I’m not saying you’re a knot-headed chub, but for the sake of this conversation, let’s just say you are. And given that you’re a knot-headed chub, let me be blunt: This could be a challenging time of year for you. Better known to science as the bluehead chub, Nocomis leptocephalus, the fish in question is one of the state’s most common, an incredible creature that you’ve likely never heard of. These large(ish) minnows grow to about the size of a Popsicle and live in freshwater streams across the Piedmont and mountains. If you were a chub, most of the year would pass by in a boring blur as you grubbed along the creek bottom for algae and aquatic insects. But this time of year — oh, buddy. You’d have your hands full.
But not your hands, really. Because you’re a fish, remember. Stick with me on this.
After male bluehead chubs complete their rock mounds, they cover fertilized eggs with a protective layer of gravel. They’re often joined by a community of fishes — including yellowfin shiners — that take up residence around the nest. photograph by Todd Pusser
Each spring, as the spawning season approaches, male bluehead chubs grow one large, swollen knot as well as small nodules called tubercles on their heads, hence the nicknames “knot-head” and “horny-head.” The knobs might signal to females something about a male’s potential as a mate. Scientists aren’t entirely sure. But what they do know is that bluehead chubs go all Extreme Home Makeover this time of year, piling marble-size gravel into underwater breeding mounds.
These rock nests can be whoppers, up to two or three feet long. In one study, scientists measured and took samples from six bluehead chub nests. They estimated that the average nest was built with 14,500 individually selected stones.
So, then. As a knot-headed chub, you’d be spending your days right about now piling up thousands of rocks, one by one and each one about the size of your head. The truly incredible part? You could only carry those rocks in your mouth. You’re a fish, remember. A knot-headed chub.
Wading upstream, I watch my footing and keep an eye on the shallows. Here at Raven Rock State Park in Harnett County, the Cape Fear River braids among rocky outcrops and giant boulders. The various channels collect small stones, which carpet the river bottom. In the spring, if you were a knot-headed chub, this is where you’d want to be.
I spot one mound when a minnow-like shimmy gives it away. It’s an impressive feat of engineering, an oblong mound of gravel with the rough dimensions of a party-size ice chest. The stones are white and gray, reddish and greenish and blackish, but all about the same size. To think that a fish piled these up with little more than its lips — comparisons to the Egyptian pyramids are only slightly hyperbolic.
I watch the mound, hoping to spot its builder. Bluehead chubs, river chubs, largescale stonerollers, and other nest-builders tend to stick close by the homestead. They release their eggs and milt, which settle into the nooks and crannies of the rocks. Protected from predators, the fertilized eggs benefit from the flow of clean water, which brings in plenty of oxygen. And many mound-builders fuss and fret over their nests, turning the rocks again and again to prevent silt from covering the eggs.
Chub nests are more than single-family dwellings; they’re condo complexes for a variety of fishes.
The nests are more than single-family dwellings; they’re condo complexes for a variety of fishes. Depending on the stream, at least a dozen species might swarm over a chub nest to lay their eggs in the protected zone. Dace, shiners, sculpins, and other minnows arrive in nuptial hues, turning stream bottoms into brilliantly colored neighborhoods that rival any aquarium.
If you’re not a knot-headed chub but you want to see what all the fuss is about, snooping on chub mounds isn’t too difficult. You’ll need polarized sunglasses to cut through the water’s glare, and a walking stick comes in handy on rocky stream bottoms. Find a creek that’s clear and wadable, or use a canoe or kayak to access walkable stretches of larger rivers. It might take a bit of hunting, but, to be honest, a spring day on the water isn’t something you want to rush. Just be careful not to disturb any nesting sites. You wouldn’t want Godzilla crashing into the nursery at your house, would you?
If all of this hasn’t turned you on to bluehead chub fandom, I have one more factoid up my sleeve: The bluehead chub has ties to one of North Carolina’s original Moravian families, and to Salem College, Salem Academy, and the Smithsonian Institution. Sometime between 1850 and 1855, five bluehead chubs were collected from Salem Creek by a group of young women from Salem Academy and Salem College, just up the hill from the waterway. (Don’t be impressed that I know this stuff. I learned it from a paper written by Bryn Tracy of the NC Division of Water Quality.) The women were students of J.T. Linebach, whose family was among the founders of the Salem community. Their specimens were sent to the Smithsonian, where, in 1856, the Institution’s first ichthyologist, Charles F. Girard, pulled them from the museum’s collection and wrote the first scientific description of the bluehead chub.
The Smithsonian Institution, mind you. Some 170 years ago, someone thought bluehead chubs were cool enough to scoop out of a creek, preserve in glass bottles, and ship to the Smithsonian for further study.
You should be pretty impressed with that. Even if you are a knot-headed chub.
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