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Year on the Tar: Winter's cold adds chill to fishing thrills

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Fishing guide Josh Abrams, rod in hand, steers his boat under the U.S. Route 264 bypass bridge during a recent fishing trip on the Tar River.

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By Nathan Summers
The Daily Reflector

Sunday, January 21, 2018

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

FALKLAND — Easily a hundred miles had been motored through the Tar-Pamlico River system since I began exploring it in earnest last February, and at least that many fish had been chased down on thousands of casts.

Nearly 12 months spent buzzing up and down the coastal waterway with local fishermen had lately carried me all the way to the doorstep of the Atlantic Ocean in pursuit of the big speckled sea trout that haunt the creeks, inlets and channels encircling the Pamlico Sound when the weather turns colder.

Such distant journeys were part of the plan, but a return home seemed necessary.

Christmas had come and gone, and I had made one last 2017 trek into the sound just before the holiday and at the onset of a brutal late-December cold snap that killed many of those giant trout and closed the season on them until June 15.

So it was a surprise to find myself right back on the water two days after Christmas, blinding pellets of snow stinging my face and the roar of Josh Abrams' boat creating a single-digit wind chill as four of us raced up a thin brown-blue stripe of river.

My yearlong journey was nearing its end, the winter chill was back like never before and there was no mistaking that I had returned to the Tar River.

Abrams, the head guide for Tarboro-based Carolina Backcountry Guide Service, left home earlier that morning with his boat in tow and a mind to launch it, snow and all, at the ramp in Falkland in northwestern Pitt County. Yearlong fishing buddy Adam Corey and fellow Greenville resident Will Preslar were joining him and I was lucky enough to be invited to tag along.

The vibrant colors of autumn had metamorphosed into the browns, grays and whites of eastern North Carolina winter. Snow flew and blew in the 30-degree air as we prepped our gear.

As was the case when I fished with Abrams on the upper branch of the Tar in Edgecombe County almost a year ago to begin this monthly series, we had the river entirely to ourselves, other than the bald eagles, blue herons and kingfishers.

And the fish.

We didn't go far to start our late morning venture, and the prize of the trip for me showed up early and was wrapped in beautiful iridescent green.

For Christmas, my better half, Natalie, decided to contact all of the guys I have been lucky enough to fish with in the last year and ask them what their favorite lures were. With considerable effort, she compiled a list of those lures, and not only did she get them for me but she even got one of those expert anglers (Tommy Harrington) to help her find them all at Greenville Marine.

The gifts even carried tags identifying which fishermen recommended which lures.

Two of those fishermen were in the boat that day and I happened to be using the Rat-L-Trap — one of the most reliable lures on earth — recommended by Abrams when I felt a rod-doubling jerk at the end of my line.

The lure had been stopped dead in its tracks by a fish that didn't care about what the weather above the surface was or about the bone-chilling temperature of its home water. After some serious give and take, the big fish emerged to the surface, a largemouth bass well in excess of 5 pounds, brilliant green and with unusually predominant black lateral lines down its sides.

This time of year, fish feel even colder to the touch than the water in which they swim.

Preslar led the pack in boating a few bass of his own in the main stretch of the Tar just downstream from the ramp. The fish were moderately active as the winter storm continued to push through into the early afternoon.

When the weather passed and the skies began to clear, however, the fishing slowed quickly in the river. But Abrams had other ideas.

We zipped downstream past Ironwood Country Club and the U.S. 264 bypass bridge just outside the Greenville city limits. We steered into a picturesque tributary almost entirely hidden from view. It was quieter and calmer, save for the constant chatter and laughter that began emanating from our boat.

We changed our gear in a boat literally draped in fishing rods, opting for lighter tackle given the much tighter space of the creek and the smaller target species. Despite four anglers fishing most of the day, we never were overcrowded in Abrams’ boat.

The fish we sought now were some of the largemouth's fellow year-round residents in the Tar, black crappie, and they too proved to be on the prowl despite the water temperature being a mere 42 degrees.

Casting tiny fluorescent-colored jigs near the bases of enormous cypress trees right out of a Tolkien novel, it was not long before I felt the first swipe at my lure and the corresponding wriggle of a fish on the end of my line somewhere in the frigid water below.

For the next few hours — much longer than I might have guessed when we launched in the haze of a winter storm that morning — we consistently connected with the black-and-white flecked panfish that occasionally can reach lengths of 16 to 18 inches in the river.

All of us had our hot streaks with the fish, though Corey got into perhaps the best groove of bigger crappie and also reeled in the first and only yellow perch (also called raccoon perch in these parts) I have seen in the Tar system. Preslar, meanwhile, promptly reeled in a bass when we first entered the creek and right after Abrams — fresh from another summer as a steelhead and salmon guide in Cooper Landing, Alaska — had told him there were very few bass in the creek.

There was a fair measure of trash talking and times when each of us took a seat to catch our breath, regroup and thaw our fingers. At one point, I was casting off the front of the boat and marveling at Abrams’ wide-screen depth finder when it occurred to me I was the only one casting at the moment.

We collectively kept at it until impending darkness crept across the creek and we were forced to crawl back out of it for the coldest boat ride home I likely have ever felt. The crappie never stopped biting.

Two snowstorms later and a new year well under way, there already is talk of warmer weather and better fishing, and that is perhaps the most amazing thing about chasing fish in this unique corner of the world.

The pulse never stops, and there are very few days in the year when there is nothing to be caught.

As much as I have seen and done this year in my river exploration, the experience has only opened the door to hundreds more places to visit and dozens more fish to covet.

It is not clear yet whether or not the Year on the Tar series will be just that, an exhilarating trip through one full calendar of the river's life cycle, as a January trip remains in question.

Regardless, there is no doubt the time I have spent was worth it and even less doubt I have met people I hope to know for a long time.

Maybe I could make a slight adjustment to the title instead. How does 'Years on the Tar' sound?

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

Contact Capt. Josh Abrams of Carolina Backcountry Guide Service at 907-575-6428 or fishingwithcbgs@gmail.com.

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