Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Chickahominy River Fishing

Sunset on the tidal meanders of Morris Creek
Weather was ridiculously hot for April (air in the mid 90s), but sometimes a plan is a plan. I got to the Chickahominy River on friday afternoon, after spending most of the day staring at it from about 8 miles downstream in Mosquito Heaven. Tug was already onsite and we put the boat in the water to try to make the best of the outgoing tide.

A stressed out / sick bluegill, or a green / redbreast hybrid? Note the tiny lure - they wouldn't bite anything larger.
The fishing was definitely not hot, but we were. Initially Tyler landed a few small bass in the flooded arrowhead flats, using a beetle spin lure. A nicer bass (2lb or so) jumped the hook.

Tug's first largemouth of 2009. I have yet to catch mine, so I won't be judgin'. The bass were right up on the edge of the vegetation.

Now THAT'S what a bluegill is supposed to look like.
After landing a dozen or more small fish and losing water quickly, we retreated to the main channel and went after deep catfish. My rig kept stopping short of the channel (shouldn't have procrastinated on re-stringing the reel I guess), but Tug ended up with a few small channel catfish. We set up camp and were relieved by the falling air temperature.
Greater Yellowlegs stalking minnows
I awoke on saturday morning to the sound of gobbling turkeys - for an east coast "woodsman", that sound is sharper and more distinct than any other in the field, except perhaps that of the goose. We fished early in the morning with very little luck (a 10" inedible gizzard shad on my part), and eventually Brother Whitey showed up and we went back out to find some shade and some fish. The fishing again was very scarce, but we were at least able to land some small fish.
Great Blue Heron attempting to put its lunch out of its misery - either a catfish or an eel.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Chickahominy River, Here We Come

Time to head back to our "traditional" stomping grounds today - the Chickahominy River in southeastern Virginia. While I'm sure that the area's prior inhabitats, the Chickahominy Tribe, would take severe issue with that statement, perhaps in some small way they would be pleased to know that we are converging on the river as they did - to camp (primitively), fish, and participate in some fellowship with the other men in the tribe.
The River and its high banks are historic and actually legendary, providing sites for burial grounds for pre-Columbian native Americans, the Jamestown settlers, Revolutionary War dead, and Civil War dead. McClellan's Peninsula Campaign of 1862 (Union attempt to recapture Richmond, the Confederate Capital) failed when he realized upon reaching the Chickahominy, the river was at flood stage, and instead of a 300 foot water crossing, he would be faced with a 6 mile water crossing.
The River has undergone some recent changes - a dam built across the channel during WWII (to provide water supply to military installations and shipyards) has remained in place as a water supply source for the Tidewater, VA metro area. As a result, this well-flushed, freshwater tidal river has slowly turned into a brackish tidal river because the freshwater flushing has been highly limited by the dam, particularly during the summer months. The two main casualties: wild rice and the wintering ducks who feed on it. Where only largemouth bass were once found, now croaker, blue crabs, and striped bass can be caught in the summer.
It should be a great time and I'm not exactly hoping for a repeat of last year's outing (citation crappie but no bass caught from the boat), but I'll take what I can get. See y'all next week.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Take Mental Health Where You Can Get It

Sometimes the most unplanned, insignificant things are the ones you remember. Today, Sadie & I were on the back end of a 1,000 mile funeral trip that has involved dogsitters, highway breakdowns, and hotels across the Mid-Atlantic. I had been missing the usual banter between my brothers and myself - between our auto disaster / funeral schedule and the brothers' planned trip to a cell-signal free zone of Southwestern Virginia to visit our parents' new cabin, we weren't in touch from thursday morning until today, around 2:30pm. We finally made phone contact and began sharing our unbelievably ridiculous stories from the weekend, and normalcy began to return. I haven't seen Tug in about 5 weeks and Nutty for about 8 weeks, so I was already looking forward to our next drunkfest, I mean outdoor rendezvous.
As Nutty and Tug headed east on US 58 back to the beach (about 10 miles north of the VA/NC line), Sadie and I were moving parallel to them - headed east on I-40 (about 70 miles south of the VA/NC line), trying to intercept I-85 North. All indications were that their travels would have them passing over I-85 about an hour before we passed under US 58. However, due to Tug's stellar driving (and ability to attract state troopers), and Nutty's uncanny ability to select fast food locations that serve something not really like food, and not very fast, all four of us landed at the South Hill, VA Sonic Drive-In within 10 minutes of each other.
What unfolded was an hour of hilarious, gut-busting tales from all of our weekends. The stories were unbelievable - no one could ever dream up the things that all of us saw (sometimes alone) over the previous 4 days in western NC / western VA. A sampling:
*Them thar pearly gates and angels wangs
*Bear attack whistle
*Crooked Creek Oyster Harvest Area
*Makeshift church cross - landscape timbers
*The Circle of Life
*Ain't No Party Like a Fee Fishin' Party"
It was as if we had all spent 4 days in our own separate twilight zones, which, while not being particularly bad and certainly not "evil," were taxing and mind-bending in their own right. Sharing the tales seemed to make it all OK....and we all went onward to start the new week.

In fact, I was reminded of one of my favorite travel songs of all times - while it's not nuanced or piquant in any way, it's just wonderful:
The Ramones: "Touring"
Well, we've been to London and we've been to L.A. Spain, New Zealand, and the U.S.A.
Europe, Japan, and Pango-Pango Canada, Siam, Oz and Kamoto
The kids all come from miles around The party gets started when the sun goes down
A Holiday Inn's the only home I know

Rock-n-roll's alive 'cause we got the power baby
Crusing down the highway at 500 miles an hour baby
We got a fuel-injected tour bus, man it really flies
With a video tape deck inside
Let's go, rock-n-roll, everybody c'mon
Let's go, rock-n-roll, everybody c'mon now

Touring, touring, is never boring
Touring, touring, is never boring
Touring, touring, is never boring
Touring, touring, oh baby, touring
Especially with your favorite girl
Touring, touring, all around the world

Well we've been around this great big world
And we've met all kinds of guys and girls
From Kamoto Islands to Rockaway Beach
No, it's not hard, not far to reach
American girls knock me out, ya know
Fast cars, cold beer, and rock-n-roll
America is the only home I know

Let's go Let's go Let's go Let's go
500 miles to Mexico Let's go Let's go Let's go Let's go
200 miles to Tokyo Let's go Let's go Let's go Let's go
Drive, drive, drive the night away
Straight on through to the break of day
Drive, drive, drive the night away
Well, it's in your blood, it's in your blood

Monday, April 13, 2009

South Carolina Low Country, Day 3 - Chasing Redfish

Stern of an abandoned sailboat, floated into Folly Creek during Hurricane Hugo in 1989.

I decided to venture out into the marsh for one of the gems of the Carolina Low Country - Redfish or Red Drum. While it was very early in the season, I thought that I might have a chance at landing these fish, which are the bigger cousins of the Atlantic Croaker and smaller cousins of the trophy Black Drum. I have caught redfish before in Virginia while targeting flounder, but I had never targeted redfish themselves. In preparation for the trip, I read that redfish feed in the marsh shallows during changing tides, and like most inshore saltwater fish, are very inactive during cold weather. Their preferred foods are shrimp and baitfish.

Redfish enjoy regional popularity as a game fish and as food. Along the Atlantic Coast, the population is unstable due to consistently high fishing pressure. Commercial harvesting of redfish in Federal waters became illegal in 2007.

While croaker prefer structures in deep water, redfish (like this one) prefer chasing food in the murky shallows of the salt marsh. Picture hijacked from Salty Shores - a great fishing/photography website

This is how shallow redfish get in their search for food
Ultimately, our kayak outting into Folly River and Folly Creek started to look like a "skunk" no matter what baits and lures we threw out there. We tried frozen shrimp, live minnows, redfish jigs (with spoon), sardine jigs without a spoon, all the "gimme" baits and lures. I had bought several topwater lures for the trip and did not even get them out of the tacklebox. At one point, we saw some small whiting breaking the surface, but they were not interested in any of our bait. Frustrating. Regardless, I learned a lot more about redfish angling techniques as well as kayak fishing in a marsh with a 6' tide! I lost one rig to the oysters........and boy, were there oysters.

Healthiest oyster beds I have seen in years - Folly Creek, SC
This side of the creek is not open for recreational or commercial harvest.
The oysters on Folly Island are something else. They are in every marsh, and there are plenty of them. Even with harvesting and a lack of environmental protection (a la Northeastern United States), these beds look nothing like the beds of the Mid-Atlantic. The only difference I can think of is that most Mid-Atlantic oysters have been repeatedly whacked by invasive parasites MSX and Dermo, which kill about 50% of legal oysters annually in the Delaware Bay and Chesapeake Bay. Hopefully those nasty bugs never reach the Southeast.
Oysters provide more than food and filtering. Oysters provide good structure for fish and their prey throughout the marshes. In an environment where any hard structure is rapidly destroyed, oysters provide areas for entire ecosystems to evolve.

I challenge you to find a photo of a living white-finger starfish. Better yet, you don't need to - here's one for you!
Paddling around in this healthy marsh was almost as much fun as fishing, especially after I lost my second rig to the oyster bed. I was really impressed to find a few living starfish in the intertidal zone, and even more impressed to see an amazingly high density of hermit crabs. It was really invigorating to spend time in such a high quality natural area that was so close to human activity.

Hermit crab in a knobbed whelk shell

We managed to run out and get a bite to eat with a friend from high school, and then retreated back to the beach for the rest of the day. I don't think Roan really minded. Here he is, at sunset, on his 13th birthday. He has been retired for 2 years and he seems pretty happy about that.

Catch that ghost crab!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

South Carolina Low Country, Day 2

2' windswell at dawn, Folly Beach Municipal Pier
With our trip off to a relaxing but rainy start, we got some rest and then woke up to find that the front had passed. Winds were calm at dawn, providing some fun, small surf once again at our Folly Beach rental, but as the sun rose, offshore/sideshore winds begin racing into the 30kt range, blowing away all the nice little waves. The waves and lukewarm temperatures were a welcome reprieve from our dry, endless winter in the Northeast this year. Still, the air was warm and the sky was completely without clouds, so we knew it would be a great day to get out and see some natural and American history. I have seen most of the "original" Charleston/Savannah Plantations which are open to the public, save Magnolia and Middleton, both of which are right outside of Charleston. So we figured we could knock one of those out.
Why did I put quotations around "original?" To my knowledge, only one Ashley River Plantation - Drayton Hall (constructed 1732-1742) - was not destroyed during the last months of the Civil War, as troops from the 1st SC Union Volunteers (not Sherman's troops) marched and floated down the Ashley River. All of Columbia, SC (upstream) and the plantations at Runnymede, Magnolia, Middleton, The Oaks, and Pierpont were destroyed by Union troops. Remember that these agricultural operations were each several thousand acres in size, and were all destroyed. Luckily, a Drayton Hall slave told the approaching Union Troops that Drayton Hall was owned by a Union Officer, which was not true - a cousin of the Drayton owners had become a Union Naval Officer but he did not own the plantation. However, this was enough to save Drayton Hall from destruction.
Only some plantations were rebuilt after the war, a daunting process given the fact that all of their wealth was in now useless Confederate dollars, and that the newly freed slaves would have to be paid in cash for their work -albeit a pitifully small sum. The destruction of the plantations included setting fire to all buildings, boats, and carriages, and destroying mills, dams, and berms that supported the agricultural operations of the plantations.
Anyway, enough sordid Civil War and slavery tales. How about some delicious Low Country Food?

Whole Buttermilk-fried Quail with Cheese Grits and Fresh Buttermilk Ranch Dressing from the Glass Onion in West Ashley, SC (I am still fantasizing about this meal - one of the most enjoyable of my life).

Middleton Plantation Guest House, rebuilt 1868-1875
The Ashley River Plantations in Georgia and South Carolina were each composed of thousands of acres of very intensely-managed agriculture, primarily supported by slave labor. While corn, tobacco, and cotton were important cash crops to the plantations, the primary crops of these plantations was rice, which grew wild on the riverbanks, and could be grown in seasonally-flooded rice impoundments, managed just like moist-soil emergent wetlands. Rice impoundments are a predictable, manageable, and less vulnerable (to flooding and drought) way of producing this native grain, but unfortunately the rice impoundments were usually built in the footprint of existing tidal freshwater wetlands. In writing this blog entry, I also learned that the rice plantations owed their success not only to the slaves' physical labor, but also their technical knowledge of rice growing (slaves were apparently selected from the "low country" of Sierra Leone, whose tribes practiced - and still practice - similar agriculture on a small scale).

Azaleas in bloom at Middleton Place Plantation

Sadie enjoys an off-road snack

A small (demonstration) rice impoundment - still flooded from fall/winter 2008

River cooters are native to coastal South Carolina, and are quite content to exist in managed ponds and impoundments created by humans

American alligators, nearly extinct 40 years ago, are again a common sight in freshwater tidal wetlands south of the Virginia - North Carolina border. The American Alligator is one of two remaining "true" alligator species in the world. This fella, good sized by Carolina standards, is about 7 feet long. A forthcoming post will discuss the biogeography of the Alligator, one of my favorite wildlife management topics.

This Northern Black Racer - the first one I've seen in at least 3 years - was feisty and very mobile. He had almost finished shedding his last skin - note the line over his eye. See if you can identify the leaves - I can see camelia, holly, and perhaps a live or blue oak?

Friday, April 3, 2009

Folly Island, Day 1

Fireworks and Palm Trees in the Rain...how South Carolina is that?!
Day 1 of our South Carolina trip was definitely not what we expected. We arrived around 11pm the night before after a marathon 13 hour drive (thanks to having the old dog onboard) that should have been less than 10 hours. Anyhow, we're here. Remember my last post showing the weather moving in from the Gulf? Yeah, it's here too. In a big way.

After driving us insane throughout the entire drive, Digg Dugg is awful tired!

Surf wax and saltwater...it's that simple

I awoke early on the first morning to find driving rain, which was not a pleasant surprise, but the clean surf visible from our porch WAS a nice surprise. I loaded up and headed to an "isolated" spot (I'm not really serious) on central Folly Island and enjoyed some nice, mellow 2' surf in 55 degree water (thank God I brought my wetsuit), in the pouring rain. My only spectators were thousands of pelicans and white-winged scoters migrating north to their nesting grounds; my only competitors were a large number of young dolphins feeding on jumping menhaden in the surf. The rain ended, and the wind picked up, and the surfing window had effectively closed. The rain had left its mark though, in the way of coastal flooding throughout the entire Charleston area.

The only ibises we saw were feeding on earthworms on the James Island Municipal Golf Course. Classic......just classic.

South Charleston after a 3" rain. Lovely!
We made the best of the day and toured several state and county parks, boat landings, etc to try to get our bearings a little more set. Ate some BBQ, took a bunch of naps, and waited for the weather to break....maybe vacation in the rain ain't that bad after all.

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