My lust for the remote, unexplored, and beautiful in North Carolina seems to know no bounds, as my destination map is often telling me. Combined with my imperturbable fetish for blackwater, swampy and cypress-filled spots, the Croatan National Forest had been on my list for a while. This is a sprawling old growth forest full of pine barrens, tangled marshes, Carolina bay lakes, naturally occurring, though mysterious, shallow and acidic lakes that dot the landscape of eastern North Carolina as well as parts of Virginia. The Croatan is arguably one of the most remote areas of North Carolina, filled with the world's biggest black bears, healthy populations of alligators, and the uniquely Carolinian carnivorous plants that thrive in swampy, sandy areas, it represents one of the most unique national forests in the country.
The Croatan also holds unique species that call that area home and can often not be found anywhere else in greater quality. Sunfish species of the Enneacanthus genus, the Eastern Mudminnow (Umbra pygmea), and even the cavefish Chologaster cornuta all call the swampy, inky flows home. No doubt this place was high on my list, as I myself am on a quest to understand all there is to know about the aquatic ecosystems of these unique, tannic-stained areas.
I had been planning a trip for a while and finally a four day fall break meant I was given the window I needed. Unfazed by the potential effects the forest would be recovering from due to the hurricane, I began making my preparations a week or so in advance, and began hitting the books and the search engines doing some research. One of my first stops, and often a great source of information I have used is the biologist Scott Smith. He maintains an Instagram page and is the owner of the site ncfishes.com. He is currently on a sabbatical to photograph as many North Carolinian fish as possible and due to his proximity to the Croatan, it is a site he frequents. I reached out first with just a question of information from him. My main goal was the Bluespotted Sunfish (Enneacanthus gloriosus), a species seemingly ubiquitous across eastern North Carolina but one I had not bumped into yet.
Much to my surprise, he offered to help me out in person. It was almost a dream, as Scott for me as well as others represents a bastion of encyclopedic knowledge towards the freshwater denizens of North Carolina and where I thought I would just get some spot recommendations I would be getting in-person expertise from the man himself. He promised we would get one on hook and line and break out biological surveying tools such as dipnets and electrofishing equipment if we needed to. We organized a time and our starting location and the trip was official.
We agreed to get there around 9:30ish at a spot called East Prong Brice Creek near the settlement of Neuse Forest, in Craven County, North Carolina. I got their first and had some time to fish before he got there. The creek was overflowing, not as bad as the Sandhills I had frequented the day before, but there was definite current running through the creek. Already I was getting a tingly feeling from the area, the feeling I get when I have a great feeling about a spot. Normally water this high would shut off fishing altogether. But the opposite was true for this spot. I was getting bites left and right once I figured out the pattern and soon my Joe's Fly was nailed by an unseen attacker and I had my first Croatan fish: A Flier (Centrarchus macropterus).
My biggest ever, not a slob by any means, but bigger than the paperweight panfish I had caught further down south. The bite started turning on and I got a very photogenic one with a little nip taken out of its tail, likely by a pickerel or by a snapping turtle.
The Flier kept biting but soon enough so did the logs and I lost several of my beloved Joe's Flies spinners before I even realized I had ran out. On my last lure I managed to catch a slob of a Warmouth (Lepomis gulosus) but shortly I lost yet another lure and the fish were not fans of anything else in my arsenal.
Soon Scott arrived, eager to show me some new spots, and from the creek on the outside of the forest I packed up and bungled my 2007 FWD Infiniti down the ribbed park road. We eventually pulled up upon a rather large creek in the road, that flooded the embankment both ways creating hundreds of yards of blackwater canal goodness within spitting distance of the road. As soon as we pulled up we spotted a wry American Alligator (Alligator mississipiensis) basking in the tame November sun, my first wild Alligator ever (in North Carolina), and a bit of a surprise to see one out and about this late in the year.
Scott then started frisking the weeds with a dipnet like the seasoned professional he was, and I broke out my highly-sophisticated micro rig (a Tanago hook tied on to some mainline, wrapped around a stick) and began jigging around the wall of weeds where Scott pointed me. He had already caught two small female Bluespotted Sunfish (Enneacanthus gloriosus) and their presence was confirmed. I now had no excuses to flop on my goal to catch one of the small centrarchids.
I began twitching a fleck of worm on the small Japanese hooks around the weeds with no luck. I walk tens of yards up and down the canal, watching Scott pull up unique plants, crustaceans and even more of the seemingly plentiful sunfish. Getting timidly frustrated I decided to alter my tactics just fractionally. Instead of a teeny particle of worm on the line, useful for the Dusky Shiner (Notropis cummingsae) I had caught the day before, I took a sizable chunk of the red wriggler and hooked it carefully. I figured in the dark water scent alone wouldn't get me my prize, and to tempt a fish in cold water I would need a bit of action to the bait. With enough worm on the line it created a nice jig-esque lure with a bit of live twitch to it.
Pretty soon, it became apparent my tactic was working. About 20 yards from Scott I suddenly yelped as I received, and missed, a sizable hit on the worm. Soon enough though, dropping and jigging the worm in the same spot, I was rewarded. A substantial hit on the Tanago and I pulled up the culprit, cupping it immediately and rushing up the steep bank before it could unhook itself. It was my first Bluespotted Sunfish!
It was a sizable accomplishment and the number one reason I had come to this region. We talked for a while about a host of fishy stuff, still lazily trying for a sunfish but none came. He told me there were plenty of other spots and in the end we decided on another blackwater creek down an even smaller dirt road.
This creek was a blackwater lover's dream. Sadly, however, my lack of proper gear meant I was fishing a host of large and ridiculous bass lures that just weren't tempting the fish at this spot. Scott had been netting a small roadside ditch for one specific species, one of the most elusive fish in the state, and finally he came sprinting down to me with a fleck in his hand.
The fleck I was referring to was of course the swamp-loving, ever-elusive Swampfish (Chologaster cornuta), a cousin of the Cavefishes, name because, well, it lives in a swamp, not a cave. Scott had found them sporadically before, and netted just one in several swipes. We released the little guy and headed back to the first spot to try some electrofishing.
This would be my first time electrofishing, an after gearing up and listening thoroughly to a demonstration and necessary safety debriefing, we hit the flooded swamp and began shocking. Apparently though, I was a bad luck charm as nothing was being revealed to us through this method.
We ended up spooking what was believed to be a Redfin Pickerel (Esox americanus americanus), a blackwater ambush predator, as something shot out between our legs leaving a wake behind it. Scott, baffled as he may be, could not explain the lack of fish to something more than high water and cold temps and the we wrapped up for the day after shocking every square inch of water which we were able to.
As I thanked him profusely for showing me around and teaching me some of the ropes of sampling, I began twitching for some exploring and on my way back towards Raleigh I hit up two spots. The first, recommended by Scott, was a muddy little farm creek in a village called Cove City, where I caught an Eastern Mosquitofish (Gambusia holbrooki).
I hit up another spot too, near Kinston, that looked very Flier-ish however without proper gear I was mainly relegated to explore. But the spot, on a rather large blackwater run called Falling Creek, had running water, good parking and relatively good depth, plus I saw what I believed to be a Longnose Gar (Lepisosteus osseus), a species I have yet to catch/sample.
In the end it was a bit of a struggle, and not catching anything electrofishing was a let down, but getting out with a guy whose inspired me to take my fishing to a level of discovery and conservation I had not yet experienced was certainly welcome. We've already agreed to try again, albeit when the waters recede, the alligators return to their stomping grounds and the leaves return to the trees.
Total Species Count
Flier (Centrarchus macropterus): 4
Warmouth (Lepomis gulosus): 1
Bluespotted Sunfish (Enneacanthus gloriosus): 1
Eastern Mosquitofish (Gambusia holbrooki): 1