I have just returned from my third trip exploring and snorkeling southern Missouri’s clear waters and on every adventure I have been gifted with amazing underwater views of a world that is often unseen.
Some of them will be shadow-patterned dark while others are vibrantly colored, even appearing iridescent.
You will also encounter many kinds of watery creatures, such as turtles, crawfish, weird bugs hiding under rocks and, yes, even sometimes docile water snakes.
But have no fear, as this is a calm world of cool and relaxing beauty for we humans.
Spring is often the best season to snorkel as the fish have awakened from a cold, quiet winter and eager for renewal. Mature males of some species will begin to sport vibrant colors, attracting females and defending their territory from intruding males.
Hornyhead chubs gather and pile stones into high mounds and attracted to these mounds are other species that spawn over the chub’s construction. Bleeding shiners and Ozark minnows are some of the more colorful Missouri species associated with these mounds.
If you find an active chub mound, you are in for a sight to see. A flurry of spawning fish will be gathered over it and jostling for position. The vividly-colored males will ward off other males as the females dive down alongside and spawn into the clean gravel. Here the fertilized eggs can develop protected in the aerated, gravel mound.
Earlier in the season male stonerollers, armored with tubercles and spiked sides, bulldoze pits deep into the clean gravel into which the gravid, plump females will plunge and spray their eggs and the attending males will fertilize, bringing the eggs to life for another generation. Spring is a fine time.
Often these spawning events last until the early summer but there are various types of interesting behaviors to observe and a great diversity of species to encounter all the time.
Feeding activity is near constant for shiners as they are always hungry, nipping at everything that drifts by, including your freckles. As you lay or crawl slowly over the gravel substrate you are dislodging micro organisms and tiny insects which the fish eagerly await, hoping for a newly-exposed tasty morsel.
Distant herds of stonerollers will be grazing on the algae covering the slick rocks. Tiger-striped logperch, with their long blunt noses, will be flipping stones, intelligently hunting for the tasty critters found beneath.
Logjams and brush piles provide habitat for species resting or for a lurking predator, like the red-eyed rock bass, known locally as “goggle-eye,” that takes full advantage of this shadowed lair to ambush from.
Hogsuckers and redhorse will often be feeding out in the open, filtering out tiny organisms from the fine gravel runs. In the shallower runs are found darters which are small, charismatic fish that as their name implies, dart along the bottom.
There are over 200 species and darters are unique to North America. The males can be quite colorful while often the females are camouflaged, sometimes appearing to be another species entirely. It all makes for a wide eyed-wonder.
Sunfish are a diverse group and found in a multitude of types. Longears, redears, bluegills, greenies (green sunfish), rock bass, Ozark bass, smallmouth bass. Using their tails male sunfish will fan out clean, shallow depressions in quiet, shallow runs to prepare for the female’s arrival.
After her eggs are deposited in the saucer-shaped pit, he fertilizes and guards them. A proud male will vigorously defend his future offspring and it takes a lot of determined diligence to do so. Look closely and you might see tiny eggs or perhaps baby fish fry swimming in the center.
Gently ease your finger in and the pappy will likely meet it with a determined nip, but don’t be alarmed as you are much bigger than him.
And be sure to watch for the prehistoric gar. A teeth-filled, long-nosed fish that along with the bass are the wolves of these waters. Don’t be afraid of them, as they have their place in this world. Amazing creatures to behold.
The water does not have to be deep, usually in only a couple feet of water you will most often find the interesting species and their behaviors. Position yourself just downstream of a flowing riffle run and there will be darters, shiners, sculpins and sunfish all gathered in the flowing water.
Turn and face downstream and the fish will come up close and personal right in your face mask. Everything looks bigger while underwater and with a bit of patient observing you may count 10 or more different kinds of fish from this one spot.
Masks and snorkels are readily available, but tempered glass and a mask made of silicone are best for a snug fit. If your mask fogs up, spit into it, rub the lens and rinse, and you should have clear views. Old sneakers make for wading shoes, shorts and a soon-to-be-stained belly-rubbed T-shirt would complete your attire for most summer days. Be careful of sunburn because you will soon be caught up for several hours enjoying the cool experience.
Travel with a friend to share and tell of the things you will see. Underwater cameras are durable, inexpensive and with a bit of time you can capture many of these underwater creatures in their natural habitat.
All things considered, this family activity costs very little for you and others to enjoy a day exploring the clear waters of Missouri. Add a picnic lunch on the gravel bar and it’s hard to have a better day.
There is certainly no need to travel to a beach far away while so many amazing things are found in the living waters close to your home.
Some of the southeastern Missouri rivers and creeks I have snorkeled in are the Huzzah and Blue springs northeast of Cuba’s Route 66. Indian Creek near the Meramec State Park is nice. The Meramec River can be clear but is often turbid.
Below Fredricktown the Castor River at Amidon and various clear water tributaries to the St. Francis River are also great for snorkeling. Big Creek at Sam Baker State Park can be an excellent day.
To the east is Johnson Shut-ins, which offers clear water. Missouri is fortunate to have so many Conservation Areas and they often have accessible water sites, so take advantage of what Missouri offers, starting somewhere close to home. Remember the water does not have to be deep, just clear.
I travel the United States looking for clear water to snorkel in. States are patterned with different watersheds, each one unique and offering a new diversity of species encountered. Even in the desert springs you can find fish adapted to live in those environments.
Study maps and look for clear, flowing water, springs and lakes and you will likely be greeted by a multitude of diversity upon immersion.
So grab a snorkel and mask, get in, cool down, relax and enjoy the show. There is nowhere better to be on a hot summer day than cooling down in the local swimming hole.
You may likely start exploring other streams, rivers and watersheds to see some of Missouri’s many unique and diverse underwater species.
For more information about our native fish, visit the North American Native Fishes Association (NANFA) and subscribe to its quarterly publication — “American Currents” — at www.nanfa.org.
To see more of Isaac Szabo’s wonderful underwater photography and to order prints, visit www.isaacszabo.com.
A third edition of “Fishes of Missouri” is soon to be released. It will be filled with colorful photographs of Missouri’s 232 recognized species. Maps of where to find particular species are marked and you will be able to see how certain species are only found within small watersheds while others are found widespread across the state and even into the southeast portions of North America.
Bob Hrabik is the author, with Lance Merry as photographer and Dave Neely as the illustrator. It is scheduled for publication in 2019.
By Casper Cox