JANUARY • Tar River / Roanoke Bass She’s a little slip of a river, much of the way. You might say she exists in the shadow of her larger cousin
She’s a little slip of a river, much of the way. You might say she exists in the shadow of her larger cousin to the south, the Neuse River, which the half-hidden Tar River nearly parallels on their twin journeys from the Piedmont to the sea.
Up in her headwaters, in Granville and Person and Vance counties, she’s a big creek, really, and I’ve paddled her bony, rocky shoals cooled by river bluffs cloaked in mountain laurel. By the time the Tar drops into the Coastal Plain, I no longer have to steer around rocks. Instead I cast tiny, flashy lures along downed trees and deep holes the color of good coffee. This is the haunt of the rare Roanoke bass, a Tar Heel native you can find in only a handful of rivers. Think of a largemouth bass the size of a big bluegill, with a wild red eye and a puppy’s spunk.
The Tar isn’t as large or as well-known as the Neuse, and it’s never as crowded. That’s a lesson to be learned from this river, and this fish: There will always be someone smarter, faster, more successful. So be yourself, because no one else can be a better you. Like this river and its fish, each is like nothing else in this world.
I still my bare feet in a pool below worn rocks. I sit, unmoving, and let my eyes soft-focus on the tall cliffs above. I listen for the river as the water pours over the ledge, smooth as abalone. Wind sifts through the oaks. But what I hear isn’t mountain or forest or even river. What I hear is the passage of time.
The New is a river primeval, a waterway so old that many believe it rose with the surrounding mountains. Its flow has exposed rocks a billion years old. The shallows shimmer with sunlight as you wade along a New River ledge. But the deep pools below are black as coal — a few inches deep or an abyss, there’s no way to tell. And in some of those pools lurks one of the New River’s most primal predators: the muskellunge. Anglers call the muskie “the fish of 10,000 casts,” as it is wary and difficult to fool. You must have patience, skill, and luck on your side, and a streak of daring can’t hurt. Once this so-called “water wolf” decides to eat — another fish, a duckling, a mouse, or even a muskrat — it strikes with power and bravado and the most impressively fanged jaws in the river.
It seems too cold to give much thought to a river, too raw for a float trip, too frightful for fishing. But this is March, and the days are growing. At the mouth of the Cape Fear River, between Bald Head Island to the south and sleepy Southport on the northern shore, spring’s first silvery ambassadors have moved in from the sea. American shad are in the river. Funny how fish always seem to be one step ahead.
Formed 200 miles inland, the Cape Fear is the taproot of the Coastal Plain. It was the first river explored by European sailors, the largest watershed in the state, fed by nearly 400 named creeks and streams. And when the shad arrive, so do the shad fishermen, in a pageant with roots that reach to George Washington, who fed shad to his troops at that bitter Valley Forge camp, and to the first colonists, who fertilized their fields with the plentiful fish. So hang on when a big buck shad sucks in a curly tail jig. Hang on because he has no intention of giving up easily, not with the sea behind and the river ahead, not when it’s early spring on the Cape Fear River.
We were on the tidal Neuse, down where the freshwater meets the salt, on the broad plain near Oriental, where the river is barely a river any longer, when the storm blew up from the west. In less than two minutes, the wind whipped the Neuse into an angry sea. We pushed the boat hard, fleeing the storm, seeking sanctuary, white-knuckling through the whitecaps and lightning. I gritted my teeth through the rain and thunder, and remembered: Few things can change as swiftly as a river.
I think of the Neuse in April and think of the hickory shad. It’s a pound or two of wiggle and flash, sort of a salmon lost in the South, a fish that spends most of its life cruising offshore waters until the urge to spawn sends a sea of them flooding up coastal rivers. One day, the Neuse is devoid of the fish. The next, a handful are found. Within days, tens of thousands will throng the water. I’ve waited in line for an hour at a little country boat ramp, once word got out that the hickory shad had arrived, that spring had finally sprung, that in a matter of days the Neuse had thrown off its winter cloak, and traded galoshes for flip-flops.
The sheer numbers are unfathomable. I stand on the bow of the boat and cast a heavy fly into the slick eddies behind a rocky ledge, and pull fish after fish from the river. Striped bass, strong and sleek, are everywhere — just like the fishermen drifting on the river’s flats, anchored behind fallen sycamores, shoulder to shoulder wherever rocks break the river’s flow. For a month, striped bass are in the Roanoke like blackbirds in the autumn sky, and a fishing frenzy grips northeastern North Carolina.
The Roanoke flows along the Virginia line, to its river mouth in the upper reaches of Albemarle Sound. Roanoke Rapids Lake, Lake Gaston, and Kerr Lake impound its waters, which reach to the foot of the Blue Ridge. Once, striped bass migrated 400 miles inland to spawn, and although dams have stymied the trip, the runs are still epic. I have caught them in cypress woods and in spawning shoals, but my most memorable fish always come from the rocks. When the Roanoke fractures into a dozen different cataracts, and the stripers come so fast, so often, so endlessly, I’m reminded of what our rivers once were — and might be again.
Famed waters, these that flow under the steady gaze of Looking Glass Rock, deep in Transylvania County, beneath the Cradle of Forestry. The Davidson River is the trout stream that anglers dream about — clear, cold waters wide enough for a long fly cast, home to some of the largest, wiliest trophy rainbow trout in the state. But like much of the very best in these mountains, they don’t come easily.
Fish the Davidson, and, on most days, you will command a short stretch of the river. You will study every riffle, pick apart every plunge pool. You will see the fish feed — see the delicate ring of water that attends the rise, see the shadow of a rock suddenly quiver so that you know it was no rock at all — and cast a fly that would fit inside a pea. Many times, the offering will be ignored, all your patience and skill unrewarded. But at the end of all this, if you have brought your best game to this Pisgah jewel, there will be those times when the fly vanishes in a splashy take. And then a different sort of rainbow arcs across the Davidson River, one you wouldn’t trade for a pot of gold.
From the distance of a bridge or a roadway or even a rickety wooden pier, the Lumber River is dark as onyx, opaque and inscrutable. But it’s a curious element, a blackwater stream. Plunge a hand or paddle into the Lumber River, and the water appears as dark tea, not black at all, but turning everything umber and gold. Stained with the tannins of oak and gum and cypress, the water’s color is a conundrum that marks the flow of the river itself: How is black water so kaleidoscopically beautiful?
It’s a metaphysical question, for sure. But there’s nothing abstract about my favorite fish to toss a cricket toward in this southeastern stream. Pull a redbreast sunfish from a shady Lumber stump hole, and it’s like pulling a rainbow from the sky: The fish sports a blue-green back like an opal, a belly like a ruby, with rays of turquoise around each eye. These are pugnacious little river fish, strong and savvy. They relish the flowing waters of coastal rivers, venturing into the swamps during the high-water springs, then returning to their river-channel homes just in time to brighten an angler’s summer morning.
The Nolichucky is a small river, a strong river that muscles its way through some of the steepest country in the west, fast and swift and breathless. It dares you to underestimate it. Carving a serpentine boundary between Yancey and Mitchell counties, the Nolichucky drops through a dark, deep gorge as it nears the Tennessee line. Stand in its flow, and the river seems to cut you off from past and future. The canyon walls soar green overhead, the water thundering. The river is frothed with big rapids. It stills in deep pools. You can get lost in a bit of reverie there, entranced by a world made of water and rock. Until a smallmouth bass jerks the rod in your hand, and your mind is back to the present.
A Nolichucky smallmouth seems to be made from the very elements of the Nolichucky. They are sleek as a river-smoothed stone and colored copper like the deep bronze pools where they live. They are cold and pure and wild, and just might be the fighting-est fish in any river, pound for pound. It’s like a lot of things in life, that way: This river and this fish make an impression all out of proportion to their size.
The waters drop over lesser cascades and flow from smaller streams and minor brooks: Billy Branch, Clawhammer Creek, Bearpen Branch, Laurel Brook, Sweetwater Creek. Their waters, in turn, come from springs and seeps and rain and morning mists, gathered from the high Pisgah slopes, funneled into the remote South Mills River.
The South Mills River is known for some of the purest water in the North Carolina mountains, and some of the wariest brown trout. The browns here are wild fish — bred here, born here, on their own. They skitter at the merest shadow or heavy footfall. To catch a wild South Mills brown, you won’t need a fancy flyrod. Cast a big, nasty-looking fly — nothing dainty — above an old mossy, dark log. No wispy-winged creature. Something that looks like a lizard, or a mouse. Something worth eating, because big brown trout like a mouthful. And when the rod bends double, and the fight is done, then let it go into the South Mills’ pristine flow, and marvel at how a small trout from small waters feels like such a big accomplishment.
A pale yellow caddis fly catches my eye, spinning downward into a quiet mountain pool. For a moment, it lies still, then a tongue of current tows it along a seam in the stream, pulling line from my fly reel as the insect drifts past my feet. Thirty feet upstream, where the fly twirled in a tiny eddy, a dark rock slows the creek’s flow. This is how a brook trout angler reads the water, deciphering the streams within each stream, to know where Big Snowbird’s brook trout live.
A wild brook trout is a riot of color. Its flanks are speckled red and blue, its belly striped orange. This is the only trout native to the state, and Big Snowbird Creek is one of its ancient, high-elevation haunts. You won’t find them in lower-elevation waters that warm too quickly in summer, or along roads or old logging cuts. Instead, you’ll find them tucked away where hemlocks still shade mountain streams. You hike and you wade and you hike. And then you hide behind a rock as you cast to these wary trout. If you catch one, look around Big Snowbird’s mossy boulders and clear pools, and feel, for a moment, like you belong.
The largemouth bass is one of the most fished-for fish out there. But it’s not the fish’s fault. It’s been stocked into practically every pond, lake, river, and puddle in our state. The fact that it can live just about anywhere means it now lives just about everywhere. A largemouth bass will eat a backyard worm or an $8 lure. And it’s a fighter on the rod: a jumper and a runner.
So, perhaps it’s best to fish for this common fish in an uncommon place, one whose very name is shrouded in intrigue. In 1585, when Sir Walter Raleigh’s Lane expedition sailed eastern North Carolina’s waters, some 3,000 Algonquian-speaking Chowanoke Indians lived on the banks of the Chowan River. They have long since vanished, but their name remains tied to the river. And more than four centuries later, the river still flows with mystery, a broad stream edged with cypress, a canyon of water moving toward the vast forests of the Albemarle Peninsula. Drifting quietly under the cypress trees, casting into dark waters flowing through the shadows, an angler can still feel the river’s pull, the primal pulse that drew the ancients.
We cross on bridges, nowadays, high over the water, soaring above the trees. Still, we can’t help but press our faces to the car windows and wonder: What’s it like down there, down that green chasm of forest and water?
Father Yadkin knows: He watched a man chip an arrowhead on his river bluffs 12,000 years ago. Daniel Boone crossed his waters, which begin in Blowing Rock, then gather the flow of four rivers, and drain more than 7,000 square miles of the state. Father Yadkin is the Everyman of our rivers.
So imagine a night on a dock on this river. The fishing line unspools into the dark, lost out there with the croak of night herons and the call of toads, until a tug on the line makes the rod bend deeply. You know what it is before you see it in the lantern’s light — a channel catfish, spotted and bewhiskered. It’s as everyday as any fish, and at that moment, you imagine a cast-iron skillet, popping oil, and a meal that brings it all back: the starlight on the water, the laughter of your buddies. The kind of fish, and river, that turns the ordinary into the unforgettable.