An Ode to the Sandhills Semotilus
Fort Bragg is the largest military base in the whole world. Yes, you heard that right. Nestled just northwest of Fayetteville lies the largest agglomeration of military personnel in North Carolina, the United States, and anywhere. The army maintains a sprawling nature preserve of sorts, and between the side-winding dirt roads, massive airfields for supply drops and the occasional bustle of a military convoy overshadowed by the roar of a helicopter, lies one of the most special endemics in North Carolina. While not completely endemic to North Carolina (A few small parts of South Carolina had to get in on the fun) the Sandhills Chub (Semotilus lumbee) is a blackwater species of the highest accord. Only found in numbers in the whisper-like, heavily vegetated sloughs and trickles that converge across the Sandhills region, and no place is better to find them than the creek on Fort Bragg.
Sandhills Chubs are one of the top species in their ecosystems. Little threat from predators and voracious appetite allows them to dominate streams, yet coexist, with smaller species such as Dusky Shiners (Notropis cummingsae) and Pinewoods Darters (Etheostoma mariae). They are active year round, always willing to bite a bait, and far and away some of the most beautiful freshwater fish I have ever caught, ditching the grays and silvers of their Semotilus cousins and trading them for striking hues and gradients they display throughout the year.
They are aggressive feeders, willing to hit a bait as soon as it hits the water, and, as a friend of mine has proven, willing to bite on lures. The fight is one of the best around as far as small creek Cyprinids go. They bite hard and give up a fight just enough to stretch out the tip of your rod a little bit and make one worth catching. And once you find a deep pool with one there are sure to be more hungry mouths in the flanks.
This catch, in late November, proved something few others, if any in history, have ever seen. A standard (capable of reaching a pound) Cyprinid sample of a Sandhills Chub, quite possibly the biggest science has ever seen. When you get a collective gasp from those who study fish in North Carolina and those who know the fish, you know you get a once in a lifetime fish. Ability to grow to stunningly powerful sizes for small creeks is just another feature of the Sandhills Chub.
So why do I enjoy these fish so much? The Sandhills overall are just one of my favorite places in the world to fish. The stunningly clear blackwater and diverse array of unique species, including the Sandhills Chub, just adds to the mystique of the region. The unique nature of the Sandhills Chub, and being such a cool fish native to my area also increases its appeal. Few others have ever caught these on hook and line and the amount I've caught and the photographs I have accumulated are among the most in the world. It is for this reason and for my continuous search and curiosity for these fish that piques my interest in doing actual research on them and their ecosystem, to understand just how they live in such a unique environment, as prolific as they are, and how they interact with the other species in their environment.
Taking pictures of these beautiful fish has developed into sort of a micro-passion of mine. Combined with their striking coloration and their unique and stunning habitat, creating scenes in my picture that strikingly highlight the fish and the involvement of its variety has become an obsession every time I find myself interacting with them.
As it may be, my approach to these fish continues gradually to take a rather scientific approach, appreciating their feeding habits, behavior and appearance and taking note of these in comparison to several factors such as habitat, water conditions and level, and time of year. As I am just young and rather uninitiated my quest to understand these fish only progresses more and more and I can't wait to see where my curiosity takes me.
What is the best way to catch them? Fishing the creek on Fort Bragg and across the Sandhills is the best way to target these fish. No creek is too small. Any pool on any variety of flowing creek is sure to have some manner of fish in it. These fish bite aggressively year round, but late summer into fall is arguably the best time to look for them.
You might question my sanity for being infatuated with, which can bluntly be described as, a minnow. I ask you not to judge the importance of a fish on size or range or sporting potential. The Sandhills Chub is an extremely important fish all in its own right. Being the prolific denizen of such a unique habitat and possessing such a unique set of requirements with which to survive makes it an important indicator of water quality and overall stream health in the areas it is present, or rather not.
So don't be quick to dismiss the quiet, the small, the timid or the unappealing in your local waterways. You never know which fish might slowly become your favorite.