At the risk of coming across as an old geezer (which I am), I am going to offer an observation of our modern society. It’s that, for all the technological advances and comforts we enjoy today, we are poorer in some respects. A lot of young people in America, for example, will never experience the sweet anticipation of waiting for a mixer of home-made ice cream to be churned to perfection on a hot summer day, and then indulging in the delectable concoction it produced, complete with pieces of real banana or peach mixed right in.
Most young people nowadays will never enjoy the refreshing satisfaction of drinking water directly from a garden hose after playing outside in the summer, and doing so with Mama’s blessing and no thought of evil substances that may be lurking there. In this age of “helicopter parents,” they will never relish the sense of freedom that accompanied running out the door for a day of adventure and hearing only, “Be home in time for supper,” behind them. And, fewer youngsters than ever before will experience the special charms of a day, or at least a few hours, spent at a mill pond.
Once common throughout the Southeast, mill ponds were impounded in earlier eras to provide power for grinding grain into meal. A landowner with a suitable site would construct a dam across a small stream and build an adjacent mill house. Water flowing across a large wheel would turn a series of gears attached to a mill stone which, in turn, would render corn, wheat or other grain into a consistency that could be used for animal or human food. The miller generally took a portion of the meal as his payment for services.
In many places, a mill pond would develop a character and a purpose that went beyond agribusiness. The cool shade of towering hardwoods that typically graced the mill house grounds was a wonderful place for a picnic, a family reunion or just some serious loafing on a warm day. It was made-to-order for courting by young folks who arrived in horse-drawn buggies or automobiles, depending on the decade. Fishing has always been the primary recreation at most mill ponds, though, and still is on those that remain.
Mill ponds consist of a few to as much as several hundred acres. Most of those in North Carolina’s coastal plain are fairly shallow – 4 to 8 feet – except at the dam and have shorelines that are labyrinth of tupelo gums, junipers, cypress and lily pads. In most cases the picturesque mill houses have disappeared, victims of decay and “progress.” A few have been maintained or restored, either for aesthetic reasons or to be used for tourist-oriented businesses. A few, like Atkinson’s Mill, established in 1757 near Selma, N.C., still produce meal that is sold in grocery stores.
Although bank fishing is an option, the best way to probe a mill pond’s depths is from a small boat. A johnboat, canoe or kayak is ideal. Gasoline outboards are usually not needed and, on some ponds, not allowed. An electric trolling motor or a sculling paddle is usually sufficient.
The same bass and panfish lures that are effective on coastal plain rivers will work in mill ponds. Shallow-running minnow imitations, spinner baits, plastic worms and noisy topwater plugs will all get results with bass. Popping bugs, in larger sizes for bass and smaller for bream, provide a lot of sport on fly rods. In-line spinners, like Mepps, are especially effective on chain pickerel (“jacks”) that are staples in most ponds. No matter what’s used, the key is usually to work it as close to the standing or submerged cover as possible. Some of the best spots are around stumps, logs and other obstructions located some distance from shore.
Many anglers feel the best way to fish a mill pond is with the same methods their ancestors used in days gone by. Those folks would park their mule-drawn wagons in the shade of the trees and fish a spell while waiting for their grain to be ground. Their tackle consisted of cane poles with minnows, red worms or crickets for bait. The same type of outfit will get the job done on a mill pond today and may be the very best approach. In any case, early summer is the season to try it.