Editor’s note: This is the second of a three-part series that features the Lumber River. Part I covered ecotourism possibilities for Lumber River State Park and Fair Bluff. In this story, Publisher Les High talks with Fair Bluff residents who frequent the river.
For the people of Fair Bluff, love of the Lumber River comes naturally.
The Rev. Ray Lundy, pastor at Fair Bluff Baptist Church from 1979 to 2009, spent many an hour fishing, boating, and camping on the river with his wife, children, and grandchildren. He grew up fishing the Little Pee Dee and Waccamaw rivers with his father near their hometown of Conway, S.C.
“I was a river rat as a kid,” Lundy says. “My father went fishing every week when it was warm. He let me go with him, but only after I learned to swim. He always told me you have to respect the river.”
The town embraced Lundy and his wife Linda when they arrived in Fair Bluff. That meant spending lots of time on the river with friends and parishioners.
He points in the direction of the rope swing and sandy bank where dozens of boys and girls swam in the dark waters. Locals still call it the “Minnie Hole,” named for Minnie Waddell, who fished there often.
Lundy remembers building fires on cold days with his son Jonathan, cleaning ducks in the frigid water. The family often had picnics along the river, and he and Jonathan would take three- to four-day overnight trips, putting up on sandbars to spend the night.
“I remember one day when it was hotter than the hinges of the door on the gates of hell,” Lundy says. “Jonathan told me there was a bad thunderstorm coming, so we hunkered down and it rained like you were pouring water out of a bucket. When it passed through, it was like someone had turned on the air conditioning; it was nice and cool.”
Lundy says he awoke sometime early in the morning to the smell of a wet deer, then heard the unmistakable snort of a bear. A dank, musky odor indicated the bear was close by, probably on the trail of the deer.
When Lundy opened the tent, the bear was nowhere to be seen. He tells the story because it underscores that when it comes to the Lumber River, the wilderness is “right out your back door.”
Time on the river is second nature to people in and around Fair Bluff.
“I think some people are born with it, that wanderlust where you don’t know what’s around the next bend in the river,” Lundy says. “It’s something that’s innate in all of us, and I kinda feel sorry for people who don’t ever get to experience it. I imagine the last thing I’ll have in my head when it’s time to go are the times I had on the river.”
Lundy is naturally affable and gregarious. He enjoys chatting with people on the Fair Bluff River Walk, which meanders for three-quarters of a mile through the cool canopy of cypress and water oaks. He and Linda are on the boardwalk many days, she on foot and he on his recumbent tricycle.
They meet people from all over the East Coast, but locals especially enjoy the meditative powers of the slow-moving water.
Todd Bryant, who lives just across the border in South Carolina, is taking a stroll on the boardwalk on a perfect, sun-drenched late afternoon. Bryant and Lundy begin talking about fishing holes and a three-story tree house that men who fish and hunt on the river assembled in stages over the years.
Lundy shows Bryant the old steam engine rail bed that runs through Red Belly Slough. The tram transported logs from Butters Lumber Company in Boardman to Nichols, S.C., about 30 miles downstream. The old trestle supports barely show above the water.
Also on the River Walk, Luke Robinson has taken his dog Cooper, age 9 months, for a walk and a swim. The dog clearly has great affection for Robinson, who says he got Cooper from someone who was going to “throw out the rest of the litter,” presumably by the roadside.
“I’m going to get some ice cream and give Cooper a treat,” he says before disappearing into the fading light around one of the many bends of the boardwalk.
Few people have caught more fish on the lower end of the Lumber River than Willard Small, who turned 96 on April 19. He was a Fair Bluff town commissioner for 48 years and co-owner of Fair Bluff Ford, the local Ford dealership.
“People don’t realize what a good fishing river this is,” Small says. “We’d lock the dealership on Saturdays at 1 p.m. I’d get in my Ford Bronco and head to the river with my strip boat and fish ‘til dark.”
Small would mainly fish for red breast and hard head bream, which are varieties of flatfish.
Small closed the dealership every Fourth of July and a group of men would paddle upriver to wet a line and fry fish on a sandbar. This went on for 20 years or so.
David Small, Willard’s 74-year-old son who worked at the family dealership, says fishing is a way of life on the river, going back generations.
Small recalls the bond fishing created between him and his grandfather Maxcey Small. The younger Small was his grandfather’s designated paddler, “and I inherited my love of the river from him.
“He’d pull up to the house before daylight – around 5:30 – and blow the horn,” Small says. “Nothing interfered with his fishing. He’d even leave the tobacco field if he heard the fish were biting.”
Small says his grandfather knew all the fishing holes and lakes along the river: State Line Lake, Grassy Lake, Deep Lake, Big Hog and Little Hog lakes, among others.
Small’s main task was to paddle, though he occasionally got to fish when the two took a lunch break on a sandbar. That led to a lifetime of fishing with his grandfather and father, and later on his own.
He remembers as a child an area behind Fair Bluff’s business district where the merchants kept about a dozen wooden boats tied up and ready to deploy should word get out that the fish were biting.
“The river and Fair Bluff, they’re one and the same,” Small says.
It seems that everyone who fishes the river has had a traumatic experience with a thunderstorm.
Willard Small was fishing upriver at Deep Lake and heard thunder in the distance. Before he could make it home, it rained and hailed like he’d never seen.
“I had to stop three or four times to empty water out of the boat,” he said. “I’m telling you, I thought I wasn’t going to make it home.
“But, he adds, “one of the best times to catch fish is before and after a storm.”
As violent as the weather can be, however, Small sees the river and his beloved Fair Bluff River Walk as a place of calm and serenity.
Many locals enjoy the boardwalk daily, and Small was no exception in his younger years. It’s especially pleasant in the early morning or late in the afternoon, when the water meanders among the pilings. Birds, turkey, otter, deer, and other animals are common sights. It’s a good place to commune with nature.
“If you’ve had a bad day at work or just need some time alone,” Small says, “ the boardwalk is where you can be alone with your thoughts or just talk to the Lord.”
One of the most prolific fishermen on the Lumber River is Michael Gore, 67, of Fair Bluff.
Most days he can be seen pedaling his bicycle to the Fair Bluff River Walk with a fishing rod and two buckets, one that contains dirt and earthworms and the other to hold the fish he’ll catch. He likes to throw a Beetle Spin lure because it attracts every kind of fish and “it saves you from buying worms.”
Gore chooses to fish by foot along Red Belly Slough or The Boon, both of which run close by the boardwalk.
Gore is one of 12 children reared by Mildred and Booker T. Gore. “I’m the only one who likes to fish,” he says with incredulity.
He has taught his five nephews to fish and to swim.
His cousin, Cubby Gore, described by Michael as in his 80s, was supposed to be with him on this temperate May afternoon, but Cubby has chosen to fish closer to the N.C. 904 bridge.
“One thing about Cubby,” Gore says matter of factly, “he does not like a snake.”
There happens to be one — a rather large water snake — resting on the edge of the river in a fallen tree branch.
Gore enjoys the River Walk in part because he was one of “nine or 10 guys” who helped build it. He remembers dragging timbers behind a riding lawn mower to the final section ending near The Boon.
Gore fishes “near about every day.” He’ll eat fish two to three times a week. “I was eating them every day at one time, but I had to stop.”
He mostly does odd jobs around town for money. His house flooded during hurricanes Matthew and Florence, but he never thought about leaving.
“Fair Bluff is one fine place,” he adds.
Earlier on this day, he had caught 10 fish and took them to a local convenience store. He gave them to a man who is too elderly to fish.
He feels at home at Red Belly Slough, named after the type of bream that frequent the narrow cut-through.
He throws the fish he’s caught back into the water. “They’ll be here tomorrow. You got to keep some in here.”
Red Belly Slough is his second home.
“It’s cool, it’s quiet, and nobody bothers you,” Gore says before he leaves. “It’s about the only place in Fair Bluff you can get some good, quiet peace…because people are afraid of the snakes,” he adds with a hearty laugh.
Then his tone changes.
“You know,” he says with a sense of reverence, “you really can’t beat this place.”