Saturday, January 21, 2017

From the Carolina Swamps to the Flats of Belize

The Toyota truck's odometer gained more than 1,000 miles in the days before and after Christmas. Rolling down both country roads and interstates alike.  Wilson to Creswell.  Creswell to Knotts Island.  Knotts Island back to Wilson.  Wilson to Wilmington.  Wilmington to Laurinburg.  Laurinburg to Charlotte.  And finally, coming full circle, back to Wilson on the day after Christmas.

But almost as soon as we were back, we were gone again.  Now it was off to Belize.  We'd never really done a big family trip like this, and thankfully, there'd be some fishing involved.  With my brother, my mom, two of my cousins, and their mom, we'd be flying to Belize City, and then hopping on a Cessna Grand Caravan and flying half an hour out to San Pedro on Amber Gris Caye.  

We rented a house through Airbnb, a ways south of town, past where the cobblestone streets turned to dirt.  It had rained before we landed, and the road had been torn up where the water had washed through.  But in other spots, where the rain collected and turned the road into a mud pit, it seemed like we were bogging through Eastern North Carolina lowlands.  We soon learned why the golf carts all had mud tires, and we eventually wound up at the house right as it got dark, with whoever was sitting in the back of the cart speckled and flecked with tan mud.  Hot and humid air and mud, I thought, reminds me of my stay in Nicaragua.  But once we got to the place, and we walked out on the dock, out into the Caribbean, that refreshing salt air swept all the unpleasantness away.  

Thanks to my cousin Jay, we'd booked two days of fishing through Yellow Dog Fly Fishing with Wil Flack, the owner and head guide of Tres Pescados Fly Shop.  A well known guide who's been featured on in "Waypoints" by Confluence Films, Wil taught me a ton on my first real bone-fishing experience.  He's the real deal.  A guy who moved down to San Pedro when he was very young, and just started tying flies to sell.  A guy who's got a permit tattooed on his neck.  A guy who would take a canoe out into the giant maze of mangroves for weeks at a time (back before development had taken its toll).  He'd stash jugs of water throughout the mangroves and flats, fishing all day, learning the tidal creeks and ponds and lagoons of the ecosystem where he now guides, and then sleeping in his canoe under a mosquito net.  He's also featured here, in this episode of Wild Instinct Outdoors:

Instead of blind casting into large "muds", where schools of smaller bonefish devour small crabs and shrimp and practically guarantee bringing countless fish to hand, Wil took Jay and me to several flats, where we threw on the wading boots, left the skiff, and hunted bigger bones on foot.  It was sight fishing, in hopes that we might come across some bigger fish, cruising or tailing in the gin clear shallows.  

Of course this meant, moving slow, disturbing as little water as possible.  We fished as a team.  Three of us.  One rod.  The angler was on the right, rod held out and to the right, at the ready to roll cast, crab fly held in the left hand.  Wil was on the angler's left, managing the fly line, eyes scanning the bottom for small muds created by a few feeding fish, or dark moving shadows of cruising fish, or even better, the fin of a tailing fish, a fish rooting along in search of food.  And whoever wasn't fishing did their best to spot fish too.  

For me, that was the biggest challenge.  Reading the water.  And next came learning where to place the fly, how to strip the fly, and how to set the hook.  You had to lead a cruising fish, not dropping the fly on his head, but not leading him by too much.  You had to move the fly with small, short, slow strips of the fly line - too fast and too long of strips would suspend the crab too high in the water column.  And of course, the you had to strip set - no lifting of the rod with the traditional "trout set," no stripping hard, either, as I'd come to do for bass and redfish.  All it was was a slow pulling back and bending the elbow in the left arm.  Let's just say it took some practice after trout fishing Wyoming all season.  

But once you got the rhythm of the retrieve and the feel of the take figured out, it was hard to beat.  Nothing like having a fish peel line off a reel like that, having to keep him off rocks and away from mangroves.  

Weapon of Choice


Besides two great days of fishing with Tres Pescados, we explored San Pedro, we checked out an old Mayan site, and just enjoyed the sun... trying to ignore the warnings of a winter storm back in the states.  

Wilmington Connection

We sure ate well, too.  


And on the final day came the consolation prize.  Messing around off the dock, I was trying to see how much line I could cast out, out into the wind.  After casting about as far out as I could, I casually let the fly sink, a simple bass and redfish fly, simply some lead eyes, brown bucktail, and orange rubber legs.  While I wasn't fishing too seriously, I heeded Wil's advice - of stripping short, "One, two", and slow.  A few strips in, there was resistance, and it didn't feel like the stationary catch of turtle grass.  I slowly set the hook, and as soon as I did, line started peeling out, and the fish was almost instantly into my backing.  After some fifteen minutes, we finally saw what had taken the fly - a permit.  I'd had no expectation to catch one... 

From that point on, I took it easy.  We weren't going to lose this fish, a fish that many anglers won't catch until after several years of persistent fishing.  Landing the fish was a team effort, as I passed the rod tip and leader to my brother, and I grabbed the permit by the tail.  Now this was hard to beat.  

It's what fishing and hunting is all about... you never know when the totally unexpected might happen.  It could be a permit inhaling your bass fly, or a dinosaur brown trout smashing your cicada carp pattern. Now, I'm sure, I'm in debt to the fishing gods.  

And as soon as it began, it was over.  Just as the fish returned to the flats after falling for some feathers and fur, we had to return to the states.  And we made it, barely beating the snow, after hopping on an earlier flight.  From Belize to the freeze.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

A Week for the Ducks, the second half

 It's truly a land held in by water, these inner islands and peninsulas and lowlands of Northeastern North Carolina.

Through Creswell and across the Albemarle.  Past Hertford and over the Perquimans.  Around Elizabeth City and over the Pasquotank.  Into Virginia, and then across the Northwest River, followed by the North Landing River.  Down the narrow peninsula with Back Bay and Virginia's outer banks to the East.  Back down, across the border again, rolling down NC 615, through Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge, and onto Knotts Island, jutting out into the Currituck Sound.  We are there. 

Well, we got there, but a day early.  


This was the second year we've been flying by the seat of our pants for one of our draw hunts.  Last year, we found ourselves not knowing where we could stay after scouting Goose Creek Game Land.  That year, we stumbled upon the Bayboro House Hotel, and luckily there was room for the three of us.  This year, like last year, we hadn't called ahead to reserve a place to stay... and we didn't really know what all our lodging options were.  

By around 4 o'clock on Wednesday afternoon, we made it to the Knotts Island Market.  We'd check in there with the game warden the morning of the hunt, around 4:45 AM.  After talking to the girls at the register, we continued south down NC 615.  They'd suggested Barnes Lodge, almost right beside the Currituck-Knotts Island Ferry.  We pulled up in the dark, unsure we were at the right place.  For all we could tell, we'd pulled three trucks, one hauling a boat, into a random yard.  Across the way, was what looked like a bar.  More of a backyard bar added on to someone's home.  A few neon lights, a TV visible through the windows, and some palm trees outside.  Three guys in camo sat at the bar inside.  Edwin and I walked in, and introduced ourselves.  This was Mr. Barnes's son's backyard bar.  His dad was the lodge owner across the gravel driveway.  Walk on over and knock on the door, Barnes's son said, he didn't think anyone was staying that night.  We did, and sure enough, after talking Mr. Barnes and his wife, we had a place to stay.  A well furnished lodge at that.  Sure beats sleeping in the truck. 

We were the only guys there.  It was a decently sized place, and we had it all to ourselves.  The 82 year old Mr. Barnes, who grew up in the house, reckoned it had been built in the late 1800s.  After settling in, we drove back to the store, got some microwave pizza and macaroni for dinner since the grill was closed, returning just in time for the Carolina basketball game followed by some good bourbon and cards.  

The next morning was early.  But when we arrived at the market around a quarter till 5, all we saw was the sheriff.  We soon learned that we were a day early. 


So it was back to bed for a while.  But it turned out to be a blessing in disguise.  We were able to better scout the area, assessing how the wind-influenced tides looked.  We were able to explore Mackay Island Refuge a bit, watching ducks and geese and tundra swans.  We soaked in the sights and sounds and smells of one the first settled areas of North Carolina.  And after a few laughs from Mr. Barnes (he had heard about our blunder from the Sheriff), we learned that he'd rent us a blind for a great deal.  

Unfortunately Edwin had to head back to Raleigh, but I called up my brother to see if he could fill in the next morning, Friday, so he drove up from Wilson.  


Feeling good that we had the date right this time, we checked in with the warden in the morning dark.  We drove to the put-in on Brumley Road and loaded the boat.  Thankfully the sound looked fairly docile.   Cutting through the breeze and light chop, we pointed east, towards the marsh of tidal ponds and creeks in-between Knotts Island and Carova Beach.  Due to the tide, the largely fresh but still brackish water was low no more than 2 feet deep, much of the water pushed towards the south by the wind.  We crawled along, the outboard idling, but we still reached our blind with more than enough time to set out the decoys, make plenty of adjustments, and hide the boat.  We'd made it.  I hadn't hunted the Currituck Sound in four years.  It was good to be back.

Maybe 20 minutes before shooting time big ducks were all over.  "Shh, look, pintails!"  "Listen, mallards." And black ducks, and widgeon, and gadwall, and teal too.  But shooting time came, thirty minutes before sunrise, and the amount of avian activity slumped...

It wasn't as cold as we would've liked... maybe mid 40's, but feeling cooler with the windchill.  It wasn't as cloudy as we would've liked.  But we had a decent breeze for a while, blowing out of the direction we wanted it to.  As far as picking shots, this wasn't a hunt where you are picky with your birds.  You take what you can get.  You've got to be able to reach out to birds sometimes, too.  On that big water, the birds are often a bit wary after dodging steel all down the coast.  They don't always giving you that picture perfect decoying shot at 25 yards.  

But we did pretty well for less than ducky conditions.  We were able to pick off a few pairs and singles.  We'll take it.  It's not all about the numbers, but we kept the double digit streak alive for our public land hunts.  

I'm forever drawn back to this part of our state.  There's so much history here.  It's a quite a thing to shoot over a body of water that has been hunted for several hundred years, with sportsmen coming from all over to experience a Currituck duck hunt. There's a specialness that you can't find in all the concrete and urban sprawl of Raleigh and Durham and Greensboro and Winston and Charlotte.  Most importantly, there are people like Mr. Barnes, who took in a few duck hunters with no place to stay, lighting a fire, and saying "welcome boys, glad y'all are here."