Species Hunting in Chocolate Milk

Updated: Sep 9, 2018

If you're familiar with the sluggish backwaters of central North Carolina you are aware that the quality of water remains nearly the same all year round. Turbid, muddy and slow moving, in droughts or floods. Microfishing becomes very tough in these conditions and tempting any of the resident fish species onto a lure can be a challenge in itself. Typically, my go to for these creeks, specifically Northeast Creek in Chatham County, are stinky natural baits for bottom dwellers. I use topwaters and active spinners as far as artificials go, which tend to entice fish in these conditions better than anything.

Northeast Creek is a sluggish tributary in northeastern Chatham County, formed by the confluence of several creeks including Kit Creek. The creek is prone to log jams and overflowing, and further downstream it is impounded. The creek converges with Panther Creek and enters the northeastern end of Jordan Lake around the Highway 751 bridge. The creek is hard to fish at times, but simultaneously can be very rewarding. The creek is packed with different catfish species and panfish, which, with the help of certain smelly baits, can be easily tempted onto a hook. You may even hook into a Bowfin (Amia calva) here, a typical swampy resident. Although my PB Bowfin comes from here, a magnificent fish of around eight pounds, before this trip I had only ever caught three others from the spot.

I arrived at the creek during a small rainstorm, and the creek was slightly higher than normal. I settled down on the bank of a feeder creek and began casting a spinner lure into the murk, hoping to trigger a reaction bite from a Bowfin or some other predatory species. It didn't take long before I got a decent Largemouth Bass (Micropterus salmoides), pushing almost two pounds. Sadly it slipped as I de-hooked it but luckily it didn't take long to get another one. I'm not a huge bass fisherman; the repetition of catching feeble, stocked bass got very old very quickly. It was refreshing, however, to get a good wild one and be reminded of how good they can fight.

I like to call this one the ghost bass; lack of light can have a huge effect on fish coloration

The bass was by far the palest fish I'd ever caught, providing ample testament to just how poor the light penetration in this creek was. I tried for some more bass but I guess I had worn them out because the action on the artificial went dry. So, I switched to what I knew worked: Raw chicken. For some reason, the stinky, durable bait had become a staple for me when I fished this creek. I had caught everything from mondo White Catfish (Ameiurus catus) to huge Bowfin on it. I tossed a simple sinker rig with a chunk of bait into the turbid pool at the confluence of Kit and Northeast Creek. It didn't take long to be rewarded.

The Flat Bullhead; a lesser known catfish species but with a mouth as equally as big as his surly cousins

I was rewarded by a fish I had probably caught before, but had not yet added on the list. I need a photo lifer and was glad to have gotten one. I nailed the voracious Flat Bullhead (Ameiurus platycephalus). Again, I had likely misidentified and had caught one in the past. In fact, I am pretty sure I can find a rudimentary picture of a specimen. But nonetheless my naivety at that time allowed me to add it to my list now. Action continued steadily, getting another hard hit and reeling up a paler, though nonetheless beautiful Channel Catfish (Ictalurus punctatus).

Photogenic Channel Catfish from the depths of the chocolate milk water

From their the storm surged; I took refuge in the creek bed I was sitting in and avoided touching the rod with the cacophony of lightning bristling above me. I watched tentatively for a bite and for a solid three minutes my rod was twitching ever so slightly. I ignored it at first, it wasn't until I realized just how much I had messed up that I reeled it in. I cautiously started reeling and my worries were confirmed when the line gave no slack.

Every angler's worst nightmare

I was hooked into a snapping turtle. As much as I hate it and as much as I regret not being attentive as I was, common procedure was to cut this line and send the hook on its way. Being the one man team I was, I was in no condition to attempt and dehook this beast. I distressed enough on this but I assure there was little I could do. I christened the turtle Elvis and sent him on his way with a click of my pliers. Trust me when I say this; be attentive to every vibration on the line. After that debacle I continued to fish with the storm clearing. I caught another Flat Bullhead, this one with a blind eye.

Flat Bullhead from the Cape Fear drainage in central North Carolina

For such poor water quality the coloration on the Flat Bullheads was still rather good. But after a while the bites began to dry up, and I switched back to artificial. I moved down the creek to a small beaver dam restricting the flow of water. The pool below it was small but it looked deep enough and there was running water so it was promising, muddy water and all. I began casting a spinner into the depths, running it along a tree trunk in the water, I got the reward I was looking for; a small bowfin had nailed my lure and was fighting its way into the beaver dam, clearly an attempt to get me snagged and frustrated. It wasn't big though, and despite my light line I promptly said "screw it" and heaved it up the beaver dam and onto the overhanging tree I was precariously standing on. I had finally managed a Bowfin on artificial in this creek and I was super happy.

I lost another bowfin, ended up catching a Channel Catfish and losing some unidentified Lepomis which came off as I lifted it out of the water.

Total Species Count:

Largemouth Bass (Micropterus salmoides): 2

Flat Bullhead (Ameiurus platycephalus): 4

Channel Catfish (Ictalurus punctatus): 5

Bowfin (Amia calva): 1

All in all I suppose the moral of the story is that no fishing spot can be totally judged by its appearance, and that the question is "how do I catch fish out of here?" as opposed to the rather polarized "are there fish in here?" I apologize for another Bowfin-centric post but it does serve to point out an important observation. There is a reason they are so widespread and still around; they have adapted to living in every environment on the spectrum. From tannic-stained backwaters, to muddy Piedmont creeks, to the rushing, clear water under Lassiter Mills Falls, and even to the brackish waters of the Atlantic coast where it lives with saltwater natives. I see them called a trash fish often, and it always helps to spread information like this and prove the ignorant angler incorrect.

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