Updated: Sep 21, 2018
It was late in my summer vacation when I decided to romp around the canals of Fair Bluff, North Carolina in search of a bucket list fish that had eluded me all summer. The canals at Fair Bluff are designed to prevent flooding from the black, unforgiving Lumber River that crisscrosses the North Carolina southeast. Most of them are filled with life, with normal swampy residents such as Bowfin (Amia calva), Largemouth Bass (Micropterus salmoides) and Yellow Bullhead (Ameiurus natalis). They also are rumored to hold some more elusive fish, such as the Longnose Gar (Lepisosteus osseus), Creek Chubsucker (Erimyzon oblongus) and Bluespotted Sunfish (Enneacanthus gloriosus). Not to mention the Redfin Pickerel (Esox americanus), one of two Esox members native to North Carolina, and by far the more elusive of the two. I had been tipped off to the spot in the first place by a buddy who caught them there, and raved about the place's ability to produce good fish. I had caught some very nice fish there; three pound Largemouth, chunk Warmouth (Lepomis gulosus) and Flier (Centrarchus macropterus), as well as Bowfin pushing six pounds.
The fishing was typically on fire there, but I had yet to nail a pickerel. I had followed every recommendation in the book, from the location, the strategy, the structure, and the necessary lures to tempt these swampy ambush hunters. It took three failed tries at the same set of canals to get me to reevaluate. I headed down to Fair Bluff and began fishing the little canal, with one fish in mind. The normal fare of Warmouth and Flier didn't even bother to turn up this day. The conditions were perfect, but the bite just was not on. I ended up catching two Bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus) in about 30 minutes of fishing, a rather poor turnout for a place typically bristling with hungry mouths.
I finally decided to ditch the canal and instead head over to a couple swampy creeks I had Google Mapped before coming. The first one was an unnamed swampy creek near the town of Fairmont, North Carolina. The creek split into two sections as it went under a bridge, and the spot was pretty promising. The gamble when fishing locations across Robeson County is shore access, but this spot had plenty of arm room and more. I began fishing and at first the creek seemed lifeless. I was tossing an all black Joe's Flies short striker, a lure which can pretty much guarantee action if there are fish willing to bite. The open water, and lack of structure near the bridge offered little in the first ten or so casts, but the spot was so beautiful and promising I soldiered on looking for different areas to cast. The creek flooded a bit of woods as it meandered through the cypress trees, and I found a small ditch off the main creek to give a cast too, just for kicks and giggles. I get a strong thump next to a log in the pool and suddenly had my first catch, and to my great excitement, a lifer. I had caught a Spotted Sunfish (Lepomis punctatus), a southern species of sunfish whose range cut off around central North Carolina. I had known they should be here, but I hadn't managed to catch one in hundreds of similar casts.
I tend to get excited and say this about a lot of new species I get, but the Spotted Sunfish was one of the most extraordinary sunfish I had caught, and the fight it had given was no lightweight challenge as well. After breaking the seal, the fishing was night and day. I debated whether I should trudge into thick woods, but I decided I should and found some good casting spots on a bank about 20-25 yards from the bridge. It slowly became clear this place was special; nearly every single cast after the first fish produced a fish, or at least bites, and sometimes several on the same cast. I pulled up a few more Spotted Sunfish, including a decently hefty one for my standards.
These fish were seriously strong, probably one of the best fighters I had found in the Lepomis family. I continued to catch these guys and then the Flier decided to show up, as they should in a swampy, blackwater flow.
I could have caught panfish the rest of the day and it would have been 100% okay, the way these fish were attacking the lure and fighting merited a hike through the woods any day. I caught a handful more Flier casting in the small little stretch of swamp. I began to realize there had to be Redfin in there, it just had to be. I had a hunch about this spot and soon enough, I was rewarded.
I had cast my lure across the creek and halfway into retrieving my lure, I got slammed by an unknown force and suddenly found myself in a proper fight. I got the fish to the bank and instantly was dumbfounded. In a display of frenetic energy I heaved the fish up onto the bank and snapped the blurriest photo in the history of photography in order to get baseline confirmation for my catch. It didn't take long for me to realize why the fish is affectionately deemed a "snot rocket" by those who catch them, and this fish easily ended up being the slipperiest fish I had ever grappled with. Getting the hook out was challenging enough and as it turns out the pickerel is just about as fond of a photo-shoot as I am, as my mother can attest. I managed to get my lifer pick, and seeing as not to disturb him anymore I let him go.
This fish was as spunky, respectable, tenacious and vicious as all who had caught it before me had attested to. I see big time Esox anglers hauling in massive pike and muskies and can't help but think that the Redfin Pickerel, though at the bottom of the hierarchy in terms of size, deserves more credit. But if not, I guess that leaves more for me and the other anglers who seek them. I exited the woods and walked further down the road to the point where the creek splits to fish the other arm of it. It didn't take long to add a new species to the spot, the Largemouth Bass .
These fish were no monsters, but they were fun on light line and every time I catch a wild bass it proves just how good fun they are to catch. I caught a couple of these before I called it a day and left the spot, eager to hit up a few more creeks around the area that I assumed would be teeming with fish as well.
I was hoping to find access to another unnamed creek off White Pond Road, but I instead found a bunch of construction workers repairing the bridge. I headed further west until I hit another spot on the same creek off NC-130. The access was pretty bad in this place, but in the few casts I gave it I managed to hook and lose a small Bowfin, which ended up being the only interaction I had with the toothy swamp dwellers the whole.
Eventually I got bored of not catching anything and went back to the O.G. spot I had found, and continued fishing. There was no delay this time; the fish were hitting on the first cast and I landed several Spotted Sunfish in a row.
These fish had instantly catapulted themselves to a top spot on my sunfish list, based on looks and fight and I implore anyone who finds their way into their territory to try their luck with them.
The Spotted Sunfish gave way to a lone Flier, and then suddenly I was gifted my second Esox of the day. A hefty pickerel nailed my spinner under the bridge and gave a spirited, air-born fight before I landed it. After I removed the deep hookset, I set about getting the best picture out of this guy. I had used the same strategy on my Mud Sunfish; terrible pic for the lifer, redeem it with your second catch. I think I finally did the awesome species some justice.
I'm a big fan of wetting a fish before photos, it protects the fish, gets them more comfortable to being handled and water can really bring out their colors too. This strategy didn't fail me now, and I'm happy I got such a good photo from the feisty little critter. After the second pickerel I caught some more Spotted Sunfish and Fliers, per usual, and before long I had another zippy fighter on my line. I had caught a THIRD Redfin, after I abstained from catching one for so long. This spot had proven its magic over and over now, and I was happy to have put in the research and gotten a reward out of it. Even if the effort is small, making it can mean the difference between catching and not catching a species, and I always encourage people to find their own spots in some way or another.
After that a new swamp denizen chose to join the party: The Warmouth. I had caught plenty at other swamp creeks in Robeson County as well as the Fair Bluff canals.
There were to be no more Redfin that day but the fish did not stop in the least. The bite continued hard, and I caught more Bluegill, Spotted Sunnies, Flier, Warmouth and Largemouth Bass. There were no Bowfin to be found, one of my all time favorite fish, but quite obviously this didn't linger at all.
It was at this point that I also caught the most beautiful fish of the day, an extraordinary designed Spotted Sunfish, forged in seemingly the purest nectar water of North Carolina.
The picture I have captured turned out to be one of the best pictures I had ever captured, in my opinion, catching the duality of beauty and imperfection all in the same picture. It was a banged up specimen, but it didn't lack energy, nailing my spinner along a log. I have a habit of capturing as many photos as possible, even when the fishing becomes repetitive, so as to hopefully capture that one brilliant image, and I think I achieved it here.
I caught another Warmouth, as pictured above, or, as FishBrain anglers have so declared, a Rock Bass, and endedu pcatching two more spotted and ending the day on another teeny bass. Time had forced me out, but they were biting until the end.
It's not everyday that you find a spot like this, and although I had fished some awesome spots throughout the summer, and, to sound pretentious, never really got skunked, it was the satisfaction brought upon by research and execution that made this place even more special. It had brought me two new species, and was a perfect last trip of the summer. I had been begged not to go by my parents, but going had made all the difference. I had spent over 16 hours driving for Redfin at this point in the summer, and I guess that was the right amount needed to catch one. You may ask why I am so public about my spots, even those as pristine and productive as this one, and I always would respond in the same sort of fashion. If there are those who respect the craft enough to research, seek answers, and read what I have to say, then there is merit and reward involved, and I am always happy to help the good friends I've made in this hobby as well as the anglers who show poise and respect when asking where I caught a certain fish.
Total Species Count (excluding the two Bluegill from Fair Bluff):
Spotted Sunfish (Lepomis punctatus): 13
Largemouth Bass (Micropterus salmoides): 3
Redfin Pickerel (Esox americanus): 3
Bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus): 1
Flier (Centrarchus macropterus): 7
Warmouth (Lepomis gulosus): 2