I grew up in Eastern North Carolina. In my very young days, we did not have day cares or early public schools. In fact, the way kids grew up then could be considered child endangerment now if the wrong people tried to push the issue. My summers consisted of making rounds. My parents worked just a few hundred yards away from the house at my granddad’s manufacturing plant.
During the morning I would walk down to the plant and visit with them at work as well as the other employees. At some point just before lunchtime, I would make my way over to the Silver Lake Oyster Bar seafood restaurant which was directly beside Howard Enterprises. There I would talk with Buck and Mr. Dixon as I called them. While I was taught my manners and behaved very well, it just did not seem right to call both of them Mr. Dixon, so Buck gave me an out by having me call him Buck, and call his father Mr. Dixon.
After hanging out there I would go home for lunch with my parents and then head over to the Wilson County Wildlife Club. The activities grew exponentially there, whether it would be making hopscotch games in the sand, rummaging through the john boats looking for hooks, lures, corks, and split shot weights, or getting the line wet and trying for bream and crappie. We did not have much of a neighborhood, and before I started school these were about the only people I knew besides cousins.
You could say Silver Lake was my best friend. While the lake has become more beautiful during the last four decades, time has not been kind overall. The Wildlife Club moved from one side of the lake to the other and eventually disappeared. The lake was drained and fish were moved in order to repair the dam that began showing the effects of age and hurricanes Fran and Floyd’s battering and flooding. All public access to the lake vanquished as well, with only lake front land owners keeping any access to the waters. My grandfather had lake front land in which we even had a pier, but after his death the land was sold. As best as I can remember, the last time I fished the lake was around 30 years ago. I could not get the thoughts of how grand one last time on the lake would be.
Today’s world is much different than those years. With avenues such as Facebook, our connections are greater and easier to obtain. All it took was a single post on my Facebook timeline asking if anyone knew who I may contact to make that one last trip.
The summer sun was pounding with fury, but I was determined to make this visit. Instead of a john boat I would be taking my kayak for the paddle. I wanted to start fishing and touring near the dam area. As I approached that small corner of the lake memories washed over me. On the shore line to my right my friends and I would take wiffle ball bats and pretend to be playing in the All-Star game while swatting rocks out into the water. Bobby, Mark, Scott, Pat and I, sometimes just two of us, sometimes more, hitting rock after rock into the water. We wore those plastic baseball hats; mine proudly emblazed with the NY of the Yankees. Near the corner of the restaurant and the dam there stood a water fountain. We would hook a minnow that we caught with a net near the Wildlife Club’s boat ramp and bring in crappies, or fish with crickets or worms and reel in shellcraker.
At the base of the dam, where the foundation of the restaurant met the churning waters below was the prime spot for catching huge robin. It was all in the cast. With experience, we learned to bounce the cork off the side of the restaurant and have it land where the rushing water only made the bait seem more alive enticing fish after fish to strike with a vengeance. While these memories took me back to a long forgotten time, the day had just begun. The first cast dropped perfectly into the location I was trying for. The offering must have been ideally suited, as the beetle spin immediately took off before I could even begin to reel. A robin, or red-bellied sunfish, struck hard and quickly. The hook was set with a flinch of my wrist and the first battle was on. The micro-lite rod and reel responded with each tug, pull, and dart the fish exhibited. Soon, he was breaking the surface of the water coming into the kayak.
I knew fish would be located here. Several years ago I got permission to take my youngest son fishing in this very spot in order to catch his first fish. Not only were we given permission, but the landowner offered his pink Barbie tackle box to assist in the historic and memorable event. My son did turn down the Barbie box, but he also caught his first fish, much in the way I used to fish the same spot when I was his age.
Silver Lake offered many more memories than just a fishing hole though. This place was a long lost friend. I paddled down the shoreline that ran parallel with the highway. Just past where the dam ended was a mysterious land for my friends and me decades ago. Once, we were riding our bikes on the embankment, maybe five or six of us. Just as Johnny approached the dam we noticed a tree limb that began to move. Yes, the moccasin was well camouflaged. Although we all got a jolt of adrenaline from coming so close to danger, we were somewhat accustomed to it. Snakes were plentiful all around the lake. We once stood in amazement as a copperhead over six feet long and as thick as a grown man’s forearm was beheaded by the men at the Wildlife Club. He was caught at the boat shelters.
On the other side of the embankment a small stream ran from the corner of the lake to the lower waters of the dam. There was a small island in the shape of a triangle there that we called Arrowhead Island. We made camps there, played with army men in the flowing waters, and just generally got away from real life to continue our youth fantasy worlds as explorers and adventurists. The head water of the stream sprouted from an underground waterfall. Several times we tried to go up into the underground stream. We envisioned a massive river system flowing beneath the earthen layer. It was nowhere near that big. A child’s imagination is a wonderful thing to behold though.
The corner of the lake used to don lily pads as big as a truck tire in circumference. We would toss soft plastic weedless frogs and salamanders on the pads and let them gently slide in. Usually a bite would ensue. My favorite bait was a Mister Twister purple worm with a red wiggly tail. Largemouth loved the spot. Now the pads are gone, but fish beds are plentiful. Panfish ruled the corner now.
Paddling the back side of the lake I approached the second Wildlife Club’s location. A log cabin used to host the club there. The cabin still stands but is now dressed in ivy and other vines. The boardwalk and piers still stood as well, though they resembled old bridges from movies where the hero always steps through a rotten board and hangs for his life. My family’s business supplied wood pallets for the makeup of the piers. Lots of volunteer hours were spent in making the club a place of beauty and function.
A hundred yards offshore stands an island of trees. There is no land, just the trunks towering through the water. I spent some time bringing in crappie and shellcracker both as a kid and now as an adult here. I could not help but picture the boat dock busy with boats and kids with their dads. I could almost see Dennis pulling up on his small Chevy pickup anticipating another great day on the lake.
I continued to paddle my way to the swamp portion of the lake. Several small feeder streams come in here and there used to be wood planks nailed to trees marking the inlets. Unofficial creek names such as Cottonmouth Creek and Moccasin Way adorned the wood signs. Bobby and I once followed one of the creeks several miles until we just could not paddle any longer due to shallow water and fallen trees. We could hear the traffic from the Interstate and were mesmerized by the experience.
I paddled into an opening in the swamp where I once hooked onto the largest bass I had ever had on my line. She fought with a vengeance on the Mann’s worm and even after several leaps that would make a mako proud, I kept the line tight and the hook in. Worn, she finally pulled up beside the boat. My friend, in his excitement of both the battle and the size, quickly grabbed the net and thrust it into the water. Unfortunately, the net whacked the largemouth and dislodged the beast from my lure. We both nearly cried.
It was not far from here where I caught my largest bass. I was only seven years old and brought her in on a Zebco 202 reel with a Mister Twister worm. She stripped the gears in the reel and I eventually pulled her in by hand. I see her on my wall as I type this. I casted a jitterbug just as a boil surfaced in the direction of my throw. I reeled the bait in, walking it across the surface and bubbling the tea colored water in front. I noticed a small wake behind the lure that I had never seen, figuring it must be one of the trebles hooked on the line. I stopped the bait, and then jerked it to try and free the snag. The wake still followed the jitterbug. As it neared my kayak I realized it was not a wake, but instead it was the back of a large bowfin. With the fish not striking, I again stopped the reeling hoping it may go ahead and take the bait. Instead, the blackfish raided his head out of the water, as if to show me he was looking. It then slowly slid backwards into the depths much like an alligator will back into the water.
I rounded another set of trees. These same trees donned mistletoe during the winter. My dad and I, and many others, used to pick mistletoe sprigs here to hang from our hallways at home during Christmas. They also provided cover for wood ducks. During the season, it was expected to hear the shotgun blasts of several hunters as daybreak hit. It was our alarm clock. I made another cast. Looking around as I began reeling in I felt a familiar shock through the rod’s handle. The strike was quick and massive. The small glimpse I was able to gather in registered an estimation of four to six pounds. It was the only largemouth I would see on the day.
Evening was coming, and I figured I should paddle out of the swamp and back down the southern shoreline. Houses adorned this side of the lake. Once, when we had an unusually cold winter, ice formed several inches thick. About six of us walked out into the swamp one morning. Nearly halfway across the lake we heard a high pitched singing sound. It was the cracking of the ice. Panic set in as we had no idea what to do. We decided to spread out away from each other and slide our feet across the ice one at a time to get back to shore. It seemed like hours, and may very well have been. We never tried that again.
One particular area looked unusually familiar. I looked at two spots where trees stood in the water 20 or 30 yards off shore. Then it dawned on me. A straight line through those two ‘islands’ along the shoreline would take me to a spot where several of us gathered Christmas trees from the neighborhoods one year and submerged them with cinder blocks. I wondered if they were still there. I dropped a small minnow near where I believed we created the artificial structure. The cork disappeared. The rod was nearly snatched from the kayak’s hull before I could comprehend how quickly the minnow was struck. Yes, in the same place we dropped those trees over three decades ago; I had just caught a monster crappie. Fish after fish came over the side of the kayak as I reveled in the success. I returned all to the water, not wanting to take anything from this lake other than one more memory.
As I came back to my starting point I noted the place where the first Wildlife Club stood. The boat shelter was crumbled having lost its battle with time long ago. Here was where we spent the days hunting hooks, corks, lures and sinkers in the jon boats returned from being rented. Below, the bottom was soft mud. This was my favorite place to fish for warmouth. They would stalk the shaded sheltered area striking crawfish below and escaped crickets from above.
I pulled up to the shore where my truck waited. As I stepped out of the kayak I gathered in the lake once more. When you see a friend from long ago, you know your goodbye may be the last one. Your intentions are to keep up with him, but deep inside you feel the loss of the inevitable. The lake and I shared our moments and we made a few new memories. And even in our absence of one another, we will remain close friends.