We thought we were going there simply to fish.
Little did we know what enlightenment awaited.
WE HAD BEEN hearing talk of the place for months. It was located somewhere in the Sandhills of central North Carolina and was reputed to be one of the most well managed and alluring destinations in the world for largemouth bass. What really got our attention, however, were the giant bluegills that were said to inhabit the lake—rumored to range upwards of three-pounds-plus.
So my pal Chuck Wechsler and I made a few calls, and though Thanksgiving was fast approaching, we packed up and headed there sight unseen, arriving just ahead of a cold front bearing in from the north.
It is called “The King Fisher Society”—a name loosely derived from a close-knit group of friends who grew up together around Richmond Mill Lake near Laurel Hill, North Carolina.
This 2,500-acre flake of undiluted tranquility has been in the same family for five generations and is now under the leadership of owner Jim Morgan and King Fisher Society vice-president Dave Buhler.
We had certainly not been disappointed on that first autumn foray, for Jim and Dave had orchestrated a truly remarkable resource that in all respects lived up to the things we’d been told. Over those first few days I began to gain a loose understanding of the place and appreciate all the love and nurturing that had gone into its making, or at least as much as one can comprehend on a first visit.
We had caught and released some of the biggest largemouth bass of our lives, and even a few of those oversize bluegills, and had finally indulged in a single blissful afternoon of quail hunting in the woods and fields that border the lake—all this despite less-than-ideal weather. And when we left late on Thanksgiving Eve, we were determined to return come spring.
WE ARRIVED BACK at the lodge early the following May on a warm and inviting Tuesday afternoon, and soon we were out on the water. Within an hour Chuck had caught and released a five-pound largemouth, two big crappies and a bluegill that would easily have gone a pound and a half, and I had taken a four-pound largemouth holding tight against the burl of an ancient cypress. We fished until sunset, then made our way back down the lake to the lodge to finish unpacking before dinner.
The next morning we were met by Clyde Douglass, a real estate developer and fly fishing aficionado from Raleigh who had come down to shepherd us around the lake for a few days.
Chuck continued fishing with his spinning gear, and I stuck with my fly rod. And as we eased out onto the mirror surface of the lake, Clyde suggested I try a dropper rig. So I trimmed down a deer-hair mouse pattern from my Alaska fly box, tied it straight into the end of the leader with a perfection loop, and bent down the barb. Then I handed the fly to Clyde, and he tied a four-foot section of 3X tippet into the bend of the hook and attached one of his own flies, a long, rubber-legged variation I’d never seen. But knowing that local knowledge is usually of far more value than standard protocol, I suspected that Clyde’s dropper would most likely be the ticket.
We eased up the southern edge of the lake, weaving in and out of the pond cypress, and when Clyde gave me the okay, I made my first cast of the morning.
I assure you, my intentions were pure—to do exactly as Clyde had instructed and let the deer-hair mouse rest on the surface for thirty seconds or so in order to allow the dropper time to sink before giving it a slight twitch.
But one oversize largemouth had other ideas.
Suddenly the water imploded as the big largemouth inhaled my little Alaska fly from the surface, and I struck instinctively. The three feet of slack line in my left hand quickly came tight and then line began tearing from the reel, its silver song clear and fulfilling as the fish carried the fly deep and away.
But finally she turned, and I could feel her every surge transmitted back up the fly line that was now delicately feeding through my fingers.
There was a massive swirl forty feet off the bow, and for the first time we saw her as she slashed the surface and once more turned for the depths. But the angle of pressure gradually steepened as we drew closer, and I concentrated on keeping her head up as Clyde patiently waited beside me with the rubber release net.
She made one more surge and again nearly leapt. But by now she was all but ours, more angry and confused than tired. And as the tough little 6-weight powered her gaping mouth to the surface, Clyde eased the net beneath her.
She was fat and healthy, though we did not take time to weigh her, preferring instead simply to photograph her and get her back into the water as quickly as possible.
We fished until just past noon, then made our way down the lake to the lodge and a magnificent lunch. The dining and accommodations were delightful, as was the afternoon back out on the lake. But the surprise came that evening at dinner when we were treated to some of the best jazz piano I have ever heard from the lodge’s classic Steinway.
Now a Steinway grand piano seemed at first a rather odd thing to find in a fishing lodge, fine though the lodge may be. But soon we began to learn some of the rich history of the place from Dave and Jim, and that this jewel of a lakeside retreat had originally been designed and constructed as a jazz rehearsal facility.
The fact is, Jim Morgan and the area around Richmond Mill Lake and Laurel Hill all revel in a rich and storied jazz heritage. Nearly everyone in Jim’s family and inner circle is an accomplished musician, including Jim and Dave themselves. Dizzie Gillespie was born just twenty miles south of where we sat dining, and John Coltrane only ten miles west of here. And as the grandeur of our surroundings continued to embed itself ever deeper into my psyche, what had started as a hopeful fishing adventure now began to broaden into something with ever more depth and purpose.
OUR FINAL MORNING dawned clear and cool, with temps in the low fifties. The lake was slick calm with the first warming rays of daybreak lightly touching the trees, and by the time we’d had our breakfast, both the sun and the temperature had begun to rise to more tolerable levels. We cut our morning short in favor of an early lunch, then made our way back out onto the lake for one final afternoon.
We headed toward the upper end where Clyde wanted to show us a beautifully sheltered little cove. The subtle colors of spring reflected from the calm surface, but for now there seemed to be nothing lurking beneath it as we made our way out into the main channel.
I was curious to put my 8-weight into play with its sinking line and a newly tied chartreuse-and-white Clouser minnow. The line unfurled smoothly just above the water’s surface and deposited the fly sixty feet away into the far edge of a deep channel. I counted down . . . five, six, seven, eight . . . to give the entire length of line time to reach proper depth, and then began a slow, syncopated retrieve.
The little Clouser hadn’t moved ten feet before something hammered it. It was another big largemouth, this one cruising the edges of the main channel and plotting mayhem. But as I played her, there suddenly came a wild and exhilarating exclamation from my associate up on the pointy end of the boat.
As I had hoped to catch my career largemouth here, Chuck had dreamed of tying into one of King Fisher’s legendary mega-bluegills. Now it seemed he had done precisely that, and as I looked around, I saw his rod bent nearly double, with the fish actually pulling the bow of the boat and turning it toward the opposite shore. There was a massive billow in the water where the beast had just rolled, and as I grasped my bass by the lower jaw and eased the hook from her lip before releasing her, I could still hear the line tearing from Chuck’s reel.
Finally he began to gain on the giant bluegill and was able to turn it, and when Clyde finally eased the net beneath it and raised it from the water, the only thing bigger than the fish was Chuck’s grin.
She was magnificent, registering a full three pounds, two ounces on Clyde’s pocket scale, her eyes an angry ebony, her head and face and back nearly black with rage. Her throat and mouth were trimmed in a subtle tropical green, and her chest and belly seemed to be sculpted from pure amber. The sharp spines extending vertically along her back betrayed her deep anger, and she writhed as Clyde eased the hook from her jaw and then held her in his hand as I snapped a single photo before he turned her back into her native element.
Chuck was beside himself with glee and fulfillment, and before the afternoon was done we had each caught and released a few more of these big bluegills and huge bass.
Standing sentinel on the bow as we approached the lodge at day’s end, I couldn’t resist one final cast and was rewarded with the last largemouth of the trip. She took my fly three feet into the air and then unceremoniously threw it back at me and disappeared.
But no matter . . . the savory smells of supper were already wafting across the water toward us from the lakeside lodge, with the fishing now full and complete.
But little did we know that the best was yet to come.
I HAD A LONG, soothing shower and was getting dressed for dinner when suddenly there began filtering into my bedroom the intricately interwoven sounds of a full-fledged jazz trio coming from the main hall just outside my door.
It was trumpet legend Ray Codrington, along with Dr. Willie Lockett on stand-up bass and Dr. Scott Marosek on the Steinway. Ray Codrington is a jazz icon who has worked with such greats as Dizzie Gillespie, Cannonball Adderly and John Coltrane—“ ’Trane” as Ray called him.
That evening as he and Willie and Scott played, the music infused our souls as it filled the lodge and filtered out into the nearby woods, then spread across the water and into the night to become a part of the rich continuum of our surroundings. And later, when Jim and Dave joined in the session, I knew I was witnessing something as wonderful and unexpected as anything of which I have ever been a part.
At evening’s end Chuck and I shook their hands and thanked them all profusely, and I felt a sudden, sublime connection to something far more enduring than any single evening of great music or a few days of fine fishing could possibly provide.
And I knew in my heart that now I had something new and good and unexpected to write about.
AS A MUSICIAN interprets the music, so too a writer interprets a thought or an experience, eager to see where the writing may lead.
A writer sings solo—for at its most sublime, writing is a solitary process of acceptance and discovery, the treasure of the written word finding its genesis deep within a single solitary spirit as the Lord implants it there in real time, where hopefully it may take root and flourish as you continue fielding the incoming content and reveling in its evolution.
But jazz, on the other hand, is a celebration of kindred souls.
The jazz musician shares himself in real time with other like-minded individuals who understand the themes and objectives, complementing each other and enhancing each other, thrusting and parrying and playing off each other as they create something that has never before existed and in all likelihood will never exist again—at least not in this exact form.
So in the end they’re really not all that different, Jazz and Fishing—at least when your intentions are honorable and you are fishing well.
For fishing, like jazz, is a continuing process, an idiom all its own that connects past to present, present to hope.
You approach fishing with the same basic instincts each time you take to the water, waiting to discover where the fishing may lead. You respond to the moment, to the circumstance, to the theme, be it bluegill or largemouth, trout or salmon, tarpon or marlin or sailfish, tailoring your moves to the moment, waiting for the strike, waiting for the take, waiting for the inevitable pull that tugs at your spirit, responding to the fish much as the trumpet responds to the piano, the piano to the stand-up bass, while the rhythms of the moment inform and define them all.
I LEFT THE GOOD FOLKS at the King Fisher Society the next morning with an entirely new point of view, not just of fishing but of life itself—my heart filled to overflowing and reveling in new friendships, new experiences and, most significantly, new perspectives.
I promise I’ll be back.
This is a story from Michael Altizer’s book, NINETEEN YEARS TO SUNRISE. This book, along with the author’s other books, THE LAST BEST DAY and RAMBLINGS—TALES FROM THREE HEMISPHERES, can be ordered online at SportingClassicsStore.com—click on “BOOKS.” Or call 1-800-849-1004.
The author always welcomes and appreciates your comments, questions, critiques and input. Please keep in touch at Mike@AltizerJournal.com.
© MICHAEL ALTIZER