David just read your post, went to Knoxnews to check today's news and this was on their site
Photo by Adam Lau
Two male smallmouth buffalo hover together in Citico Creek in the Cherokee National Forest on Friday, April 11, 2014, while waiting for females to join them for their annual spring spawning run. Males turn slate-blue as they near the event's peak. (ADAM LAU/NEWS SENTINEL)
Buffalo run in Citico Creek
VONORE — The dogwoods were in bloom, the warblers were singing, and America toads were sounding their soft, trilling mating calls along the river bank.
But the most dramatic sign of spring that day was the thousands of smallmouth buffalo — a member of the sucker family — making their annual spawning run up the crystal clear, knee-deep waters of Citico Creek. The 5- to 15-pound fish hovered over the gravel stream bottom in massive schools. From the bank, their dark silhouettes could easily be mistaken for river rocks as they faced upstream in equilibrium to the current.
Every year in early April the buffalo make a spectacular spawning run from Tellico Lake up Citico Creek. They spawn in other East Tennessee streams, too, but nowhere are they as bunched up and as visible as in Citico Creek, which flows through the Cherokee National Forest in Monroe County.
“There are very few places where you can go and see such large concentrations of big fish in a synchronous spawn,” said J.R. Shute, co-owner of Conservation Fisheries, a private hatchery in Knoxville that raises small, imperiled fish. “The only thing I can compare it to is the salmon run out West.”
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J.R. Shute, co-director of Conservation Fisheries, Inc., uses a camera while looking for smallmouth buffalo spawning action in Citico Creek in the Cherokee National Forest on Friday, April 11, 2014. (ADAM LAU/NEWS SENTINEL)
Last Friday a News Sentinel reporter and photographer drove down to Citico Creek with wet suits and snorkeling gear. The buffalo were concentrated along gravel shoals a little less than one mile above Tellico Lake, but most of the fish were males. The females, it seemed, were still staging downstream at the mouth of Citico Creek, waiting for the magical combination of water temperature to trigger their spawning run.
The water temperature that day was 55 degrees.
A check-back Sunday showed there was spawning activity. What appeared to be large, dark blotches along the edge of the stream actually would be schools of smallmouth buffalos. Every once in a while a female broke ranks and darted toward mid-channel with several males in hot pursuit. Pressing up against the female, the males released their reproductive milt, and as the female broadcast her eggs, the surface of Citico Creek came to a boil.
Since 2000 the U.S. Forest Service has been promoting recreational snorkeling on the Conasauga River in southeast Tennessee and Citico Creek. Both bodies are home to critically endangered fish species, and both have exceptional water quality thanks to the buffering effect of the surrounding Cherokee National Forest.
It’s a different world as soon as your face mask slips beneath the water. The creek that day was packed with smallmouth and black buffalo. The males — slightly smaller than the females — fairly pulsated as they displayed their blue-steel breeding color. The buffalo paid little attention to the journalists snorkeling among them. They had more important things on their minds. Also spawning that day, but less numerous, were carpsuckers and redhorse.
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Smallmouth buffalo crowd the shallows of Citico Creek in the Cherokee National Forest on Sunday, April 13, 2014, during their spring spawning run. (ADAM LAU/NEWS SENTINEL)
Some people snagged the buffalo with treble hooks from the bank, while others waded out and bow-fished for them with specialized archery equipment. The flesh of buffalo is mild and white; the problem is the tiny, free-floating bones that are lodged in the meat. Some people dissolve the bones by pressure cooking. Another method is to eat the ribs, which are bone-free.
Quentin Bass, archaeologist for the Cherokee National Forest, says the Cherokee Indians and their ancestors relied on the annual buffalo run for much-needed protein after the long, hard winter. According to Bass, the archaeological evidence dates to about 2000 B.C. and includes funnel-shaped fish traps built of rocks; notched pebbles used as sinkers; and fire-cracked rocks where Indians cooked their buffalo along the river bank.
The spawn lasts only a few days. The adhesive eggs are the size of BBs and so abundant that in some places the bottom of Citico Creek as seen through a snorkel mask looked covered in snow. In a week to 10 days, the eggs hatch, and the buffalo larvae are swept downstream to Tellico Lake.
Jim Herrig, fisheries biologist for the Cherokee National Forest, said an estimated 50,000 buffalo and other sucker species swim up Citico Creek and produce about 25,000 pounds of eggs.
“The best way to view them is to get in the water and swim right with them,” Herrig said. “This is an event everyone should see.”
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