Chasing Species in the Southern Appalachians: A 2018 NANFA Convention Report


Josh Leisen

A version of this article was first published in American Currents, Publication of the North American Native Fishes Association (Volume 43, Number 4, Fall 2018).

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Note: My article version published in American Currents covered only the first part of my June 2018 trip, mostly in the southern Appalachians and surrounding areas. This extended blog post includes the remainder of that trip, including fishing in South Carolina, the Outer Banks, and the Eno River of North Carolina.

Southeastern USA – June 6-14, 2018

I tend to pack my vacations so full that by the time I’m through with them I feel like I need a vacation. That doesn’t sound very relaxing. It’s not. But hey, you only live once. My June 2018 road-trip, planned around the NANFA Convention in northeast Georgia, took me through nine states and featured lots of fishing, running, sight-seeing, visiting old friends and making new ones.

I hit the road early on June 6, driving from northern Michigan, through Ohio, to southeastern Kentucky. By mid-afternoon I reached Natural Bridge State Resort Park and found a place to park along the Red River. It looked like a good spot for microfishing so I set up with a snelled tanago hook baited with a fleck of worm, weighted with a small split shot. I waded the shallow stream for a few hours and tallied up eight species: Emerald Shiner, Mimic Shiner, Bluntnose Minnow, Longear Sunfish, Green Sunfish, Blackside Darter, Rainbow Darter, and even a surprise ten-inch Rainbow Trout from under the bridge that I was lucky to land on the tenago rig. It was a beautiful day and a nice location, so I enjoyed my time there, but I failed to add a new species to my angling lifelist.

Blackside Darter – Red River Kentucky

At dusk I drove to the Carr Creek State Park Campground and set up my tent for the night. The camp host said the catfish bite was hot, so I did some night fishing and managed a small Channel Catfish and one Bluegill. I am running 1,000 miles in 2018, so I built runs into my vacation itinerary and logged a couple miles doing laps along the campground loops before retiring for the night.

I devoted June 7 to fishing the far northwestern corner of North Carolina. Ben Cantrell tipped me off to a couple nice spots he’d fished during his trip to the 2014 NANFA Convention. The first was an icy-cold stream in the Upper New River Watershed that numbed my legs as I waded. It had rained a lot in the region in previous weeks, so the water was a little high and cloudy but fishable. I caught a mix of new fish species with micro tackle, including Kanawha Rosyface Shiner, Mountain Redbelly Dace, Bigmouth Chub, New River Shiner, and Tonguetied Minnow. I also caught some Rosyside Dace and a Blacknose Dace.

I threw my wet socks and shoes on the roof my car to bake in the sweltering sun while I ate a lunch of crackers, pudding, canned tuna, and granola bars. I jotted my catches in my field log, flipping between photos on my camera screen and my copy of the Peterson Field Guide to Freshwater Fishes to double-check my identifications. Then I drove about an hour west to another of Ben’s spots and added Redlip Shiner and Highback Chub to my lifelist. I also found Mountain Redbelly Dace, Creek Chub and Bluehead Chub there. I had about a four hour drive to the convention at Young Harris University, so I packed it up around 5pm and hit the road. I stopped for dinner in Asheville and enjoyed the mountain scenery, radio blasting tunes, en route to northern Georgia. Thanks to Michael Wolfe for accommodating my late arrival, and thank you to everyone involved with helping coordinate the convention logistics and activities!

Highback Chub

Redlip Shiner

The NANFA field trips were scheduled for the morning of Friday, June 8. I signed up for the Etowah River Watershed trip, led by Georgia Department of Natural Resources staff. The Etowah River had a lot of potential species that would be new for me. I rode along with fellow lifelist anglers Tim Aldridge and Casey Elam, who had signed up for the same trip. We’d chatted online about fishing over the past year or so, and it was great to finally meet them in person. Daniel Folds rode along with us as well. The first stop on the Etowah yielded some Redbreast Sunfish, Alabama Shiner, and Bluehead Chub. I also got my first Silverstripe Shiner. The seining folks netted Bronze Darter and a several other species.

NANFA members at the Etowah River

Our second stop was a small tributary stream full of Tricolor Shiner, which was another new species for me. I also caught a Coosa Shiner there but the diversity wasn’t quite what we had hoped for at that site. We were a bit behind schedule and the main group headed back to campus after the second stream, so Tim, Casey, Daniel and I checked out the third and fourth stops on the Etowah itinerary on our own. The third stop was a larger stream, and we saw several Longnose Gar when we scoped the river out from the bridge. We caught Alabama Shiner and Casey got a Southern Studfish, but I failed to hook any new species at that spot. At the final location I was rewarded with my favorite catch of the day—a fabulous Southern Studfish. We also caught Coosa Shiner and Casey and Tim got Bandfin Shiner, which I failed to collect.

Southern Studfish

Tim, Casey and I enjoyed our successful fishing day over Mexican food and drinks at El Cancun with Fritz Rohde, Scott Smith, David Smith, and Kelly McDonald. Later, at the campus housing, Scott and Kelly photographed some of the fish that had been collected from the various field trip locations and kept alive in aerated coolers of water. I’ve admired Scott’s printed photos in past American Currents issues and it was neat getting a behind-the-scenes look at his fish-photography set-up and process.

Before hitting the road to the Conasauga River I stopped at a creek on campus and caught this beautiful male Hiwassee Dace

I wish I’d had time for both the NANFA conference presentations and more fishing, but with limited time Saturday, June 9 was my one shot at fishing the Conasauga River. After picking up a couple beautiful Hiwassee Dace (Clinostomus cf. funduloides) on the campus, I followed Tim and Casey along a scenic mountain route through North Carolina and Tennessee to the “Snorkel Hole.” We also met Mike Channing (who I’ve known from for a long time and met at the 2015 NANFA Convention in Tahlequah, OK) and his father there for the day. Tim had fished this location before and gave me and Casey pointers on getting our first Rainbow Shiner, which proved easy enough but unfortunately they weren’t quite as colored up as we were hoping.

Rainbow Shiner

I started with standard fishing gear in the Conasauga River, hoping for Redeye Bass and Black Redhorse. I watched Mike pull in several redeyes and Alabama Bass before I finally caught my own Redeye Bass. I switched to microfishing gear and caught some very attractive Alabama Shiner. Meanwhile, Tim and Casey tried snorkel fishing, with some success. They got Mobile Logperch and several shiners. Mike got an Alabama Hogsucker. I (completely incidentally) caught a Blue Shiner, which was released immediately. I later caught and released a second one. Later in the afternoon I decided to focus on larger species, and I got a surprise Freshwater Drum, a Shadow Bass, and my first Alabama Bass. The Black Redhorse continues to elude me. Tim and Casey hit the road and I stayed a while longer to fish with Mike, who guided me to my first Alabama Hog Sucker on hook-and-line. It was a small specimen caught on a micro-hook. They’re actually fairly aggressive once you located one and place a small piece of bait in their path. Eventually I bid farewell to Mike and hit the road for Atlanta.

Alabama Bass

Shout out to my friend Betsi for letting me crash on her couch for a couple nights, chauffeuring me around in Atlanta, and picking up my race bib earlier in the week so I didn’t have to cut my fishing time short to collect it myself! On Sunday (June 10) I ran the Hotlanta Half Marathon―my third half marathon in four weekends. During the run—a humid, hilly slog―I passed the 500-mile mark for 2018, but not without some knee pain (which bothered me for the next three months. As I post this on 11/2/2018, I’m still on pace for 1,000 miles in 2018 with 873 miles logged). We spent the rest of the day resting and sampling Atlanta microbreweries. My friend Derek, from Minnesota and now living in Atlanta, was able to meet up with us as well. We capped the evening off at the Lasershow Spectacular at Stone Mountain Park, which was an interesting spectacle.

After a breakfast of biscuits and gravy, with lots of coffee, at The Flying Biscuit Café I left Atlanta and headed east into South Carolina to meet up with fellow lifelist angler Nick Viole at a tributary of the Edisto River. In a short session I was able to quickly catch a Lowland Shiner, and not-so-quickly got my first Turquise Darter in a one-on-one standoff with the diminutive fish that literally brought me to my knees, jigging a tiny bait in its face as I hovered over it for a perceived eternity. I maintain that darter fishing is a leading cause of back pain among lifelist anglers. I had plans to meet up with some friends from grad school in Columbia (I got my Masters in Geography from the University of South Carolina) so I had to hit the road after catching my Turquoise Darter.

Lowland Shiner

Turquoise Darter

It was great visiting friends from grad school in Columbia, SC

The next day, June 12, I fished my way to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. My first stop was a small pond near Lake Waccamaw, where I caught my first Banded Sunfish and several Lined Topminnow and Eastern Mosquitofish. I also fished Lake Waccamaw and caught some Coastal Shiner but a storm was moving in and the visibility was zero and I was driven out away by wind and rain. The weather cleared by the time I reached the Outer Banks, and I set my tent up under a beautiful sunset at the Oregon Inlet campground. I finished the night with a three-mile jog on the beach, under a starry sky. Life is good.

Banded Sunfish

Campsite at Oregon Inlet at the Outer Banks, NC

On the thirteenth I drove to and then climbed to the top of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse before turning my attention to fishing. My first fishing spot was the sheltered side of the Outer Banks, and I caught juvenile Pinfish and Spot on micro hooks and shrimp. My target was the Striped Killifish, which was more time-consuming to find and catch than I hoped, but in the end I succeeded in catching one.

I spent most of the afternoon under the hot sun, fishing the south end of Oregon Inlet. I targeted flounder, and some anglers near me caught a small one, but all I managed in a few hours there was about a dozen Pinfish. Late in the afternoon I drove into Nags Head for a late lunch and an ice cream cone. I finished the evening at Jennette’s Fishing Pier with one heavy surf rod and one medium-action rig.

Atlantic Spadefish

It didn’t take long to catch a new species on the pier. The Atlantic Spadefish were in thick and I caught a couple. It was a new species, and a complement to the Pacific Spadefish I’d caught in Mazatlán last year. The bite was pretty slow, even with small baits. A few anglers caught Spanish Mackerel off the end of the pier (a species I’ve long envied and am yet to catch), and several juvenile Atlantic Sharpnose Shark, Southern Stingray and Clearnose Skate were pulled in around me. I was particularly interested in the latter, which was a would-be new species for me, so I decided to wind out the night with two rods set up specifically to target them. One rod was 80 pound braid with a 20-pound test mono leader, which could easily handle a good-sized fish. The medium-action rod was spooled with 12-pound monofilament, and anything large would really test the 4-piece medium action rod. I set both up with circle hooks tied on hi-lo rigs baited with chunks of squid and played the waiting game. I had a few bites and my hooks were picked clean without a strong pull. As the sun set and night eventually set in I was pretty exhausted. But every 30 minutes or so someone else on the pier would hook a Clearnose Skate, renewing my sense of hope. I had a chance, but packing it up would end that opportunity. And so I sat there in the dark, on a pier bench, with the bait-clicker set on my surf rod and my light rod in hand. I let my eyes close, and breathed deeply of the warm, salty sea breeze. I didn’t know when I’d be near the ocean again, so I wanted to give it a solid last chance.

Waiting for a bite at Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head, OBX, NC

Two hours after dark the action seemed to die for everyone. I gave myself a fifteen minute ultimatum. If I didn’t catch anything by then I’d return to camp and rest up. I had fishing plans for the next morning, and a lot more driving ahead of me. I didn’t want to be too tired.

The calm was shattered when I felt a firm tap, tap, tap vibrate through the rod. My eyelids rose and my heart rate quickened. If I pulled too early, I’d whiff and miss the fish. The tapping continued. Then the fish ran. The rod began to arch. I pulled up on the rod and the fish peeled off some drag. It was a decent-sized fish, but not too big for my gear. It put a full bend in my rod, and took line here and there, but I was able to reel it toward the peel and to the surface. I hoped it wouldn’t be a Southern Stingray or Atlantic Sharpnose Shark, both of which I’d caught before.

When I saw the fish in the lights of the pier I knew I had a Clearnose Skate on the line. But the trick was that I had to lift it about 25 feet from the water surface and up and over the pier railing. A lot could go wrong. The hook could pull out. The 12-pound line would be tested. I tightened the drag as tight as it went and reeled the skate up. I swung it over the rail, and gently flopped it onto the pier deck. The species was mine. It’s not a fish that excites local anglers, but I probably looked like a quarterback that had just thrown a winning touchdown in a stunning come-from-behind upset victory. I didn’t care what others thought. I had stayed up late hoping for a Clearnose Skate on several occasions in South Carolina, several years earlier, and had always walked away defeated. This catch was particularly sweet.

Clearnose Skate

I took several photos before releasing the fish. Mission accomplished, I packed up quickly and toted my gear down the pier to the car. People gave me a strange look. Probably because of the huge smile plastered across my face.

Skates and rays have the coolest eyes! That big hole is called a spiracle, which the skate uses to pull water to the gills, which extract dissolved oxygen and then expel the water out the gill covers located on the skate’s underside.

My alarm rung at 6am the next morning and I quickly packed down my tent and hit the road. I stopped at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge and at the first roadside canal I stopped at I landed a gorgeous Flier—my main target! It came on the first drop of bait into the black water, and was the only one I caught. I got lucky. I tried the Milltail Creek crossing as well, and caught a bunch of Banded Sunfish in very shallow water, close to shore by dropping a micro bait into pockets of the dense aquatic vegetation. I “celebrated” my Flier with a three mile jog. It was 90-some degrees, sunny, humid, and stagnant. Never in my life had I ever been so brutally victimized by swarming horseflies as then. I slapped with futility at the relentless flies and curse words streamed from my mouth faster than the sweat from my back. I was drenched in sweat. Bear paw prints were imprinted in the mud, going in the same direction I was running. I’d been living out of my car for the past week, so there were food wrappers all over and I had left my windows down. My car was full of the damn horse flies when I returned, and the traffic was jammed due to bridge construction, so the next leg of my drive didn’t bring immediate relief from my torment (i.e., I “celebrate” in strange ways).


My last fishing spot of the trip was yet another spot suggested by Ben Cantrell—the Eno River near Durham, NC. I fished it with worms and micro-gear for a few hours, hoping for a Roanoke Bass. While I missed my primary target, I succeeded in finding several new species: Bull Chub, White Shiner, Speckled Killifish and Swallowtail Shiner. I finished the trip with 28 new species, putting my lifelist tally at 475 species. On the evening of the fourteenth I met my friend and former coworker Kristin in Cary, NC for dinner and a couple craft brews.

The next morning I made the 14-hour haul back home to Gaylord, where I enjoyed one night in my own bed before heading to Traverse City for a wedding, followed with a 5am flight the next morning to Minneapolis for a work conference. I grew up in Minnesota, so I had friends to visit there and I fit in a good 8-mile run, getting me up to a total of about 33 miles of running on my two-week, ten-state whirlwind trip.




Next blog up: Azores – September 2018 (in the meantime, follow my fishy account on Instagram @lifelistfishing)