White River National Wildlife Refuge
Southeast Region
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A Changing Landscape

My kayak before heading out to check trotlines on the refuge. Credit: Matthew Conner. USFWS

My kayak before heading out to check trotlines on the refuge. Credit: Matthew Conner. USFWS

I quietly pulled my kayak through waist high grass using my paddle in front of me to feel for holes or push any reptilian presence out of my path as I approached the water's edge. As I placed the boat in the water and pushed the snaps together of my vest, the plastic click echoed through the flooded sleeping forest. I sat inside my kayak and waited for the sun to push its way over the horizon to better illuminate my path through the woods.

I imagined any passerby would have assumed I was going for a morning paddle trip, bird watching, or perhaps searching for the ivory-billed woodpecker. However, this morning I was engaged in a consumptive sport of trot lining for catfish. I pushed away from the bank armed with cut bait, night-crawlers, and chicken livers.

The night before I had put out five “limb lines” which I baited with the variety of baits I was currently carrying. A more traditional trotline would have consisted of running one main line off a sturdy branch to a heavily anchored point on the bottom with up to twenty hooks tied as droppers off the main line. This style of line allows the angler to fish every foot of water to catch fish feeding at any level and in some cases, catch multiple fish on one line.

The lines I used were much more simplistic and easier to handle. My lines consisted of an eight ounce weight with a single hook tied off the main line about eight inches off the bottom of the line. I chose to use this technique as it required less hooks to work with and far less weight to pull off the bottom of the flooded forest when checking my lines. And given the questionable buoyancy of my craft, I needed the most simplistic technique I could imagine.

I approached the first line and saw no movement on the branch where the line had been tied. I grabbed the line and let the current push me back as I carefully fed the line through my fingers. I remembered the words of one of my coworkers telling me, “Never wrap the line around your hand when pulling a trotline up.” This advice reminded me of my time working and roping cattle in Montana and being told the same thing to avoid having a thumb or finger dislocated by the jolt of the rope.

The line came to the end and I saw the cut bait I had used the night before had been untouched so I dropped the line back in the water and continued to the next one. The second line had been baited with chicken liver and had produced a nice three pound channel catfish the night before and as I pulled the line up I felt some resistance. I reached underneath my legs and pulled out my net and placed it on the top of my boat as I thought this light resistance might be a catfish.

As I laid the net on top of the kayak, the line in my opposite hand pulled hard and turned me and my small craft in one fluid motion. I caught my breath and realized that my friend Eddie's prognostication might be coming true. Eddie had said to me, “You're going to get caught up in a thirty pound fish in that little boat and be in a world of hurt.” I had planned that if I caught something that big, I would return to borrow a proper boat from one of my neighbors, but I was sure that most of the fish I would catch would fit behind the seat of my kayak in the storage compartment.

I sat motionless holding the line in my hand as the tug from the fish diminished. I switched the line to my left hand and placed the net in my dominate hand. I began to pull the line in using my thumb and forefinger of the hand holding the net and my left hand to anchor the pull of the fish. I peered into the murky water as I pulled in the line and suddenly a long pale object appeared just underneath the water.

I judged the length of the fish to be greater than my net so I netted the head of the fish and grabbed the tail sticking out of the net with my other hand and pulled the fish onto the top of my kayak. I guessed the fish to be about thirteen to fifteen pounds and as it lay motionless on top of my boat I thought I could get him into the compartment behind my seat. I grabbed the fish by the jaw and tail and leaned forward to bring my seat forward and expose the rear compartment of the kayak.

I pushed the fish into the compartment but after getting his head and barbs behind the seat, I could push the fish no further. He was just too long for the compartment and I couldn't bend the fish enough to get him in. It was at this time the fish decided it had enough. With just the head behind the seat, the fish began to thrash and his massive tail landed each blow to the side of my head and I hoped nobody was catching this moment on film. I was able to pull the fish out from behind the seat and I laid him on the floor of my boat. With both feet on top of the fish, I paddled back to shore.

I pulled my boat on shore and sat down on the bow and looked at the catfish lying in the seat of my kayak. I looked back up towards the woods and saw a forest flooded with almost fifteen feet of water. It was hard to believe that five months ago I was parked in this same place and had walked into the forest with tree-stand on my back and bow and arrow in my hand. I walked under the same trees I paddled through now and once at my destination, I had climbed fifteen feet up a large persimmon tree to hunt from.

Five months and millions of gallons of water later, I was in the same forest at the same height in the trees pursuing a different kind of game species. I sat on the boat looking into the flooded world in front of me and tried to imagine another habitat as diverse and complex as this. A bottomland hardwood forest depends on flooding for restocking lakes with fish, depositing rich organic matter, and creating necessary disturbance for the forest to be revitalized.

However, this has been no ordinary flood year. The intensity and duration of this flood has left many animals stranded on floating debris. Bears were waking up from hibernation finding they were unable to climb down from trees and find food. The extreme depth of the water has limited the production of invertebrates which are the basis of food for many species on White River NWR.

With the light of the sun now at full intensity I could see the high water mark on the trees and shrubs in front of me. Judging by the marks on the trees it appeared the water level had dropped by about five feet in the last week. I sat thinking about the fact that I would be losing my fishing spot in a couple of weeks, but the thought of the wildlife being able to return to their normal routines in the forest made the loss of the fishing location well worth it.

The waters will fall leaving us with over eighty miles of gravel road that will need inspection and possible repairs as well as three hundred and twenty miles of ATV trails, and various boat ramps and signs that may require improvements or replacement. Thinking of the busy times ahead, I sat quietly on my kayak and enjoyed the still and cool morning. In weeks ahead, this habitat will once again transform in appearance and function and we will struggle to adapt to the changing needs of the resource and visitors as we prepare for the long summer months ahead.

Perhaps next spring I will find myself sitting on this same bank after a morning of trot lining. Hopefully I will have caught fish, been fortunate enough to watch birds flying through the tree tops at first light, and above all I will be fishing out of a new and proper sized boat!


Last updated: September 10, 2008