SNORKEL FOR NATIVE FISH IN APPALACHIA
The rainbow trout streaked for cover as I cleared the water from my face mask. We had been locked in a staring contest of sorts, the fish so close that I could see its gills ruffle in the river flow. Gone, too, were a pair of greenside darters and a redbelly dace I’d been stalking, and the tiny madtom that had been skulking at the stream bottom. I had to move only 10 feet to spot another half-dozen fish with kaleidoscopic colors. It was a trove you might expect off a Honduran coral reef, not in the chest-deep waters of the Little Tennessee River, in western North Carolina’s Nantahala National Forest. But a growing number of Appalachian creek and river snorkelers have learned that you don’t have to travel far to find a dazzling underwater display. The waters of the Southeast are home to half of the United States’ freshwater fish species, and the Little Tennessee, the nation’s first Native Fish Conservation Area, alone boasts at least 100. The American Fisheries Society has called the region “the country’s equivalent of a piscine rain forest.” By that measure, I was snorkeling through an aquatic Amazon of sorts, and all I needed for a taste of the tropics was a pair of river shorts and a cheap snorkel. After a moment of watching the fish, I swam on, pulling myself along the bedrock, a prospector in search of more gold. —T. E. N.
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