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YEAR ON THE TAR: A speckled November day

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Sports Editor Nathan Summers holds a speckled trout caught during a recent outing on Campbell Creek.


By Nathan Summers
The Daily Reflector

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Sports Editor Nathan Summers is taking monthly expeditions on the Tar River and beyond to explore the river’s character and its characters.

CAMPBELL CREEK — I tried to ignore it, but my knees actually knocked together a couple of times like a scene in a Bugs Bunny cartoon as I stood bracing against the stiff breeze on the bow of the boat.

Early in an excursion like this, the thrill of the unknown can almost always overcome the elements — rain, heat, wind, cold. But it was late afternoon now, the sun beginning its crash landing across the western half of the sky over Campbell Creek in the distance.

Through the brown and foreboding late winter to the auspicious green of spring to the golden perfection of summer, fishing buddy Adam Corey and I always have managed to latch onto something lively at the ends of our lines on our treks together.

From the Tar River in Greenville all the way to Cape Lookout and creeks and bays in between, we have overcome the odds more than once in the last year. But like our first trip on the Tar together now eight months in the past, the odds seemed to get taller and taller on this day with each gust of wind whipping across the vast stretches of golden grass that have been the backdrop to much of this yearlong angling adventure.

We joked like we always do about getting skunked, but as the day wore on from our afternoon launch into the well-known creek system that splits Pamlico and Beaufort counties and feeds into the Pamlico Sound, the jokes got less funny.

We buzzed from spot to spot in Corey's boat and threw flurries of casts at some of the docks and shorelines identified in his constantly updated scouting report, but we kept swinging and missing without any real signs of life in the choppy cobalt water.

More than once we talked about calling it a day. But for some reason, Adam and I seem to share just enough pride, and stubbornness, to always keep at it.

Given the conditions and the slow fishing, I thought back to that first trip he and I took on the Tar in March in search of striped bass. That day was saved for me when we turned into Chicod Creek to escape the wind and I almost immediately hooked and landed my only striper of that difficult day. I remembered wanting to hoist the fish overhead like a trophy.

With the gleam of hope and the sunlight collectively fading away, we made a similar turn on this pre-Thanksgiving Sunday afternoon, escaping the main creek channel and steering into the much smaller, calmer Eastham Creek.

It had reached a point where even a legitimate sighting of a fish was a big deal, and all of a sudden that's precisely what happened.

Using a lure called a Searchbait that seemed all too fitting for the occasion, a doormat-sized flounder emerged from the shallows on what felt like my 10,000th cast of the day, its carpet-like spotted brown body coming fully into view as it rose to pursue my lure, but, as is often the case, the big fish turned away when it neared the surface and likely spied the shadow of the boat.

But suddenly I believed again, for real this time, and it is uncanny how that can affect fishing.

I assured Adam it was a big fish I saw behind my lure, and I feverishly began casting into the thin, biting breeze toward the grass bank.

A few minutes passed quietly. Belief wavered again. I began to imagine having to tell friends and fishing buddies the near-miss flounder was as close as we came to catching a fish, and suddenly my Searchbait was found again.

A subtle knock-knock at the end of my line was answered with a telltale jolt in the other direction that had my reel humming and giving the fish some needed line. Its brief flutter to the surface had me thinking it was a flounder.

But with another abrupt change of direction, the unmistakably flecked sides of a speckled trout dotted across the surface. The fish, which are actually not true trout but a cousin of the red drum with which they share the same coastal and intercoastal Carolina waterways, become a primary target for local anglers in late fall and early winter.

That is because the very biggest of them, mostly females called “gator trout” by fishermen, dominate those waterways when the water temperature drops out of its summer range and they invade the shallows during daylight hours.

Like true trout and redfish alike, these specimens are a delight to eat, especially when prepared the same day they are caught.

This one was not a gator but it most certainly was a keeper in the 18-inch range. Adam was as surprised as I was, but only in the way that a slow day of fishing can leave you doubting everything.

We were both back in the hunt now, breaking down exactly where my fish was in relation to the bank, how fast the retrieve of my lure was and where the fish was in the water column when it struck.

Despite this, I rifled a couple of casts in the other direction to my right – this little creek is narrow enough that we sat in the middle and could easily throw to both banks — and on both of them I reeled in white perch, the second of which was of considerable size. Despite being a common resident throughout coastal Carolina's brackish waters, those were two of the only ones I have ever caught.

We wanted more trout, not perch, but for the first and only time on this day, the bite was definitely on.

One of my favorite fishing phenomenons happened next. I threw a cast back to my left into the zone where the first speck had grabbed my bait, and the instant my lure hit the water my rod was bending furiously.

Every now and then, the fish you seek are right there waiting you, even when you take all day to get there.

This one, another nice speckled trout, was hooked instantly and was putting up another memorable fight. Just like that, a doubt-filled day on which I tried many times to sell myself on the old argument about bad fishing days being better than good work days had become a success.

As always, Adam seemed as relieved as I was that one of us managed to lift the hex once again. Thirty minutes later, we sped back to the marina in the growing cold and dark, a stunning orange-blue sunset stitched across the horizon and a shivering smile spread across my face.

As Christmas arrives, the thing still topping my fishing wish list is a true trophy, and it just so happens the holiday season is one of the best times to find the kind I am seeking —the ones with spots and big front teeth.

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