Casper Cox's 2004 Columbia, South Carolina Convention Blog
I headed south from Chattanooga and arrived west of Columbia at Chip's workplace, a monofilament factory. A smooth drive with the AC took 4.5 hours and a very sweltering SC heat greeted me. We immediatily left and headed to the zoo for a quick lookaround and a couple pre-convention errands. They had chosen a great place for our gathering and we were in for a treat! Native tanks tested my ID skills and a look at Jim's Pygmy Sunfish Breedery was firing my excitment. We loaded back up, dropped my van and gear at the motel and headed to Chip's home. His backyard is water gardened with an interesting network of flowing pools and plants. All the pools were connected with spillways and minature stream flows. In each pool resided different species seperated by screened spillways. A nifty feeding trick was leaving a couple boards laying on a termite mound. He picked up the boards, held them over a pool and clacked them together. The Black Banded Sunfish came to the surface and proceeded to eat the termites while sounding like a bowl of Rice Krispies a popping! Chip fired up the grill to give us our feeding and we shared an excellent dinner of steak, portabellas, aspargus, multicolored bell peppers and sweet potatos. He has his steak grilling technique timed to perfection with a watch. I need to work on an aspargus bed as ive discovered their good taste and grilling is another way to enjoy them. A great meal, we rested, visited with his family and discussed the next day's activities.
The next morning he picked me up and we along with Dustin ran a few errands for the convention. Steve caught up with us via cellphone while we were at the zoo and we synced for a nice BBQ lunch buffet with all kinds of southern vegetables and a bowl of tooth snapping salt pork hard rind. I have not had that since i was a little boy at my Grandmother's. Getting our fill we headed back to the Holiday Inn to finish setting up the hospitality room. I iced the drinks and laid out the Moon Pies & chips. A NANFA shirt was stretched and presented for signing by attendies for a English fishhead who could not attend. Banners and posters were hung and registration packages prepared. Before long folks began to arrive and the evening and socializing went on into the late night. My brain was flombumbled by the end of the evening trying to keep up with t-shirt sales, new faces and remebered names, scribing and correctly spelling registration badges and renewing old friendships and learning of new acquaintances. I knew the next day's early morning water mucking was fast approaching and i bugged out for the motel!
Early Friday morning everyone gathered for their 4 preselected trips. I had choosen Gerald's and Dr. Goldstein's NE of Columbia run as i wanted to experience the area immediatly surrounding Columbia. Ranger Bob and Pierre joined me in the van and off the caravan went. A long delayed start and a near left behind while waiting in WalMart's parking lot for Gerald's last minute fishing license purchase got my nerves edgy but the first site's water washed that away. New fish and fellow muckers getting wet. Everyone was calling out something new from their nets. We worked upstream and then back downstream. Watch out for snakes. What's this? It was hard to get us out of the first location and on to the others. The next stop provided lots of boot sucking mucky swamp water and beautiful fish to keep one motivated. Over my head, bobbing like a cork, the cool water refreshed my body as i struggled to unsnag my leg from the tangled roots. All i had wanted was a bit of water for my bottle! Steep banks, drop-offs, thorns, swimming across rivers with a 30' bagseine in tow, stinging neetles and a Moccasin lounging in a dark retreat. I tried to keep up with my siene masters Peter and Dave but about the most i could do by the end of the day was hold a plastic bag open. We probably hit 5 or 6 unique spots and viewed many different species. I was finally worn out after crossing a rickety wire fence topped with barb wire. I had a pretty good picture of what would happen if that fence wire snapped just as i swung my leg over!
After a refreshing shower and serious demucking the three of us fellow riders along with Ranger's Bessie headed to the local Lizard Thicket for another meal of southern cooking. We three Tennesseans had Pierre's very much deprived yankee roots in mind. As i remember he had a plate of country fried steak, blackeye peas, collard greens, fried okra and corn bread. (?) That is southern cooking! A much needed relaxing and socializing meal topped with a much needed sleep got me ready for the next day.
A hectic morning loading ice coolered drinks, moon pies, signs and banners for and then to the zoo. Ive learned to ask for help and am so glad that i recieve it! Several folks readily chipped in with this hurried activity. We got everything up and settled into some wonderful talks. All were interesting and entertaining. Having the gathering at the zoo provided a great place to wander in and out of between speakers. I especially enjoyed Tyler's talk, learning of Ditch Crickets from Brian, seeing some cool 12 volt video of the Robust Redhorse, listening to Fritz's described descriptions forays, Dave's "I love sculpins... please dont eat them" and Gerald's colorized shiners expose. A lunch break in the midst provided the opportunity to revisit the Lizard Thicket with Todd, Ranger Bob, Bessie, and Nick and Steven. Ive always enjoyed reading Todd's stories on the list and Nick described a new one from another perspective. It was a turtle's encounter with a car driven by Todd who was following and gawking and peering out the side window ( as we all do when crossing bridges! ). The scene from Nick's rear view mirror is permanently etched and splattered on Nick's mind! We also got a prolonged viewing session of some of softball's youngest and finest players. Lots of abupt mid sentence stutters and slack and bumble bobbed jaws all the while with Bessie giving us the knowing look! Back to the zoo!
After the speakers we had a couple hours to relax and socialize with members new and old. Dave showed me the new Alabama book... and im saving my money! Some of his excellent illustrations were included within. Mark and i wandered along through the zoo eventually enjoying the cool AC and freshwater native's tanks. Lots of other folks were arriving and taking in the excellent exhibits and surroundings. The banqueteers were setting up round tables in the salt water aquaria hallway and i found a table up against the blacklighted UV glowing jellies. The word was eventually called and i made a mad dash for the front of the line but big Phil blocked me reminding me of proper manners for but just a second or two as i twisted pass. Boy was that meal good. I liked everything especially the musterd sauced BBQ and low country boil all topped with ice tea and finally pecan pie with whipped cream. We had a nice table and i enjoyed catching up with Phil, Mark and Susan and Pat.
The tables were cleared and i underwent a red faced bashful from a glowing review presented by our fine editor Chris. Speaking in public creates a case of lock jaw stutter for me especially when i'm overwhelmed, suprised and blindsided! Chris more deservingly shortly afterwards received his well earned fellow fella acknowlegment. NANFA is such a fun, inspiring and knowledgable organization. I want to urge everyone to contribute the best they can to this entirely voluntary school of fishheads. We really have something valuable between all of us. Lets all work together to make NANFA the best it can be!
A trip deep into the amazon was presented by Dr. Goldstein. Jungles, rivers, exportation dodges, new fishes, lodging, carnival, waterfalls and aireal views. A neat trip. There are so many places to see on this earth... but so many are right here in North America. And NANFA, Chip and Dustin provided all of us an opportunity to explore South Carolina. Thanks guys!
Phil wrapped up the evening with another one of his skilled and entertaining auctioneering marathons. Lots of good deals to be had and fun to watch the scrambling. Thanks to Jan for the seine donations and his many bid wins. I should have busted my fifty dollar limit on the Blue Sucker! Copper hewn finned fish art that i was yearning to show up at Scott Mettee's door with! Hats off the Phil's SRBD artwork and Klaus's engraved plate. Everyone should come up with something unique like that for next year's auction. I was reminded of Peter's purchase of Bessie's cutout "missing" fish plaque... "The one that got away!" I was able to visit with a few more folks between the bid wars and a few good byes were said but i was keen on the next day's plan.
The next morning, Sunday, we got a bit more needed rest with a late start for Charleston and its aquarium. Chip, his daughter Stephanie and Mark and i loaded into my van for a 4 vehicle caravan. A flat tire on Ranger Bob's big truck backed us up on the freeway but skilled teamwork got us on the road nascar quick without any "oh Fudge" lugnut mishaps. The aquarium was located right on the bay. Fort Sumter was visible in the distance as well as the aircraft carrier Yorktown. I enjoyed all the native tanks tho the fish seemd to be almost grossly overfed. A SeaRobin intrigued my wonderings on the mysteries of creation and evolution. So dexterious were the finger fin claws... crablike, yet belonging to a sculpin like fish. We took a few fun pics, had an expensive quickee tourist meal and enjoyed the open air market populated with carnivorous plants. Navigating to the aquarium was a bit tricky but not near as difficult as leading 3 vehicles out the city. Parking garage staggers, missed stop lights, wrong lane merges... whew i was relieved to get out of there but sure wish i had been able to see some of "old Charleston". I had hoped we could have eaten at Bubba Gump's as my son told me they fix shrimp all kinda ways there. :)
We arrived at Cypress Gardens just an hour or so before they were to close. A very friendly Cockatee greeted and entertained us at the back entrance. The big bird eagerly walked on us from hand to hand to head to hand and called out "GoodBye!' " GoodBye!" as we headed into the building. The grounds, gardens and waters were beautiful, lush and healthy and all the aquaria and exhibits were clean and well kept. At one outdoor pool I learned that 20' gators can hide in a 12' pool. That should keep my nerves frazzled a bit more on my Florida excursians! I wish we could have spent more time there but the caretakers were anxious to leave and the gates were being shut. The entrance fees at both the aquarium and Cypress Gardens were waived with our NANFA Conference registration as well as our zoo facilities and visit. What a deal guys... Thanks! We got a full bang for our buck this year.
Our caravan had been reduced to 2 vehicles as Ranger Bob & Bessie and Chris & Stephanie with little William in towe had decided to return to Charleston for an evening stay. Not ready to call it a day our remaining two vehicles swung by a boat ramp where a couple of us waded in for a few net pulls. Laura and Traci had been riding together and it was fun to see 2 women neck deep mucking about chasing tiny fish. I gave Laura some good teasing which she returned with one of those feminist "How dare you!" stares. :) The bunch of us got to interact with some locals who were cast netting for bait. They were pulling up several species of juvenile sunfish. The fella seemed interested at what we were doing as we were in his cast netting skills. His female companion gave us those delacitly smirky sidelong glances that im sure we are all use to! Their catch were destined to be chopped up for bait... oh no! ...but we choose not to attempt any rescue or pleading for the little sunnies. :)
We made it to the Blue Fin's lake edge where Chip, Stephanie and i played with Dragonflies and Mark joined the women out in the water. With Blue Fins aplenty we urged them out of the water as we were still a long way from Columbia and getting hungry. While Laura and Traci finished situating their newly caught fish we headed back north and Mark treated us to a fine but long delayed meal at Ruby Tuesday's on a sorry, no alcohol Sunday night. A good, fun day.
The next morning Chip picked me up and then Traci to take us to a place to snorkel, but first he wanted to take us on a short hike before the day heated up. It is a wildlife refuge where we hoped to see some more gators and snakes. The morning was cool and we all enjoyed the very leisure walk. Interesting bugs and plants and mushrooms were about. We had a good time talking about plants and critters. No fish nets were allowed in the sanctuary to dip in the swampy waters but we could see there was a lot of activity. The most interesting section was a narrow levee path dividing to beautiful waters lush with a variety of water plants. Every step was cautious and slow hoping to get a glimpse of a big gator blocking our path or a coiled snake sunning itself. Frogs leaped out with a loud "Erp" and splash keeping our nerves jangly but no gators lunged from the water as in the movies. Getting back along the rolling path I started seeing chantrell mushrooms and before long i could not hold myself back. Chip had mentioned how his mother had wanted to cook for the group and i suggested he call her and she invited us over for lunch. I took this opportunity to gather a shirt full of the yellow flowerlike mushrooms as we walked the final stretch out of the swamp. We still had to cross a narrow 3.5" x 3.5" 10' long "bridge" which was a challenge as dark, gator infested water bordered lapped at each side of the twisted, frayed timber... at least according to Chip! Finally we made it back to the truck with dry feet and at this point an unknown chigger harvest and headed to Chip's mother's.
She had it spread out for us... chicken cassarole, lima beans, tossed salad with vildelia onion dressing, tiny sweet pickels, toasted bread slices, pistachio pudding and all capped with Mrs Edwards mouth twistingly tart but sweet Key Lime pie and rinsed with cold iced tea. It was nice sitting in her house and hearing and remembering stories of Chip's younger days. I dont know how many of you got to talk with her but it was a real treasure to be there for awhile. I was way full but with a bit of urging Traci and i cleaned up the fresh chantrells and cut them into neat pieces. We then buttered up a cast iron skillet on medium and proceeded to cook the mushrooms. A little salt and pepper and a bit more simmering to reduce the moisture and they were ready for sampling. After everyone had enjoyed a mouthful Chip inquired if i was going to have any? I responded with a... "why i never eat wild mushrooms". :) Sure i ate some and they were very good and one of the species that is impossible to misidentify once you have attained a few observations. They are always listed in books as "choice" for edibility and taste. Still i cannot overstate caution in mushrooming.
Saying our goodbyes after the wonderful meal and relaxing visit we headed back to pickup our vehicles for the drive to the snorkel site. From this site we were all to depart for our 3 seperate destinations. On the way however a wall of rain swept on us, one of the most intense rains ive ever experienced. We pulled over into a quick stop mart and decided to call off the snorkeling and say our goodbyes. Drenching wet i loaded back into the van and headed back towards the interstate. The rain was intensifying and becoming outright dangerous. I was being overwhelmed by the mounting rain, minimal visibility and flooding roads. I could make Chip's truck out ahead and gave him a cell call. We decided to stop and relax in a Mexican restaurant and let the rainstorm blow over. Chip and i reviewed the gazateers and the sites Fritz had suggested while enjoying some chips, salsa and the rain from a window booth. Several others travelers arrived to do the same. Finally the rain calmed to a drizzle and we again said goodbye and thankyou and i headed north to the Atlantic slope of the Appalachians! Thanks Chip!
Several hours and a more rain had me passing Furman University to the north. I was only a few more miles out from my goal and with a bit more wandering i found myself standing by the Middle Saluda just as dusk was falling. A couple fishermen and fisherwoman welcomed me on the sandy banks of the somewhat murky stream. I took a look at their catch and inquired of the water and a place to stay. Things did not look promising and my hopes were in that it would clear by morning if no more rain fell. I found the motel they spoke of in a little town called Travelers Rest and got a cheeseburger at the Carolina diner before retiring.
The next morning the Middle Sadula was nearly opaque. I had missed a couple snorkeling opportunities by hours and disappointment was aiming for me. I studied the maps and decided to work up to any headwaters of this flow. A free day can be burned up trying to find snorkelable sites and i was not desiring any experience such as that. I followed the churning stream up and studied every trib i passed or could locate on my meager map. I regreted not purchasing a SC gazateer from Mark and was forced to decipher some black and white copies i had made back at the Holiday Inn. All the waters were churning and muddied. I finally turned down one crossing called Oil Camp Creek. Not a promising name but lo and behold it was relatively clear. I found a rustic planked bridge crossing with a good pulloff and doned my suit. A couple ladies on bikes stopped by and we peered over the edge and they spoke of colored fish just days before. I could make out several clean pebbled mounds below and inquired of what they had seen and told them of my experiences in other places. We waved goodbye and i walked downstream along the steep bank. Into the shallow water i lay and was quickly greeted by many Yellow Fin Shiners varyingly colored and small non descript Chubbs. Not in high color the Yellow Fins were, but still beautiful and elegant. I worked my up to and around several of the nests and noticed a couple other species along with several riffle type minnows or chubbs. I have never snorkeled on the Atlantic slope so all these fish were unique to me. However i could sense they were distant cousins of the critters on the other side of these ancient mountains. An unusual Darter crossed my path, a bit to quick to detail in the lower visibility. A bland Sunfish and a highly marked Hogsucker stopped by. Someone had recently chopped up and thrown off several fish carcasses and butchered a Snapping Turtle leaving his clawed appendages littering the substrate. Still the water offered comfort and with an acceptable 3 to 5' visibility. I found several more clean mounds some looking like they had been stepped in dead center. In a 2' or 3' deep pool i reoriented myself to look back downstream. 3 Fiery Black Shiners sparred in the flow displaying to one another and me. Beautiful, my first time to see these neat fish. They reminded me in activity and habitat and even somewhat in appearance as distant cousins of the Alabama Shiners i see so often below Chattanooga. Very cool. I enjoyed them for quite awhile and began to work myself back upstream, avoiding the mounds and laying in various offered pools. I figured the mounds to be Blue Head Chubb nests from my books and had been told the Blueheads hid on any approach and did most of their mound building at night. Wonderfully and presented just ahead was a Bluehead Chubb, tuberculed, blinded and scarred. Blue is right and an unusual color to see. Not a bright blue but a continuous dull blue over the whole head. I was able to put a hand net over him and lift him from the water for a better view. He was heavily marred and worn ragged. I dont suspect much more life was available to him. He had been resting in a flowing eddy and i wonder if he could recover.
Having enough after a couple hours i returned to the van. A young fellow of about 18 approached me and inquired of my activity. He told me that the two women biker riders were his grandmother and aunt and that he himself had snorkeled in the creek i was just in. I had captured 3 of the Yellow Fins, 1 Fiery Black, 2 of the small Chubbs(?) and 1 of the riffle type minnow/chubbs to observe and identify back at home. I showed him these and urged him to watch for the colored breeding frenzies over the mounds during the spring and to get in there with them on those opportunities. It was fun sharing experiences with him and i remembered Chris had given me a few copies of AC. I found the one where i wrote of my middle Tennessee wander after last year's Huntsville gathering and gave it to him. Perhaps he will become as fascinated as us. He certainly is well on a start since he has been snorkeling in his front yard's creek!
I headed back to the main road in hopes of visiting another site Fritz had suggested but more churning water and rains lay in the day ahead. The ride home was depressing after i crossed the contenantal divide into NC. I had hoped to carefully study and observe the small head waters of EACH side of the divide. Greeting me on the NC side were an ever sequencing of golf courses, gated communities, no trespassing signs and tourism hogging the narrow winding mountain road. Any hopes of snorkeling at sites such as the French Broad or Valley river continued to deminish with the continuing rain so i decided to burn a path home arriving late Tuesday evening with a few, new, intersting fish in tow.
Tho ending with the rains and minimal or zero visibility streams it was a great week and i did get to witness the Fiery Blacks in their native habitat. And mostly that Chip and Dustin did a great job planning and presenting a wonderful NAFA convention to all of us and their wonderful hospitality was greatly enjoyed by myself personally. I am grateful for experiencing a new region, meeting new folks and renewing friendships and dreaming of new adventures. Hats off to them SC boys!