Thursday, April 28, 2011

Wapanocca on the way home

"I want to look for snakes," she said as we were driving home from our fishing trip to the Spring River.

"We could stop at Wapanocca," I replied... and so we did.

This would be only our second visit to Wapanocca National Wildlife Refuge- "a wildlife oasis in an agricultural sea." The first time was back in the fall of last year for the maiden voyage of the Emotion Glide Angler Kayak. We used the kayaks to fish the big lake on the refuge, but it was terribly windy and the water was very low. We never found any deep holes... and thus caught no fish. Even though we didn't have any fishing success, we did discover that Wapanocca N.W.R. contained some really nice cypress swamp and bottomland hardwood forest habitat.

Our second visit to Wapanocca turned out to be a bit different.

It seemed like it might be a great day for snakes to be out, but we didn't see very many, and only managed to catch this little guy.

Western Ribbon Snake (Thamnophis proximus)

We saw another Ribbon Snake moving across the road and a few water snakes as well. Even though we didn't actually catch any, I could see and positively identify several Broad-banded Water Snakes (Nerodia fasciata confluens)... but there was one that I couldn't positively ID before it disappeared back into the swamp. From the brief glimpse I got, I'm pretty sure it was a Mississippi Green Water Snake (N. cyclopion)... a species I've never caught before. It wouldn't be at all surprising if it was. They're not rare or endangered... somehow I've just never been in a place where they are common. A biologist from the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science told me that there are catfish farms where Green Water Snakes are "thick as thieves"... but I've never been snake catching on a catfish farm in the Mississippi delta. I can tell you that even though they should be found around Memphis, I've never seen one in nearly twenty years of snaking. I've seen and caught hundreds of other water snakes, but never a Mississippi Green.

Oh well, one day I'll get my hands on a Mississippi Green... one day.

So, unlike our fishing trip to Hickahala Creek that became a snaking surprise, this adventure took the opposite path. Thinking we would stop to play with the snakes, we ended up spending more time fishing.

Broad-banded Water Snake that appeared while we were fishing. Look closely.

We decided to walk a levy that bordered a really nice looking cypress swamp.

Once we got about half way down the length of the levy we discovered a deep hole near an outlet channel (used to manage water level) that was full of fish. We saw a Largemouth Bass that was maybe three pounds, lots of gar, and some monstrous Bowfin (Amia calva). One of them was well over 24" and probably approaching ten pounds. A Bowfin is a primitive fish species that quite literally swam with the dinosaurs. They are common in southern swamps, but somehow I've never caught one of them either. I really wanted to try and catch one on the fly rod... so back to the car I went.

Bowfin, a.k.a. "cypress trout," gulping air... not sipping mayflies.

I got Kelly's big 10' 8 wt, and we went to work. The bass that had been cruising through the pool disappeared as soon as my first cast hit the water. The Bowfin also pretty much disappeared. There was the one really big one that I sight-casted to repeatedly when it reappeared... but alas all I caught was a single gar. Kelly got a video of a gar following the Bunny Butt Slider, and then the fight after I finally hooked one.

After I caught a fish it was Kelly's turn. She caught a nice White Black Crappie (hybrid ?) which was a bit of a surprise on the white and red Bunny Butt Slider. I can count on one hand (really just three fingers) the number of Crappie I've caught on topwater flies or lures. This was Kelly's first crappie on the surface. It exploded on the slider just like a bass, and Kelly set the hook perfectly.

Crappie like the Bunny Butt too.

Kelly also got a look from a Bowfin... which is more than I can say. It came out from under the vegetation and studied the slider for a while, but probably decided it didn't smell like food. It was really cool to watch.

So, we didn't catch a Bowfin, but we tried... and now we know a good place to try, try again.


  1. Nice post! I predict you will catch a Mississippi Green Water Snake. The Tennessee weather has been so bad it's difficult to do very much this spring.

  2. Nice hook up on the gar! Those are difficult to hook due to their bony mouth.

  3. I was watching that gar follow the fly and saying "take it, take it, take it.."

  4. That is a darn nice Crappie. That Bunny Butt sure does produce doesn't it? Great hook on that gar. I bet that was a good tug.


  5. Thank y'all for your comments.

    Larry, one day... definitely one day.

    John, I missed like three others because I couldn't get a solid hook up.

    Anthony, me too.

    Stephanie, if you look at the Bunny Butt in the crappie pic you can see that the weed guard is mangled up from the gar. That slider got a good workout that day... but I think there may still be a little life left in it.

  6. Very cool. I think you guys catch more fish on that fly than I do!

  7. Another great post. I love the gar. we've go a lot of bowfin or "dogfish" as we call them in Minnesota lakes. They fight like crazy. Seriously. You always think, whoa, this is a huge (insert bass, northern, walleye, etc) and then it is a piggy dogfish :)

    I think that might be a black crappie. As I understand it the whites have a more stripped pattern and fewer (5-6) dorsal fin spines. The blacks have more. I could be wrong though.

    Great post!

  8. sorry you didn't see more snakes :)

  9. Sneektip, I'm glad I could finally land a few fish on the BBS. It has great action, and I think the fact that it fooled a crappie just shows how well it imitates an injured surface minnow. I think I'll need some more in red & white.

    David, I wish we had seen and caught more snakes too. You're right that the crappie in question doesn't look much like a classic White Crappie from a field guide, but I think the lack of well defined stripes is a product of the murky swamp waters from which it came. You're also correct about the number of dorsal spines. If you look at the picture of Kelly holding it you can count 6 dorsal spines which should make it a White. The Black Crappie around here have a very distinct black dorsal "racing stripe"- which this one didn't have. I guess it could be a hybrid, but I think it's just an ugly swamp White. I'll catch a Black sooner or later and get a pic up for you to see how they look from our part of the world.

  10. After staring at online pics, I think it is a hybrid. Frankenfish.

  11. Or a Black. I admit I have no clue. It just doesn't look like the typical Black from around here.

  12. Nice going guys. It's easy to measure a successful trip for you two, snakes and fish, fish and snakes.

  13. Bowfin - Gar - topwater Crappie - I'll take that any day of the week. What a cool piece of water, Jay. Stellar post.

  14. Jay
    Tonight is the firt night I have been back on the blog circuit. Loved the videos, and it was a shame you couldn't get the Gar to hit, that would have been a fight. Like you I have never caught a crppie on top, in fact I caught my first crappie last year on the fly, but not on top. Enjoyed the post.

  15. Cofisher, catching anything with scales is a good day for us.

    Ty, I'm looking forward to going back... maybe with a kayak so we can get to some better spots.

    Bill, very glad you're back and glad to know you survived. I've caught a fair number of crappie on the fly- usually on streamers. The strangest one on the surface was my first which came to a rather large dragon fly pattern. That's not something I would expect to catch a crappie with. The Bunny Butt Slider on the other hand might tempt a few more crappie to hit on top.

  16. I still don't know how snakes and fish go together...but, in your case...they do! :) That Kelly is sure the fisher gal!!

  17. RD, somehow all of my unique interests find a way of intertwining themselves... and a river runs through them. Kelly took to fly fishing like a fish to water.