One of the facts of life is that the weather, no matter how miserable or pleasant it may seem at any given time, will eventually change.
Because the earth is tilted on its axis as it orbits the sun, some places on the planet are always warmer than others. The different temperatures result in air pressure variations that, in turn, cause weather fronts to move across the landscape.
My logical, educated mind knew all that. But, my practical, out-the-door brain didn’t care. It simply told me that it felt much better outside than it had for a long time. An easy, northerly breeze had displaced the hot, humid, maritime-tropical
wind that had dominated our little corner of the world for what seemed like forever.
Temperatures in the mid-80s felt almost fall-like after the mid-to-high 90s that we had endured for weeks on end. Altocumulus clouds, floating across an azure sky, were reflected in the still, black water of a coastal plain creek that snaked its
way toward the Neuse River. Patches of dense “merkle” (wax myrtle) and tangles of greenbriers guarded the banks while towering cypress trees provided shade that made the day even more inviting.
As I eased along with the slight current, flipping a cricket around the stumps and logs that lined the shore, I was struck by the vibrant beauty of the semi-wild creek bottom. Carolina lilies, swamp mallow and dozens of other wild flowers I
couldn’t identify were splashes of color on a palette of dark green. Butterflies, some half as big as my hand, flitted from flower to flower while birds busied themselves in the shadows of the dense canopy, chirping and whistling and scratching through the thick forest litter.
Daydreaming about John Lawson’s ill-fated trip up nearby Contentnea Creek some 400 years ago, it occurred to me that the famous explorer would have almost certainly been surrounded by the same kind of scenery as I was. Except, of course,
he wouldn’t have been watching a small, fluorescent orange cork as it floated among a cluster of cypress knees. He would have been scanning the shadows for hostile natives. I shivered as I thought about what ultimately became of him and
turned my attention back to my float just in time to see it slip beneath the surface.
My ultra-light spinning rod took a sharp bend and began to throb as whatever was on the line moved away from the snags and toward deeper water. Lowering the rod and pulling to the right, I encouraged the fish to keep heading that way. In spite of my efforts, it turned and made a run toward shore and the boat’s trolling motor. I jammed the rod deep into the water and led my unseen quarry around the bow.
Another couple of aborted sprints toward snags and I was able to pull him toward the side of the boat. The hand-size fish I lifted from the net was a dark olive-green, with light mottled spots along its sides and a mouth more like a bass
than a panfish. Its oversize, black eyes glistened in the sunlight. I had a warmouth, called a “goggle-eye” by some folks and, to me, a summertime trophy worth celebrating.
The warmouth (Lepomis gulosus) is officially classified as a panfish, which means it doesn’t get too big, usually no more than a half-pound or so, and is valued most by cane pole anglers looking to gather the makings for a fish supper. Or by
certain middle-aged spin fishermen who see the “goggle-eye” as a symbol of warm weather, dark-water streams and lightning bugs in the gathering dusk. To them, the otherwise undistinguished fish is a symbol of the good life, a standard of what makes it special down here in the land of pork barbecue and bright leaf tobacco.
The warmouth isn’t anyone’s official State Fish, but it could be. Common throughout much of the south from the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, to the Chesapeake Bay and westward throughout Texas to the Rio Grande, it is a highly aggressive,
hardy species that can live in a variety of freshwater environments. It’s fairly common throughout North Carolina but rare enough to be a treat when you catch one. It’s small enough that you have an excellent chance of landing any you hook
but big enough to give you a run for your money on sporting-size tackle. And, it’s first-rate on a platter surrounded by fresh cole slaw and hot hush puppies.
The warmouth can be differentiated from rock bass or green sunfish, two fish that are very similar, in some anatomical ways and by the fact that the other two are found only from the Piedmont west in this state. Warmouths prefer shallow
lakes, slow-moving streams, marshes, canals – water typical of the Coastal Plain – and have a greater tolerance for muddy water than many other species.
Anglers usually catch warmouths while fishing for “bream,” a general classification that includes bluegills and some other, similar, species of panfish.
They will hit a variety of small artificial lures, including clothespin baits like Beetlespins and in-line spinners such as those made by Mepps. Occasionally they can be caught on small topwater poppers cast with a fly rod. Natural baits will out-
produce the synthetics in most situations by a large margin, however. Red worms, night crawlers and minnows all work. Number one in my book, though, is a lively, juicy cricket fished on a #6 wire hook around stumps or other structure in shallow water. If it’s near a drop-off, even a small one, that’s a plus.
Don’t expect a warmouth to put a permanent bend in your favorite bass rod. The North Carolina state record weighed only 1 lb. 13 oz. (caught in a Richmond County pond in 1976) and the world record tipped the scale at 2 lb. 7 oz. (landed in
Florida’s Yellow River in 1985). Caught on light tackle, though, a “goggle eye” will put up a fight that will have the angler whooping when he lands it and bragging to his buddies about the one that didn’t get away.
If it’s caught on a late summer afternoon, as the shadows stretch across a favorite fishing hole and cicadas sing along the shoreline, that just makes it even better. Or, as they say in Louisiana, “mo betta.”
Ed Wall can be reached at email@example.com or 252-671-3207. His web site is www.edwalloutdoors.com