The ultralight spinner hit the water under a river birch, skipped a foot, banked off a half-sunken log on the creekbank, and vanished with a plop in a dark sheen of quiet eddy water. I’d barely closed the reel bail when the ultralight spinning rod jerked toward shore.

“I’m catching up!” I cried, pulling a squiggling shimmer of silver and bronze toward the canoe. My son, Jack, had enjoyed the hot hand all morning, out-fishing me a solid 2 to 1. I reached down to unhook and release the redbreast sunfish, holding it gently in hand. Its snout and tail barely extended beyond my palm. “Yes, sir, that’s a trophy,” I goaded. “You’d better step on the gas.” In the bow of the canoe, Jack shook his head and laughed. “I think he needs a few more years, Dad,” Jack said with a smile. “And a few more inches.”

I loosened my grip and the redbreast bolted back toward the log. It disappeared quickly, but still I couldn’t pull my gaze from the creek bank. Soaring beech trees shaded the water. Lavender petals from mountain laurel blossoms spun in paisleys of current. A kingfisher rattled overhead, swooping low from its perch on an oak snag.

Jack and I have paddled this creek a dozen times, marveling at how quickly we’ve left traffic and sidewalks and stress behind. We’ve also marveled at just how accessible these small creeks can be to anyone with a canoe, kayak, or johnboat—and a sense of adventure. Ours is a slow-moving, swamp-fed stream that winds through farm and timber country, but there are small streams like this practically everywhere. Look at a topographic map or satellite image of rural country near your home, and it’s likely that a webbing of smallish blue lines veins the landscape. Those are the overlooked creeks and small rivers that could be chockfull of fish such as creek-loving redbreast sunfish, rock bass, warmouth, and chain pickerel. I could spend a lifetime exploring the small-water fishing just within a 50-mile radius of home.

A young boy holds a fishing pole in one hand and a crappie fish in the other.
A young Jack Nickens shows off a nice crappie. T. Edward Nickens

And I’ve spent a decade exploring this creek with Jack. The first time we paddled here, he was so little he could barely pick up a full-size paddle. I special-ordered a small child’s paddle, and introduced him to forward strokes and pry strokes, brace strokes and draws. We’ve since canoed and boated rivers far and wide, and one of my life’s great joys has been to see him grow up on the water, and grow up in boats. These days, he can run a center console in open seas and row a raft on wilderness water. And all along I know that he’s learned that a place like this—with clean water and healthy fish and wildlife—can’t be taken for granted.

We launched our canoe with the stream falling from an earlier rain and the sun’s rays barely blinking over the creek bluffs. Jack angled his paddle blade into the swift flow, and with a strong draw stroke steered the bow around a rocky jumble. “Nice move,” I muttered. Paddling a canoe with a skilled partner is a pleasure.

I love to float a boat, and I float them plenty: canoes, kayaks, SUPs, johnboats, center console saltwater outboards. But paddling a canoe is a favorite. It’s a welcome mix of intimate connection—with your paddling partner, with the water, with the wild country—and have long moments of personal reflection, as well. On the one hand, Jack and I are separated by 16 feet of canoe, yoked together by a shared destination and the shared effort of moving the boat downstream. But we each experience the river in a personal, intimate way.

The hours tic by and the miles roll under the canoe. We fry a few redbreast sunfish for a mid-afternoon lunch, and push back into the stream, hardly noticing the lengthening shadows. Jack fires off a cast to a jumble of rocks. I follow a prothonotary warbler as it zips from overhanging shrub to overhanging shrub, checking out potential spots for a nest. At times, we stow the paddles along the canoe gunwales and drift quietly. Or we’re so caught up in conversation that we forget to fish. But not for too long.

Panfish frying in a skillet over a campfire.
Frying some panfish for a stream-side dinner. T. Edward Nickens

“Whoa, Jack, is that a fish or did you hang up on the bottom?” Jack’s rod is bent to the cork, and he’s sitting straight up in the bow seat, alert. He holds the rod tip high, and pulls. The line zings across the water.

“Oh no, sir,” he says. “That’s no rock.”

The fish isn’t eager to introduce itself, and I steady the boat with a bracing paddle as Jack reels down on the fight. A full minute later, he hoists a chunky Roanoke bass from the water, its dark-green back and speckled flanks gleaming. It’s the largest I’ve seen from this creek, the biggest fish of the day. We take a few pictures, and Jack lets it go.

It’s a fish whose presence here speaks of clean water and healthy streamside forests. And it’s a fish, I think, that makes me doubly grateful for a boat and a son and a stream where it can all come together.

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