The Lumber River forms the boundary between Robeson and Columbus counties and cuts across the North Carolina-South Carolina line. While geographically important, the true value of the river is that it is the lifeblood of local fishermen, its floodplain creating niche habitats for many species of fish.
Many unusual fish inhabit the river, hidden in water as black as burnt coffee. A lone angler recently stood beside a roadside canal that was part and parcel of the river’s swamp ecosystem, as evidenced by a gentle current flow in tune with the river’s decline following a torrential rain. The first fish he jerked from the water was a bowfin, an ancient fish with independently directed tubular nostrils and razor-sharp teeth.
“A bowfin bit a hole in my landing net and swam right through it,” said Ray Atkinson, 75, a retiree from Fairmont. “I don’t like catching them when I’m pikin’.”
Most young anglers, or anglers of any age outside the coastal plain’s swamps, would not recognize the term. However, Atkinson remembered times when he was young that vehicles parked on the road right-of-way for miles.
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“There were so many cars, it looked like someone was having a funeral,” he said. “Today, I am the only one here.”
The few remaining practitioners of pikin’ are after the smallest of the state’s two pickerel species. The largest is the chain pickerel, also called jackfish, which grows much larger and is identified by its chain-like markings. While a chain pickerel can weigh 4 pounds, a redfin pickerel, also called redfin pike or grass pickerel, seldom weighs a pound. The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission’s NCARP program recognizes outstanding catches of 4-pound chain pickerel in comparison to 10-ounce redfin pickerel. Though redfins are small, they are beautiful fish, with scarlet fins, tarnished copper flanks with dark stripes, and dark slashes across the eyes.
Mountain trout anglers appreciate small fish of similar streamlined shape for the same reasons that Atkinson enjoys catching redfins. His plastic pail teemed with pike, many of them fins-up, showing off such striking color that they would make any rainbow trout blush with envy.
But the true beauty of a redfin pickerel, as it is with mountain trout, is in the eating. Atkinson expounded upon their tastiness.
“A redfin pike is the best eating fish in fresh water,” Atkinson said. “You can’t believe how good one tastes until you’ve tried it.”
Like chain pickerel, redfin pickerel have Y-bones in their skeleton, which lead anglers to perform all sorts of alternative cleaning and cooking methods. Atkinson said such extreme tactics are unnecessary when preparing redfin pickerel for the table.
“Just scale, head and gut them like any panfish,” he said. “Then fry them. Once they are cool enough to eat, just reach down through the ribcage, grab the backbone and all the other bones come right out along with it.”
Atkinson used a 12-foot Bream Buster fiberglass pole, the modern version of the cane poles he used for pickerel when he was a child. While his equipment has changed, his method is the same.
“I tie on some 12-pound line and a hook or small jig,” he said. “I use a pike fin for bait after catching the first one on a piece of fatback.”
Removing a pike from the pail, he used scissors to cut a two-inch strip from its flank surrounding its pelvic fin. Hooking it, he flipped it into the water and wiggled it along the alligator weed. Moments later, the rod tip twitched. He jerked hard and hauled a redfin into the air.
“The instant a pike strikes, you have to jerk it out of the water and get it over the bank,” he said. “If it falls off on the slope, it flips back down the bank and it’s gone.”
Atkinson carefully opened the fish’s mouth to reveal its sharp teeth. A redfin pike can chomp down on prey, or a pike fin, with such a powerful grip that it does not have to swallow it immediately. When a redfin is startled as an angler hauls it from the water, it can open its mouth so swiftly that the hook simply falls out.
“I promised my wife I would be home at lunchtime,” he said. “I caught 30 or 40 pike, so it’s been a good morning. If I could fish all day, I would probably catch 100.”