by Paul E. Bugas, Jr.
Commonest Aquatic Plants
of Middle River
Need help learning the basic aquatic plants you see growing in and near the river? Wonder how the ecosystem functions between water, plants, fish and insects? Even folks who know their local terrestrial plants can find aquatic plants unfamiliar.
Aquatic plants and algae are defined as having roots that are submerged in water for part or all of their year. They function to
stabilize stream soil and reduce sediment by trapping soil particles
absorb and filter excess nutrients
slow the water flow and allow foods to be trapped in vegetation so fish and insects can feed
form safe havens where fish and insects can hide and reproduce
shade the water to keep water temperatures cooler, which helps reduce unhealthy algal blooms and adds oxygen back into the water
Plants are classified as follows:
Submergent: all parts of the plant are underwater and can grow in deeper water; create valuable habitat for fish and small invertebrates and food for ducks and aquatic mammals. When they become too abundant they may interfere with boat propellers, modify flows in moving water, and may cause large day to night swings in dissolved oxygen and pH. Example: pondweed.
Emergent: roots of the plant are underwater but parts of the plant are in the air; often found near the water's banks; deep and dense roots stabilize shallow soil. Examples: watercress, cattail
Floating-Leaf: leaves float on the surface of the water; roots are attached to the soil underwater, or sometimes float in the water column. Example: pond lily, duckweed
Riparian: this is a zone of transition along banks of a waterway from where the emergent aquatic plants grow to the areas occasionally or seasonally flooded extending to the driest, highest edge of the floodplain. Examples: willows, bluebells
Citation: Emergent, Floating and Submersed Plants: https://extension.usu.edu/waterquality/learnaboutsurfacewater/propertiesofwater/emergentandfloatingplants, viewed 2/8/22.
Plants common to Middle River are in many rivers of western Virginia. Here are ones you are likely to see on Middle River as you fish or paddle.
Watercress, a member of the mustard family, is probably the most widely recognized aquatic plant in Western Virginia. It grows in dense stands, primarily in cold spring streams with high alkalinity. It is commercially grown in Great Britain because its peppery flavor adds zing to most salads. Plus, it’s rich in potassium and produces a wide array of vitamins and minerals. Much of the plant is found underwater, but it finds its way to the surface along with its fragrant white flower clusters. Round, scalloped leaflets are found on 8-10 inch stems. Aquatic sow bugs, scuds (Amphipods), and a variety of macroinvertebrate life thrives among the vegetation. Watercress is not native to North America and considered a nuisance in some watersheds. Trout anglers love to see Watercress growing in their favorite fishing holes!
Occasionally, non-native Rainbow Trout can be found in certain upper Middle River streams. The Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (formerly the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries) has stocked Rainbow Trout in Falls Hollow, but this practice is now limited to Brook Trout only. Sometimes, private landowners purchase Rainbow Trout and stock them in their favorite waters (although this practice requires a permit). Stocked Rainbow Trout can naturalize in certain conditions, meaning they can spawn and create wild fish. Rainbow Trout are native to the Pacific Coast, but
were moved east in the late 19th Century. Their bodies are silvery with black freckles and a red or pink stripe down their sides. Naturalized Rainbow Trout can compete with native Brook Trout, so many ecologists do not favor them. They are loved for their sporting quality but are uncommon in Middle River.
This is a native “schooling” fish that can be found in deep pools. White Suckers can grow to a large size (20 inches) and were historically a favorite target of anglers during “dipping season.” When adult suckers congregate and are active during the spring spawning season, veteran fishermen use dip nets to haul them in and get them into the pressure cooker. Indeed, canned suckers are a food staple in western Virginia. Their flesh is white and delicious, but bony. The White Sucker feeds on the stream bottom, but is hardly a “trash fish”. They sort through benthic litter
sorting out tiny insects with their unique mouths, then release unwanted material past their gills. They are hardly the scavenger that many folks make them out to be. Their golden flanks, white underside, and sucker-shaped mouths make them a distinctive fish.
The diminutive Fantail Darter is a member of the large Perch Family, which includes Yellow Perch, Walleye, Sauger, and a large variety of darters. “Fantails” are highly adaptable and are found throughout most of western and central Virginia. The name describes the beautiful, lined pattern on the caudal (tail) fin. Males will get dark during spring spawning season and small knobs often appear on the tips of the spiny dorsal fin. Male cousins of the Fantail Darter in Southwest Virginia exhibit brilliant
seasonal colors that rival fish from coral reefs. The name “darter” derives from their quick, darting motions from rock-to-rock on stream bottoms. Their preference for fast-flowing waters (riffles) allows them to access aquatic insect larvae, a favorite food item.
Blue Ridge Sculpin
The Sculpin family is well known among fly fishing enthusiasts, but not so much with the general public. Sculpin fly patterns often lure in big trout. Sculpins are a favorite food of Brook Trout, but are quite voracious on insects and small fish in the cold water food web. There are three species of Sculpin that find their home in Middle River waters. Only the Blue Ridge Sculpin, formerly known as Mottled Sculpin, is found in the upper reaches of the watershed. Sculpins are made for benthic (bottom) dwelling with their large pectoral fins, tapered bodies, upward-oriented eyes, and lack of a swim bladder. Their camouflage is a perfect match for the rocks that they live among.
Eastern Blacknose Dace
Of all the minnows in Virginia, the Eastern Blacknose Dace (EBD) is most often found in mountain waters along with Brook Trout. It is a schooling species, often found in quiet eddies. EBD grow to only four inches in length and are distinguished by black dashes on both sides of the snout. Black or brown stripes run down each side.
Longnose Dace have funny looking snouts. They are “turned down” and rounded, plus they have long bodies. Combined with large pectoral and dorsal fins, they look like baby sharks. Adults are typically larger than EBD adults and they are typically found together in the Potomac and James River drainages. While EBD prefer pools and backwater, Longnose Dace are adapted to riffles and swift runs. They are typically long, brown in color, and have a small, triangular spot just before the caudal fin.
Because of its large mouth and habit of taking insects from the water’s surface, this beautiful minnow often frustrates fly fishers who are targeting trout. With a broad red stripe along each side, it has been confused with small Rainbow Trout. However, it has sparse spotting and is without parr marks (found on trout only). Rosyside Dace are often found in clean water transition zones between cold and warm water streams. It is a satellite species in that it uses the nests of chubs for spawning.