Before the water in the streams and rivers warms enough to attract the flotillas of music and fermented beverages and just after the turtles emerge from their mysterious winter homes still covered in a second shell of grit and mud a little known and rarely seen ritual begins to play out in the fastest stretches of our aqueous, summer playgrounds. The location of this ritual is transient and a secret kept only by the performers. It is occasionally hinted at by a flash of red in a clear, downstream pool or, if luck is with the viewer, the sight of a single crimson troubadour vaulting free of the depths for a moment attempting to capture a meal on gossamer wings. These clues, and more than a pinch of luck, will guide the brave adventurer into the bracing, swift waters below a turbulent riffle. If the clues are true and the performers gracious then one of the most amazing and brilliantly red spawning events in Ozark streams will present itself in flashing and dipping glory.
It is possible, as the author has witnessed, to suddenly be gasping for breath through a snorkel as three species of minnow dive and dart about while flashing colors of crimson, blushing red, gold, and subtle shades of silver and green. The king of these piscine romps is the cardinal shiner. He, as only males show their full color, dresses in a sharp black line down his flank, crimson on his belly, and a hint of blue on his nose which is actually a raised set of hard lumps used in territorial, but non-lethal, fights for the best spawning spots. Cardinals stay above the rolling gravel in the fastest part of the current, but appear to handle this challenge with the ease that we show in crossing the street.
The Ozark minnow and carmine shiner, often seen together in schools outside of the spawn, are not as ambitious nor as gaudy as the cardinals. The carmines are slender, the smallest of the fish to join this rowdy party, and sports a sleek silver body and, possibly out of embarrassment at being caught in the act, a gentle blush of red, maybe pink depending on the viewer, just behind the gills and up along their chin. The Ozarks sport a modest brushing of green and orange to the body with a strong black striped topped by a stripe that flashes of gold in a generous light. Both of these species take advantage of the crevices and gaps formed by the rock rolling power of the streams current by wiggling down into the gravel itself to spread and fertilize eggs which would otherwise surely get whipped downstream to be lost in the silt or consumed by the competition. Which is the worse fate for the lost generation is up for discussion. The combination of these three pieces combine to create a moving, colorful, and delicate masterpiece for any brave enough to plumb the modest depths of the brisk waters of an Ozark stream in April
The moment when these fishes come together is a sight to see and of the great wonders of nature in an Ozark stream. Finding a turn of phrase to describe it leaves one lacking for adjectives of sufficient scope and magnitude. It is best described as a dance of individuals and environment. The fishes dart amongst each other, sometimes colliding, in a two-fold attempt to both hold the prime spot for breeding and also for gain any break from the pounding current. The event is both a school and individual all in one. As a school the group pulses, pushed to and fro, as the current drives them back and they rebound to their desired place. As individuals they careen out of the group attempting to procure their place in the future by making the rocks in coordination with a receptive female. All of this results in a chaotic symphony of color and movement.
The introduction of a diver changes the song in a pleasurable and rewarding manner. Suddenly the current changes and the amorous players must slide and dip to right themselves. The diver, being alien to this world, also brings respite from the current in the form of eddies behind his hands, arms, and surely his body. Fish flock to these spots, wiggling between cold fingers that are desperately grasping into the gravel and bump politely against forearm and waterproof watch. It is truly a joy to observe nature, it is a blessing to be plunged into its presence even if it is as no more than as a sturdy boulder.
Unfortunately this opportunity, which one may have just learned, may be in danger of not existing for generations not even considered yet. The members of this dance are plentiful right now. A single healthy spawning spot may host hundreds of fishes dancing and wrestling to be represented next year. It is only with the clear and conscious effort of the citizen that their status will be maintained. Every action, and denial of action, that is taken on land affects this event. Soil erosion, on a grand scale or simply in the backyard, adds debris to our streams and threatens to smother freshly deposited eggs. Extra nutrients from over fertilized field and lawn leads to algae blooming chemicals leaking into our streams. The algae can not only cover nesting sites in thick green mats, but can also shift food chains out of a natural state of balance causing all forms of unpredictable havoc. And finally, and specifically, disturbing the gravel bed of the creek, by driving in it or mining gravel from it, causes the turbulent and deep holes to lose stability and risk collapse before or after the spawning event. It is up to each one of us to protect the seen, and often unseen, beauty all around us.
Kevin Mouser is a member of the Chert Glades Master Naturalist Chapter. He is the Special Education Science teacher, Ecology teacher and Science Club sponsor at East Newton High School. When he is not teaching, driving a school bus or sleeping, he really enjoys spending time with his wonderful wife Cristal and getting into the great waters of the Missouri Ozarks.
Photography by Kevin Mouser