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Swamp Monster Discovered

August 4, 2017

            I'm thinking about doing some fishing in the Quakertown Swamp. There's a 'pond' in the middle of it where I like to take the dogs in summer because they have a place to swim. My American Brittany, Dobie, is getting old and doesn't handle the heat very well anymore. Plus, he loves to swim. Peyton, my French Brittany, is relatively young and is only a reluctant swimmer (unless there's a goose to retrieve). But, with all the energy he expends when we're out for a run, he needs a way to cool off, too. I've thought about hunting ducks at the pond but until the other day I hadn't seriously considered fishing there.

            The pond is part of the Bog Run watershed which ultimately drains into the Tohickon Creek downstream from Axe Handle Bridge. The pond has no real inlet or outlet. It's just a deeper, bigger than usual waterhole surrounded by woods, thickets and swamp land. It might even be a manmade body of water, as far as I know. Any hole dug in that area will quickly become a puddle or pond because of the impermeable rock that underlies most of the region of Upper Bucks County once called the Great Swamp.

            The pond's water seems stagnant and is stained brown, looks sort of like iced tea. It's kind of small--maybe fifteen yards wide and seventy-five or so long. Lilies cover close to half the surface area. Thick beds of them extend out from the opposite shoreline, which is an impenetrable, brushy hedge row. Beyond that, there's a level area of ten or twenty acres that's covered with brush. There's no trees for quite a distance in that direction, suggesting a thicket covered marsh.

            That afternoon, I followed the dogs down the wooded trail from the parking area. Peyton was distracted by a squirrel he treed, but I called him off and we headed down to the pond. It wasn't really hot but I told them to "Go for a swim," anyway. Peyton plunged in, did a quick loop, got out, shook himself off and headed back into the bushes, 'hunting.' Dobie went for a long, leisurely swim, up and down the pond along the edge of the lily patches.

            Suddenly, I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye. About thirty yards down the pond, the lilies were vigorously shuddering and waving back and forth. It startled me. It would take a substantial breeze to move them like that, but there was none. I hadn't seen geese on the pond and the agitation was much too great for it to be ducks. The swaying stopped for a moment then, in an adjacent patch, a large section of the lilies moved violently. A wide swath of them lurched and swayed as something moved through them underwater. It moved fast and with power. Ripples ran out and across the pond.

            My mind struggled to process what I'd seen. It was hardly comprehensible. Whatever it was, was huge. My fifty pound dogs paddling through the lilies don't create a disturbance nearly as severe as the one I saw. A big snapping turtle, I guessed. But no, it moved much too fast. A fish then? It would have to be larger than any fish I'd seen in Pennsylvania. A giant musky or pike? Improbable in those conditions. A catfish as large as the ones I saw on TV at noodling contests in Oklahoma? Perhaps. What else? It seemed big enough, but an alligator? Ridiculous! A beaver? There are no signs of beavers there.

            A creepy feeling surged through me; the eerie sensation one gets when confronted by the inexplicable, when something witnessed seems impossible. A panicky shuddered shot through me when I saw Dobie swimming toward that part of the pond. It was the same panic I felt years before when I saw another dog of mine swimming in a creek in Florida with a sign, "Danger! Alligators." I quickly called Dobie back. No more swimming that day! I questioned my eyes and imagination all the way home.

            The next day I approached a friend at work who knows the Quakertown Swamp nearly as well as I do. "You know that little pond?" I said. "I was running the dogs there yesterday and saw something that scared me."

            Without hesitation he asked, "Was it was a big snapper? Or a fish?"

            I was stunned. "You saw it too!?"

            "I was archery hunting there a couple of years ago. It was cold. There was a sheen of ice on the pond." He furtively glanced around, like he always does when he's nervous. "Did it move real fast; roil up the mud?"

            "I just saw the lilies and water moving," I said.

            "Did it have a big fantail. . . like this?" He held his hands about 18 inches apart.

            "I don't know." I was amazed.

            "It looked, to me, like it had a shell on its back. It was too cold for turtles, though. It was this wide." He held his hands about three feet apart. "Didn't you see the tail . . . and the shell?" He nervously looked around again. "I just saw it that once. I don't go there anymore."

            I felt relieved that someone else had seen it, too, and that its size was confirmed. It must be a huge catfish, I decided.  It would have a fan tail and its broad head could look like a shell. I wondered how it got enough food in its land-locked pond to get so big, but I frequently see ducks there, and there's a choir of frogs at night. Undoubtedly, muskrats live in the swamp, and fish and turtles. I remembered TV shows--River Monsters, Mud Cats--and was convinced it was not an hallucination. Something big really does live in that little pond.

            When I saw my friend later that day he pulled me aside and confided, in a near whisper: "What I said earlier? I was messing with you. I never saw anything there. I just made it up." He nervously looked back over his shoulder, turned and gripped my arm. His eyes were squinted and leery. "I didn't see anything there, really. I really didn't.  I just don't go there anymore."

 

*

            There are a dozen species of catfish native to Pennsylvania: the flathead, channel cat, brown, yellow and black bullheads, white catfish, the stone cat, and the margined, mountain, brindled and tadpole madtom catfish. Some of the species are isolated to small parts of the state. Only two can grow to a size capable of making the disturbance I saw in the patch of lilies at the pond in the Quakertown Swamp [and scaring my friend like that]: the flathead and the channel cat.  

            The flathead is originally native to the Great Lakes and the Ohio River drainage of Pennsylvania but was introduced to the Susquehanna and Delaware systems relatively recently. So, it is possible that the 'monster' my buddy and I think we saw is a flathead. However, it's more likely to be a channel cat [The blue catfish, largest of the catfish species, is not native to and is rarely found in this part of Pennsylvania, though it's possible, too, I guess].

            The channel cat (Ictalurus punctatus) is North America's most numerous and most commonly fished for catfish species. It's well distributed across the Neartic bio-geographic realm from southern Canada to northern Mexico. It thrives in rivers, streams, reservoirs, lakes and ponds. It is the official fish of Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska and Tennessee and is one of the most commonly raised species by the commercial aquaculture industry.

            Channel catfish have very keen senses of smell and taste. They have a high concentration of very sensitive olfactory receptors in their nares (nostrils). They can detect several different amino acids at a concentration as low as one part per 100 million. The channel cat also has taste buds distributed over its entire body with a very high concentration of them (about 25 per square millimeter), on their eight barbels (whiskers). In addition, the channel cat has a Weberian apparatus which amplifies sound waves in the water.

      The channel catfish has a top size of 40-50 pounds. The world record (caught in the Santee-Cooper Reservoir in South Carolina in 1964), weighed 58 pounds. I didn’t actually see the Monster in Quakertown Swamp, just indication of its movement. The way my buddy described it, though (unless he “didn’t see anything, really,” and just made it up), it could be a new world record.

*

      The Quakertown Swamp is some of the last evidence of what most of Upper Bucks County, PA--most of Richland and Milford Townships--were like 300 years ago. Until well after the Revolutionary War the region was known as the Great Swamp.

      Located about two miles south and east of Quakertown, the swamp follows the route of Bog Run, a tributary of the Tohickon Creek. It is the largest inland wet land in Bucks County, extending about four miles from Rte. 309 to north of Rte. 313 where it joins the Tohickon. About 400 acres is preserved or protected land.

      The entire region of Upper Bucks is underlain by impermeable igneous diabase rock that forms the boulder-strewn landscape common in the surrounding townships. The magma uplift during the early Jurassic geologic period penetrated older, Triassic Basin sandstone and created a surface level water table in much of the region.

      The Quakertown Swamp has diverse habitats that include open water, cattail marsh, wet meadows, brush thickets and forested swamps. It is designated by the Audubon Society as an important bird area. It is home to the largest blue heron nesting area in eastern Pennsylvania and is home to another 91 species of birds. Several rare species of rails and snipes have been see there.

 

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