Chowan River Expedition

by Chris McCotter

  Over two-and-a-half steamy days in August I did what I enjoy the most – explored new territory and looked around the next bend after intense trip preparation. This time I focused on the Chowan River located in northeastern North Carolina. My goal was to experience this fishery and its surroundings as well as enjoy the fellowship with my travelling companions – my brother and my 21-year-old son, who would head back for his senior year at Virginia Tech soon after our return.

    On a Thursday morning we packed up the Anna’s Marine Center TRACKER Grizzly 2072 that I use for guiding on Lake Anna and headed to the Jones family cottage located on the banks of the middle Chowan River near Harrellsville. The Jones’ and their caretaker, Andy Eure, operate A&J Outfitters, a guided hunting business we’ve featured in W2 before. They use the river place to lodge their hunting guests as well as others (mostly anglers) that find it on VRBO.

   The cottage is uniquely situated on a stretch of river with few launch points and no overnight accommodations. There is a public ramp in Wiccacon Creek, about a mile or so upriver, but most anglers access the Chowan using one of two ramps; one located 20 miles upriver at the Rt. 158 bridge (known as Shoup’s Landing) and one 15 miles downriver just over the bridge to Edenton.

  The Chowan is rich in history. The river was first named in 1584 and is identified as one of the three oldest surviving place names in the United States. For more than 200 years, the Chowan served as the dominant transportation corridor linking plantations and farms to the port of Edenton, the first permanent English settlement in North Carolina.

   The river flows 50 miles to the Alebemarle Sound after it is formed near Franklin, Virginia when the Blackwater and Notoway Rivers merge.

   We arrived that afternoon, driving through heavy rain that keep nipping at our heels as the storm front made for the Atlantic. By the time we’d loaded into the cabin the skies were only overcast and we had the river calling for an afternoon for exploration and fishing.

  One of the many nice aspects of the Jones cabin is that there’s a boat ramp in the community, and we were able to use it to access the middle river. I had consulted with two, notable Chowan River anglers: W2 Pro Team member Noah Peters and Jon Boat Elite champion angler Brad Webb. Both suggested we target isolated cypress trees on the main river using a variety of lures including jigs, crankbaits, spinnerbaits and soft plastic stickbaits. My son has never caught a fish on a topwater frog, so we hoped to find some of the fabled frog bite the Chowan is known for during our visit.

      We’d fish from the 21’ Grizzly equipped with a 115 Mercury 4-stroke, Minn Kota Ulterra and two Humminbird Helix 7 units, both with SideScan and mapping. This is a great boat in most situations. I’ve fished on Lake Ontario, Lake Marion and the St. Lawrence with it along with many other Virginia waters. As long as you avoid truly rough water, the Grizzly does fine. I could see that the Chowan was big water that could get mighty nasty on windy days, but during our stay the river was mercifully mostly calm.

   Our first afternoon found us motoring about five miles downriver to an area at the mouth of two creeks – Bennetts and Catherine. We chose to start on the cypress trees guarding the mouth of Catherine and began fishing various baits at the base of the Spanish mossed covered sentinels. When I approached the first tree to de-snag a lure, I remembered a friend telling me to always check for snakes. When I looked up and saw a massive snake curled up on the branch just above me, I used the iPilot Link and backed away, vowing not to make that rookie mistake again. We did see a number of snakes but the 38 Rossi I carry loaded with snake shot was never fired.

   We didn’t catch a fish until we moved back into Catherine Creek. There, my brother, fishing from the back of the boat caught a one-pound largemouth along the bank using a soft plastic stickbait. We joked we only had to catch six more to match our total catch from three days fishing Lake Marina back in March!

   We got on a nice lily pad pattern with those stickbaits and totaled 13 bass that afternoon up to about one-and-a-half pounds, and I had a couple bigger fish on. Around 6:45 we decided to motor back upriver to the cabin where my brother would cook up three fine filet minions for dinner. My job was to concoct three medicinal bourbon and gingers. Later we watched some pre-season football and were asleep by 10 pm with full bellies and high hopes for Day 2.

    Friday dawned clear and humid. Very little wind was predicted. Our plan was to try the Wiccacon and several other upriver creeks before coming back for lunch and then heading back down river to fish Bennetts Creek.

   The first stop was the mouth of the Wiccacon and there my brother again caught the first fish – a small bass on the stickbait. I don’t think we caught another fish in there despite fishing hard in some very good-looking water. From there we went up to Island Creek where I caught a couple more small bass and a juvenile striper from a school blowing up baitfish in the back of a side creek. The fishing upriver appeared to be, meh!

    We ran back down to fish Goose Creek and caught a few more up to about a pound-and-a-half and decided to head down to Bennetts Creek before lunch. I told you we fish hard!

  In Bennetts Creek I discovered a nice pattern. Bass were on main creek tupelo trees and would accept a pitched craw bait. I was using a blue/black three-inch Money Craw from Big Show Baits I had purchased while visiting Lin Bell’s Fishing Pro Tech shop. I started to roll and caught 10 or so bass, nothing over two pounds, and my brother and son caught a few as well using the stickbaits.

   At 1 pm we headed back for lunch and nap. The cabin has a boat dock, so we secured the Grizzly and scaled the steps to the cabin.

   After the rest stop, we headed back upriver to try Beef Creek, and I caught another small bass at the mouth using the stickbait, but we caught nothing back in the creek. My theory about upriver seemed to correct, so we ran back down to Catherine Creek for the evening session. There we found a school of striper and white perch chasing bait but didn’t catch a bass. I was already thinking about changing it up in the morning.

   Dinner with chef Doug was grilled chicken. We also repeated our bourbon tradition and watched an acre of juvenile striper breaking at sunset. We again fell asleep watching preseason football – pretty appropriate. I am a simple man. Eat – sleep – fish. That’s good enough for me.

  Saturday was predicted to be a scorcher with a high of 98. This day we trailered down to Edenton (one the capital of North Carolina) where we launched at a Bayside Marina ($5 ramp fee) because somehow, we missed the free state ramp just over the Edenton Bridge that would have cut off about 10 miles of boat driving!

  Edenton was North Carolina’s first colonial capital, it was established in the late 17th century and incorporated in 1722. Once its second largest port, Edenton provided slaves with a means of escape via the Maritime Underground Railroad before Emancipation.

   We had planned to fish a stretch of main river cypress trees from Harris Landing down to Rockyhock Creek. Rounding the bend from Edenton and looking upriver to the Edenton Bridge gives the impression you are fishing one of the great lakes – it’s wide water. You don’t have to really worry about offshore fishing here, though. The bass are along the banks and in the creeks.

  We ran about 16 miles and shut down at Harris Landing. What we didn’t know was that there is an old wharf  in the water there. The marker buoys do not extend all the way to the end of the piling line, so be very careful here – swing wide! These things are petrified, barnacle-encrusted lower unit wreckers so be advised.

   We started fishing cypress trees here in three to four foot of fairly clear water using soft plastic jerkbaits and stickbaits. I was tipped off to this area from a young man I met randomly at the Virginia Sportsman Show that lives in Edenton and fishes the Chowan regularly. It was a good tip.

  We discovered that the trees with rose bush root systems growing around them harbored bass under this mushroom cap-like sanctuary. The water started out at 82 early that morning and the fish were on the shady side of these trees. If you let your stickbait sink freely, you would often feel the tell-tale tic of a bite.

  Fishing a three-mile stretch back to Rockyhock we caught many bass up to three pounds. At around 1 pm, the heat was intense, and the bite had slowed so we motored back to Edenton, docked at the town harbor, and walked to the Governor’s Pub for a fine lunch.

   Now after lunch we discovered the heat had descended, and it felt like we were now fishing in an oven. We tried back in Pembroke Creek, and it was miserably hot. I haven’t sweated like that in years. Time spent in the shade where the air temperate was 98 was bearable but fishing in the sun where it felt like 108 was unbearable. We each caught a fish, but at 4 pm I said I was done. We retreated to the air-conditioned truck and drove a mercifully cool half hour back to the cabin.

   After a rest and hydration back at the cabin, my son convinced me we needed to go back out again. Ah, youth! I am not one to say no to a young man that wants to fish with his dad, so we launched the Grizzly again at the community ramp and fished until dark. We didn’t catch anything, but we each had fish suck down the topwater frogs we popped through lily pads, only to have them come unbuttoned. We begrudgingly put the boat back on the trailer listening to those unique sounding swamp frogs start their nightly chorus.

   My son is 21 now. My brother turned 50 back in November. I won’t tell you my age! We are purposefully making time to make memories and hopeful my son doesn’t get too busy in the coming years to ditch us old guys because we really like him.

  This ongoing tradition of fishing together has become time I greatly look forward to each spring and late summer. The fellowship of the trip, the preparation  and the fishing combine to create something special, something real, something one can look forward to.

  Thank you for joining us on this adventure. I hope you have one you are looking forward to as well.    Contact James Earnest Jones at 919.968.1930 to inquire about renting his cabin or look it up on VRBO. It’s property #1525165. We enjoyed our stay there greatly.

  There are steep steps up to the cottage, in the cottage and down to the river. The cottage was clean and comfortable.

  It has three bedrooms on the main floor (queen and double beds), a bathroom with shower, a loft with two more beds and a lower level with another small bathroom.

 There were four mini-splits that kept us cool at night. The sunrise and sunset views from the window overlooking the river is sublime. It’s a great place for anglers. Yes, they have wifi and tv.

  The dock requires some climbing of stairs and it’s a typical river dock – nothing like the fancy boathouses you see on Virginia lakes, but it was fine for us to moore the Grizzly one day during lunch break.

  I think soft plastic stickbaits and creature baits are what to fish in the summer there from our experience. We caught a few small bass on the Berkley Flicker Shad crankbait. Earlier in the summer, the soft plastic stickbait and frog bite is reputedly reliable. In the spring many anglers use spinnerbaits, jigs and bladed jigs. 

  Remember, there are no moon tides on the Chowan – only wind tides. When the water was moving in we found the fishing tough. When it was moving out or not moving ast all,  the fishing was better. 

  Be careful when motoring outside of the channel,  as there are a lot of partially submerged logs/trees. And always check for snakes and bees when retrieving a snag from a cypress tree.

      We’re already planning a Cayuga Lake expedition in 2024, and I hope to bring you the story of the adventure.

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