Will the Rivers Still Run?

After a lifetime of fishing in—and studying—the rivers of our Blue Ridge Mountains, an ecologist now understands, and grieves, how climate change has altered them forever.

Old friends—elementary school buddies, high school teammates, and former loves—hold sacred spaces in our hearts. But nature, in its manifold forms, can fill your soul in the same way.

Moving water, be it river or beach, has been a lifelong friend. For my last four decades of life in the Piedmont of Georgia, the role of friend has been taken up by a river formed hundreds of millions of years ago in the southern Blue Ridge Mountains.

My Appalachian river heals with unexpectedly cool caresses—touch and sound unadulterated with artificial enhancement. Neither coin nor compliment can change it. It listens better than the most empathetic human, interjecting neither commentary nor judgment. When I gently lower my left, and then my right foot, into my river’s fifty-five-degree waters, I shed layers of stress—the muscles of my neck and shoulders, strained by desk work, ease without thought, and this month’s sheath of invoices disappears downstream. Sometimes in seconds, sometimes minutes, I transform into that golden poplar leaf floating across a meter-deep, emerald pool in a hundred-year forest.

Starting with my boyhood, back in the last century, I have always been fascinated by the natural world. I was fortunate to have been raised by a Mom who, despite divorce and a deadbeat ex, still managed to take me into nature regularly. She was quite tolerant when I returned with adopted snakes, lizards, and fish to populate the aquariums in my bedroom. Not even the rank smell of snake poop put her off my zoological inquiries. Mom was a New York City girl, unfamiliar with and even squeamish about wildlife, but she took pains not to pass these traits on to me.

I grew up poor, basically orphaned at 18, and for much of my life I have provided protein for myself and my family via fishing and hunting. As a young man in my late teens and twenties, I found a singular joy—a feeling of both competence and wonderment—in being able to provide food for myself. Fishing always has been a joy—the mysterious act of extracting a beast from beneath an opaque and enigmatic surface, followed by the succulent and hunger-fulfilling taste of trout and other freshwater species.

My old friend the river is typical of many in the Blue Ridge—thick tangles of waxy rhododendron and tooth-leaved dog hobble are bank sentinels, and at points, transit to the river itself requires the strategic skills of a Seal Team Six squad leader. My river is small, some might call it a large stream, being only about twenty-five feet across, with shallow, foot-deep riffles interspersed with deeper runs and occasional pools that plunge deeper than three feet. The trout I fish for mainly hang in deeper areas, and the easiest way to enter this habitat is not to fight the bankside vegetation but to find an open area downstream and simply wade up to your favorite pools and deep riffles.

My stream-traipsing rules provide good advice for both fishing and life: never hurry, center your balance, and step lightly.

From late spring to early fall, water temperatures typically are in the high fifties or sixties, and rather than equip myself with the latest couture from a high-end outdoor store, I am a minimalist. I wear old clothes whose fashion identity has long since faded and who are on a first-name basis with dirt—mostly worn khakis or jeans, and old long-sleeved shirts for protection from green-headed horseflies and poison ivy.

The bottom of my stream comprises bedrock and cobble riffles and runs, edged with gravel, like salt around the rim of a margarita glass. A viscous, energy-rich film of algae and bacteria blankets these hard-bottomed areas, making them sufficiently slippery that my tush slaps the rocky stream bottom about once a trip. My one concession to modernity, and a precautionary measure against broken bones, are the specialized wading sneakers I wear. These shoes are equipped with metal studs that firmly grip even algae-covered bedrock. But even that technology cannot eliminate spills because my stream’s slack water patches hold foot-deep pockets of silt that can swallow you from toes to knee. My stream-traipsing rules provide good advice for both fishing and life: never hurry, center your balance, and step lightly.


Among the Ancients

The trout I catch typically are Rainbows stocked by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, because our Blue Ridge rivers are marginal habitat for trout, even without the alterations produced by climate change. In the days of the Cherokee, trout were restricted to mountainous areas and a few rivers that held cold temperatures even when they ranged southward into the upper Piedmont.

Everyone calls the fish I catch trout, but the only “trout” that is native to the South—the Southern Brookie—isn’t really a trout. It’s a char, formally known as the Southern Brook Char, a more ancient member of the economically important salmonid fish family that includes chars, trout, grayling, and salmon. Char differ from trout in having light, wormlike markings on a dark body, reproduce during autumn, and frequently are cannibals. Trout and salmon have dark spots on a light body, mostly spawn in late winter or spring, and typically eat other fish only when they grow larger than twenty-five inches (although invasive Brown Trout defy all these generalities). Mountain folk call Southern Brookies “specks” or “speckled trout,” a name occasionally heard from behind the bait counter.

Southern Brookies are living jade, with gorgeous amber squiggles on their backs. Despite their beauty, they display several unique characteristics that have contributed to their present decline. They are small fish (twelve inches is a monster) that grow slowly and rarely live past age three, unlike Northern Brookies, which may reach weights of twenty pounds and age twenty-five. Old photographs of stringers of large Southern Brookies suggest these fish grew larger in the past, but it is unclear why they now display small size and early senility.

Today, Southern Brookies generally are found only above waterfalls or other barriers that prevent the stocked fish—Rainbow and Brown trout and Northern Brook Char—from migrating upriver. Southern Brookies are a sensitive species that have been displaced by stocked trout throughout most of their native range. Over the years, many have tried to breed them in captivity, but the Southern Brookie’s fragile nature led to the widespread culture and stocking of Northern Brookies throughout the South. The current distribution of wild trout and char in the Southeast is a patchwork quilt of naturalized Rainbow, Brown, and Northern and Southern Brookies, with the latter species occupying the smallest and most isolated patches.

The Appalachian Mountains (short a’s, please: APP-uh-LATCH-un) are older than dirt, originating during the Ordovician geologic period about 480 million years ago.

We both have aged, this river and I. In my case, a lined face, thinned hair, and a mostly gray beard stare back from the bathroom mirror. If today’s era was “normal,” my stream would age only over millennia, but with climate change now upon us, we map its transformations over the biblical three score years and ten. Thankfully for both of us, the Blue Ridge has not fared horribly in this era. These mountains still have the power to seal cracked psyches.

The refuge of the Blue Ridge is most precious during July and August, when the hostile climate of Middle and South Georgia roasts away our humanity with oven-like temperatures and high humidity. Throughout the summer months, the Blue Ridge is the only spot sufficiently cool to restrain a sane Georgian from armed robbery or infidelity. After all, even without climate change, our typical summer heat and humidity surely contributed to the creation of unhinged Southern fictional characters such as Asa Hawks in Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, or Darl in William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.

The Appalachian Mountains (short a’s, please: APP-uh-LATCH-un) are older than dirt, originating during the Ordovician geologic period about 480 million years ago. Massive collisions by land masses within the ancient supercontinent of Gondwanaland led to their formation, and the resulting fragments may now be found as far afield as the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. The Southern Appalachians, including the Blue Ridge and Smokies, are melodically called the Crystalline Appalachians, because their geology is dominated by igneous and metamorphic rocks such as granites, gneiss, and micas. River bottoms reflect this geologic heritage, with chips of mica strewn across the bottom like hundreds of tiny windowpanes accenting the ruby red of local garnets.

Ancient mountains, the Appalachians.

The Southern Brook Char, or Southern Brookie, or speckled trout, or just plain speck, depending on who's telling the fish story
The Southern Brook Char, or Southern Brookie, or speckled trout, or just plain speck, depending on who's telling the fish story

Wild Diversity

The karma-mending powers of Blue Ridge streams remain, but humans have changed their features. Most Southern Appalachian rivers are fed by through-ground and overland flow originating as rainfall; spring-fed rivers are uncommon in the Crystalline Appalachians. Although scientific predictions of climate change’s effects on the Blue Ridge vary, historical and current data show that summer rainfall has decreased and become more variable. This resulted in lower flows and higher water temperatures from the late 1970s to 2010—conditions unpleasant for trout and other cold-water organisms.

The 20th century was wet until the 1970s, which facilitated a shift in forest composition to species with higher water requirements, such as red maple and yellow poplar. Previously, the hills and hollers were dominated by oaks and hickories, species more tolerant of warmer, dryer conditions. Such ecological shifts show the complexity of climate change—not only is there less summer rainfall when it is needed most by riverine plants and animals, but what little remains is taken up by water-hungry trees that now cloak the hollers and mountainsides. According to scientists at the U.S. Forest Service’s Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory, water inputs to Blue Ridge rivers fell by fifteen to twenty percent from the ’70s through 2013.

A paucity of rainfall isn’t the only challenge facing the rivers of the Blue Ridge. Blue Ridge rivers once ran gin clear, but logging, vacation homes, and road construction disturbed and redistributed large quantities of silt and sand that made the water look like tea diluted with too much milk. Eventually this sediment—the tea leaves left at the bottom of the cup—settles out, filling and sealing the spaces between cobbles and gravel. This might not sound like a problem, but the rocky bottoms of healthy forest rivers are like subterranean apartment buildings. Different “rooms” house the various biological materials that fuel the river system— small to microscopic bits of leaves, the energy-rich bacteria and fungi that colonize them, and aquatic insects such as mayflies, stoneflies, and caddisflies. We humans may hate mosquitos, but virtually all vertebrates living in or near rivers—fishes, salamanders, and birds—depend on a diet of aquatic insects.

Unfortunately, climate change models suggest that natural unclogging of these rivers is unlikely, given that all models predict that unusual weather events—“global weirding,” it’s called—will increase in number and frequency in the Southeast. In short, higher and more frequent flooding, and longer, and intense droughts. The likely result is more fine sediment transported and deposited in Blue Ridge rivers—all to the detriment of our aquatic flora and fauna. These sediment-clogged rivers resemble disaster photos of hillside homes after a mudslide—there simply is no room left for the leaf bits, bacteria, and insects the rivers need.

We had learned the supreme importance of natural variability in water flow. But natural variability in water flow, sadly, is the one aspect of the environment that all climate models agree will change.

Who knows why the son of two New York City dwellers fell in love with these natural systems of the South? Perhaps it was the awakening of some ancestral gene in me, or the inhalation of a bit of meteor dust. From a career perspective, my youthful obsession with plants and animals was a stroke of luck. I’ve spent my career as a professor of ecology. I study the mechanisms that enable plants and animals to coexist.

But most people don’t know the Blue Ridge is the home of incredible plant and animal diversity. We are blessed with more species of fish, freshwater mussels, and salamanders than anywhere else in the U.S. and Canada. And despite the high biodiversity in the Amazon and tropical Africa, there are more species of salamanders and freshwater mussels in the Southern Appalachians than anywhere else in the world.

Southern mountain landscapes are the home of so many species because of multiple factors, including a lack of glaciation, many distinct habitat types, and substantial variability in regional climatic and physical conditions. For example, for every thousand feet of elevation gain in the Blue Ridge, average temperatures decrease three to five degrees Fahrenheit. Consequently, the summits of our peaks higher than 4,000 feet host trees and shrubs typical of New England or even farther north. And the hollers at the bottoms of these ridges provide the warm and wet habitats favored by poplars, sweetgums, black gum and hickories—species so striking they make guest appearances in many centuries-old Southern folksongs.

The Blue Ridge rivers are home to a wildly diverse array of fish species. Even short reaches, say 100 yards, of Southeastern rivers contain as many as twenty-five different species of fish. The mechanisms that sustain so many potential competitors in such small sections of stream have long been of interest and contention in ecology.

If a scientist is lucky, once or twice in a career you are slapped in the face by an unexpected finding that has broad significance. My research group, from the University of Georgia’s Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, has studied the diversity of fish in the mountain streams of the Blue Ridge for more than twenty years. And our work wound up challenging a decades-old consensus in ecology: that the worldwide increase in the number of fish species as one moves downstream in a river was produced by more water and food. We discovered the cause was instead the interaction between water velocity and the swimming capability of resident fish.

Our studies showed that the number of species present in our hundred- to three-hundred-foot study sites in the Blue Ridge was higher during a four-year period of drought than during periods of normal or high flow—an odd and counterintuitive result. In other words, the less water there was, the more species we found. And we were certain this was a genuine phenomenon because we saw an identical pattern during a second four-year drought more than a decade after our first findings.

We recorded the distributions of fish species in sites arrayed over slightly more than a mile of stream, and we learned that fish that typically lived downstream would migrate upstream in periods of drought—because they could. Lower water made it easier for them to swim upstream. But then, when the typical flow rates returned, they would return downstream.  We built an apparatus that enabled us to measure the swimming capabilities of both upstream- and downstream-resident fish. The downstream residents that had migrated upstream thanks to drought conditions, we learned, were forced back downstream when the drought ended and water flow increased. Only the fish that typically resided in the upstream sites had the swimming strength to stay in place.

Our work showed that the number of fish species present in a local habitat is maintained by natural variation in water flow, coupled with the innate physiological capabilities of the species present—a new and simple explanation. In essence, we aquatic ecologists had been looking at the problem bass-ackwards. Instead of asking, “Why are there more fish species downstream?” we should have been asking, “Why are there are so few species upstream?” Like poetry, art, and music, scientific discovery often benefits from removal of traditional blinders, especially when nature takes on the twisted perspectives of an M.C. Escher painting.

We had learned the supreme importance of natural variability in water flow. But natural variability in water flow, sadly, is the one aspect of the environment that all climate models agree will change.

Like the Lorax, who speaks for the trees, we must now speak for the fishes, the salamanders, and even the mayflies.


In the River, in the Moment

A successful fisher relies on imagination, knowledge, and intuition. How do I find these riverine beasts, where should I cast? Should I use weight on my line? Which fly or bait should I use?

In one form or another, these are Pre-Neolithic questions, and touchstones for both human history and our ceaseless need to forage and fuel our bodies. I can feel all that history when I am on my river. Like a 17th century Zen archer, I am completely in the moment—aware only of the pressure of the current on my legs, the imagined location of a trout, the geometry of the cast, and finally, the green life-energy and continuity of the surrounding forest. It is as close to the primal human experience as is possible in these days of continuous screen time and insufficient health coverage.

I feel no compunction about keeping and eating stocked trout because they have low survival rates in most rivers, especially given warming river temperatures and decreases in flow. After all, the $35 fennel-bedded rainbow trout from Chez Whatever was raised in the same type of hatchery as the stocked trout in my creel. Which, of course, raises the philosophical question of whether it is more ethical to forage for yourself and experience everything that a fish dinner entails, or to pay a “professional” to be your surrogate fisher.

My gratification from successful foraging has longstanding, even biblical precedents. Obtaining sustenance plays an historic and current role in many cultures. The Cherokee, the indigenous people of the Blue Ridge, built stone weirs to trap sweet-fleshed river fish such as redhorse, typically during their spawning migration. Both large minnows, such as river chub and stonerollers, and smaller ones were eaten and used in soups. Cherokee fish weirs were so well constructed that many are visible even today on Georgia rivers such as the Etowah and Flint and North Carolina’s Tuckasegee. Suckers and minnows were not the only species prized by the Cherokee, and Southern Brook Char—my beloved and rare Brookies—were also highly sought after. Besides more standard fishing techniques, the Cherokee sometimes used an extract from black walnut trees to tranquilize and capture these fast swimming, elusive prey.

As a father of two grown daughters who have both harvested and consumed the bounty of my friend the river, I grieve, not only for its environmental decline, but also for the unchecked havoc wreaked by demon climate change.

For the Cherokee, rivers were not only sources of food, but also revered spiritual objects—a belief held by many indigenous peoples whose lands include flowing waters. Even today, a gift to a bereaved family of fish for a meal is a trait spanning continents and religious/cultural practices. It may be found in societal rituals as diverse as the Jaminyjarti of Northern Australia, and the Shiva ritual of my own people, the Jews.

Over the years, my river has suffered from the increased temperatures, reduced flows and increased sedimentation all produced by the manic antics of misguided humans—either directly or indirectly via climate change. As a father of two grown daughters who have both harvested and consumed the bounty of my friend the river, I grieve, not only for its environmental decline, but also for the unchecked havoc wreaked by demon climate change. It is a manifold grief, grief for what we are doing to Mother Earth, grief at the loss of the environment I experienced as a child, and grief that my children and others who come after us will see a less verdant world.

On most days, what philosophers now call “ecological grief” rests somewhere between my heart and brain, but whenever I see a red maple aflame in fall or the fuchsia blossom of a wild rhododendron in June, my vision grows a bit brighter, and my hearing more acute from the music of water over granite cobbles.

Patches of beauty remain, and our vigilance must not cease.

Author Profile

Gary Grossman is a professor emeritus of ecology at the University of Georgia and lives in Athens. His poems, short fiction and essays in have appeared in forty-seven literary reviews. His work has been nominated for inclusion in The Best Small Fictions and for the Pushcart Prize for 2023. For ten years, Gary wrote “Ask Dr. Trout” for American Angler Magazine. He is a lover of people, nature, productive gardens, fishing, and the ukulele. He has published two books of poetry: What I Meant to Say Was… (Impspired Press) and Lyrical Years (Kelsay). In 2023, he released a graphic memoir, My Life in Fish—One Scientist’s Journey (Impspired).

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