06/12/09 — OUTDOORS -- Canoeing the secret haunts of a millpond

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OUTDOORS -- Canoeing the secret haunts of a millpond

By Rudy Coggins
Published in Sports on June 12, 2009 10:44 AM

There are two types of gnarled swamp-gum trees that are sometimes confused with one another -- the blackgum and the tupelo gum.

The tupelo is widely touted for its wood, which was used for carving the working waterfowl decoys of the past century and is still preferred by artistic coastal carvers today. Blackgum wood is best known for cursing it, if you're the one splitting its interwoven grain with mall and wedge before burning it in a fireplace.

The differences between the trees are habit and habitat. The blackgum enjoys high ground as well as seasonally-flooded lowlands. The tupelo is more flood-tolerant, thriving extended inundations. The tupelo produces a larger drupe and has a very pronounced bole like the cypress, whereas the blackgum's berry is smaller and the trunk doesn't exhibit an exaggerated pedestal.

Our first visit to Merchants Millpond State Park was met with a stunning vista of these very oddly shaped trees, which were very much at home in their preferred landscape, probably more properly termed a waterscape.

Located near Gatesville, the park covers 3,352 acres, nearly 800 acres of which is the millpond. The park has walking and paddling trails, and campsites accessible by either foot or float.

The park's website, www.stateparks.com/merchants_millpond, proclaims, "Here, coastal pond and southern swamp forest mingle, creating one of North Carolina's rarest ecological communities."

My son, Justin, was home for the summer from UNC Charlotte to help me with my next fishing book, so we had headed to Merchants Millpond to do some research.

Basil Watts, a retired river pilot and fellow adventurer, launched his kayak and we launched our canoe. We've seen nearly every habitat the Tar Heel state's fish inhabit. But the Roman-like natural architecture of the tupelos was unlike anything any of us had ever seen. The huge tupelo boles topped by their comparatively diminutive trunks holding up expansive umbrella-like crowns extending above them were met with back-tilted heads until neck-strained vertebrae crackled, shattering stunned silence.

As we joined together our piscatorial weaponry -- fly rods were the order of the day -- a male alligator bellowed. Prothonotary warblers flitted and sang their territorial imperatives. Cooters and sliders slipped from log sundecks, periscoping their heads indignantly at the alligator-like craft that had interrupted their basking.

Big boils at bases of tupelo boles told of large fish inhabiting blackwater below. At its lower reaches near the dam, the pond surface was fairly open. But farther upstream, the buoy-marked paddling path was obscured by vegetation. Duckweed above and coontail below, with lilies and spatterdock extending throughout the water column from top to bottom created a watery jungle.

A call to the park superintendent's office told of a drought that had killed largemouth bass weighing 10 pounds or more last year. But the millpond has yielded bass of such hallowed trophy status frequently enough to attract attention from anglers who probe beneath the surface for its dark secrets.

Other denizens of the blackwater paradise showed that it wasn't -- unless you were at the top of the food chain. Toothy bowfin and chain pickerel, that's blackfish and jackfish to y'all, were more than likely responsible for some the heaviest wakes we saw as fish thrust away from the tupelo boles whenever a slight breeze pressed us too close for a cast.

Basil's practiced nostrils scented fish. He cast near a fallen branch, sticking dead and leafless, like a mummified seafarer's boney, grayed fingers poking out of Davie Jones' locker to a point out treasure at "X" marks the spot.

Fish kills are natural parts of even well established ethereal ecosystems like Merchants Millpond. In fact, they probably help things by thinning out fish with a propensity to stunt like bluegills.

Basil was casting a foam-bodied bug of his design I have dubbed the Basil Bug. The bug slides across the surface slickly, rather than popping like a run-of-the-millpond popping bug. A few whips of a 4-weight fly rod set down the Basil Bug. It drew first blood.

A male bluegill warrior with blue-black gill shields, tarnished bronze chain- mail and brilliant gold breastplate was hauled into the sunlight, dangling from the rod tip. Nowhere does a bluegill come close to showing off its colors as in the tannin stained waters of a tupelo swamp. His head was helmeted with copper scales.

"It's a copper-headed bream," said Justin. "I haven't seen one that pretty since I left home for Charlotte."

Paddling closer, I snapped a few photos. Then Basil gently shoved off with his own paddle blade.

"Move away quietly so you won't scare the fish," said Basil. "I can tell by the way they're popping all around and by the smell, there's a bunch of bream bedding around this tree limb."

It had taken us awhile to find the fish.

But getting there, by paddling through the tupelos, was more than half the fun.