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Black River Trip Report

    I don't always pick the best times to go fishing. It's always too hot, too cold, too muddy, too clear, too windy, bad moon phase, blah, blah, blah. It seemed the stars were lined up against me on my trip to Black River in southeastern North Carolina. Black River is known as one of the Tarheel State's cleanest and prettiest rivers, but this was mid-June and we were experiencing one of the worst droughts the southeast has seen in a number of years. On my drive to the river, I wondered whether or not I'd be able to find moving water that was deep enough in which to paddle around.

    Most of the experts on fishing blackwater rivers near the coast will tell you that they fish best from late winter to early spring. Although the calendar didn't officially say it yet, this was summertime fishing. Summertime fishing on coastal streams means lots of heat and lots of bugs. I was hoping that it meant lots of bass, but when I saw the river for the first time, my heart sank just a little. The water wasn't moving. Not a bit.

     I was hoping to catch some largemouth bass, and my experience with river bass has been that they prefer to hang out in the slackest water available. But what do you do when the whole river is slack? The advantage that we river rats have over lake fishermen is that we generally know where the bass will be hanging out: in areas that have cover to block the current. When there is no current, the fish can be anywhere. That makes locating them a real hit-or-miss proposition.

    As it turns out, I was on a section of the Black that was tidally influenced. When the tide is coming in, the river basically stops. When the tide is outgoing, the river picks up a little. In this stretch of river, the outgoing tide is when you want to fish because it helps make the bass easier to locate. Farther downstream, the tides make the river run in both directions and the fish are easier to locate during both tides. Farther upstream, the tides don't affect the river at all.

    I only had an hour or two to fish so I decided to try and cover as much water as possible. This meant fishing fast-moving lures such as spinnerbaits and buzzbaits. As I paddled upstream, I had a chance to look around a bit and marvel at the wildness and beauty of the Black River. The tea-colored water carries an aura of mystery and the cypress trees hung over the river draped in tapestries of Spanish moss. There were areas with aquatic vegetation similar to lily pads and the cypress knees, unfortunately exposed due to the low water, seemed to be giving me the finger as I paddled upstream.

    The river contained numerous coves off the main channel, and every one looked like it ought to contain a ten pound bass. I paddled into a particularly inviting cove and was ungraciously met by a swarm of yellow flies. I quickly applied some insect repellent, and I could almost hear the flies laughing at my futile attempts to keep them away. Undaunted, I decided to make a few casts with my trusty white spinnerbait to see what was on top of the food chain in this backwater.

    Like most bass fishermen, I tend to concentrate on my lure from the time it hits the water until it is about halfway back to the boat. During the second half of my retrieve, I am normally surveying the water, looking for a good spot to make the next cast. Well, my spinnerbait was about 3/4th's of the way in when my rod was almost yanked from my hands by a vicious strike. I wasn't exactly sure what had struck my lure, but when the fish started rolling as I got it near the boat I knew it was probably a bowfin (commonly called a blackfish in this part of the country). I might be inclined to give up bass for bowfin if they weren't such a pain to unhook. The strikes are always vicious and they are great fighters until they get near the boat and go into their "death roll" routine. Unfortunately, bowfin have sharp teeth, powerful jaws, and are about the thrashingest fish in the world once you have them in the boat. I almost never fish lures with treble hooks in bowfin country simply because they can catch you if you aren't careful.

The first of six bowfin I would catch from the Black River. Luckily for me, the bass have them outnumbered!

    A few casts later, I hooked another fish and was thrilled to see a nice chain pickerel leap from the water with my spinnerbait. Chain Pickerel have teeth also, but they aren't nearly as ill-mannered as bowfin once they are landed. Both of these fish absolutely love hot, stagnant water and must have been loving the hot, no-current conditions on this section of the Black. Upon entering the main channel I caught a couple more bowfin, both around two feet long and four pounds or so. I've never caught a freshwater fish that strikes with the ferocity of a bowfin. I just wished I had brought some thick leather work gloves so I could just lip the fish like a bass to remove the hook.

    Upstream the river began to narrow, and I finally noticed the river moving a bit. I passed some bream fishermen motoring downstream, and they told me the fishing was better upstream but the yellow flies were worse. The sun was below the trees by this point, but I tied on a buzzbait and started working this narrower section of moving river. I managed a few hits, but didn't get anything into the boat. I'm pretty sure that these fish were bass because the strikes were a lot more delicate. Bowfin don't do delicate. Flailing away at the yellow flies, I headed back downstream toward the bridge.

    Back in the larger, still water I got some amazing strikes from bowfin and lost a nice two-pound bass from a mid-stream cypress tree. Finally, a confirmed bass sighting! As I loaded the kayak onto the car, I decided I'd try a spot farther up the river the next day. If I could find some moving water I figured I might be able to find some bass. If not, the bowfin and pickerel would surely be around to entertain me.

    They were. The next morning found the sun out hot and early and me driving around checking out the river. I checked some access points way upstream and decided the river looked a little too shallow and narrow at this low water level (60 cfs and 1.92 feet at the USGS gauge near Tomahawk, NC). I slid the kayak in the water upstream from the previous day's trip, but not too far upstream. Unfortunately, there was hardly any current and the river was just as wide (around 120 feet) as it was downstream. My hopes weren't high at all, but I was about to spend the day on an absolutely beautiful river so I really couldn't complain. Plus, the yellow flies seemed to be taking the day off.

    Since I had all day to fish, I decided to slow down my presentation and explore the woody tangles with a big plastic worm while mixing in the white spinnerbait. It's been my experience that bowfin aren't quite as eager to hit slow-moving baits. So of course, my first strike of the day turns out to be a big, mean bowfin. Do these guys hatch weighing three pounds or more? I ask that because I've never caught a small one!

    Continuing to work upstream, I came upon a limb line moving around in the water. I pulled it up a few feet and then almost had my kayak capsized when the ten pound catfish on the other end decided to swim the other way. I did manage a quick picture, but it doesn't do this fish justice. It was a beautiful fish and had me considering cutting up my Vienna sausages and catfishing for a while.

This catfish was caught on a limb line and weighed at least ten pounds!

    After a couple hours with no action other than panfish pecking at my plastic worm, I came upon another boat at an area where the river split. Due to the lack of current (and hopefully to find out how I might catch a bass) I asked the elderly gentleman and his wife which way was upstream. We chatted for a bit and they showed me a nice mess of bluegill and redbreast they had caught earlier in the morning. By this point, I couldn't vouch for the bass fishing, but the bream, catfish, and bowfin fishing on Black River were quite impressive.

    As I continued upstream, I noticed the river narrowing just a bit and the current picking up a little. There were occasional seeps of spring water dripping from rock outcroppings, which added a nice soundtrack to an otherwise quiet day. Elmer motored upstream past me and anchored in the river near another large backwater. I could see him and his wife catching some nice panfish and started thinking of a polite way to borrow some crickets. I heard a large splash just upstream from Elmer's boat and he yelled at me to paddle ahead of them and make a few casts.

   "That's either a sturgeon or a trout", said Elmer. I knew that some folks refer to bass as trout, but I wasn't sure I wanted to tangle with a sturgeon from my kayak, especially not a big one. I did want to catch something though, so I made a long cast with my spinnerbait near the fading ripples and got a solid strike. The fish fought deep and I knew this was no bowfin. It turned out to be a braggin'-sized bluegill that was larger than any Elmer and his wife had caught that morning. I paddled over and gave the hefty bluegill to Elmer and his wife on the condition that they let me take a picture of it.

Elmer (sans teeth) smiles for the camera with my nice bluegill while his wife makes wisecracks from the back of the boat

    "Don't smile now, Elmer", said his wife. "Cause I know you didn't bother to put your teeth in this morning." I chuckled about that all day.

    I chatted with Elmaer and his wife for a while, and Elmer told me he doesn't bother with the backwater areas during the summer because "all that's back there is pike (chain pickerel) and blackfish (bowfin)". I had already figured that out, but it was good to get confirmation from an expert. While we were chatting I hooked another big bowfin on the spinnerbait and Elmer had a good laugh as he watched me gingerly handling the fish while trying to get my lure back.

    "Put that fish in the boat son!", he laughed.

   "How 'bout I put it in your boat?" I laughed back.

    Upstream from the large backwater cove, the Black got noticeably narrower and more shallow, and the current picked up considerably. The river varied from 40 to 60 feet wide and provided some very welcome shade. The tea-colored water flowing over the white sand riverbed was really pretty, but there were a few spots that were too shallow to hold any decent fish. For the most part, though, one side of the river or another seemed to have between two and four feet of depth, and it was from these areas that I began catching bass on the plastic worm. I didn't know it yet, but finding moving water with a little bit of depth would be the key to catching bass all day long.

A standard-issue Black River largemouth

    The bass on Black River are definitely healthy. Every bass I caught all day was between 1 1/2 and 2 pounds and very fat for summertime fish. I caught five more carbon copies in this section of river before deciding to head back downstream and see how the river looked. This turned out to be a mistake, as the river lost current and got continually wider. I only caught a couple more bass over the next four hours and the river was looking less and less appealing the farther downstream I got. I began throwing the spinnerbait rather than the worm in the hopes that I might just get a bowfin to bite. None did.

    A mile or so downstream from where I had originally launched, the river began narrowing again and I started catching bass. Every spot that contained deep water, current, and cover produced a strike over the next two hours and might have produced more if I hadn't shelved the worm in favor of the spinnerbait. Again, every bass was in the two pound range or a little less and very healthy. I just knew that if the river ahead was small and flowing, my chances of catching a large bass were pretty good. I still had a few hours of daylight and the fish seemed to be getting hungry.

Another nice one!

    I probably should have started paddling back upstream when I heard a faint rumble of thunder in the distance and felt the temperature drop due to the darkening skies. Instead, I kept fishing until the thunder got serious and sat out the thunder and lightning show under some trees on the riverbank. It was pretty darn scary. I was probably two miles downstream from my car with about an hour of daylight left and  the yellow flies, which had left me alone all day, were after me as I sat in the woods watching the lightning.

    After about thirty minutes, the lightning stopped and I hightailed it back upstream. I think my kayak went airborne as one final thunderclap gave me an extra adrenaline boost on the paddle upstream. Most of the day I was bemoaning the lack of current, but I was pretty happy about it as I paddled in. I need to be reminded every couple years that respecting the power of Mother Nature is way more important than catching a few more fish.

    All told, I ended the day with twelve bass (caught on worms and spinnerbaits), two bowfin, and one big bluegill. I'd love to catch the Black River with a bit more water next time and perhaps in the spring or fall rather than midsummer. I bet those backwater coves produce some big bass during those seasons, especially when the river is flowing properly. I also think it'd be a blast to bring my kids and a bunch of crickets and catch some bream, which is really what the Black is known for (along with the state record bowfin- 17 pounds!). Maybe I'll see an alligator next time, too.




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