Written by Holly Kays, Smoky Mountain News, Waynesville, NC, Wednesday, August 09, 2023
The Little Tennessee River isn’t deep as it flows through the patchwork Needmore Game Lands near the Macon-Swain county line. Like many mountain rivers, in most places it comes up only mid-calf at best, the clear water running over a bed of rock and stone. I can’t help but feel a little silly as I pull goggles over my eyes and nose, a snorkel dangling to the side. The Little Tennessee is a far cry from the blue Caribbean waters that snorkeling usually brings to mind.
Maury Wahtera, of Franklin, snorkels with her son Henry, 8, during an event August 2, 2023. Holly Kays photo, Smoky Mountain News, August 09, 2023.
But Jason Meador, aquatics program manager for Mainspring Conservation Trust, promises the group of roughly 20 people assembled on the banks of Mainspring’s Queen Branch property that they’re in for a treat. This stretch of river is known as the Noah’s Ark of the Little Tennessee, he says.
“It’s the only stretch that is still free-flowing and has all the fish that we believe have always been here, with the exception of perhaps the American eel,” he says.
The Little Tennessee is designated as a Native Fish Conservation Area, and it’s home to more than 100 species of native fish, 10 species of native mussels and a dozen crayfish species — including 35 species considered rare at either the federal or state level. While not every species is present at the particular site where Meador spoke, overall the river is a treasure of biodiversity.
As such, it’s a natural fit for the Blue Ridge Snorkel Trail, a first-of-its kind effort in the Southeast that aims to set up public-access snorkeling sites in 24 Western North Carolina counties, as well as parts of northern Georgia and eastern Tennessee. The first phase in this joint venture from the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, MountainTrue and Mainspring is the debut of 10 pilot sites, one per county. The event at Queen Branch, held Wednesday, Aug. 2, inaugurated Macon County’s stop on the snorkel trail.
Meador gives the rundown on how to use the snorkel equipment, how to stay safe and how to see fish. Fish usually face upstream, he says, waiting for the current to bring them food and oxygen. When snorkelers swim up behind them, the fish sense that something big is coming near, and they scatter. You see more if you look down the river, he promises.
Jason Meador gives the group some snorkeling tips. Holly Kays photo, Smoky Mountain News, August 09, 2023.
To read the entire story and for additional information on the Blue Ridge Snorkel Trail and the Little Tennessee River, please go to: https://smokymountainnews.com/outdoors/item/36144-face-to-face-with-fish.