• Fletcher Stone

A Hat Trick of Lifers

I had never known much about the Sandhills region of North Carolina, the rural, often inaccessible forested areas around cities such as Southern Pines, Pinehurst and Aberdeen. It wasn't until I started doing some more research that I realized just how bio-diverse the region was. For my readers outside of North Carolina, or even within it, the Sandhills name pretty much tells the whole story. It is a vastly remote forested region where the soil is mainly sandy and the trees are sparsely packed Longleaf Pines (Pinus palustris) a protected species in North Carolina. They are very similar to the much more famous Pine Barrens of New Jersey, and as a result many of the same species in habit the waterways in these regions. Everything from Enneacanthus members to normal swampy fare such as pickerels and Bowfin (Amia calva). After doing a lot of research, using sites such as fishmap.org to research the area I had a substantial shortlist of places to visit and two species in mind: The Dollar Sunfish (Lepomis marginatus), whose eastern range met its terminus right around the Sandhills of NC, and the Sandhills Chub (Semotilus lumbee), a rarer cousin of the Creek Chub (Semotilus atromaculatus) endemic to the Sandhills of North and South Carolina.


The concise shortlist of places I had planned for my trip

Honestly, I am never very confident in my ability to find and locate species. I was not confident going into the trip, but I thought I would at least have a good chance with the sheer volume of places being sampled. The day came and I began the trip. The first spot I stopped at was the Little River, off Morrison Bridge Road, near Vass, North Carolina. Recent rains hadn't quite dried up and the river was just about unfishable. I was disappointed but it would just turn out being a blessing in disguise, as I then proceeded to my next spot, a small creek on the outskirts of Southern Pines, North Carolina. It was a short trip and when I got there, there was hardly any shoulder and hardly any creek. It was a small winding, extremely dark flow just beneath the road. I drove past it once and told myself it wasn't worth it. But I quickly used a driveway to turn around and check it out again, not willing to quit that easily. I turned around again and after driving past for a third time I decided there was nothing to lose and that I should at least try this spot, as water levels seemed relatively normal.

The small blackwater creek which I finally decided to stop at

There was a bit of flow, which seemed unusual, but I fished nonetheless. I was using a simple rig; splitshot, size 14 hook and bit of red worm. It immediately started producing.


A Brown Bullhead from the tannin-stained flow

I had landed a good Brown Bullhead (Ameiurus nebulosus), which predictably, had engulfed and swallowed the size 14 hook. I managed to finagle it out, and sent him on his way. The creek responded by throwing another bullhead my way. I was happy to be catching, but I did not come this far for little bullheads. I kept fishing the flow hard, getting good bites, and suddenly got a strong hit and flipped the culprit up.

Dollar Sunfish from the Sandhills of North Carolina

I had landed a Dollar Sunfish , one out of two of the species I had planned for! I was elated, and they were just as beautiful as everyone had been saying. For some reason, once the levee broke the flood began. I caught some more Dollar Sunfish here and there, walking down different bits of the small creek to find them.

Once I caught one they decided to become voracious

I was hoping for a Sandhills Chub; in fact, most of the reports from this small creek came from Sandhills Chub and nothing else. But they did not show up. A couple more Dollars and one blackwater Bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus) were added to the mix.

Always pleasant to see these guys around

I was getting bored with the lessening of bites, though. I was ready to catch some fish and tempted to leave this honey hole for another that held my next big catch. Turns out the big catch was waiting at my feet the entire time. I had read and known plenty about these tannic-stained habitats and the unique array of species they caught. It was no secret that fishermen turned up at them holding out for a rare sunfish, a Banded or a Bluespotted perhaps. Maybe, just maybe, finding the elusive and exclusive Mud Sunfish somewhere among the shaded rip rap. I hoped one of these might show up but I honestly didn't know. I had tried for these species once before and struck out. I assumed you had to be God-tier at multi-species fisherman to tempt these docile, nocturnal fish onto a bait. I had only seen some of the real expert guys in the community do it, and for me, catching the Mud Sunfish was a faint dream, a fish I never thought would grace my person in my whole life.


But from what knowledge I had acquired, I set out to test the waters. Instead of fishing the deeper pools off the main flow in the small creek where the big-mouthed Bluegills and bullheads were roaming, I decided to fish the shaded rip-rap of sticks and dead leaves in the margins of the creek.


I lightly dangled my small fleck of worm under a mat of floating leaves, and upon feeling a strong bite and seeing a shape dart out to nab it, I emphatically set the hook and excitedly lifted up my catch, expecting the normalized Dollar Sunfish to pop up on the end of my line.


At first I thought it was a Green Sunfish (Lepomis cyanellus). Not many species share the body shape of a Green Sunfish, asides may a small Warmouth (Lepomis gulosus), and before even interpreting the coloration, seeing this flattened dark sunfish immediately brought the typical sigh associated with catching such a widely spread species.


However, my sigh could not have been more displaced. As soon as I got it close, my heart dropped and I realized what I had just accomplished. It's safe to say at this point I was pretty much freaking out. I was on a shallow shoulder on the side of the road, with cars rushing past, and I knew for the time being I had to keep my calm. I snapped the quickest, shakiest picture in the history of fishing for insurance just in case the fish flew off my hook and into the murky depths. I acted quickly, knowing I couldn't keep my cool much longer and quickly rushed to my car and grabbed a small Styrofoam cooler. I filled it with the acidic blackwater and ladled the sunfish into it. Finally giving myself the chance to fist bump the air in a display I can probably only describe as epileptic. I would honestly pay money to know what was going though the mind of any of the few drivers who saw me at this point in my lunacy. But it's a common feeling shared by multi-species and trophy fishermen alike. My whole body was shaking with the overdose of adrenaline, watching my prized catch do its thing in the bucket.



It took a solid three minutes to compose myself, and looking back on it, my pictures still weren't that good, from a photography standpoint. However the subject of them made them perfect, to me at least. Here is where I am going to show a quick gallery of the pictures of my best lifer ever. The Mud Sunfish (Acantharchus pomotis).


I had done it. I had never experienced this sort of feeling while fishing, but it was insanely rewarding and knowing I had joined an esteemed list of fishermen who had found this elusive beast. I was dying to share my catch, but thanks to my favorite cell provider AT&T, I was unable to. I fished a little bit more but I decided after being rewarded so graciously by the fishing gods, I moved on to a different spot.


Species Count for Spot #1:

Brown Bullhead (Ameiurus nebulosus): 2

Dollar Sunfish (Lepomis marginatus): 2

Bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus): 1

Mud Sunfish (Acantharchus pomotis): 1



The next spot I was headed to was Aberdeen Lake in the center of Aberdeen, North Carolina. I knew they stocked Smallmouth Bass (Micrpoterus dolomieu) in the lake and thought I could at least donate a few casts to try for one. But when I got there, I found the lake nearly completely drained, with work on the dam seemingly occurring. I then started fishing the creek, and saw a small school of minnows, which I thought might be Rosyside Dace (Clinosotomus funduloides), which I knew were reported from the creek. They were extremely skittish, but when I finally managed to get one on my bait it turned out to be a Largemouth Bass (Micropterus salmoides), which got away before I managed a picture. I fished the outflow of the lake some more without much luck, only catching a small Bluegill.


I was just about ready to move on but I decided to check out the main lake. It was nearly completely drained with only a small bit of flowing water from its feeder creek still filling a bit of the lake bed. I spotted a small fish moseying about on the shallow flats and as soon as I placed a bit of worm in front of it I was rewarded.

Dollar Sunfish from the relatively dried up Aberdeen Lake

It as pretty cool to sight-fish this Dollar, but I decidedly left to go and find the Sandhills Chub I was after, the last species in my sights for today.


Species Count for Spot #2:

Largemouth Bass (Micropterus salmoides): 1

Bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus): 1

Dollar Sunfish (Lepomis marginatus): 1



The next spot I headed too was another blackwater creek called Horse Creek, near the city of Pinebluff off Roseland road. I managed to tempt some hungry sunfish on to my line but left after a decent bit, with some more spots with definite Sandhills Chub reports to investigate.


The beautiful visage of a L. marginatus

Species Count for Spot #3:

Dollar Sunfish (Lepomis marginatus): 2

Bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus): 1



The next spot I hit was a small flow called Sandy Run outside the small town of Foxfire, North Carolina. It looked very similar to the first real spot I hit, so I had high hopes for it. It seemed a bit flooded but not too bad and I began fishing the side of the road in some light current. It produced some good bites, and I ended up losing several small minnows as I was pulling them up. They looked a lot like the chubs I was after and I was pretty disappointed. The bites started to die down, when I caught a small thin fish that ended up just being a Largemouth Bass and I was beginning to get pretty dejected from losing what I was nearly positive were Sandhills Chubs. I was pretty confident they were in this creek, so I decided to fish some different parts and began some bush whacking, when I found a small pool. I wanted to move further down, as the pool was in direct sunlight and with little structure or flow. It didn't look promising but the creek ahead looked pretty inaccessible, so I tried my luck. I got a pretty big hit as soon as my bait hit the water and I was immediately ecstatic when I reeled in my catch.


A really nice specimen of a Sandhills Chub

It was a Sandhills Chub! And it was an exceptionally well colored one as well, probably the coolest looking chub I had ever caught. Sadly I wasn't as excited as I should have been (the Mud Sunfish catch sort of dictated the rest of my day) but this was still just as unique because of the limited range of this species. I caught a few more Dollar Sunfish, which I had just about determined were pretty common in this region.


Species List for Spot #4:

Largemouth Bass (Micropterus salmoides): 1

Sandhills Chub (Semotilus lumbee): 1

Dollar Sunfish (Lepomis marginatus): 2



The next spot I hit was a bigger creek called Jackson Creek near Jackson Springs, North Carolina. It had some really good looking spots for chubs in it, however it was pretty high and fast-flowing (we were getting spouts of rain as I was fishing and driving) so the fishing was limited. I managed a Bluegill before I cut my losses and continued. I was running out of ideas so I decided to hit up the much more rural areas around Hoffman, North Carolina. I found a nice little swamp called Drowning Creek and tried catching a Chain Pickerel (Esox niger), a wild card species for this trip, but I knew it lived in the areas around Cumberland and Moore Counties and decided to try my luck. The swamp was pretty high, and in the middle of fishing it started thunder storming hard, so I ditched it back to my car and waited. The swamp was very enticing though, and once there was a break I tried again. Not long after, the rain and lightning began, so I camped under a bridge and kept fishing. I was fishing a small spinner along the margins of the creek where I lost the same Bowfin (Amia calva) three times in a row. It must have been hiding out in the same spot. The first time it just followed the bit, the second time it swiped at it, and the third time it engulfed it and I got a bit of a fight out of it before it let go. I kept fishing but wasn't getting many bites so I got in my car and started heading in the direction back towards my house.


I decided, to heck with it, and made a quick stop at the Mud Sunfish spot just as I was going home; it was pretty much on the way towards my house, so I figured there was no real loss in making a quick stop. It turned out to be worth it because I got a fish on my very first cast into the shady rip rap.


A picturesque A. pomotis

Thankfully my hands weren't violently shaking on this catch, but I had still done, which six hours earlier seemed unimaginable, and caught two Mud Sunfish. I got a superb picture out of this guy, and was super grateful for this catch, and for being the typical "one more cast" fisherman. I fished the creek some more and ended up catching more of the normal fare, a couple more Dollar Sunfish before calling it a day.


Can never take too many pictures of such a lovely species

Species Count for Spot #5:

Mud Sunfish (Acantharchus pomotis): 1

Dollar Sunfish (Lepomis marginatus): 3



I guess the moral of the story is research. Knowing simple facts about a fishes habitat, such as in the case of the Mud Sunfish, or their range, which applied to the Dollar and the Sandhills Chub. Although I left my house not specifically targeting a Mud Sunfish, I adapted once I got there and applied what I knew to get one. I knew the Dollar and the Sandhills Chub lived in that area because their range so dictated it. Basically, I realized that putting in the effort to accrue research means you can get any fish that you set your mind too. There's no problem in taking advice or spots from others, and I'm a firm believe in sharing the spots I fish to those who seek them for honest reasons. But the feeling associated with catching such an illustrious reward after your own research is one that can't be match, and without it, I would not have a Mud Sunfish on my lifelist today.

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