Choptank: The River I love
Since the first time I saw the Choptank River 30 years ago it has inspired my imagination and interest. In its 70 mile journey from its source near the border between Delaware and Maryland to the Chesapeake Bay is a unique, diverse and fascinating ecosystem. From its source about 30 miles upstream from Moot Point to about 5 miles downstream the river is not brackish or slightly brackish but wholly fresh; farmers irrigate directly from the river less than half a mile north of our dock. Although it is fresh water, it is still subject to the same tides as the bay and the ocean.
Interaction with the river where we live is to some extent dependent on the tide. At low tide (once every 12 hours and 25 minutes) there is little or no water at the end of the dock and the small creek, Joiner Branch is clearly visible as it meanders into the river near the dock. At high tide there is 3 feet plus of water at the dock’s end and this is the best time for fishing, swimming and boating. Because the tides are on a lunar clock and most of us run on a solar one, this means high tide shows up at a time about 45 minutes later each day. Depending on when you visit, the tide may be high morning noon or night.
The river is not very clear most of the year but it’s not polluted either. Swimming with a vest or in pairs with supervision is fine. The bottom of the river is predominantly sand covered by mud anywhere the current is slowed by vegetation or small islands. If you are brave enough to wade in the shallow water, be careful, the mud can be many inches deep and will suck the flip-flop or loose shoe right off your feet. Although you may encounter sticks or small tree branches in the mud, otherwise it is not dangerous.
Off the dock at Moot Point the water is between one inch and 3 feet deep depending on the stage of the tide. It continues to be relatively shallow for about 100 feet and then drops off into a 50 foot wide channel at the middle of the river. The current flows in both directions depending on whether the tide is coming in (flood) or going out (ebb). Between tides when it runs the fastest, it flows about 1.5 miles an hour. During severe storms or when the wind is very strong, it can reach considerably faster speeds. This means you should not attempt to swim across the river unless you are an expert swimmer or are wearing a life-vest. If you feel overwhelmed by the current, head for the nearest riverbank and wait until your feet touch bottom.
The river boasts a wide variety of animal, fish and bird life year round. Fish I have seen in the river here include catfish, large-mouth bass, white perch, yellow perch, crappie, alewives, darters, herring, shad, shiners, blue-gill, rock bass and striped bass a.k.a. rockfish. Rockfish are not common except during the Spring when they pursue large schools of baitfish that run up the river and in the Fall when the rockfish are mating.
Although it’s been a long time, I have seen river otters cruise the river at dusk. There are many resident beavers living in the banks of the river but they are mainly nocturnal and hard to spot during the day. You can frequently hear them at night however, as they warn each other of approaching humans by the loud slap of their tails on the water. You will need to use stealth and sneak up on them to experience this behavior. Other animals to look for along or in the river are foxes, gray and black squirrels, raccoons, possum, turtles, moles, voles and deer. Occasionally you will spot a flock of wild turkeys.
People seem to associate the river with reptiles. There are frogs and turtles and eels, (none of them electric), and snakes as well. Please understand there are no poisonous snakes anywhere in or around the entire Delmarva peninsula on which the entire Choptank River watershed is located. This according to Nick Carter, who waded the wetlands and cruised the rivers of the Eastern Shore of Maryland as a wetland biologist for over 30 years.
The Choptank River begins at Choptank Mills, Delaware, where Tidy Island Creek and Culbreth Marsh Ditch join together. It ends at the Chesapeake Bay in a very wide mouth between Blackwalnut Point on Tilghman Island, and Cook Point, near Hudson, Maryland. Tidy Island Creek and Culbreth Marsh Ditch rise in western Kent County, Delaware. The entire watershed is in the coastal plain. The Choptank reaches sea level near Denton, Maryland and is not salty until around 2 miles (3.2 km) below Denton. Greensboro, Maryland, about 6 miles (9.7 km) up the river from Denton, is the head of navigation.
Meaning of the word “Choptank”—“a stream that separates”, or “a place of big current” in the Nanticoke or Delaware (Native American) language