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Year on the Tar: Fishing with local icons has unexpected twist

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Joe Albea holds a puppy drum caught on a recent fishing on the Pamlico River.


By Nathan Summers
The Daily Reflector

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Sports Editor Nathan Summers is taking monthly fishing excursions on the Tar River and its tributaries to study the river's character and its characters. This is the second of two parts spent with Joe Albea and Tommy Harrington.

UPPER GOOSE CREEK — Despite his easy-going southern demeanor, Joe Albea fancies a friendly wager when it comes to fishing.

The local angling legend and longtime host of television mainstay Carolina Outdoor Journal laid it out before we had even gotten on the water that late-October morning and right after he passed a Hardee's breakfast biscuit to me in the backseat of his truck.

With Albea's lifelong friend and fishing partner, Tommy Harrington, and Albea's immaculate War Eagle aluminum boat in tow, the biscuits quickly gave rise to fishing talk. Albea was at the wheel as we hauled toward Dinah's Landing, a boat launch on Upper Goose Creek wedged roughly between Washington and Bath on the sandy, ancient tree-lined banks of the Pamlico River.

Autumn had fallen in the true eastern North Carolina way. The jackets we had bundled into early that morning were eventually shed under a shower of October sun and as the fish began to hunt.

Our plan was undefined, just the way I like it.

Harrington and Albea chattered about the possibilities as we crawled out of Greenville and past nearby Grimesland and Chocowinity, then through Washington and beyond. To hear Tommy tell it, he has caught just about every fish on every stretch of river that splits N.C. 33 and U.S. 264.

I don't have reason to doubt it, though I bet the much quieter Albea could say the same.

“What's the bet for?” fired an inquisitive Harrington when Albea prompted the idea of a three-man wager.

“Biggest fish,” Albea answered, seeming surprised he had to clarify that.

Already, I was living out a personal thrill I didn't know I could make happen when I first shoved off on this yearlong fishing chronicle way back in February. It seemed almost strange when, less than an hour later, I was rifling casts with Albea, a man I discovered through his show and admired from afar not long after I came to North Carolina in the early 2000s.

Once the boat stopped at the first spot right around the corner, the mystique wore off enough for me to remember how to fish. I felt plenty of pressure to at least appear competent amid such angling mastery.

There he was, Albea casting off the bow of the boat, with Harrington at the stern and me in the middle.

For all of my thinking about this day in its buildup, now it was just fishing.

Albea's personality on the water is no different than on land. He fishes quietly, deliberately and patiently. Conversely, I learned just a short time later that Harrington usually only stops talking for one reason when on the boat.

We fished the well-known stretch right outside the landing, mostly striking out in the long stretch of stumps at the outer edge of Goose Creek State Park in the early-morning hour, and despite decent weather conditions.

We motored to a few other go-to places in Albea and Harrington's expansive arsenal near and around Blounts Bay. Casting a dark-colored soft swimbait, it was fittingly Albea who reeled in the first fish, a decent puppy drum (juvenile redfish), and soon after that, a striped bass.

As any devoted inshore fisherman knows, however, the bite can stop or move on just as quickly as it starts. The pressure I had piled onto myself shifted at least somewhat to pressure on all of us to relocate the fish after the action quickly halted.

I never expected it, but as mid-morning crept steadily toward midday, the two savvy veterans turned to the other guy in the boat: me.

“Where'd you say your spot was?”

The reality is, like most fishing spots on planet Earth, it was anything but mine, but instead a close-by stretch of river that had been shown to me by a certain other local angler with whom I fished, wrote about and then happily fished with again. I knew we were a short ride away, and I had already mentioned my previous success there.

And when Joe Albea says, “Let's try it out,” you go try it out.

My brain raced as we throttled up the river and I tried to pinpoint the exact location. Part of the feeling was the unmistakable rush of possibility. What if this was where the fish were?

That same anxious excitement threw my arms into motion immediately upon telling Joe I was pretty sure this was the place. One of my most confident lures — a lipless rattling crankbait — went sailing through the air, perhaps prematurely I worried for a second as the boat was still gliding to a stop.

But after that second passed and as my lure began its treacherous swim near the mouth of Chocowinity Bay, it got soundly whacked. My heart leapt, and the striped bass below the surface unleashed a typical flurry of hard dives, head shakes and attempts to escape into the maze of pier pilings and stumps below.

“Got one,” are the universally favorite two words of all fishermen, and the elation I felt in saying them to these two guys in this moment is something I will never forget. I said them, and my counterparts were surprised but inspired.

It was just before lunch, the sun was bright and warm and it had been more than an hour since any of us had said them.

I got to say them a few more times and got to rake in a little praise for having “found the fish.”

If the wager had been based on number of fish boated, I might have enjoyed an even bigger victory, reeling in a handful of stripers and a puppy drum in a solid 30 minutes of action.

Albea, meanwhile, added the one and only speckled trout of the day to our haul along with a few stripers of his own, and all of them were sent swimming back home.

At one point, Harrington's day-long discourse stopped suddenly.

When I noticed, I whirled around to see him battling what was the biggest fish of the day in silence, a considerably larger striper, or rockfish, than the previous ones. It threw the hook right at the boat, giving rise to a very familiar fishermen's argument about whether that one counted or not. Tommy wanted to win that bet too, and understandably he made a case for his near-miss fish.

I tried to imagine as we fished on into the lunch hour and got to know each other in greater detail what it must have been like to grow up fishing these waters, and naturally it was a reminder of why I set out to do this project in the first place.

I had plenty of conversations beforehand with fellow fishing buddies and Albea admirers about what fishing with him might be like. Mostly those conversations centered on what tactical secrets I might learn, what unknown lure I might discover or what secret spot I might get to fish.

But the spectacular beauty of this day was its simplicity. Despite the considerable company, it was in many ways just a day out on the river. No life-changing fish were caught, no big mysteries revealed, but three men in love with the Carolina outdoors penned another short chapter in their collective angling lives.

So much was the company enjoyed among us that lunch at Washington's Crab and Seafood Shack afterward became a decided must while we were still chucking lures at the ends of docks.

During that lunch, the subject of the bet was raised, by Albea once again, and the discussion about the deserved winner ensued. After considerable debate about the classic quick release of his fish at the boat, Tommy was declared the winner. He and Albea very likely have won as many of those prizes over the years as they've lost.

It's the kind of bet you don't mind losing.

While I once again, even if temporarily, felt like a true member of this unique fishing community as I sat there and chomped on fried shrimp and slurped the sweetest sweet tea imaginable, I also wished I could have witnessed all the bets I have missed over the years.

Then again, this has proven to be one of the most inclusive clubs of which I have ever been a part, and no one has yet been anything but accommodating in playing a part of my own fishing dreams, so the future is more important than the past.

The bet? It was $1, and I can't say that either Joe or I paid up.

Contact Nathan Summers at nsummers@reflector.com, 252-329-9595 and follow @NateSumm99 on Twitter.