Life and death on a sunfish spawning bed

I won’t tell exactly where the gravel bar is located except that it’s somewhere between Seneca Breaks and Watkins Island on the Potomac River. It looks like any other gravel bar, just a hump of rounded quartzite cobbles capped with a tangle of  knotweed.

This may be my secret gravel bar.
Or maybe it’s not.

What makes this particular gravel bar special is what goes on every spring in the  slack water off its downstream shoreline.

I stopped by a couple of weeks ago for the first time this year. Up until then, the bar had been pounded by weeks of flooding, one storm after another, drowning familiar landmarks in swirls of muddy water and debris. But in late May the river finally calmed down enough that I could get my kayak in the water and check things out.

I slipped my fishing rod out from under the deck and tried a few casts off the side of the bar into the current. I reeled in slowly, feeling the lure bump against the rocks on the bottom. On the second cast, one “rock” wouldn’t let go, and I landed a nice smallmouth bass of maybe 14 inches.

But this wasn’t why I had come to the gravel bar. I pushed through the knotweed to the downstream edge of the little island and cast a little jig into slack water. Immediately something slammed my lure, and a few moments later a redbreast sunfish lay on the weeds by my feet. Next cast I caught another, then a third.

They were small—about the size of my hand—but feisty. And for good reason. They were defending their nests, and they saw my lure as an intruder.

This was their spot. For some reason having to do with the river bottom, the movement of the water, and location, they had chosen this spot as a nesting area. I was an interloper. There was no need to catch any more, particularly after what I had learned just recently.

Bad year for spawning. A few weeks earlier I had attended a meeting of the Potomac Smallmouth Club. The speaker was Jeff Kelbe, Shenandoah Riverkeeper and former fishing guide. His main subject was smallmouth bass, but what he said was equally applicable to sunfish.

Kelbe told the group something that they already knew. “The spawn has been kind of toast this year,” he said.

No sooner had the sunfish and bass built their nests than the next flood wiped everything clean. If the females had not yet released their eggs, they would be reabsorbed into until conditions improve. But if they had already spawned, the eggs and any hatched fry would be washed down the river.

Here we were already at the end of May. Kelbe said the fish might have one last spawning opportunity this season, if the river cooperated. It would be early June or nothing, certainly not later than June 10th.

Someone asked Kelbe for locations of some of the spawning beds. He wouldn’t say, and for good reason as we will see.

Guard duty. As Kelbe explained, fish on their spawning beds will strike any lure that comes their way, making them easy quarry for any fisherman who knows where to go. But there will be a cost.

Spawning season starts with the males scooping out circular depressions in the gravel or sand bottom maybe a foot across. The males attract females to their beds, fertilize their eggs, and then chase the females away. From then on, the males are the first responders in protecting the next generation. Aggressively and unremittingly, they attack anything that poses a threat to the eggs and later to the fry.

Fending off threats is full-time work. Let down your guard, and hungry bystanders—including other sunfish—dart in to grab lunch. The feisty males are effective defenders when the threat is real. But an attack on an intruder made of chartreuse plastic and tipped with a steel hook can be a calamity. The fisherman—maybe a little girl in this case, out for the afternoon with her father—sets the hook and feels the struggling fish on the end of the line. As she reels in, critical seconds go by as one by one the tiny fry disappear into the mouths of hungry opportunists.

The little girl pulls the fish out of the water, and it flops about on the bottom of the boat. Her father tells her to hold it up so he can take a picture. He unhooks and releases the fish. The fish speeds back to the undefended nest perhaps to discover that he has little left to protect.

Bass vs. sunfish.  Of course nature is always more complicated that it looks, particularly when human interests are involved. The meeting where Kelbe spoke was about bass fishing, and the men (and one woman) sitting around me were all bass fishermen. They loved bass and were dedicated to protecting them.

It so happens that a major threat to bass fry are the very sunfish that were the objects of my concern. Therefore, any pressure I put on the sunfish presumably could benefit bass. So I could choose: sunfish or bass? Or I could just walk away from a discussion of ethics that will lead nowhere except which fish I happen to like more.

I checked out the gravel bar four days later. The first thing I saw was that the water had dropped a lot more. It was clearer too, allowing me to see the bottom in some places.

I hauled my kayak up over the knotweed and waded ankle deep off the bar’s downstream side. All around me I could see sunfish nests, their round gravel clearings etched in the silty bottom. There were so many it looked like a heavily cratered part of the moon.

Also like the moon, there was no sign of life. As Kelbe predicted, spawning would be over just about now. I hope it worked out well.

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