Small Miracle Found From Southeast Georgia Creek

This is a fishing story—or at least it started out that way....

Bobby Thompson | February 3, 2020

The calendar said May 24, but the thermometer said mid-summer. In the words of a country song, “It was hotter than the Fourth of July.”

As I have gotten older, and hopefully wiser, serious outdoor undertakings during the heat of the day have become increasingly less attractive. However, the local rivers and creeks had finally dropped back to normal levels after months of full floodplains and swift currents. I was pretty sure I knew of a small local creek that would have a good population of redbreasts and other assorted panfish. Since it was protected because of being located in the middle of a large tract of private land, I was relatively certain that they hadn’t seen a hook lately, if ever.

A Beetle Spin loaded with a cricket caught 24 of these in just 90 minutes.

I decided about 5 p.m. that I would go see whether my suppositions were correct. After putting an ultralight spinning rod, a bream buster, cricket box and a bottle of water in my old red Chevy pickup, I headed by James Thompson’s service station, onion shed and cricket shop in Vidalia. Plus 100 crickets and minus $3 later and I was off for a little boyhood-style adventure. 

As I drove through the sand hills and scrub oaks typical of much of my area of southeast Georgia, I noticed the gopher tortoises had been busy. Every one of the dozen or so burrows I passed showed signs of fresh activity. The sandy roadbed looked like a gopher highway with all of the tracks in the road. This told me several things. First, no one had been on our hunting lease lately, probably not since turkey season had ended. Second, if the gophers were active, so were the diamondbacks. Where you have gopher holes, you’re bound to have their underground companions.

Better really watch where I put my feet in these slip-on sneakers, I thought to myself as I drove gently along. I didn’t see any big slither marks across the road, but I knew from experience that didn’t mean the big, beautiful, but dangerous snakes weren’t out and about. I could say I ain’t skeered of ’em, but this is a fishing story, and I don’t need to stretch my credibility before even getting to the water. My younger brother was bitten in our yard at age 11 when we were growing up on a plantation in the Lowcountry region of South Carolina. He survived, but suffice it to say that I’ve had a healthy respect for pit vipers ever since. 

At precisely 6 p.m., I set my cricket box, spinning rod and tackle box down beside the gently flowing, tannin-stained creek and let my eyes wander up and down the small stream. Cypress trees grew in abundance along the banks. Birds and crickets (wild ones) chirped in the still air. Up the creek a hundred yards or so, a barred owl hooted inquisitively as to who might be awake and ready for a conversation. I was transported back in time to my childhood days exploring the backwoods and backwaters of my Lowcountry home. It was wonderfully peaceful just to stand on the firm sand and let the cool water flow over my feet. Just to test the water, I tossed a couple of crickets into the creek, and within a few seconds they both disappeared with a smack and a swirl into the mouths of hungry fish. 

I already had a Beetle Spin tied to a little Penn ultralight, but I cheated a bit and threaded an angry cricket onto the hook along with the yellow artificial grub. (Now I have really gone and done it! I’ve told you perhaps the greatest trick there is to catching panfish on spinning gear. A cricket on a Beetle Spin is deadly and will catch infinitely more fish than the little artificial alone under most circumstances.)

It took running a few fish off before I realized I was going to have to be sneaky if was going to catch any fish in the clear, shallow water. Circling around through the swamp 50 yards or so, I quietly eased up to a fresh stretch of water where an outside bend provided some depth. As the bait settled out of sight, a soft “tick” came through the line, and I set the tiny hook into a feisty fish. As he struggled against the wispy rod and light line, he flashed sideways over the sand bottom, and I saw red—not the kind of red that you see when you are angry, but the kind and color that is found nowhere on earth but on the breast and sides of a blackwater rooster redbreast.

As I held him gently in my hand, I thought to myself that he was perhaps the most beautiful fish I had ever seen. This is coming from a guy who has caught everything from dolphin (or “mahi” to you inlanders) in the Gulf Stream to rainbow trout and char in Alaska. I had a fish stringer with me, and I grew up loving to eat redbreasts, but I just couldn’t make myself string this fish. I slipped him back into the dark stream, and with a final flash of crimson, he disappeared. 

Over the next hour and a half, I went through about 50 crickets and covered maybe 150 yards of that little creek. I caught 24 more redbreasts. They weren’t big, but they were feisty, and every one of them was unspeakably beautiful. Six bluegill and seven stumpknocker also found their way into my water-wet hands. I released them all. I didn’t need to sully my evening by cleaning fish that were ever so much more precious gracing the soft-flowing water of a cypress-lined creek in southeast Georgia. They’ll still be there if God blesses me with the opportunity to return. If not, they or their descendants will be there for someone else, waiting to amaze and delight those who take the time and make the effort to find the special beauty that awaits them in the shade-darkened waters of our neglected small streams. 

It was 7:30. The setting sun was already hiding its red face behind the cypress trees. The mosquitos had mysteriously multiplied tenfold, and the owl had found a buddy to talk with. Their nine-noted hoots added a haunting music to the gathering gloom. It was time to go.

For a little while on a hot, May day, this old guy got to be a boy again. I was allowed to recapture the wonder and amazement that is to be found in the simple blessings of God’s creation—in the beautiful stillness and silence of a creek bottom. And perhaps most importantly, I found some much needed peace with nature, with God, even with myself—which is no small miracle. 

I guess this wasn’t really a fishing story after all….

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