. Perhaps I will go in the Spring time, when water is a little higher, and fishes are in full spawning colors. This is a "best kept secret" kind of place in North East Ohio, and I think anyone would find the trip worthwhile. I suggest that any native fish enthusiast reading this story should trek to Phelps Creek, even if just to enjoy the scenery alone.

Phelps Creek is truly a natural gem, amidst the highly populated and developing northeast portion of Ohio. Thank you Nick and Linda Zarlinga, Jeff Reibe, and Bill Flynn for attending this small but quality gathering. Thank you Nick for your hospitality, as we ventured back to your home to unwind and enjoy refreshments. I also have to mention what a great native fish aquarium you have!

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