In March of 2020 I, like many others, found myself with a lot of free time. Having moved back to my home town from the mountains of North Carolina a few years before, I was not able to bring some of my hobbies home with me, most relevantly, trout fishing. Most of my time in the mountains, I lived within spitting distance of the Elk River. Arguably some of the best trout fisheries east of the Mississippi. A lot of my free time was spent hopping along rocks, and wading through the cold water of the Elk River with a fly rod or a light spinning rod in search of Brown Trout, Rainbow Trout, and the ever elusive native Brook Trout. Having moved a few hours away back to the warmer Piedmont region, my every day ritual became more of a rarity in my life. But I still had the itch to go fishing. So, recently unemployed, I did what any rational person would do, I went out and bought a boat to go looking for bass.
Now when I say I went out and bought a boat, “boat” is a generous term. It was a 1976 12’ Sears Gamefisher jon boat with a 9.9hp Johnson 2 stroke outboard from the same era. Think Steve Rinella’s Das Boat series, but on more of a budget. But it was enough to get me out on the water bass fishing. So I set about getting the boat seaworthy, sealing leaks, reinforcing the transom, and adding a simple casting deck on the bow. The motor was a bit of a basket case, but after a few days of work replacing the seals and water pump on the lower unit, new spark plugs, rebuilding the carburetor, and cleaning it up a bit and it was good to go. Or at least good enough. I did add a couple oars just in case. The trailer was a different story though. Between the two different sized wheels, the dry rotted tires, and the rusty U-bolts, I really didn’t trust it to go far. Definitely not enough to make it 30 minutes down the highway where the good fishing lakes are, and I didn’t have any money left to fix it. So what now?
Luckily enough, there’s a boat ramp about a mile down the road from my house. So why didn’t I think of that right away? The lake in question is one of the cities two man made reservoir lakes, and to say it is not known for good fishing is an understatement. In fact, growing up here, I had always been told it wasn’t worth fishing there. It was apparently too small, over pressured, dirty, and that there just weren’t that many fish in it. But it was really my only option at this point. So I hauled my rickety aluminum boat on my sketchy trailer down to the marina and gave it a shot. My first trip out was pretty uneventful. I was mainly worried about the boat just flat out sinking as soon as I got it out on the water, but thankfully it didn’t. I took the time to explore a lake I hadn’t been out on since I was a little kid, tried a few spots that looked promising, but ultimately I was skunked on my first time out.
At this point I could’ve chalked this up to my relative inexperience bass fishing, or I could accept what I’ve heard around town and blame it on the lake itself for my lack of success. But I kept trying. I researched all kinds of different lures, different techniques, changing the time of day I go fishing, just about everything you can think of a new angler could try to catch more fish. And sure enough, I started catching fish. They were few and far between at first, but the more I fished the more consistent it got. I stopped looking for the obvious spots that are most likely fished every single day, and started fishing less obvious cover, places I knew weren’t getting as much traffic from other anglers.
I started frequenting the local lake more and more, spending time exchanging tips with other fishermen, making small talk with the cute girl that worked at the marina, and a lot of time out on the water fishing. I’d wake up in the morning, pack my water bottle, a thermos of coffee, a few sandwiches and fruit (no bananas of course) for lunch, and spend all day fishing and soaking up the sun. I got to know the lake like the back of my hand. As spring turned to summer, and then to fall, the best spots changed. The fish moved from the warm cover in the shallows on to the cool deep water to escape the heat. Even when I wasn’t having any luck I was still loving it. I was catching a tan and enjoying the fresh air scented with 2-stroke oil and the slight hint of fishiness on my own little 12ft slice of aluminum paradise. All this and I wasn’t even a mile from home. Before the pandemic, I spent endless amounts of time and money going to faraway places chasing this feeling when it was right here all along. And that’s really the moral of the story here.
Lots of small towns in America have lakes and parks just like this one that go far underutilized year after year. I’ve driven by that lake thousands of times in my life but it wasn’t until I didn’t have any other option that I took the time to check it out. I’ve since fixed my trailer, so I can easily access the larger lakes in the area, but I still find myself making the same 0.4 mile drive down to the marina and staying close to home. Although I’ve got far less time to go fishing these days, the sense of community and local pride in our little lake keeps me coming back for more.