A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

“Coming through!” I holler. “Get your rod up, I can’t stop him!” I barrel from the bow of the boat to the stern, slipping under my buddy Nick Roberts as

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

“Coming through!” I holler. “Get your rod up, I can’t stop him!” I barrel from the bow of the boat to the stern, slipping under my buddy Nick Roberts as

The Gang’s All Here

Man fishes off of a boat

“Coming through!” I holler. “Get your rod up, I can’t stop him!”

I barrel from the bow of the boat to the stern, slipping under my buddy Nick Roberts as his own fly rod bends toward the horizon. “I can’t help you, man!” he says with a laugh. “I’m a little tied up here!”

We’re a mile outside the sandy hook of Cape Lookout, with the whitecaps of the area’s feared shoals stitching the horizon to the east, but it’s the foam of showering bait and slashing fish that holds our attention. Gulls and terns squawk and dive toward the water. Silverside minnows explode from the surface by the hundreds. Shark fins knife through the chop and slop. In the midst of the melee — the cause for this bedlam, as a matter of fact — are schools of false albacore, churning the surface as they crash through schools of baitfish.

Fisherman holds up a false albacore fish.

In the fall, anglers follow schools of false albacore to the waters around Cape Lookout. A member of the tuna family, “albies” are fast and feisty quarry for avid fly-fishers. photograph by John Mauser

False albacore look like tuna and act like tuna and fight like tuna — but pocket-size tuna, say eight or 10 or 15 pounds each. They are incredibly strong and unbelievably fun to catch, and North Carolina’s Cape Lookout region is home to some of the best fly-fishing for false albacore on the planet.

My fish takes another run, and because it’s so strong and so fast that I can’t do anything but hold on, I hold on and take a good look around. The ocean is alive — dolphins porpoising, spinner sharks spinning, elegant gannets dropping from the sky like feathered missiles.

At this very moment, there’s no place I’d rather be. I’m lucky to travel a lot, and I’ve done that for a very long time, writing about the outdoors and conservation. But when the false albacore show up off the Carteret County coast, I put down roots, and my door hinges get a workout. Friends from near and far join the fish and birds and whales. In November, they all come to me.

• • •

I am often asked, of all the places I’ve been, where do I wish most to return? I smile at the question, and tell my inquisitors that they might be disappointed in my answer, but I’ve thought about this many times. And I give it to them straight.

I wish for a month at home in November. The entire month in my native North Carolina, without leaving its borders. I want to watch the last of the autumn leaves fall from the trees, revealing bare woods where you can read the past in rocky bluffs. I want to spend mornings in a tree stand, watching bucks chase does, maybe a bobcat stretching out on a sunny log. I want to see the first mallard flights winging down into the swamps and be there when the redfish turn the breaking surf into copper waves.

Red-tailed hawk takes flight off a tree barren of leaves.

You don’t have to travel far off the beaten path to experience the wild wonder of the season. Here, red-tailed hawks take flight near Plymouth. photograph by Brady Beck

To me, November seems the season when the natural world is most alive. There’s no time to lose — for wildlife, it means stocking up and getting where you’re going. And you don’t have to be a mile off the North Carolina beach, or even a few steps off the sidewalk, to see the show. Just sit on the back deck with a cup of coffee in your hand and look up at the hawks riding the first thermals of the morning’s migration and the squirrels zipping around in the backyard, stashing nuts. Even they know it’s time to quit monkeying around. Aesop’s fiddling, lazy grasshopper is no fan of November.

Despite all of this, November is a month that’s gotten a bit of a bad reputation. The peak of fall leaf color has passed. The days grow ever shorter. There’s the happy exclamation point of Thanksgiving at the end, but that’s celebrated with a bacchanalia of gustatory bliss, not necessarily wonder at the natural world. “Bundle up, you’ll catch a cold!” we tell our kids, as if a blast of crisp boreal air is ridden with pestilence. We bellyache about the end of daylight saving time and stock up on special light-therapy lamps to stave off the coming winter blues.

To be honest, I blame poets for this run of negative publicity, at least in part. Too many autumnal poets are mired in mortal fear of this month, underscoring the dead and the dying, the sleeping and the senescent. Too often is November lamented in a “music of decline,” in the words of one. Peruse the poetry of November, and you read of:

Naked, silent trees
The faded leaf
and how
The sovereign sun at noonday smileth cold,
As through a shroud he hath no power to part

Jiminy Cricket and cry me a pumpkin-spice river. Mark me down on a different team.

White-tailed deer in long grasses.

White-tailed deer keep watch on Hatteras Island. photograph by Jared Lloyd

I say we need to get a few poets down here in the Kingdom of Cackalacky when the brook trout are spawning under Grandfather’s noggin, their bellies the color of a campfire flame. We need a few modern rhymesters to ruminate on the many ways a wood duck can twist through the swamp trees. We need to plunk a few poets down on a Hatteras beach when the blues are running, and a hundred gannets are dropping from the sky toward thousands of mullet, and there are whales beyond the breakers and low clouds of sea ducks skimming the offshore swells, and you wish you had 10 eyeballs strung around your forehead like an add-a-bead necklace because you don’t want to miss a thing, because these things don’t last.

I say more poets need to go surf fishing during a North Carolina November. Or deer hunting. Or swamp paddling. Watch as the world comes winging through and swimming along and putting down roots for the winter in North Carolina. Put a few poets on the deck of my boat when the false albacore are off the Cape Lookout coast, and they’d sing a different November tune.

This story was published on Oct 23, 2023

T. Edward Nickens

Nickens is editor-at-large of Field & Stream and the author of The Total Outdoorsman Manual and The Last Wild Road: Adventures and Essays from a Sporting Life. His articles also appear in Smithsonian and Audubon magazines.