GREENVILLE, N.C. (AP) — Joe Albea's earliest childhood memories of the Tar River are the many times his mother told him to stay away from it.

It is the same for lifelong friend, business associate and fishing buddy Tommy Harrington. Luckily, they both disobeyed their moms at some point.

The two have spent their lives fishing and filming the Tar-Pamlico system, and no one could likely match their combined knowledge of its complex web of creeks and bays, unique landmarks and diverse fish and fishermen. The duo helped to launch a state outdoors institution with the UNC-TV series "Carolina Outdoor Journal" that has now cast lines across North Carolina for 24 seasons.

Albea's face has become synonymous with Carolina angling in that time, and Joe Albea Productions is still based in Greenville despite the show's long-standing statewide popularity.

Albea is also a staunch conservationist, having played a major role in defeating the U.S. Navy's proposed Outlying Landing Field in the northeastern part of the state, as well as proposed paper and ethanol plants on the Roanoke River, all of which would have affected local fish and bird populations.

But a day of fishing his home river or even having lunch with him is an experience with a man who is humble about his accomplishments, dedicated to the friends and family who have helped him get where he is and quietly competitive and even a little sarcastic when it comes to fishing.

"Everybody always wants to know, 'When are you going to let me come on your show and fish with you?''" Albea said recently. "And I always ask them, 'Can you catch a fish?'"

As Albea himself has learned, when the cameras are rolling and show deadlines are a factor, that is often a vital question. It is not a matter, he said, of taking an entire day to catch one, but to catch many within the inevitable time constraints of TV and to make it entertaining to boot.

For 24 years, Albea has been working to master that outwardly simple yet undoubtedly difficult task. His collection of shows is a comprehensive tour of the Tarheel State that seemingly has left no stream's stone unturned and no fish ignored.

When given the choice, though, Albea has usually sided with being in his hometown. Similarly, even with the almost constant lure of more and bigger fish found in the river when it changes from the Tar to the Pamlico in Washington, Albea is quick to defend the Tar as a top-flight fishery all its own.

"The Tar has always had fish. A lot of people kind of turn their nose up to it," said Albea, named in 2012 as the Sportsman of the Year by North Carolina Sportsman Magazine. "That's where my earliest experience in fishing happened. And I remember fondly going down to Chicod Creek on Friday afternoons after school or Saturday mornings. We'd fish for shad and people would be dipping (nets) for herring."

Best friends in the biz

Albea's friendship with Harrington dates back at least four decades and is largely based in both of their former careers as wildlife still photographers. Both went in different directions in their working lives, but to sit with them now is to see that not much has changed in their friendship other than the ever-increasing numbers of fish they have caught together.

Albea got his start as what he described as a stringer for Franc White on the long-standing Southern Sportsman TV series in the mid-1970s. He worked as White's cameraman, shooting roughly 50 shows while honing his skills in video and film production.

"During that time I was doing some outdoor writing, and we'd go out on trips then I'd write about it," he said. "That's where I got my first exposure to moving pictures. (White) was shooting in 16mm film (on what Albea said were WWII-era cameras), and my whole career spans, dating back to film, all the way to HD."

In the late '80s, Albea started his own video company and began trotting the globe filming — two African safaris and eight Alaskan treks were among his journeys. But no amount of miles quelled his passion for fishing his home state, so when Albea first began thinking of doing his own show he needed experienced, trustworthy anglers.

In short, he needed people he knew could catch a fish. That's where Harrington came into the fold. Some of the earliest episodes of Carolina Outdoor Journal, in fact, featured Harrington, whose own accomplishments as a photographer include the covers of such outdoor mega-magazines as Field & Stream and Outdoor Life.

Since they initially worked on the show together in 1989, Carolina Outdoor Journal has logged 250 episodes in standard format and 177 more since switching to HD.

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The technology it takes Albea to make a successful fishing show has changed, but both men readily agree that the fishing itself has changed a lot too.

Harrington, 66, spent a great deal of his boyhood at his uncle's cabin in the woods next to Hardee Creek near the modern day Port Terminal boat ramp. He said it was there he first learned to hunt and fish.

"My daddy taught me how to shoot a rifle there and we cooked fish stews there," said Harrington, adding that he vaguely remembers excitedly carrying cane poles up the path of his family's farm in the mornings to fish in ponds as a tiny child. His uncle had a flat-bottom boat, and Harrington remembers taking it solo into the murky twists and turns of Hardee Creek, helping to instill a lifelong passion for the waters of eastern North Carolina.

"I couldn't go out in the river," Harrington said. "That was off-limits. But in that creek, you could catch all the bream, all the crappie, white perch and a rock or a bass every now and then that you wanted. Fishing was great."

Like Albea, Harrington went from fishing off the bank to buying his first boat. Then he began exploring the entire system with a fishing rod in hand — Tranters Creek, Blounts Creek, Goose Creek and beyond, and his life changed. He later became a tournament bass angler.

"If you don't talk fishing to me, I'm gone," Harrington said, contending that the fishery's cherished striped bass population, now mostly stocked fish, is as high as he has seen it in recent years, but he agrees with the prevailing belief that the average fish has shrunk substantially over time.

It is a far cry, he said, from the 6- to 8-pound average rockfish he said once were common. He said netting practices, including some done by his uncle, began rapidly depleting the native striper population, especially erasing the older, bigger fish. The science on the subject substantiates that claim.

Both men talked about their early forays into fishing the Tar in the late '50s and early '60s, and of the once-legendary herring runs up the river and into the creeks.

Albea recalled short piers set up for netting the fish en masse and doing just that as a high school student. Harrington said the now possibly endangered herring once were so plentiful they were sold for a penny apiece during the annual run.

Albea said it was local custom to smoke the fish right along the river banks, creating a scene likely never to be seen again.

Perhaps those memories are in the back of Albea's mind as he relentlessly pursues the state's underwater wildlife and tries to keep the spotlight on preserving it. Maybe they are what make him so steadfastly loyal to his home fishery.

With me riding in the back seat of his truck with Harrington riding shotgun on our way to an unforgettable late-October fishing day on the Pamlico, Albea recounted his trip to Florida earlier in the week for a prominent lure company's annual retreat.

He had quite an experience, including catching one of the Sunshine State's most sought-after trophies, a snook, while he was there. But now he was back home, headed out for another day of fishing with Harrington, and he proclaimed eastern N.C. "a world-class fishery."

"I wouldn't leave here to retire there," Albea added as he steered the truck toward the Pamlico.

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Information from: The Daily Reflector, http://www.reflector.com