The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail
The alligator gar is a large prehistoric fish native to North America, particularly the lower Mississippi River and Gulf Coast states. It is the largest of seven species of gar with some as long as 10 feet and weighing 300 pounds! They can live to be over 50 years old! The largest alligator gar caught in Mississippi weighed 215 pounds and was caught in 2003 in the Mississippi River near St. Catherine Creek National Wildlife Refuge. Alligator gar were historically found from Illinois to the Gulf of Mexico within the Mississippi River Valley and its tributaries, but over the past century, that range has been dramatically reduced.
Gar live in lakes, bayous, slow moving rivers, and are able to tolerate brackish and some salty water in coastal marshes and bays. This inland fish prefer slow-moving rivers with wide floodplains that usually flood during the spring. This flooding creates shallow backwater areas that are good for spawning. Unfortunately for the alligator gar and other floodplain species, flood control measures such as levees and dams have largely eliminated their preferred spawning habitat in the Lower Mississippi River Valley. The loss of habitat has contributed significantly to population declines throughout the region. St. Catherine Creek National Wildlife Refuge is an important, perhaps critically important, spawning area for alligator gar. Each year fisheries biologists remove eggs from the alligator gar they catch (and release) at the refuge and use the young fish to restock other areas. Extensive research is also being conducted on the refuge to gain a better understanding of the gar’s ecological needs.
Bottomland Hardwood Forests
Many species depend on the flooding by the Mississippi River. Alligator gar utilize the shallowly flooded fields to spawn during spring floods but will seek refuge during the dry periods in permanent wetlands such as oxbow lakes during the summer and fall. The abundance of oxbow lakes with connections to open areas that are inundated during spring floods are critical to the success of alligator gar. Many fish species have evolved with the dynamic water level fluctuations by the Mississippi River. Wood storks along with many species of herons and egrets will travel long distances to the refuge to take advantage of the abundant food resources provided by the receding Mississippi River, as it recharges and restocks the lakes, ditches, impoundments with fish. As the water recedes, smaller wetland dependent birds called shorebirds utilize the exposed mudflat created by the prolonged flooding. When the waters recede, the refuge may provide as much as 2,000-3,000 acres of shallowly flooded wetlands and mudflat habitat available for shorebirds to forage. Because many other areas along the Mississippi River Valley during this time of year are typically dry, St. Catherine Creek NWR is an important shorebird migration stopover during the fall migration south. Waterfowl utilize the moist-soil wetlands, cropland areas, and flooded forests during the winter months for food resources, cover, rest, and pair bonding. These habitats provide a tremendous food sources that refuel energy demands for waterfowl during the winter and for the migration northward in the spring.
(From the St. Catherine Wildlife Refuge website)
352.5 – 346.5 LBD Opposite Warnicott/Esperance Archipelago
Great bomb-proof (all weather, all water level) camping is found throughout the incredible six mile long string of white sand islands strung along the left bank of the main channel as it courses through St. Catharine Bend. During high water in Spring 2013 the Quapaw and Natchez made peace for the first time in 400 years on Esperance. That is, Adam Elliott of Natchez joined Quapaw Canoe Company as an independent outpost owner and river guide for the stretch of river between Vicksburg and Baton Rouge. We lit white sage to create a sacred space, and perform the ceremony, and played our drums, and made gifts of tobacco to appease the winds of the four directions (paddler’s friend, the wind). Little did we know we had company. One face appeared out of the willow thickets. Then another. They looked at us with big eyes and nervous body language. I beckoned them over. They cautiously approached. It was one of those serendipitous river encounters, they were a group of four kayakers who had left Natchez that very morning to paddle to Baton Rouge!
348.6 RBD Esperance Landing
Old Steamboat Landing and woodlot. Army Corps 2007 Map shows a boat ramp here, but it must have been blown out by the 2011 flood because none is visible at time of writing (Dec, 2014).
348 – 344 RBD Esperance Point
Intriguing back channel opens up through the woods at the top end of Esperance Point, and broad open sandbars on around the bend for several miles in low and medium water levels. Everything but the tops of riverbank go under in high water, but possible campsites could be found up to flood stage.
347.2 LBD Old Mouth of St. Catherine Creek
The old mouth of St. Catherine Creek opens up here behind the very last island along the Opposite Esperance Archipelago. A thriving cauldron of decay and regrowth can be found behind the island in the fecund mud conglomerate of all the tributaries and lands upstream and let to fester in these shallow slow waters. Even during high water there is little flow here, allowing swampy growth to proliferate. Duck weed blooms in the summer, and the lakes further up the old channel of the St. Catherine Creek become a tempest of phytoplankton, eating the nutrients out of the overladen waters and feeding a frenzy of paddlefish and carp. This is one of the stewpots in the saving grace of the Lower Mississippi, where the river’s cleansing digestive system is operating in the way the great creator meant it to happen.