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Drought, Low Water, the Middle Mississippi, Side Channels, and Fish

The Jefferson Barracks Reach of the Middle Mississippi, July 2012.

Starting in April, I spent the spring and summer working on the third of three articles on the American Bottom in Monroe County, Illinois for Confluence Magazine, published by Lindenwood University. The first, published a year ago, discussed the Hill Prairies and the bluffs that rise above the American Bottoms. The second covered the floodplain between the bluff and the river levees. This summer’s work was for the article on the land between the levees and the river and the side channels that flow between the islands and the east bank.

The side channels provide fish and waterfowl quiet places to breed and rest. Where they are deep, they provide fish with places to wait out the winter, when the river may be frozen, and wait out  a drought, when the channels may dry out. The Drought of 2012 was very hard the side channels and therefore on the fish.

Dead fish, mostly Asian carp, in the Jefferson Barracks Borrow Pit after the Flood of 2011

When I started in April, the coming drought was not really apparent yet. Yes, last year’s monster flood drained away very quickly, leaving fish stranded and dying the the borrow pits on the river side of the levees. But there was still water in the side channels that ran between the east bank and the islands. Occasionally, I would trip over a dead carp, washed up near the bank. The wheat was doing well. So were the baby soybeans.

The young corn looked okay, too, though it would suffer come July and August.

Wherever I came to the bank of the river, there was evidence of last summer’s flood in the dead willows that had been stripped of their leaves during the flood. And there was evidence of the growth of new vegetation. Even with the dry conditions, new growth wasted no time to set started once the soil warmed up.

River Mile 143, June 2012

To make the article work I needed to get to the side channels. Only the Fort Chartres Chute and Island are in public ownership. The rest are in private hands and required permission to get to them. Fortunately, two farmers allowed me on their lands, and one provided transportation to Calico Island. We rolled down the steep bank onto the bank of the side channel.When we arrived the first time, I put my camera to my eye and found the battery had died. I love pixels, but I hate batteries required to make them work. Fortunately, the farmer with the transportation was willing to have a go of it the next day. And it was serendipity, because when we went back, the river had dropped considerably overnight, and we were able to cross the chute, that was too deep the day before, and onto the island.

Still Wet Mud on Calico Island, July 2012.

As the river continued to drop the little inlets you see in the muddy bank above turned into small pools, in which fingerling fish were trapped.

When wer returned to the side channel, we discovered we had run over a catfish, a very large catfish, and rolled it up onto the bank.

Calico Island Catfish

In mid-July Calico Chute still had water in it, but our dead catfish told us it was growing shallower and shallower. Very small fish were trapped in pools that formed here and there in the mud.

A few weeks later I hiked out to the edge of Jefferson Barracks Chute. Its upper reaches were drying out, but the lower half carries Palmer Creek to the river and still held water.

Lower Reach of Jefferson Barracks Chute

I did not get to Chartres Island Chuteuntil late October and found only the plunge pool, downstream of the closing dam at mid-chute, filled with water. When I first hiked out to the chute in 2009, it was filled with water, both upstream and downstream of the closing dam.

Chartre Island Side Channel upstream of closing dam, 2009

This trip the upstream end of the chute was dry. A dense stand of willows, as tall as me, (5’6″) had taken root in most of the chute. Fish bones littered its dry bed just upstream of the dam, the last place that dried out.

A dead gar in Chartres Island Chute upstream of closing dam, 2012

Chartres Chute Plunge Pool, 2012

At low water, an arbitrary number set on the flood gage at St. Louis, the plunge pool downstream of the dam is ten feet deep and the only place fish can wait out a drought or, in good times, the winter.










2 Responses

  1. Very interesting. I just ran across this Bloomberg article that’s relevant both to this post and your previous one.

  2. […] Last summer the side channels almost dried up. This spring flooding has filled them and flushed out excess sediment. Fish will be able to find quiet places to spawn. […]

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