Mesozoic Park

Bowfin Fossil from the Mesozoic Era, the Age of Dinosaurs

The Heddon torpedo lure made a single slurp after it plopped to the surface of the clear water in the small creek. A liquid explosion interrupted the silence of this wilderness and a flash of fish danced wildly across the surface towards our small electric powered boat. I was astounded by the power of this creature. Small though it was, it packed the punch of a much larger fish. The monofilament linking angler to fish stretched tight as I overwhelmed this animal’s strength and forced it to the boat. Once sufficiently calm for inspection, it appeared prehistoric. Rows of sharp teeth and an eel-like tail reminded me of a certain fish I encountered fishing the remote areas of Brazil while pursuing the famous peacock bass. That exotic species is known as the traira, similarly structured as this fish. The specimen now on the end of my line is widely distributed in South Carolina, where it is known as the bowfin, or less elegantly, the mudfish. The world record bowfin was captured in South Carolina in 1980, weighing in at some 21 pounds. Mike, my longtime fishing companion and close friend, has on previous trips, brought to hand specimens in the 12 to 14 pound range. I simply cannot imagine the ferocity of a 20 pounder. These creatures are fearsomely aggressive and require the induction of anesthesia in the form of a short bat or boat paddle, to calm them sufficiently for hook removal and release. Despite blows that would leave me comatose, these fish swim briskly back to their lairs once the lure is disgorged. The species is ancient, having been contemporaries of the dinosaurs. Fossil evidence places them on earth during the Mesozoic period, an epoch which encompasses the Jurassic era. They appear to have changed little over the past 200 million years, making them, like alligators, a success story for evolution. After all, why change a design that works?

The Bowfin, also known less attractively, as the mudfish

The Brazillian Traira, a South American version of the Bowfin

We launched from a small ramp off a busy highway, a spot best described as nondescript. A local family was enjoying a Sunday afternoon picnicking and frolicking in the clear water. A young puppy played with a stick nearby, rolling to and fro in the sand, much to the delight of its family. 

 Our small battery operated vessel propelled us down the river and back in time as we worked the banks with tiny poppers on fly rods. Well placed casts close to the innumerable cypress stumps were frequently rewarded by strikes from the palm sized bream that are abundant in these waters. It was great fun on fly rods. The draught like conditions of recent months had dropped water levels dramatically, making an extreme low draft boat mandatory. Our craft was ideal for this, and we traversed water measuring 5 inches with ease, this despite my 275 pounds located in the bow.  The white sandy bottom allowed us the opportunity to sometimes watch the fish attack our flies, often having several attempting to shove competitors aside in their rush to get the fly.

The shores  were lined by ancient cypress trees, complemented by the fascinating shapes of cypress “knees” and stumps. Mike remarked that they looked like they were the handiwork of an extremely talented artist. I agreed that they were, having been fashioned by the greatest of all artists, God Himself. The trees wore long grey beards of Spanish moss, like unshaven soldiers standing at attention along the riverbanks, guarding the myriad creatures that inhabit the deep swamplands behind them. Occasionally, we were treated to the sight of huge white egrets wading the shallow water, or majestically soaring along the treeline. In areas featuring deeper cuts and faster current, we found the highly sought after redbreast, a type of bream revered for its fiestiness.

After a bit of downstream travel. Mike made a hard turn to starboard into a tiny stream that carried current into the heart of the forest. I was flabbergasted to see a stream which, for all the world, was like a mountain trout stream, running hard and clear. Instead of rocks and boulders, downed trees and limbs lined the bottom of this magical creek. In an area of flat topography, I was amazed by the rapidity of the flow. But for the temperature, it would make a superlative home for rainbow and brown trout. The lowering sun cast dappled shafts of amber light which were filtered through the heavy vegetation. Unusually large dragonflies flitted about over the water, searching for their evening meals.

“Mike, I think we are not in a boat, but rather a time machine!” I commented as I tried to take it all in. ” It looks like we are in Jurassic Park or something!” Just then, the current pushed the boat into a streamside bush, forcing my head into its outermost leaves. Mike urgently attempted speech, but stuttered and stumbled instead, completely unable to articulate a coherent sound, much less a sentence. As I pushed us away from the thicket , Mike’s speech returned. He excitedly explained his sudden loss of the power of speech. “There was a 3 foot long snake lying on a branch, its head not more than 8 inches from your head!” Of course, I had never seen it, the sole reason my heart was now continuing to beat. “It fell off into the water beside the boat and hauled butt out of here.” We both considered the possibility of it having been a cottonmouth, well known for its disagreeable temperament and venom laden fangs. ” I read somewhere that they do not climb up into trees, ” I said in an effort to control my fear response. The scenario of one of us being envenomated deep in these primeval woods drained the color from my face. There was no way for assistance to reach us in a reasonable period of time. I paid extra close attention to the trees and creekbanks after that. ” Imagine a lawyer at a loss for words!” was Mike’s comment.

A brown water snake sunning on a tree limb

We pushed onward until we found a widened area of the creek. Mike stopped the boat and rigged a spinning rod for my use. Overhanging limbs and the proximity of streamside vegetation now made casting a fly totally impractical. We shared use of the rod and hooked 3 or 4 bass, losing them all prior to boating them. We were quite content as it allowed us additional casts. Like tarpon, the take and initial jumps are the best part anyway. As we progressed, presenting the lure ahead of the boat, I was contemplating the remoteness of the area and the remarkable quietness. Suddenly, we heard the loud beat of wings, looking up to see a large barred owl swoop from a tree near the boat, hooting as it flew deeper into the woods. My wife, I knew, would burn with jealousy when I told of encountering a large owl in the wild. It seems she has become a birdwatcher of sorts, particularly enamoured with raptors. We both would regret the fact that I experienced technical issues with the point and shoot camera I had stuck in my pocket to record this adventure. “I will be forced to try to create images with my words to put they reader in the scenes” I said to her that evening. Let us hope that turns out to be the case.

A barred owl in flight. These are impressively large birds.

Upon reaching a less confined space, I again broke out the fly rod. As I let slip the first cast, one of those prehistoric dragonflies snatched the fly in mid-air. It flew about the creek, attached to the fly. Mike and I cackled in delight as we watched this unusual occurrence. Occasionally, it would alight upon the water, resting, I suppose. I wondered if a bass might rise and take fly and fly, so to speak. After a couple of minutes, the insect managed to free itself and actually landed on Mike’s leg, where it rested , catching its breath. It was quite spectacular, and soon gathered its strength, departing for an easier meal elsewhere.

Soon, the creek emptied into a small lake. We watched a few water turkeys flap across the lake and disappear into the mighty cypress trees.  Next we were treated to the sight of a yellow crowned night heron winging low across the water. The temptation was strong to fish the lake, but the hour grew late, and we faced a portage a short distance away.  The portage down a second non navigable, but fast flowing clearwater creek allowed us a much shorter exit back to main river, slashing an hour off our return trip. Recalling our serpentine encounter a bit earlier, we were acutely aware of the possibility of its cousins lurking in or near our path. Mike went ahead, the small boat in tow. I brought up the rear, armed with a short paddle to alert any unfriendlies to my presence. I repeatedly slapped the waters surface as I carefully placed each step of my flip flop shod feet. The water remained remarkably clear, but the creek’s bottom was again littered with sticks and branches. ” As long as none of them start moving, I’ll be fine” I reassured myself. Slowly, step by step, I covered the 300 or so yards to the deeper water where Mike waited with the boat. I climbed back on board and took inventory. I seemed to be puncture free and Mike activated the motor. Soon, we were back in the main flow of the river. 30 minutes later, we stood at the put-in spot.

Perhaps the reader might be curious about the location of this remarkable adventure. One might surmise that prolonged, arduous travel was necessary to see such marvels of nature, but one would be mistaken. This incredible piece of creation lies within my home county of Horry, in northeastern South Carolina. The river we fished is the Little Pee Dee, hard by the Highway 378 bridge, some twenty five miles from the glitz of Myrtle Beach. It is amazing that such pristine remoteness exists within a 30 minute drive of the high rises, malls, nightclubs, and tourist attractions that draw some 13 million visitors a year to Myrtle Beach.

 My friend Mike is a serious travelling fisherman. His passport features stamps from nearly 40 countries. He has fished many of the world’s greatest rivers in Alaska, Chile, Brazil, New Zealand, and many others too numerous to list. His observation is that the Little Pee Dee is the most beautiful of any he has seen anywhere in his travels. That speaks volumes about this precious resource we have available right here at home. It is clear that there is an urgent need for preservation of our wild untouched resources, both for us and our progeny. Like Dorothy said, “There’s no place like home!”


About castingawayblog

I am a retired orthopedic surgeon with fly fishing in my bones! Living in coastal South Carolina, saltwater fly fishing is my passion, though I also love to use the long rod in freshwater. I have been known to use conventional gear as well.
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2 Responses to Mesozoic Park

  1. Sheila Yates says:

    Yes, I am jealous that I didn’t get to see the barred owl swoop down near you. I’m not jealous about the snakes, though. 🙂

  2. Steven Thomas says:

    Great story and I agree with Mike completely the Little Pee Dee is one of the most beautiful spots I have ever fished. Nancy and I used to have a trailer in Woodbury just downriver from where you guys put in and we spent many a happy weekend in the river. Keep up the great articles.

    Steve Thomas

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