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Fat Fish in Skinny Water

Mack with a standard-issue Eno River largemouth

    It was one of those July days that the English language cannot properly describe to someone unfamiliar with summers in the Deep South. The heat literally makes you dizzy, and the simple acts of casting and reeling require a break every few minutes just to have a cool drink in the shade. Stifling is the best word I can think of to describe the sensation.

    It was on one of these such afternoons that my buddy Mack and I found ourselves walking the banks and wading a stretch of the Eno River. During midsummer, the Eno has sections less than twenty feet wide and much of the river is too shallow to effectively paddle a canoe. Which was fine with me, because I was perfectly content to spend as much time as possible up to my waist in a shady stretch of river.

    We made our first few casts in a deep pool below a set of rocks that I judged might make a fairly formidable Class III rapid during the wetter seasons of winter and spring. Mack was throwing a three inch curlytail grub on a 1/8 ounce jighead and immediately nabbed a couple small bass from the deep pool. The water was very clear and we could see fish sniffing at our offerings as they got within fifteen feet or so from the bank.

    As we fished our way upstream, Mack was telling me about an odd little bass that he often catches from the Eno. Roanoke bass look very similar to the rock bass (also referred to as redeyes in many places) that are common to many Piedmont and mountain rivers in the southeast. Except that Roanokes get bigger. Mack showed me a picture of one that weighed at least a pound and a half.The thought of catching a new species of bass was pretty interesting, but I'll have to admit that I wasn't about to go out of my way to catch a rock bass, even if it was an oversized one. They simply don't fight hard enough to get me real excited and almost never hit anything unless it's crawling across the bottom of the river.

    I spent the first thirty minutes or so of our trip throwing a small buzzbait, hoping to entice a largemouth bass (or a mad dog or Englishman) to come out in the noonday sun. Despite casting to a large number of shaded and fishy-looking areas, there were no takers, so I decided to try a 4" purple worm fished on a weedless jighead. This is one of my favorite small water bass lures, especially when the water is clear and the fish are rather inactive. I normally crawl or hop the little worm along the bottom, but strikes are almost as likely to occur during a slow, steady retrieve. I hardly ever catch large fish on this bait, but I didn't really expect a small river like the Eno to have anything much over two pounds anyway.

    The Eno's largemouth population loved the little purple worm. I caught half a dozen 3/4 to 1 pound bass in water as shallow as six inches. There are lots of bass in the Eno, and undoubtedly a lot more that we couldn't see due to weed growth. Mack said the weeds were a relative newcomer to the Eno, probably some type of exotic emergent weed that found its way from someone's koi pond to the river. There are plenty of rocks and logs for the fish to hide behind as well. Overall, I found the river to be a pretty impressive little ecosystem.

    By 5 o'clock or so, the temperature had gotten much more bearable, and Mack and I had probably caught and released a dozen or so small bass. I was standing midstream casting to the far bank, which held the deepest water in this stretch. I had caught a small bass and was starting to head upstream when I spied a downed log in midstream. "That'd be a great spot if it wasn't in six inches of water", I thought. It was a great spot despite the shallow water. Hilarity ensued as the four pound largemouth ran my line around limbs, through two weedbeds, between my legs, and finally to my hand. My little spinning outfit with six-pound line was most definitely not expecting to have to work this hard on this tiny little river. After a couple quick snapshots, the beautiful largemouth bolted back to her shallow lair, and I would not have noticed her there if I hadn't watched her swim there directly from my hand. I bet she's still there.

   While all this was going on, Mack had found a large tree leaning into a deep pool from the bank. It was tough to fish effectively due to all the small branches, but Mack simply walked out on the trunk and pulled four bass out from under him simply by dabbling his jig in the water with about six feet of line out. All were largemouths in the one pound range.

    As the sun started getting lower, the bite cooled down a good bit also. Finally, we reached the best-looking pool we had seen all day. Even on the shallower side, the water was three feet deep, and I knew the deeper side had to be at least six feet deep. There was great cover here and I just knew we were going to tear them up. Well, we didn't, and I really can't figure out why. I just know that there were fish there, but we could not draw a strike despite throwing our whole tackle boxes at them.

    "Maybe there's one big bass in there that's scared or eaten all the other fish", I said, flinging a Heddon Tiny Torpedo as far upstream as I could. After one twitch of the diminutive prop bait, I thought I had a positive answer to my hypothesis. The fish slammed my bait and fought deep. I could tell it wasn't quite as big as the earlier four pounder, but the fish pulled my drag on three different occasions. Imagine my surprise when I landed what I thought was the biggest rock bass I had ever seen. "That's a Roanoke", said Mack.

    Needless to say, I was impressed. The fish probably weighed a pound. I expressed amazement that the fish hit a topwater lure, since rock bass rarely do. "I caught my big one on a buzzbait", said Mack. "I catch more Roanokes on bottom, but my biggest ones have come on topwater". I was quickly becoming a fan of the Roanoke bass.

    On our hike back to the car, I told Mack how amazed I was that a river this small and so close to a large population area could be so productive. "The Eno is not wide, but it's over fifty miles long, and much of the river corridor is protected from development. Since much of the river is too shallow to canoe most of the year, the only fish that get pressured a lot are those near the bridges and public access points. Anybody willing to walk farther than that is normally a pretty serious fisherman and most of those folks practice catch and release."

    As usual, Mack and I released all the fish we caught unharmed. The Eno takes pretty good care of them, and as long as we respect the resource, it will take good care of us too.




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