One scaly, swimming symbol alone could not tell the full story of our waters. Our state fishes represent two facets of North Carolina’s personality, two sides of a Southern coin: one as meditative as a remote mountain stream, the other as fiercely headstrong as the wild Atlantic.
You can’t even call them kissing cousins, not really. Scientifically speaking, the brook trout and the red drum — aka redfish, channel bass, puppy drum, or plain ol’ red — split way down the taxonomic tree trunk long, long ago. They are as different as a ruby-throated hummingbird and a great blue heron.
But they are forever yoked in at least one regard — they are each a formal ambassador of North Carolina’s astonishing natural wonder. The Southern Appalachian strain of brook trout is our official state freshwater trout, and the red drum is our official state saltwater fish. Their kinship is anchored in the deep ways that they are tied to their specific Tar Heel habitats. And while they might be (almost) as different as night and day, each inspires a singular passion for the wild places where they thrive. Ask any angler who pursues either of these fish: When a brook trout or red drum is on the line, it feels like you’ve hooked into a little piece of the heart and soul of North Carolina.
I hike and hike, and I climb some more. I want to get a solid mile away from the truck and up the creek before I even think about wetting a line. To find the brook trout in North Carolina, you very nearly have to find yourself halfway to lost. Their scientific name, Salvelinus fontinalis, includes a reference to the Latin word for “springs.” They haunt the high headwater creeks, the tiny brooks that trickle and trellis through the mossy quiet of cathedral forests. Once there, you have to thread a cast under overhanging rhododendron, into current seams of water that seem to flow like molten onyx in shadows that never give way to the sun.
During the Pleistocene Epoch, brook trout were pushed down from the Northeast by glaciers. When the ice receded, they found refuge in the pure, high-elevation streams of Southern Appalachia. The other trout of North Carolina — rainbow and brown — are regal beasts, but they are nonetheless imposters, having been stocked in our mountain streams for more than a century. And both of those fish are more aggressive and typically larger than brookies, so they will harass and outcompete our native trout. Today, brook trout have been driven to the highest, smallest headwaters, almost all above 3,000 feet in elevation, and often upstream of tall waterfalls that blunt the migration of rainbows and brown.
Brook trout often retreat to remote areas of the mountains like Curtis Creek. But expert anglers know just where to look. photograph by VisitNC.com
That’s one reason anglers cherish the brook trout: They can only be found in the last wild places. They can only be caught by those willing to climb and crawl and cast into ungodly tangles. And for all that trouble, half a foot of wiggle and squirm is likely the prize. But what a prize it is. In the hand, a brook trout feels like the quivering, luminescent colors of a kaleidoscope have somehow been fashioned into flesh.
The fish is speckled with red spots, many encircled with blue halos. Yellow vermiculations squirm across the moss-green back, and the belly of a breeding male is often swathed in a stripe of orange. In the hand, the fish seems gaudy, a piscine peacock, but in the water, this spotted predator disappears, its yellow-slashed back nearly invisible against the sun-dappled stream bottom.
They don’t grow as large as other trout. They often don’t fight as hard as other fish. But the allure of this dweller of springs lies in its ancient bearing, unchanged for centuries. They live beyond the end of the trail, on the far side of the ridge, just below the clouds that snag in the tallest poplars.
You have to go big for this tiniest of North Carolina trout.
Now, to be honest, your average, ordinary, everyday redfish might smirk at a brook trout. Red drum are a bit on the brutish side. Brawny and headstrong and chockful of attitude. Maybe it’s best that these two Tar Heel standard-bearers could never cross paths.
Far from the High Country, the redfish loves a small tidal creek, and on the high tides, they will burrow through flooded marsh in search of shrimp and crabs like a puppy trying to sniff out that last cookie crumb in the carpet. But redfish are just as happy in crashing surf, cruising rough-water shoals, or brooding in deepwater sloughs in broad tidal rivers. Fishing for brook trout involves immersing yourself in a cloistered, calming landscape. Casting for redfish can require putting yourself out on the wild edge of terra firma, sunk to the waist in the waves, or clutching a boat railing as you cut the distance to a redfish school crashing bait on the surface.
Redfish can be found in North Carolina year-round, but they’re not always where they were last week, or yesterday, or even this morning, and that explains much of their allure to anglers. To fish for channel bass is to hunt for channel bass. The fish are tied to the tides: the rising waters that allow them to push deep into marsh and oyster reef, and the falling waters that pull prey out of the shallows and into deeper water.
When a brook trout or red drum is on the line, it feels like you’ve hooked into the heart and soul of North Carolina.
Anglers cruise quietly, in boats and kayaks and on foot, searching for the shape and shadows of redfish on the feed — or, better yet, the flashing tails of channel bass grubbing in the partially submerged seagrass. Even in the surf, when sight-casting isn’t possible, fishing for red drum requires hunting the beach for the shore breaks and sloughs and channels that hold the fish. Unlike the brook trout, which might live most of its days in a shady pool the size of a living room, redfish live life on the move.
And it’s only when you lift a red drum out of the water that you grasp its extraordinary beauty. Submerged, redfish appear the color of marsh mud or roiled surf. But out of the water, or in the clearest marsh ponds, they gleam gold and copper and russet. They appear gilded, as if some artisan hammered them out of bronze. Small constellations of eyespots — called ocelli — speckle their tails and flanks. Likely an evolutionary adaptation to escape being eaten, the eyespots draw a predator’s attention to the wrong end of the fish.
Those striking eyespots are one reason these fish engender such passion among anglers. The other is that they care not a whit to be out of the water, so they put up a valiant, rod-bending, heart-thumping fight when hooked. And that’s why, along the salt marsh and the sandy shore, along the very edge of North Carolina, it’s often the angler that gets caught.
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