Whenever spring comes around and school withers away, the burning desire to visit some Dixie-forged, disremembered Americana bailiwick for colorful baitfish seems to overcome me.
As COVID wracked the nation, and the fervor of the rabid maskless foretold of a drawn out run for the disease, I was forced to harness my hopes and wait for greener pastures to appear in order to make the ichthyological pilgrimage I desired. A trip I had planned for the nuptial climax of fish that would come in May, I pushed to early July. It gave me more time to plan my attack and prepare the logistics for my journey.
I decided on a quick three-day trip that would take me nearly to the border of Alabama and Mississippi and back all the way to the North Carolina coast. Truth be told, with the amount of fishable water and new species I would be in the vicinity of, I could have planned a month long trip, but I was short on time and felt that in the current environment limiting myself to my best cards, my best bets, and going for a hell-run, no-holds-barred run-and-gun (apologies for the overzealous hyphenations) was the sure-fire way to enjoy my trip and tack some cool species onto my apocryphal "lifelist" before I had to return to the land of green sunfish enchantment that is my hometown, (as it turns out, Green Sunfish live in Tennessee too, go figure - more on that at 5).
As I haven't already mentioned it yet, and I would rather not sacrifice the attention span of viewers like you for paragraph after paragraph of my thesaurus-choked ramblings, my main target for my trip was the Duck River area - a sprawling basin cutting through central Tennessee's limestone barrens and carving out one of the most productive and diverse river systems in all of North America. Also planned on visiting the Bankhead National Forest again - an area very fond to me, as well as gunning through Alabama and Georgia hoping to add on a couple more Redeye bass species.
Now that the exposition has been dragged out enough, its time to get into some proper trip reporting.
Dragging myself out of bed and into my car the day of, at about 4:00 A.M. wasn't really my idea of a great start to the day, regardless of the context. I don't think I properly woke up until I was seeing Welcome to Tennessee signs. It's a miracle I didn't sail off the Blue Ridge Parkway and make friends with the Lake Sturgeon in the French Broad River.
To split up the trip between Raleigh and my first spot in Tennessee I decided to try to fish a roadside creek right off the highway in the North Carolina mountains. The water was really high and I didn't manage any fish microfishing what pools I could find, but I did manage some good scenery pics.
After this stop I headed onward, energized by the anticipation of darters and shiners galore in the spring-fed oases I was about to encounter.
After several hours of driving, the first spot I chose to settle down at and try for some new fish was a decent sized creek called Saunders Fork near Auburntown, Tennessee, that flowed into the Caney Fork River and eventually into the Cumberland River.
The creek was beautiful and instantly I knew my research had paid off. Hordes of stonerollers scraped the rocky flats of the creek and Striped Shiners sparred in the current.
Checking out the riffle downstream of the bridge, I saw schools of unknown shiners and colorful minnows darting around in the middle of the water column. My eyes were quickly drawn to the large darters posturing around the rocks at the bottom of the creek. I quickly
baited up, and knocked out the easier shiners I could spot in the creek. I had a hunch these were Bigeye Shiners (Notropis boops), and upon later review I was able to confirm this preliminary ID. First new species of the trip, added to the list.
I kept fishing and eventually landed a desired target for the trip - a Scarlet Shiner (Lythrurus fasciolaris). Unfortunately the beautiful male I had caught sprung away before a proper photo shoot and all I got was this unique shot as he swam away. Ended up being one of my favorite photos from the whole trip.
After I got these shiners out of the way, I feverishly went after these darters. Darters themselves had always been a thorn in my side and I had never really been too good at targeting them, but thankfully these darters were super cooperative and I was awarded my first new darter species of the trip - the Cumberland Snubnose Darter (Etheostoma atripinne). Snubnose darters like this one and their buddies in the Ulocentra subgenus can be nearly impossible tot ell apart at times, but thankfully range was on my side and I was easily able to distinguish these as E. atripinne.
After I had caught a handful of these darters, I tried to play with the bigger cyprinids under the bridge but they weren't too interested in me. I probably should have tried harder because they may have ended up being some Redtail Chubs (Nocomis effusus) in the mix, a species I didn't have and ended up missing out on.
Pretty soon I decided to leave the spot in my quest to cover lots of ground and headed south towards the Barrens Fork drainage. I had scouted some creek int he upper parts of this draingae that were supposed to be good spots for a host of unique species.
The first spot I hit was a tiny creek. It was on a single-track, barely paved road in a very rural part of an already rural area. Being a young guy from out of state fishing trickles of water in someone's backyard can sometimes be unnerving, but typically I keep to myself, keep conversations curt and keep my stops short whenever I feel uneasy. Which, thankfully, isn't often. I have definitely chosen a spot based on safety before, and I will never touch a spot with a hint of a No Trespassing sign - because in some parts of the country, that means a bullet may be coming your way.
Now if I start hearing Dueling Banjos, well, that's a whole different conversation.
But this spot was a total jackpot on my trip, and it ended with one of my top, top targets for the whole trip.
This little creek wasn't much - but the fish that lived in it were really special. I started seeing large schools of fish, and it didn't take long to land my first - and I instantly knew what it was.
This lovely little thing is a Flame Chub (Hemitremmia flammea) a female, to be exact. A unique species of a monotypic genus, found only in pristine highland creeks fed by springs in certain parts of TN and AL. Not a common fish at all, and a fish I really didn't expect to catch. Just goes to show the power of research!
There were tons of these in the creek, and pretty soon I got a nice post-spawn male to get some proper pictures of.
Probably could have driven home at this point and been happy. Soaking in the life in this tiny creek, hundreds of miles from home, and hidden exquisitely from plain sight, is a cathartic and gratifying feeling.
This video shows just how many Flame Chubs were in the creek. I was later told it was downright rare to see this many. Made a special moment even more special.
I also targeted darters at this creek, and managed to spot one but it wouldn't bite. The terrain in this creek was very, very difficult to fish. It was slightly tannic, with sticks and other brush littering the creek bottom. The darter I saw may have been a Cherry or Fringed Darter, two very common species in the area, but I thought it may have been a Barrens Darter - a very hard to find species known to be limited to the upper reaches of creeks in the area I was in.
Before leaving I did manage a nice Rosyside Dace (Clinosotomus funduloides). This guy was massive, and used his huge mouth to scoop my bait as soon as it hit the water. Flying insects beware.
I wanted to explore the area a bit more but couldn't find more easily accessible water and finally settled on a bigger creek to explore.
It was totally picturesque, but despite this it lacked some of the diversity I was seeking, although I did manage to add some species to the trip list before I moved on, including Telescope Shiner (Notropis telescopus) and Central Stoneroller (Campostoma anomalum), two species I had caught before, in Alabama and Georgia, respectively.
Eventually I moved on, and found another nice creek to access as I inched further west and out of the Barrens. My day was winding down but I still managed to catch two new species here, albeit failing to get any scenery pics. The following two are a gravid female Whitetail Shiner (Cyprinella galactura) and a Northern Studfish (Fundulus catenatus). As for the studfish - these guys get much more beautiful, and bigger. I should know, I lost one in north Alabama in May 2019 before I ever got a pic. So although this guy didn't live up to the previous one visually, I was happy to finally get my revenge and get one photographed.
I also met up with some familiar faces at this spot, including a Scarlet Shiner and a Bluntnose Minnow (Pimephales notatus).
The day was really winding down at this point, and I was drawing up blanks at several more spots I wanted to fish. I finally settled on a public park with a creek running adjacent to it hoping I could find some Catonotus genus darters. Saw plenty of tiny darters but nothing of size, but I managed to add a Western Mosquitofish (Gambusia affinis) and a very nice Scarlet Shiner to the photobank.
This guy was pretty conspicuous, as he was basically a neurotic strobe light in the shallows the creek. A little kid saw me walking up to this spot, cane pole in hand, and clumsily reckoned whether I would actually have any luck in the trickle. I must have looked like some frazzled beggar at this point in the day, but he was unfazed, so I gave him a sly nod and said "we'll see". Perhaps he'll remember the tired montivagant with the Japanese fishing hooks and brown Crocs and he'll explore the creek himself some day. One can only hope love for the beauties of our native creeks is continuously renewed generation after generation.
Cool habitat here in this urban-ish creek. Wish I could have had time to properly fish it. All my research shows there should be some cool species lurking.
With this spot over my fishing for the day was pretty much concluded and I retreated to my car for dinner and to wind down until it was time to find a place to sleep. Now, I had proper spots planned out to camp in the next couple of days (or so I thought...we'll get to that) but this day was pretty much a transition day and I had planned to stay in a Walmart parking lot somewhere. Hey, its not the Four Seasons - and its not even really the Best Western, but I had two fans, an air mattress, and a blanket - I was grimy but I was also worn out and sleep greeted me kindly that evening.
After a night of sleep, I woke up early the next morning, got some gas, and headed west towards the Buffalo River basin. My first spot was on Little Swan Creek, a tributary of the Duck River. Being around 7:00 A.M., sightfishing was hard and I wasn't unable to see many darters at all. I did manage to catch two minnows, one of them being a new species for the trip, but a species I had caught previously. Picture on the left is a Tennessee Shiner (Notropis leuciodus), and on the right a Whitetail Shiner, with the diagnostic white caudal spots.
I didn't find many other micros there but I did end up practicing some fly fishing in a pool downstream of the bridge, where I caught another new species for the trip, a Striped Shiner (Luxilus chrysocephalus) a species I had previously caught in Alabama.
Eventually a man walked over top of the bridge to investigate what I was doing, where he kindly informed me I was on private property. He was nice enough and didn't explicitly tell me to leave, just to mind his cattle fields, but it was early and I was in a very rural area and I felt that was a pretty good cue to leave.
I love my Crocs as wading shoes, but the traction (or lack thereof) has ended in bloody knees several times for me.
After that I searched for fishable water throughout the area, moving further west. I was wary and so many spots were marked as private property, which meant I would just drive by to search for more. Thankfully the driving in this area of the state was beautiful, from the highways to the back roads, and even though I was struggling to find fishing spots, the journey enough was relaxing.
Eventually I found my way to the Natchez Trace Parkway, a beautiful one-lane highway, and made my way to a major spot I had bookmarked, the Meriwether Lewis National Monument. The area had a campground and access to a beautiful creek, not to mention the remains of the Meriwether Lewis standing as a reminder to an exemplary explorer and his tragic demise.
Before I started out fishing I searched for nature and stretched my legs at the coldwater spring in the park, aptly named "Old Spring".
After this I headed to the creek, which was actually just a headwater access of Little Swan Creek.
I found a small side pool off the main creek filled with fish. It had a bit of water coming in from the adjacent bluff, but surprisingly enough, fish still thrived.
The first catch from the creek was a beautiful Rosyside Dace.
I saw some Northern Studfish but they were too spooky, and I instead tried to focus on some of the small darters I was seeing. They were tiny and although I missed a couple, but eventually I found one aggressive enough and managed to hook and land him.
I knew it was in the Catonotus subgenus immediately, but I was mostly positive it wasn't a Fantail. Due to the habitat and the collection reports from the area, I postulated it was a Blackfin Darter (Etheostoma nigripinne), and that ended up being correct. A new species, and a pretty rare on at that.
Eventually I stopped fishing the side pool and instead focused on some darters sparring on some flat rock in the main creek. Eventually I caught and lost a couple before pictures, which is always frustrating, but they were plentiful and very aggressive and I eventually landed one, a female Rainbow Darter (Etheostoma caeruleum). A new species, albeit a very common one. I eventually got a nice male, and the colors can't really be overstated.
I began microfishing for some of the minnows I was seeing, and caught some Central Stonerollers, Scarlet Shiners and Striped Shiners.
I also ended up catching this beautiful little fish. Very late in the year, but this is a spawning Tennessee Shiner, all hormonal and sexed up. These guys were one of the reasons I wanted to go earlier in the year - seeing a school of hundreds of these in the creek is a sight I'd like to witness one day.
Eventually I left the creek, only after being accosted by a couple of wandering junkies, and checked out the Meriwether Lewis monument.
On October 11th, 1809 Lewis died in this reconstructed inn from a gunshot wound to the head. Murders and robberies were common among the Natchez Trace during this era, however many believe this was a suicide. Lewis had attempted before, and the explorer had written his will before leaving Nashville - something pretty uncommon from a 35-year old, and pretty indicative of premeditation to me.
Knowing that I was travelling this hallowed ground of sorts as an explorer in my own right was pretty harrowing, but eventually I had to leave and continued south on the Natchez Trace until I found an access point at an old mill on the Buffalo River. I tried fly fishing the river here but only landed a Striped Shiner, but I did add a new darter species.
Another kinda rare one, the Blenny Darter (Etheostoma blennius). I sightfished him in some fast, shallow water up against some grass patches in the river. These are pretty obscure darters, but I knew what it was instantly from my extensive research on the region. Not sure anyone else has ever caught one on line! Definitely one to be proud of, and a gorgeous specimen at that.
As I was leaving a fellow fly-fisherman greeted me and we conversed for a bit. I learned he was fishing up in the area for the day, and he was actually on his way to Chapel Hill, North Carolina to visit family. For reference, I live about 15 minutes from Chapel Hill. Small world's collide in the rurals of Tennessee.
Eventually I left the Buffalo River, keen on finding some smaller water to fish. I perused around the back roads, passing a couple bookmarked spots I found to be inaccessible, before finally settling on a creek called Rockhouse Creek.
Despite perfect habitat I couldn't really see many target-able darters in the shallow waters, but I did spy a huge Northern Hogsucker (Hypentelium nigricans) in the small downstream pool and rigged up a lightweight splitshot rig to target it. The worm was on the bottom for maybe a minute before the rod bent over, but to my surprise (and slight chagrin) a hogsucker was not on the end.
Only my second Smallmouth Bass (Micropterus dolomieu) ever, but a catch I was pretty proud of considering my first Smallmouth could fit in the palm of my hand.
I had my bait out for a bit more in the pool without any further interest, so I moved upstream of the bridge and fished a deeper, faster run in the upstream pool. This yielded another new species for the trip, a River Chub (Nocomis micropogon). I had already caught one before, but it was refreshing to catch a new one in a new area, and chubs are already one of my favorite creek species to encounter anyways.
Was hoping this was the aforementioned Redtail Chub but... no dice. Next time. It's always next time.
I tried lure fishing, with the OG Joes Flies spinner (the best multi-species fishing lure ever made btw), and was pleasantly surprised to get a nice fish out of a really tiny pool on the creek.
A Rock Bass (Ambloplites rupestris)! My first and only now to date, a species I've been yearning for for a while. This species may actually become something the lifelisters are calling "Cherokee Bass". A cool name for a cool fish, but I'll wait for some genetics work before I add anything preemptive to my list.
I didn't add any more predators to my list at the spot, but microfishing yielded some pretty awesome fish. I managed to pluck a few stonerollers from one of their plentiful feeding shoals, but the real highlight was the lit up Northern Studfish I managed, which trumped my other one I caught in the trip and just about matched the one I lost the year before.
These fish are really alien looking, and until you see them in person, a bit of their genuine magic is lost in translation from real life to picture.
After that I wrapped up at that spot, I tried checking out a few more spots, but only managed some very common creek species from some decent looking water. Luckily the back roads in this area are truly special, and even when I wasn't fishing, driving down some beaten down path into the valleys and hollows of the area, blasting something forlorn and caked in ennui by the late, great David Berman over the speakers - truly an existential experience.
Came across a little spring at this tiny cottage along a tiny creek called Carter Branch, in the beautiful Rasbury Hollow. The creek was named Spout Spring, and it wasn't hard to understand why.
Despite the placidity of my surroundings, I was quickly realizing my sleeping options were drying up and I decided to abandon the Walmart audible and instead drive down to the Bankhead Forest of Alabama, where my trip would end up eventually, and camp the night there.
Bankhead has been and will remain probably one of my favorite spaces to escape and enjoy nature, and I tried to enjoy some of the nature at my little campsite before the night came.
This lovely Green-Legged Spur-Throat Grasshopper (3 times fast?) greeted me at the campsite latrine. Probably killed him off with the stench of two days microfishing in the Tennessee sun wafting off of me.
The next morning I woke early and headed north. My first spot was the Cave Spring outflow in the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge. There is a really cool creek here flowing out of a... you guessed it... a cave. There's also some cool swampy water right off the Tennessee River. I had fished this spot last time I was in the area, because there were recent Orangespotted Sunfish reports, but the creek was mainly washed out this time around and I couldn't find any deep holes where sunfish may be hanging out. I spotted some strange darters which I couldn't identify, but they were very finicky and wouldn't take any interest to my bait in the early morning light.
Eventually I moved on to fishing the swampier part of the wildlife refuge after getting frustrate with darters, and rigged up for another species I had missed last year - the Spotted Gar. I had a bait out on the bottom and microfished a lily-pad covered slough for bait, which produced a beautiful Warmouth (Lepomis gulosus), my first in Alabama.
I eventually caught a small Green Sunfish for bait and it didn't take long to see a gar. It was a small one, but I casted to him and he eagerly took it, and I opened the bale and let him gnaw on it for a second while he ran off, a tactic that was uber-successful on small Longnose Gar back home in NC. Meanwhile, I caught and landed a decent Redear Sunfish (Lepomis microlophus).
Eventually I tried to set the hook on the gar, but the hook popped out and I left the area empty handed. I decided to keep driving down the gravel back roads of the wildlife refuge and eventually landed on another enticing looking spot, and busted out my ultralight (5'6" microlite rod with 2lb test line) for some classic creek fishing.
The little creek was delightful and I was able to add several beautiful fish from, including Warmouth, Black Crappie, Largemouth Bass, Bluegill, Green Sunfish, and some of the most striking Redbreast Sunfish I had ever caught.
Eventually I headed out of there and gunned it north, and after having to skip a couple darter spots I found a nice plunge pool beneath a creek to try out.
It was a beautiful spot, but yielded only some basic creek fish. No micros in sight.
I eventually headed even further west in northern Alabama to a random spot in the Tennessee basin within the Thomas State Wildlife Refuge. Basically in the middle of nowhere, after a winding drive into a valley I arrived at Rock Creek, where I had read about a report of Redspotted Sunfish (Lepomis miniatus). The habitat was fascinating and already looked much different to a lot of what I had seen already.
It was here I finally got my first Longear Sunfish (Lepomis megalotis) of the trip.
I made sure to document this guy well - it was my first from the Tennessee River basin, and I had a hunch this would mean it would be different from the Mobile River basin Longear Sunfish I had already caught, once the complex is worked out and divided up.
I switched to microfishing after the lure fishing yielded mainly Green Sunfish and Bluegill, with no Redspotted in sight.
I caught some Notropis species I wasn't able to identify at first glance, and made sure to get good photographs of it.