For the Love of Feathers

Great Egret Dancing on the Water

Great Egret Dancing on the Water

For much of my adult life I have lived on the edge of territory just wild enough to have a great selection of feathered friends.  However, we have never had more flying friends than we have here on the Crystal Coast.

Even the deck of our Roanoke, Virginia home which overlooks a wild ravine cannot compare to what I often find as I walk out on the dock behind our home in Bluewater Cove just off the White Oak River.  And the dock is just my starting point.

Depending on the weather, the variety of the birds that I find on my morning and afternoon walks can be astonishing.   In just two walks one day, I photographed an osprey, green heron, great egret, Pileated woodpecker, great crested flycatcher, and a redheaded woodpecker.  The pictures from that day are posted in this web album.

Sometimes I am amazed that I can stand on our community boardwalk just ten or fifteen yards from my subjects without them seeming to care.  That I have been able to stand frozen in a spot and take pictures and movies of birds from pelicans and great blue herons to green herons and great egrets amazes me.

I often see things that I suspect don’t get see that often like this great blue heron dance or a great blue heron skating on the ice.  I sometimes get wrapped up in what is happening to my feathered friends.   Sometimes they will squabble over the little pond of water that is just outside our dining room window.  That is a common occurrence when the herons are iced-in along our gut.

In January of 2o11, I got very concerned that the herons were having a hard time getting food.  I took my skiff on an ice breaking mission.  It seemed to help them get back into their wading water.

It is not just the big birds that I see on my walks, I often get to spend time with the small birds like our beautiful bluebirds.  My morning walk can bring me into contact any number of birds.

I had a wonderful winter of birding during 2011.  So far 2012 looks even better.  The really amazing thing is that I also get to see a wonderful selection of shorebirds when I go for my walks on the beach.

Sometimes I feel like I live on the edge of a bird sanctuary.  Then again there are times when it appears that I am right in the middle of one.    I felt that way the day an osprey dive-bombed the water about twenty-five yards from me and flew away with a huge jumping mullet.


Out Beyond the Beaches


Headed BackThe fall of 2012 will mark our sixth year of living on the Crystal Coast.  A lot has happened in those years.     My great infatuation with the area waters got a boost with a kayak that first fall. I am still enjoying the kayak and have some very fresh kayaking memories from being out on the river the third weekend in April.  The White Oak has turned out to be great river where I find some solitude and catch enough fish to keep me happy.

However, it is hard to live at the coast without wanting to taste more than just kayak waters.  In June of 2007, we got our first power boat.  Since I was new to power boating it took me a while to learn how to handle my skiff in the area’s waters which have been described as “a lot of water, spread mighty thin.”

While I didn’t pilot our boat out beyond the beaches that first summer,  I have managed to get out in the big water each summer since then.  It is a thrill that I enjoy whenever all the pieces manage to fall into place for an ocean trip.

As we approach the fifth anniversary of the purchase of our Sundance skiff, I think we made a lot of right decisions on our path to becoming boaters and safely visiting the edges of the big water.  Taking the Coast Guard Auxiliary’s safety course and hiring someone for some initial training all helped.

Certainly the expert boaters who have been guest captains on my boat have also helped me gain experience.    While I enjoy boating by myself, I also find having a second person in the boat is always a good thing especially when heading out Bogue Inlet.

As the years slide by, being safe in our boat becomes more of an entrenched routine than something that I have to remember.  I never even leave the house to get in either our skiff or my kayak without my life suspenders.

When I am preparing for a trip in the skiff, I have a few bags that I load.  Most have emergency equipment or items that make me feeler safer.    I am a big fan of my Garmin GPS which I mount on the skiff before each trip.   The tracks that are saved on the Garmin are a wonderful road map to the area.  They make me feel a lot more comfortable while I am boating.

I also carry an emergency marine radio, my cell phone, a 12 volt charger for it, and my SeaTow membership card.

In spite of the focus on safety, getting out beyond the beaches is not for everyone.  When I take my wife out to Bogue Inlet, she makes it very clear that she has no intention of getting out in the waves of the ocean.   It doesn’t matter whether it is bathtub smooth day or not.  The ocean is just not for my wife, and she quickly lets me know when it is time to turn around.

And that is okay because I usually don’t have much trouble finding someone to go with me.  At the end of the first week of April 2012, when we were having a pretty good early spell of warm weather, Alex, one of my boating buddies got to visit for a couple of days.

I was definitely ready for him.  I had been doing some early fishing in preparation for his visit  When we got in the boat the first morning of his visit, he still didn’t have his fishing license, but I wanted to show him a great fishing hole that I had found.   After I got us out into the river, I let Alex pilot us down to Swansboro.  He grew up in a boat so I love to let him take the helm while I focus on taking pictures.  In Swansboro harbor I took over until we got over into the marshes on the other side of the Intracoastal waterway.

Then I asked Alex to take the controls while I climbed up on the bow platform as we drifted in the current.  I made one cast and immediately hooked a bluefish.   Since I was using very light tackle it took a little while to boat the fish, but the experience was enough to hook Alex on getting his license and coming back to try his luck in my honey hole.

Still that day we had some time left so we decided to head out to Bogue Inlet and test the ocean waters.  That first trip out to the Inlet each spring is always an exciting one.  I do regular walks at the Point on the east side of the Inlet so I am usually aware of some of the changes taking place, but until you take a boat out those waters, you really don’t know what you are facing.

Since it was still relatively cool that day, we got just far enough beyond the beaches to check some of the changes in our favorite fishing holes, and then headed back in towards the beaches.  When we turned and started heading back,  I snapped the picture at the top of the post.  There was nothing but ocean and waves behind us.

It didn’t take us very long to get back to the Intracoastal and then up the White Oak to Bluewater Cove.  With some luck as the waters warm, I’ll be back to check out those ocean-side fishing spots more thoroughly.  Just that one trip will make the next trip out there a lot easier.

The next morning, fishing was the only thing on our agenda.  We quickly got back to my spot with Alex and his new fishing license.  I put him up on the bow, and true to form a fish was hooked on the first cast.  Alex managed to hook five bluefish and put four of them in the cooler.  It wasn’t one of those unforgettable moments like the day with the bluefish that I enjoyed with my friend Dean, but it wasn’t bad for an hour of early spring fishing.

The bluefish got cleaned and made the trip back to be cooked near the shores of Lake Norman.  The first fresh fish of the season and that first trip into the ocean of the year are just appetizers that make us hunger for warmer days when we will find more fish and a magic day which we can spend out beyond the beaches.

Boating is a tradition here on the Southern Outer Banks, we’re lucky to live where the ocean is so accessible to so many of us.

Here is a map of the trip that Alex I took out beyond the beaches that first week of April 2012.  This a picture of the Point at Emerald Isle as we headed out.  Finally this is the view as you make your way out to the big water.

Opportunity based fishing

The Marsh near Huggins Island

The Marsh near Huggins Island

Don’t get me wrong.  I absolutely love to fish, and I have been known to fish in some tough weather.  I have caught trout with snow on the ground.  I have fished when I was nearly frozen by cold fall winds or being slowly cooked by summer’s heat.  I have challenged the fishing gods by fishing in February on the White Oak River.

However, my favorite kind of fishing is when the spirit and warm weather move me.  When the weather, winds, and water are just right, fishing can be a wonderful experience even when you aren’t catching any fish or at least nothing to brag about to other fishermen.

While fish are optional, there is nothing wrong with catching fish and even eating a few when the stars are aligned.  Last fall I enjoyed both some trout and flounder from the White Oak.  There is nothing tastier than catching fish in your own backyard and having them in the frying pan before the sun has time to move very far.

When the fish start biting is controlled by the weather.  When I start catching fish has more to do with when it is nice enough to get on the water and wet a line.  Most of the time I hook my first fish of the year in late March on early April.  By then the weather is nice enough on a good day for it to be very pleasurable out on the water.

On Tuesday, April 3, my wife left for a morning church circle meeting, and I thought I would do some work around our home and yard.   At least that was the plan until I walked outside and noticed how warm it was and how quiet the water on the river had gotten.  With no spring winds blowing, the nice weather and water quickly changed my mind.

I put on my life suspenders, tied a jig head on the line attached to my new fishing rod & reel, and loaded all my gear in the boat.  Tying the jig on was the hardest part of getting under way.  I should have taken the time to put a leader on, but the water was calling me.  I was on my way and headed out our channel in less than ten minutes.  The ride down the river once I am out of our cove is only five or six minutes.

Actually the fishing rod was just an accessory to what I knew would be a fantastic boat ride.  With the water glassy smooth, I just wanted to get out on the water and enjoy the breeze in my face and get some salt air in my lungs.  If an opportunity for fishing presented itself, I would be ready.

When the water is still in the low to mid-sixties, it is hard to tell what you might run into when you stick your line in the water.  I didn’t really think about it since I was more focused on that first really nice boat ride of the year.   I followed one of my favorite circuits which takes me south to Swansboro, across the Intracoastal, then to the channel just north of Huggins Island and finally back down the Intracoastal to Swansboro.  I have a YouTube video which provides a close look at the area approaching the island if you don’t mind a video from a slow moving boat.

My trip on April 3, took just minutes to Swansboro because the river was smooth and empty.  After that I had planned nothing more than a ride through the back channel and a quick trip back down the Intracoastal and then home to Bluewater Cove.

However just before I turned east to be parallel with the shore of Huggins Island, I felt just the right breeze for drift fishing. It was like a switch had been flipped in my head.  I immediately cut the engine and picked up my rod and cast to the edge of the marsh at the north side of the channel.  I was fishing with a white gulp.  I waited for the gulp to sink and adjusted my camera in case there was a good photo opportunity. Little did I know that I would be too busy to find the shutter release.

I was fishing with a new rod and reel that I purchased on sale last Thanksgiving at Gander Mountain on a trip to our other home in Roanoke, Virginia.   Though I had tried the rod on an earlier kayak fishing trip this winter, I did not hook anything on that trip.

When I started retrieving the jig, I only made one turn of the reel handle before I thought I was snagged on a log.  Then my log started moving.  It didn’t take me long to figure out it was a bluefish in the three to four pound range.  My rod and reel was an outfit that I had picked specifically for trout fishing.  It was not intended for fighting with nasty tempered bluefish.   I had to make a couple of adjustments to the drag to make any progress with the bluefish who had decided to put on an aerial show while I was collecting myself.  There’s nothing like hooking something on the first cast to start a trip out right and to give you a case of fishing fever.

As I finally got organized, the bluefish decided to go under the boat, I managed to keep him from tangling on the motor, but I knew I was fighting a loosing battle with just eight pound test line, a very light rod, no leader, and no net on board.  The bluefish kept diving and finally he cut my line, and headed off for parts unknown.

After tying on another gulp, I did a few more drifts, but I didn’t even get another touch on my gulp.  I guess that was fortunate since I didn’t have any leader material with me.

The trip home was just as beautiful as the trip down the river.  I posted some pictures of the trip in a Picasa web album called Glassy April Waters.

I had a good time on my first real fishing trip 2012. I should have taken the time to install a leader.  I feel bad for the bluefish with a gulp stuck in his mouth.  That evening I went over to Reel Outdoors in Emerald Isle and got some fluorocarbon leader material.   I tied on a leader as soon as I got home.

It is a rare year that we don’t get into a nice mess of bluefish anyway.

Likely I will be back at the spot sometime in the next few days.  I’ll have a net with me, and a more appropriate rod for one of those big bluefish, but if the weather and water aren’t right, I’ll probably just settle for the boat ride and some nice photos.

When all else fails, I eventually end up heading over to the beach and practicing my six shrimp road to enlightenment.

This photo is a great aerial view of the North Carolina coast.  If you look closely you can see the White Oak River and Swansboro.