Robert Patterson of Jacksonville is used to swimming against the tide.

That's evident because it doesn't take long to find out he and his wife are huge fans of North Carolina State - but both of them are East Carolina graduates.

Today, Patterson might be seen as a maverick for a larger cause, one that he's worried may escalate with serious results: He isn't sure if some commercial netters aren't becoming more emboldened because they think their small segment of the net-for-profit business is going to disappear or if it's just business as usual.

But, he said, on-the-water disagreements between hook-and-line anglers and netters are becoming more frequent - and these encounters are taking a hard, ugly edge.

"I think somebody might get hurt," he said.

Patterson said he heard of such incidents in other coastal communities, almost always directed at recreational anglers. He said he'd never been involved in anything overt until Feb. 4.

That's when he and his cousin, Thomas MacDonald of Hendersonville, were fishing with guide Ricky Kellum for red drum and speckled trout in Stones Creek, a tributary of the New River northwest of Sneads Ferry.

"My cousin comes down here with me two to three times a year," Patterson said. "It's a treat for him because he lives in the mountains, and I've known Ricky for years, so I know he can put us on fish, and we can catch a few and have a good time."

MacDonald and Patterson had fished with Kellum last October at New River Inlet and had success landing red drum and spotted seatrout. Their most-recent trip was promising.

"We'd had just fair luck with specks and none with reds," Patterson said. "We'd caught at few undersized trout and maybe two keepers, but Ricky said he knew a creek that might have some redfish in the back."

Using his trolling motor, Kellum eased almost as far back as his 22-foot boat would go in Stones Creek.

"We couldn't go much farther when this strike netter came out of nowhere and went past us, then stopped 30 yards in front of us," Patterson said. "He looked at us and started smoking a cigarette. About that time, another boat came out of the creek behind him, and when they got close, the (netter) started cursing at the other guy, who cursed back at him.

"We heard the netter tell him, 'I'm not breaking any laws.'"

The netter then started deploying a net down the middle of the creek, 30 yards from Kellum's boat, as if the three rod-and-reel anglers weren't there.

Patterson said he and his cousin were astounded at the netter's behavior. Most recreational anglers won't get close to another hook-and-line fisherman as a matter of courtesy and a "first-come, first-served" understanding exists.

But the netter showed no respect for other anglers who'd arrived there before him.

"We were uncomfortable, but we didn't say anything to him, and he didn't say anything to us," Patterson said. "We didn't want to stoop to that level, but he snaked nets down the middle of the creek, and we sure couldn't fish because (it) was too narrow."

Patterson said he wasn't sure if the netter had gone past the dividing line between joint and inland waters – netting is illegal in inland waters – "but we had to be really close."

The netter saw that Kellum was using a trolling motor, and Patterson viewed the netter's actions as "a blatant attempt to be sarcastic and hateful. I don't think he was in there to catch three or four 13- or 14-inch trout."

Patterson took photos of the netter and showed them to a friend who knew the fellow and said, "this guy was a little crazy" and had told people he'd netted fish for 40 years - and nobody was going to stop him.

It wasn't Patterson's first experience with commercial netters. He said that he took his 70-year-old grandmother fishing in the New River, and she hooked up with a nice black drum, battling it for about 30 minutes.

A boat came by, and the operator saw her land the fish.

"I knew for three years this spot had black drum," he said. "The next day we went back, but that guy apparently had told a netter, and they'd come in and wiped out every drum. I've also heard of people strike-netting red drum in the river, which is illegal."

Patterson said he's a long-time businessman in Onslow County who owns a truck "wrapped" with his company's logo. So he knows by speaking out he may find his tires cut or his truck damaged at a boat ramp.

"I'm a local, too, not from some place else, and I know a lot of people here are afraid to say anything, but this is bigger than me," he said. "My cousin was going to invite some of his friends from Charlotte to come down and fish with Ricky, but he got on the cell phone as soon as we got in the truck and called (them) and told them what happened. He advised them not to come because it's too long to drive for there not to be many fish to catch because the netters are ruling things down here."

Patterson said he plans to talk to the state senator who represents his district, to discuss the game-fish status bill that the state legislature's Commission on Marine Resources is considering that would protect red drum, spotted sea trout and striped bass from netting.

"I hope he'll listen," Patterson said. "Things are escalating down here, and I'm not only concerned about (saltwater) the fishing, I think somebody might get hurt."

Follow the fight to protect North Carolina's fisheries on the dedicated Game Fish Status page.

We encourage our users to email the members of the committee, demanding that gamefish status be given to red drum, speckled trout and stripers. Just click on the names of the committee members below and send them a short note:

• Harry Brown
• Don East
• Thom Goolsby
• Bill Rabon
• Tommy Tucker
• Jean Preston
• Stan White
• Darrell McCormick
• Dan Ingle
• Ruth Samuelson
• Danny McComas
• Bryan Holloway
Pat McElraft
• Tim Spear
• Brent Jackson
• Tom Murry