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Year on the Tar: Life on the bay

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In the foreground, Reflector Sports Editor Nathan Summers holds a striped bass while Anderson Potter holds another in the background during a recent day of fishing in Chocowinity Bay.

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By Nathan Summers
The Daily Reflector

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Sports editor Nathan Summers is taking monthly fishing excursions on the Tar River system to explore its character and its characters.

CHOCOWINITY BAY — It never fails that a lot of people lucky enough to live next to water don't care to spend much of their time on it.

Anderson Potter has Chocowinity Bay for a back yard, so he can spend pretty much every minute of his free time on the water if he really wants to. And he really wants to.

I could still faintly see the house that Potter, a 20-year-old East Carolina student, shares with his family off in the distance when we exchanged our paddles for fishing rods on a late-August morning on the bay. It was a calm, steady trudge in Potter's pair of fully outfitted fishing kayaks to traverse the stretch of azure-colored, lightly crashing thrusts of water from his home dock on the north shore of the bay to a landmark old boat timidly bobbing on the south shore.

Chocowinity is the third bay in the greater Tar-Pamlico river system I've bounced in this year and by far the closest to my home. It is tucked quietly behind the bustle of the Washington waterfront and right around the corner from where the Tar River becomes the Pamlico.

With an arsenal of four rods rigged and ready to go and Potter paddling up behind me, we came to a slow drift about 50 yards off the bank. His calm confidence coupled with the knowledge we were literally in Potter's back yard made me jumpy with anticipation.

The Southside High School alum says fishing in his family dates back four generations, at least, and the family house three generations and counting. No matter what else the future holds for Potter, who is working toward a career in accounting and expects to graduate in 2019, he is already where he wants to be in 20 years and says with certainty he still will be chasing fish in eastern North Carolina then.

As early morning was shifting to mid-morning, the late-August sun rays ramming themselves one by one through the pillows of storm-gray humidity across a Sunday sky, I felt the usual pressure of wanting to live up to the moment. I tend to doubt sure things.

Striped bass, a fish I have tangled with already in this series and which has become more appealing with each catch, was foremost among the fish Potter stopped just short of promising would be waiting on us after our roughly 20-minute paddle.

He was right. They were waiting.

My wondering and anticipation vanished quickly amid long casts with heavy, brightly colored lures retrieved at breakneck speeds to keep them off the ancient wooden pier pilings and tree stumps that line much of the bay treacherously below the water’s surface.

After spending the better part of the year trying to learn to keep my rod tip as low as possible to master catching the kingpins of the coastal Carolina waterways, keeping the lure off the invisible wooden posts meant keeping arms raised, rod tip high and reeling fast.

It just so happens these resident rockfish can't resist that sort of thing.

Within minutes of throwing sinking crankbaits, stripers were hunting them down and giving the lures arm-wrenching assaults. Potter hooked up first and reeled in a fish in the 16- to 18-inch range. Soon I was doing the same, and a few minutes later we were doing it simultaneously.

There was little time to do anything but cast and brace for the brutally hard hits, one so violent at the end of my line that the fish snapped my 30-pound braid against a sunken wooden obstacle with one swing of its head.

Striped bass are not in season, so our fish were swimming away as fast as we reeled them in and, in a few cases, photographed them. Among my haul were a couple near my personal best, one nearing the mid-20-inch range. Potter showed his lifelong skills, boating fish after fish including the beast of the bunch at more than 25 inches.

As the wind picked up, we were fortunate that Potter's Hobie kayak had its own power pole, an anchoring system that held his kayak in place and mine after tying onto his boat.

I made the heavenly discovery (thanks in large part to Potter’s expertise) that if I cast to the sunken piers I could catch a striper and if I threw toward the open bank to my left, small- to medium-sized puppy drum (juvenile red drum) were ready and waiting for a tussle too.

In all, dozens of rockfish and a handful redfish were caught in one of the more memorable hours of fishing I can remember.

And to think, this is daily life as Potter knows it. Just another day on the bay.

Upon returning to the Potter household that afternoon (imagine throwing a few last casts around your home dock because you've caught big fish there before), it seemed like business as usual. His dad came out and greeted us, asked for a rundown and offered the insight of someone who sees the bay every day of his life. The father-son duo also takes its ocean-faring boat into the Atlantic a few times a year to chase even bigger prey.

The way Potter sees it, and says it, with fishing in his life, everything else is manageable.

He said the salinity in his home water has gone up considerably since he was a kid, as has the water level in the bay he said used to be much smaller. The mostly freshwater fish from back then — largemouth bass, perch, bream, gar — have now been joined in great number by more saltwater fish like the aforementioned striped bass (mostly stocked) and red drum.

Potter said he has even caught ocean fish like sheepshead and ladyfish from his home dock.

Potter and I paddled around much of the bay and even crept through some of the canal system that runs through his neighborhood (yes, he has caught giant fish there too) as he tried to maintain the fishing magic we had that first hour.

He reeled in a white perch that he later filleted masterfully and I ate happily, but mostly the rest of the day was a chance for me to pick the brain of a lifelong resident whose life's plan will always have fishing at its core.

But before we called it a day, there was the popping cork episode.

Right around noon, and using a lure almost half its size, I caught a croaker — another ocean fish named for the guttural sounds it makes — that was about 8 inches in length. Potter told me not to throw it back and began rummaging around in his kayak. I knew what was coming.

Within minutes, the croaker was in the most precarious of positions. It was swimming around on a live rig beneath a popping cork, a flotation device that not only keeps the bait suspended but also pulls and pops on the surface to draw the attention of predators who show up to find a live fish. In this case we were hoping for a big striper or drum.

“Just let it drift behind you and try to forget about it,” Potter said of the croaker. And I tried to. But just a few minutes later, he said, “Hey, I think something's on there.”

I spun around and scanned the choppy surface and finally caught a glimpse of the orange cork, surfing straight into the current with force. We watched it dart and dash and zig and zag for a few agonizing minutes. My heart raced, then sank a little when Potter uttered the words I feared most: “I think it's a gar.”

Neither he nor I discriminate when it comes to what grabs the end of a fishing line. So we capped the day with the enjoyment of me battling to the boat a gar with a taste for croaker, and it was a big one and certainly one of the memories that will stay with me every time I think of Chocowinity Bay, or hopefully fish with Potter again.

Contact Nathan Summers at nsummers@reflector.com, 252-329-9595 and follow @NateSumm99 on Twitter. The Reflector is seeking lifelong and avid anglers and guides for future installments of A Year on the Tar.

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