A couple of years ago, I spent about three months restoring the exteriors of the two log cabins at the President James K. Polk State Historic Site, just south of Charlotte. The site is in an urban area, and Little Sugar Creek, a nondescript stream about the size of the Swannanoa, runs adjacent the property. The Little Sugar meanders beneath busy four-lanes, around shopping centers and behind a plethora of franchise restaurants—and it’s packed with rock bass that nobody seems interested in.
During those months, I fished about 25 times in the evening after work, ultimately covering about a mile-and-a-half of water. There were times when I got skunked, and there were times when I got strikes on nearly every cast. I had never really fly-fished for any of the warm-water species known generically as pan fish, but I was a long way from the Western North Carolina trout streams I normally prowl, and I decided to at least try it on the Little Sugar. What did I have to lose?
I used a No. 10 brown woolly bugger the whole time, and I was pleasantly surprised by how much fun it was to fly-fish for rock bass. I never caught anything bigger than 8 inches, but everything I caught fought as hard as and struck more aggressively than a trout twice its size. Laying out a bugger near a likely piece of structure such as a hollow bank or submerged log would often bring a torpedolike wake as the little bass blasted out of cover to take the fly off the top of the water in a fury of splashes: VERY exciting.
Much of this activity took place within 50 feet of urban America, yet I never saw another human track onshore the whole time. It got me to thinking.
There were three different ways that I would drive to Charlotte from Asheville: 1) Going east on Interstate 40 and then south on Highway 321 to Interstate 85; 2) Going east on I-40 and then south on Interstate 77; 3) Going east (according to the DOT’s skewed sense of direction) on Interstate 26 and then east on Highway 74. Along those routes, more than a dozen Swannanoa-sized creeks cross or parallel the highway, mostly unnoticed. For the most part, they meander through cow pastures and open areas. And in about a half-dozen of these seemingly unfished waters, I’ve caught pumpkinseeds, rock bass, other kinds of sunfish plus several species I didn’t even recognize, all of them displaying the pan-fish tendency to hit a fly aggressively and put up a good fight.
Admittedly it’s a bit dicey, this business of pulling off the highway and sneaking over the fence that usually parallels the road to snare a few fish. Accordingly, I’ve made a few rules for myself. I don’t cross a fence that wears a “No Trespassing” sign. I maintain a current fishing license. I don’t leave trash. But beyond that, if there’s no house or business in sight, I figure I can slip down to the stream, catch and release what I can, and clear out of there before someone tells me to leave. While working on the Polk-birthplace project, I made nine or 10 such tactical strikes on various streams between here and Charlotte, and the only creatures that ever showed the least interest in me were cows grazing nearby.
In the course of those adventures, I worked out a system for getting off the highway and down to the stream before anybody has time to stop me. I already know where I’m going to park, because I’ve previously scoped it out. I have my fly rod rigged and my wading sandals or chest waders on before I stop. Then I pull off the highway and wait for a lag in the traffic. When it comes, I can get out with my rod, lock the door, and be over the fence and out of sight within 15 seconds.
I most often use my 4-weight, assuming that the fish I’ll catch are small. I cast the smaller woolly buggers, buggy imitations and surface poppers that my lighter rod can handle. I don’t keep the fish I catch, and I make the hooks barbless to ensure easy release.
I’ve gone to great lengths to fish for wild trout. But while pan fish don’t have the same rep, they’re still wild, and they feed on the very things that fly-fishers so ingeniously try to imitate. Pan fish are easier to catch, and they put up a better fight than any trout their size. Perhaps best of all, they’re often as close as that nondescript bit of warmish water waiting just down the road.
[Jeff Ashton lives in Weaverville.]