It wasn't just bird life down on the Mississippi last weekend, we also saw lots of fish life. And fish death. The estuary in the National Wildlife Refuge is fairly shallow, less than 3’ (1m) in a lot of places. The water is raised and lowered by means of a flood gate which managers use to mimic the natural cycle of floods and droughts. This can expose mudflats to germinate plants which migratory waterfowl and marsh birds eat. With such low water levels, a hard freeze followed by snow on top of the ice causes the oxygen to deplete and if the ice doesn’t thaw fast enough in the spring a large fish kill can result. This years hard winter, still lingering in the northland, caused a very large and malodorous carp die off in the refuge. But its not dead carp that this post is about. It’s the live ones.
On Sunday we launched near the base of Trempealeau Mountain (seen in above photo) and were going to paddle around the delta of the Trempealeau River and the dike that borders the Refuge. We were paddling up river against a good current. The water was high and rising, high enough to close the road into the Refuge when we drove by later that day. This area was also full of waterfowl and we figured if we could find a decent spot to land along the dike we could sneak up to the top with the long lens and surprise the hundreds of waterfowl that were certain to be floating well within camera range. I spotted a little backwater, an eddy really, where there was minimal current and a decent spot to get out of the boats. I told the VoiceOfReason to follow me quietly and we would get out and begin our stalk to the top of the dike. I spotted fish swirls as soon as I got out of the current. This little backwater was full of big spawning carp. I turned around and said softly, “Look at all the fish”. But I really didn’t need to point that out because dozens of carp in the 10-15 pound (5-7 kilos) size range were swirling and coming out of the water around the VOR’s boat. I’ve known her long enough to know that she has a definite snake phobia. What I didn’t realize was that swirling, broaching prehistoric looking fish would provoke the same terrified reaction. There was first a look of confusion and disbelief and then, “What are they!? God, there are dozens of them”. Confusion and disbelief quickly turned to horror as they continued jumping out of the water and then “Get me out of here! They are going to LAND ON MY BOAT AND TIP ME OVER! HELP, PULL ME OUT OF HERE!!....HELP!!” Which I would have been happy to do except for one thing; I was laughing too hard to even get out of my boat. When I finally got over to her she was holding her Greenland stick out of the water, either to club attacking carp, club me, or maybe to keep the carp from gnawing on the paddle. This triggered another fit of laughter on my part and I had to raft up and lay on the deck of the Avocet to regain my composure. Fortunately she didn’t hit me with the paddle and took the whole thing with good humor. Once the massive adrenaline rush was over that is. She was fairly certain that the carp master plan was to flop up on her deck, cause her to capsize, and then begin eating her. I pointed out that the carp diet normally didn't include humans and that she was probably OK. I still can’t figure out what got the carp all riled up. It seriously looked like one of those old movies where the guys are crossing the river somewhere in South America and the piranhas attacked, water roiling, people screaming , and arms flailing. I suspect that after my boat came into their little cozy carp cove, that they tried to swim out and were blocked by the VOR's Avocet, possibly offended by its lily white hull or perhaps even sexually attracted to it. Or maybe ‘Avocet’ means ‘carp tormenter’ in Latin; who knows? I just wish I could have got a good picture of it but, as I said, it was hard to even keep the kayak vertical while roaring with laughter. I tried to re-enact the scene by suggesting that the VOR paddle out of the little backwater while I waited with the camera but all that idea got me was ‘The Look’. You guys all know exactly what I’m talking about. I did manage to locate the school again and get a few shots of them surfacing but nothing as dramatic as attacking a woman in a sea kayak. The VoiceOfReason claimed that this was, “the most terrified I’ve ever been while kayaking”. As I ticked off a half dozen other incidents in my head when she would have been perfectly justified to be much more scared than here, I realized just how traumatic this unprovoked and remorseless carp sneak attack was for her. But I also have to confess that I’d laugh just as hard, maybe harder, if it happened again.