Saturday, April 13, 2013

Devonian Tetrapod Fossils Link People to the Seas

Exploring Red Hill, Pennsylvania, and the First North American Tetrapod Discovery

This story I wrote appeared in the Paleontograph last year. I thought it especially appropriate to this blog because it deals with the discovery of the first North American tetrapod, a fish with fins becoming legs, a key product of evolution that links us with fish in the most intimate way.
Compared to other places we have searched, the Red Hill site yielded few fossils harder to work for. Situated in Clinton County, Pennsylvania, adjacent to the West Branch Susquehanna River, we hammered and chiseled, carefully extracting sedimentary sections, for relatively little evidence of late Devonian flora and fauna while light drizzle glazed red mudstone with September temperatures in the low 50’s. My family’s best find was a fish scale about three fourths of an inch diameter, almost certainly an instance of the large Hyneria predator. Other members of New York Paleontological Society found similar scales, pieces of plant stems, and a large section of fish vertebrae along the impressive, red-toned highway cut. But the scarcity of fossil finds paled in comparison to the importance of the rock we worked upon.
          By invitation from Douglas Rowe, who stewards the site in conjunction with Ted Daeschler of The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, Curator of Vertebrate Zoology, the group traveled to north-central Pennsylvania in 2009 to collect, then stay in nearby Renovo and Hyner hotels for the night and resume collecting in the morning. The mood was somber as the weather and arrival of the fall season coupled with this fairly isolated region of Pennsylvania, but everyone seemed to feel pleased to be treated the opportunity with legendary Doug Rowe. This site is restricted to invitation only, and significant finds are released to Rowe and Daeschler, but Hyneria scales, isolated vertebra, plant matter, and possibly other minor finds were ours to keep.  
          Having finished collecting together late in the afternoon the day of our arrival, we caravanned to Rowe’s local museum, an enormous collection of fossils including some of the first North American tetrapod finds at Red Hill. Douglas Rowe is credited with Ted Daeschler for the very first North American tetrapod discovery in the early 1990’s at Red Hill. By synchronicity of interest and endeavor, Ted Daeschler happened upon Rowe pursuing his hobby at about this time along the road cut near Hyner and Renovo, deeply absorbed in both his authentic ability and the significance of this exposure of the Catskill Formation. Rowe has since received the 2007 Harrell L. Strimple Award for contributions to paleontology. One of two species of tetrapods discovered here, Densignathus rowei, is named after him.
          Tetrapods are extremely rare finds along the one kilometer Red Hill site; usually a shoulder piece or jaw is found rather than complete skeleton. The predominantly red mudstone is a deep deposit from a wide lowland river bed and flood plain of the Catskill Formation, which emptied into the inland Catskill Sea having flowed north and west from highlands. The tropical or sub-tropical climate produced a flourishing of plant life, and remains often found in the much less frequent green sandstone present along the cut suggests the ancient presence of ponds on the flood plain.
          Red Hill is one instance conveniently exposed by highway construction of a larger unit of like rivers forming the Catskill Delta produced by erosion of the Acadian Orogeny—mountains that lay to the south and east. Alluvial deposits extend from southeast New York, through Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, and northwest Virginia. Marine deposits associated are to the west into Ohio, and southward into Tennessee. The late Devonian continent of Euramerica, 365-370 million years ago, was distinctly characterized by the inland sea, and no doubt fish forming appendages to venture upon land is the most important value we encounter from that time.    

Matt Litton chisels sedimentary stone, eventually finding large fish scale (Hyneria) fossils a full inch across, 365-370 million years old.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Stocked Brook Trout and Rainbow Trout in Streams and Small Rivers

Tips for Brook Trout and Rainbow Trout in Streams and Small Rivers

          Early memories of the first cast placing salmon eggs on double leaders into clear water, and of the air warmed to 70 degrees by lunchtime, return me to forgotten values. Although Opening Day can remind anglers of winter more than spring, warmth and green shoots are here to greet us without that edge of low temperature contrast, an outdoor presence so nice that everyone in the crowds seems friendly. In fact they tend to be. Being out in the beginnings of the year’s warm season makes an actual difference in people’s temperament. On March 20, 2012, we commonly heard, “Happy first day of summer!”

          Summery weather or not, is it just the trout that the state—of all entities—stocks? Or isn’t it largely a desire to be outside in the transition to the warm season? And why are brook trout, of all freshwater fish, so suited to be eager to please right when this shift from the cold to the warm season is underway?

          That seems one of those questions no factual answer follows, besides the obvious biological reasons, which isn’t really what I meant. But I think it was wise that brook trout were chosen as the symbolic state fish of New Jersey. How does your garden grow? From the very beginning of the warm season. 

          Brook trout have been here since the Wisconsin Glacier began to recede some 12,000 years ago. Garden State gems. Not to mention that New Jersey is very much the center Mid-Atlantic state, certainly so for dense population, and the weather is sort of balanced here between the far north and far south. Spring is when the gardening begins and the brookies flourish and the pivotal point here in New Jersey between the cold weather season and the warm weather season we've reached now is not long after the Spring Equinox. 

          Since brook trout get stocked first, followed by rainbows beginning the second week of stocking, then brown trout by about May 1st, it’s wise to have small sinking Rapalas, one-inch and two-inch sizes. The largest brook trout may strike these plugs if you fish stretches or holes of the major rivers stocked with outsized fish. Another trick is to bring a small bucket with at least half a dozen medium shiners and hope the same happens. It’s possible to give a big trout a preferential treat over the salmon eggs and other small presentations.

          No one doubts that fishing among other people often has a competitive aspect, but this is kept at low key, and people learn from one another this way. Conversation on the water is light and sometimes surprisingly informative. I remember a couple of years ago being told about an eight-pound brown trout caught in the Claremont section of the South Branch Raritan and forever being left with the impression that the man spoke of a wildly bred trout. I doubt it. But I could perhaps raise the issue with someone else who seems knowledgeable and be informed of some fact or other that establishes if it could have been stream bred or not.

          None of us out there knows everything, but each of us knows something no else does. Since I know a little about salmon egg use, I’ll write about this for brook and rainbow trout.

          First produced for bait use in 1948 by the Pautzke Bait Company, salmon eggs remain New Jersey’s most popular trout bait unless this has been usurped by floating Power Bait. Salmon eggs take more skill and allow more versatility, since Power Bait is most effective by still fishing deep pools and slow stretches since it floats. (It is good in ponds or lakes.) At any rate, a sinker keeps the line on bottom with Power Bait floating above. Salmon eggs can be fished by the use of two-pound test on the lightest rods possible besides ice fishing panfish rods, a small snap attaching one, or even two leaders from a foot to 18 inches long with size 14 snell hooks.

           Fish salmon eggs and you will know how challenging stocked trout can be. They steal bait better than saltwater sheepshead and tog. And sometimes they peck at an egg rapidly and refuse to mouth it. You reel in the salmon egg still attached to the hook. It’s also difficult to achieve a simple, natural drift through the fast water trout especially habituate to since even two-pound test line will drag in the current. If you were you to use a higher line test, the problem would worsen. Learn to judge the amount of weight needed—usually just the snap, but sometimes a clipped off piece of swivel with one loop remaining or BB split shot—and you will be on the way to mastering a method that in the long run may out-produce the way everyone else is fishing brook or rainbow trout, although particularly rainbows love salmon eggs.

          As persnickety as it may seem, get a safety pin, and instead of buying snaps, buy snap swivels size 14-20, cut off the swivels from snaps with nail clippers, and attach the swivel pieces through the pin, placing that on your vest. Some drift situations call for placing the snap through the swivel eye and closing the snap on the swivel for just the right amount of weight.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

New Jersey Brown Trout Stocked in May

Brown Trout for May

          Brown trout originally come from wild Germany. I am impressed with how the sultry, determined nature of these fish suggests how the people speak from the same land and rivers. Rainbow trout—from Rocky Mountain regions—can leap four feet into the air many times when hooked, and the bright colors suggest the blithe optimism of Americans. Brown trout rarely leap. They rise for flies, but their proclivity when hooked is not to seek light, but to dive deep, or under a bank or rock. Big brown trout are notoriously nocturnal, and usually the best a fly fisherman can do is fish as late into dusk as possible. Even when you hold a brown trout in your hand, you notice it’s a more sensuous creature with its heavier body proportion and scale mucous than a rainbow trout.

          They aren’t suckers. While rainbows fall for salmon eggs, stealing most of them, typically browns won’t notice a salmon egg. Fly fishermen consider browns the most discriminating of fish. A fly tied without the precise pattern called for may be rejected. But as I wrote about two weeks ago, hatchery trout do not have such refined senses. Tossed the trout version of Kibbles and Bits by hatchery personnel standing over their concrete raceways, these fish have had no way to develop the normal lives wild trout enjoy in rich environments.

          But as soon as they are introduced into a river or stream, adjustment begins. It’s not the same as a blind man getting an operation for eyesight which the brain can’t compensate for. Within a few weeks, the trout are becoming wild and selective about flies. In a year’s time or so, I suppose the trout is probably normal.

          For all the likeness of salmon eggs to food pellets at the hatchery, brown trout’s avoidance suggests that the genetic component of their selectivity is very strong despite almost total environmental deprivation prior to stocking. They rush and strike plugs—like small Rapalas. The Countdown model in the smallest, one-inch size often proves effective. So are larger sizes to two-and-a-half inches. Spinners almost always catch any species of trout if water is high and slightly off-color, and may work for normal water levels. Certainly spinners garner great popular consent, but I suggest trying the plugs.

          For convenience sake, many fishermen use salted minnows sold in cellophane that carry easily. Fished slowly along bottom, they account for many catches. But nothing beats live fathead minnows. These rather hardy minnows--not so strong as cousin killiefish--survive in small, shoulder strapped buckets—they show better resilience than shiners. Use no more than four-pound test monofilament and just a size 6 plain shank hook, with a tiny BB split shot about 18 inches above the hook to fish slow stretches, pools, and eddies.

          You will find browns cunning at stealing fatheads from the hook, especially if you go about the fishing in a sporting manner by tryng to set the hook before the trout would swallow it. I notice a lot of browns with deep set hooks caught on worms, but if you use this old standby, you can try to prevent this happening.

          Nothing beats hooking and landing one of the lunker-size breeders stocked especially in Highlands rivers and lakes. A trick in your favor is to try medium shiners. Especially if water is not very low and clear, and you know a deep hole where the biggest trout can stay comfortable in the dark, a medium shiner may be irresistible. Smaller trout may avoid the shiner and allow the larger to get to it. Counterintuitive as it may seem, the largest trout do not respond as eagerly as smaller. Typically, they wait until dusk or dark and feed by different rhythms. This includes the pre-dawn hour.

          Pre-dawn is the best time, in my opinion. You can fish for recently stocked browns of all sizes. The North Branch Raritan River in my home town of Bedminster gets stocked on Wednesday. I usually reserve a Saturday morning in May to get up before 5:00 a.m. and be at the river when the birds are in full chorus with plenty darkness yet. I catch my limit within an hour and usually before the first fisherman otherwise arrives. At home I quickly clean the fish, refrigerate them, go back to bed, awaken with my family and fix them for breakfast with spiced breading.

          Avoid the temptation to be cynical about stocked fish despite their limitations—those that holdover become truly wild because wild is what the wonderful environment is which draws us out to go fishing.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

North Branch Raritan River Brook Trout in Bedminster

Not so many stocked today, maybe the rain will raise stream levels. Most of the hits I got using salmon eggs registered as quickly repeated taps, the egg rejected and still on the hook upon retrieve. I missed only a couple of really good hits, caught one. The guy next to me caught five in the 45 minutes or so I fished. Apparently, the brook trout wanted something meatier than a salmon egg. He was using some sort of grub.

It happens. 

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Casting a Mepps Spinner at Round Valley Reservoir in Direct Sun

Casted a Mepps #3 spinner for an hour in 83-degree warmth at Round Valley Reservoir, walking the shoreline and concentrating at two small points where deeper water is close. With so much light penetration, I didn't expect a hit and none came. I put an eighth-ounce egg sinker ahead of the spinner so I could cast farther, let it sink to bottom, then retrieved it deep. The reservoir remains very cold, of course. This evening should be good topwater bass fishing for any who want to try a pond with water temperatures around 60 or warmer. But with Round Valley's depths, water temperatures were somewhere in the 40's; I wasn't thinking bass at all.