An Evening Playing with Robins


Sculpin Enterprises
After Doug Rose announced that he was ill, I kept thinking of his stories. We had talked about writing something about the Elwha, but we were both distracted by other projects. Still, I thought that he might like to read of a very different, but similar flavor of flyfishing, from my years in eastern North Carolina. While not a strictly factual trip report, it is more a composite of many evening trips - hence appropriate for the Arts and Literature section. I sent an early version to him via email but I don't know if he did read it. Failing that, I thought that I might share it with you as a tribute to my friend.

An Evening Playing with Robins
By Steve Norton, 2 March 2013

It had been a long, intense week, but satisfying too. The semester was just starting, but my students and I were starting to establish a productive rhythm after the chaos that accompanies the beginning of a new school year. Still, it was Friday afternoon and I made the decision to head out a little early and see if I could find some sunfish to play with me. Anticipating this possibility, my fly-fishing gear was already packed in the truck. It didn’t take long to drive across Greenville and into the long straight county roads that radiate like spokes out of the “city”. On this hot, muggy day (it is early September in eastern North Carolina after all.), I have the windows rolled down to create a cooling breeze – no air conditioning in this Toy truck. I drive past ready-to-harvest fields of cotton and tobacco, quite a different scene for this native New Englander. The radio blares classic rock and I have to watch my speed as my anticipation of the evening grows.

Twenty minutes after leaving my office, I arrive at a NC Department of Fish and Wildlife boat launch on the south bank of the Tar River. There is a big pickup and the trailer of a bass boat in the parking lot. Downstream of the launch, the Tar River is slow, lazy, and deep as it flows past Greenville and Washington into Pamlico Sound. Upstream, in the low water of late summer, the river consists of shallow braids, pools, and riffles. As I step out of the truck, the humidity of the late afternoon hits me like a wave; trickles of sweat are already running down my back. I quickly change from my work clothes to swim trunks and a t-shirt. I pull on neoprene wading socks and my wading boots, and string up a floating line on my 6wt. The choice of fly is simple: a size-8 panfish popping bug in yellow. Sweet, ready to go!

I head down to the river and walk carefully along the emerged muddy riverbank and then under the highway bridge and into the shade of the tall black gums and bald cypress trees that line the river bank. The water under the bridge is deep and I’m tempted to try a few casts, but there is better water to be had upstream. A hundred feet above the bridge, the water along the bank is finally shallow enough to wade in. Entry will be the trickiest part of the whole day with a slick, steep bank to negotiate; wet clay and felts-soled wading boots are not a good combination. The water is tea-stained from the organic molecules contributed by swampy tributaries. Judging the depth of the water is tricky in the shade and murk. O.K., it is a little ungainly but I am now safely on the muddy sand of this bank side channel. The water feels cool and refreshing in contrast to the hot air. I wade across the thigh-deep water to the exposed gray sand bar that runs down the middle of the river. My nostrils fill with the rich odor of organic muck as it dries in the sun on the shallow periphery of the sand bar.

At this point, the river is about 100 feet wide from bank to bank. Upstream is a half mile of prime bank fishing that terminates in a deep pool at the top of the run. From the sand bar, I can see channels framing both sides of the river, deepest where the sandy river bottom meets the muddy banks. Scattered cypress and gum trees rise from the exposed banks until they are replaced by the darker green of the long-leaf pines. It is a hazy afternoon, but in the middle of the river the shadow of the trees end and I feel the late afternoon heat. There isn’t a breath of breeze and I’m hit by the humidity again. In the middle of the river, my ears are serenaded by the rising and falling cacophony of cicadas as they sing from the trees that line both shorelines.

O.K., where to start? North bank or south bank? The south bank is already in shade, a plus. But while the north bank is still lit by the afternoon sun, I know that there is more cover there and deeper water. As I wade off the gravel bar and into the south channel, I scatter schools of small minnows feeding in the shallows. I peel some line off my reel. My first casts are only to have some line out. The first serious casts still fall a few feet short of the muddy bank. I wade out from calf to knee-deep water. I’ve played this game before; my popping bug must land within a few inches of the bank. My quarry is tight up against the bank in the deeper water of the channels. Finally I have the range and the popping bug lands with soft splash just off the edge. It bobs there briefly before the river current carries the line downstream. The line tightens and the leader drags the popper away from the bank.

I slowly wade upstream, casting as I go. The next few casts appear to be in the zone but they too come up empty. But on my sixth cast, the popper is jerked under and I set the hook. It isn’t a big fish and I skate it across the water as I hand-line the fly line toward me. I’m eager to release this fish and try for larger quarry. Soon, I am holding a respectable 5” robin (aka, redbreast sunfish or Lepomis auritus) in my hand. I stop to admire this handsome sunfish. The yellowish breast indicates that this is probably a female. It has the long, black ear-flap that is characteristic of the species; auritus is Latin for long-eared. It has broken bars of olive along back. I ease the hook out of its jaw and drop it into the water. After a second or two, it gains its bearings and darts back to the safety of the deep water along the bank.

I continue to wade upstream. In spite of immersion in sound, odors, and heat of a summer river, my world shrinks to the rod, the line, the popping bug, and the thin slice of water tight to the bank. Twice, my popper is pulled under but my attempt to hook the fish comes up empty. Must be a little guy; it can grab the rubber legs but not fit the whole popper in its mouth. Next up is a partially submerged tree branch as thick as my thigh along the bank – primo cover. My first cast into the slack water in the lee of the branch is rewarded with another 5” robin. I skate it in and quickly release it. My next cast lands right at the junction of the branch and the bank. The popper sits there invitingly and then disappears in a naive swirl. I quickly set the hook. I feel more heft. Turning the rod downstream, I encourage the fish to head away from the potential snags of the branch and we play in deeper water. The fish uses its tall, disk-shaped body to take advantage of the current, but in the end, “resistance is futile”. When I pick up this nicer 8” fish, its fire-truck red breast is on full display – a healthy male. The connection between its appearance and the local nickname, “robin” is obvious. Red speckling extends dorsally and caudally. The tips of its caudal look like they have been washed with red paint too. After a quick release, it bolts back to what I assume is its territory along the bank; red-breast sunfish are fall spawners.

My focus is diverted by the raucous calls of a blue jay as it wings its way from one bank to the other. In this brief respite from my tunnel-vision focused on fishing, the cicada symphony appears to rise as I focus on aural inputs. I bend and stretch. The heat is beginning to break. The tensions of the week are washing away.

Back to wading. And casting. And being in the moment. As I continue upstream, every ten or so casts, I pick up a small to medium robin, the best in the 6 – 8” range. The first bank side cedar is just upstream. Its sharp-tipped knees rise like a row of stakes from a palisade paralleling the water’s edge. Now this is quality water. A cast to the downstream edge of the palisade is rewarded with another nice robin. But my next cast carries too far and the popper snags on one of the knees. As I wade across to recover the fly, I am surprised at just how deep the water is. I move from knee-deep, to the thigh-deep and then to waist-deep water. In the hot air, the cool water is refreshing and I’ll be dry again soon. I free the popper, but I know that I’ve buggered this area.

Not too far upstream, a pair of cypress trees forms a more significant palisade of knees. After my last palisade adventure, I am extra careful to not overcast, and, of course, I undercast. Still, I am rewarded with a chubby 6” robin that came several feet off the bank for the fly. Next, I miss what appears to be a nice fish off the edge of the palisade and it won’t come back for a second shot – very typical for a quality fish. Near the top, there is a break in the palisade that leads into a 9” hole. Yes, I may get hung up and bugger the rest of the pool, but the water looks so attractive. What the hell! I drop a cast right into the hole (better to be lucky than good), let the popper sit, and then down it goes. After setting the hook, I tighten the line to draw the fish into deeper water. I can feel the tail-thumping of this fish through the rod. After a nice scrap, I pick up a 9” robin in full breeding glory. I use my hemostats to remove the hook and send him back on his way. Very nice. I love catching fish with precision casting.

Wow, where has the afternoon gone? The shadows are now entirely across the river and the air temperature has dropped precipitously. The organic odors of the sun-warmed soil rise in the air. The chorus of cicadas has died down but their song has been replaced by the territorial hootings of barred owls, denizens of these lowland forests.

I have almost reached the top of this long run. Above me, the river narrows and a pool extends from bank to bank. As I wade into the pool, the water rises from my knees to my thighs. Unless, I want to swim, I’m going to have to move toward the center of the river where the now-submerged sand spine is shallower than the channels along the banks. But I can’t cast the popper to the bank at this distance.

Change of game. Spray cast into the pool and move the popper along the surface with short strips and pauses. The first few casts come up empty, but then the popper is sucked under and I set the hook. The feel is different from the robins and when I lift the fish into my palm, it isn’t a robin after all, but a palm-sized bluegill. A few casts later, the popper is pulled under again and again it turns out to be another palm-sized bluegill. Twice, I’ve observed a surface disturbance near the bank. I wade as close as I can to the bank – belly-button deep and I launch a double-hauled cast toward the disturbance. I strip the fly back – no players. Let’s try again a bit farther upstream. Strip, pause, strip, pause, boom. A big hole appears in the water and the popper is gone. I set the hook and immediately fight this fish from the reel. I’ve tussled with this piscine foe before; this is a largemouth bass, the ice-cream on top of a great evening. It first tries to run into the branches and cypress knees along the bank – no dice. Then it runs upstream against the drag of the reel. I let it swim up for a bit before palming the reel to blunt its run. Now, it runs back right at me and I crank the reel like a mad organ grinder. We battle back and forth in close before I’m able to lip a 2lb. bass. I know, I know, not a mount-on-the-wall trophy, but after the sunfish, the bass is a giant. I slip the popper free, revive the bass, and send it on its way. Very satisfying.

And now evening has turned to dusk. I’m soaked from this last deep wade, a little chilled, hungry and thirsty. Time to call it an evening. In the gloaming, I can barely make out the outline of the bridge downstream and a wave of darkness is settling over the forests and banks of the river. Only along the mid-river sand bank is there any light from the last reflected gasps of the sun. Bats, the flying night-shift, have replaced the swallows and chickadees of the afternoon. I place the popper in the hook keeper and stumble my way downstream. Upstream of the bridge, I clamber onto the mud bank and make my way back to the truck. The other truck is long gone. I strip off the wet shorts and t-shirt and put on my dry work clothes. I unstring the rod and break it down.

It has been a wonderful evening. Just me, the river, and the fish. The stress of the week is gone, only to be replaced by hunger. Well, I know a solution to that. I stop at my favorite eastern North Carolina barbecue joint just before they close for take-out: an order of pulled-pork with the vinegar-based marinade which is characteristic of eastern North Carolina, fresh cole slaw, and hush-puppies. And sitting in the fridge at home are several cold beers. Life is good.

wadin' boot

Donny, you're out of your element...
Nice Job Steve. I liked the organic muck and mud lines, conveyed the feeling of going into something unknown and foreign...


Sculpin Enterprises
Thanks, WB and GAT. It was an interesting writing exercise. I often write detailed summaries of my fishing trips, but they are written primarily for me and are composed close to the event. In recent years, I've added in pictures which help trigger my memories when I reread them during the depths of winter, but the emphasis then is on actions and visuals. This was written explicitly for another to enjoy, an environment that they may never had experienced. Stirred up some deeper memories (or fantasies).


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