Garden & Gun

RIVER OF ROOSTERS

YOU’LL FIND THEM HAUNTING CREEK banks and dark river coves where blossoms of shadbush and wild blueberry swirl through old cypress trees. That’s where the fish flash like iridescent lightning. Redbreast sunfish live in places that call to childhood memory and sandbar naps. Until you hook one on a cricket or a curly-tailed grub. Then you don’t think so much about how things used to be because you can feel the fight all the way down the rod and into the palms of your hands, and what you think about most is putting such a bellicose fish in the boat.

These fish sport a blue-green back and rays of turquoise around each eye. During the spring and summer spawn, the males take on a red hue so brilliant it gives them the nicknames “redbelly” or “robin” or “rooster red.” Most prevalent in lower Piedmont and Coastal Plain rivers and creeks from Virginia to Mississippi, redbreast sunfish live in waters where the South’s natural fabric is largely intact. They are the brook trout of the South’s overlooked blackwater rivers and Piedmont creeks, the redfish of our cypress sloughs and bottomland forests.

This is a creature that ties human and natural history together in a region of the South that few explore. Up and down the South’s redbreast rivers, old fish camps still hang on in the woods. Anglers thread trailers down sandy boat ramps to drop jon boats and canoes into the water. Jimmy Carter wrote of wading waist-deep on the sandbars of the Little Satilla River, his favorite redbreast fishing stream. It was “a remote and lonely site,” he recalled, which led him to stay close to his father as they waded the dark waters.

“This little animal captures the vibe of what this ecosystem means to so many people,” says Flint Riverkeeper Gordon Rogers, a son of the Georgia Coastal Plain soils. “It’s a piece of flypaper that all of the

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