A Brief Struggle in the Sandhills

Being back in North Carolina in winter break meant a few choice trips to some of my favorite haunts around the state, and the top of my list and mind for the past few months had been the North Carolina Sandhills region, the unique, remote and highly productive region of blackwater swamps and creeks stretching from Fayetteville to Rockingham. I had done well in the area earlier in the year, when the water levels were normal and temperatures hot. I figured my trip would be less productive but still yield results I could write home about.

The first spot we tried was a damned swamp lake, simply called Silver Run after the creek that forms it. The lakes on the Fort Bragg area are filled with Chain Pickerel (Esox niger), a species I had yet to encounter, despite meeting its more diminutive cousin the Redfin Pickerel (Esox americanus) in the swamps of Robeson County. Sadly, my spot scouting skills did not work to a T and the swampy area was hard to access and cast into, despite looking promising.

The lake, named simply Silver Run for the swampy trickle it dams

My father and I eventually found a dam and set to work jigging small spinners and curly tails around the rushing water, an omen to the spots we would later drive aimlessly past. We got a few bites and before long I had pulled up a Warmouth (Lepomis gulosus), my smallest ever but a brilliantly colored specimen at that.

After the Warmouth the bite died and I switched to a size 14 hook with a bit of worm on it. Fishing the margins of the whitewater coming off the dam produced instant and continuous results from a plethora of small sunfish occupying the base of the dam. I quickly pulled up another species, the Dollar Sunfish (Lepomis marginatus).

I had caught my lifer Dollar in the area, in fact in the creek about half a mile down the road, and seeing these beautiful sunfish was always welcome. I used this chance to bust out the photo tank and tried a bit of photography, although it didn't turn out great.

The photo tank, complete with small waves from the very angry Dollar Sunfish I enclosed within it

I fished around the dam a bit more and switched to other spots, but it was the constant flow of aeration over the dam that was producing fish and I ended up catching two other Dollars, with one of them being perhaps my personal best and one of the most beautiful I had ever caught.

A very photogenic Dollar Sunfish, near the northern tip of its eastern range. You can identify them by the opercular flap completely outlined in white

Eventually, we decided to move on to (what we thought were) greener pastures. I had scouted a creek down a small but paved Fort Bragg road from Google Maps a few months back, which I was unable to scout at the first Sandhills trip because the road had been closed to civilian use. Much to my excitement the road was open today and we ended up stopping at the creek, called Rockfish Creek on Google Maps but labeled by a sign at the spot that read Jennies Creek. The creek looked okay, there was a little bit of flow but the current wasn't exorbitant and definitely fish-able. We didn't get anything on normal gear, but I spotted a small school of minnows in the crystal clear pool off the main current and thought it would be the perfect time to use my Tanago hooks. These hooks are the gateway for many species for fisherman, species that can't be hooked on normal gear. I had never fished with them before and figured adding whatever this species was in front of me would be a great way to christen them.

I was willing to play the waiting game, and I began drifting the bait throughout the school. They would nip and drag it a bit but always drop it and never seem to bite it. I tried for a while, having to change baits twice but nothing would actually swallow the hook. Eventually I left only a fleck of worm on the tip of the hook and began drifting it, and once the bait had been scaled down so much I only started getting full on bites. It had been around 10 minutes of back-crunching crouching over this spot and no luck as of yet, but I was determined not to be beaten. There was one rather large minnow, comparatively that is, swimming around and I knew he had to be my target. He kept biting unfailingly at the split shot instead of the bait, and only until I moved the bait micrometers towards his face did I watch it disappear and yank up to find him attached, where I instantly deposited him in the photo tank.

My first Tanago species ever: The Dusky Shiner

I had gotten my first true micro species, a milestone for any angler. It was frustrating at times and my back ached but I was delighted with the result, a Dusky Shiner (Notropis cummingsae). I didn't even bother trying for more even though I definitely could have, probably wish I did based upon the picture I got.

Note the tiny (~size 30) hook notched in the little guy's mouth

Eventually we moved on to the next spot, a creek dear to me right down the road from the first spot. It was the same creek I had caught my lifer Mud Sunfish and Dollar Sunfish at, and I was excited to fish it again. However, once I got there I found the creek up about a foot and whitewater waterfalls running through it, not features that portray a characteristic swampy creek. I ended up catching a Redbreast Sunfish (Lepomis auritus), or Robin, a species I typically find in rocky Piedmont creek and rarely in blackwater, making it a unique catch nonetheless.

A rather drab, but still unique, blackwater cold-weather Robin

Eventually we moved on but every single spot we hit was flooded, and although we tried several more creeks throughout the region, ones that would typically provide, nothing was working and eventually we found ourselves at Drowning Creek, near Hoffman, North Carolina. This creek is huge and forms the main headwaters of the Lumber River, so the banks were flooded and whole trees were meandering down the river. Finding some side pools though I found some gorgeous, gravel-bottomed, gin clear pools filled with tiny fish.

This is exactly what you hope to see in the Sandhills, sadly muddy waters made pools like this hard to come by

I managed to tempt the ravenous riverside fish onto a hook and was less than surprised to find the ubiquitous Eastern Mosquitofish (Gambusia holbrooki) on the end of my line. This is the gateway species for most micro fisherman, and often the first Tanago species most get on line, just based on their grandiose distribution and voracious nature. I managed to get some beautiful pictures though and was happy to knock this little Gambusia off the list.

Beautiful little guy with a beautiful back drop

In the end that was the last fish caught that day. Although conditions let me down the Sandhills are forever going to hold a niche in my heart for the endearing uniqueness of the region and the intimacy one can find with nature. I'll be back in the future I have no doubt, and again after that, and again after that. In the end it's a region I could never hope to fully explore and keeping the mystery fresh is what I desire from my expeditions.

As for micro fishing, I have earned new found respect for the patience of it and look forward to adding more of the unique and lesser known species of my state to my list, from darters to shiners and maybe even the lesser known species of the swampy backwaters. Thanks again for reading, and even though short, I hope you were able to enjoy this past trip report.


Total Species Count

Warmouth (Lepomis gulosus): 1

Dollar Sunfish (Lepomis marginatus): 3

Dusky Shiner (Notropis cummingsae): 1

Redbreast Sunfish (Lepomis auritus): 1

Eastern Mosquitofish (Gambusia holbrooki): 3

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