The following is reprinted from April 2013.
Long before Lake Gaston was created, the Roanoke River flowed wild and free from somewhere in the western reaches of Virginia into North Carolina, forming the boundary between Warren County and a couple of counties in Virginia to the north side.
I was a boy in the 1940s through most of the 1950s, and I loved the Roanoke. I was fascinated and excited with the river, the things that lived in its waters, its forests and low grounds, and with the birds, animals and other creatures that thrived in them. It was truly a wild wonderland, and over the younger years of my life, a good amount of that wildness somehow seeped into my blood, and it remains inside of me to this day.
There was a man who worked for my daddy on our farm for more than 50 years. His name was Percy, and he grew up on the banks of the Roanoke in a community called Five Forks. He knew the river and its wildlife intimately and was an expert on fishing, hunting and trapping. His wife was named Mary. They had no children, and Percy was sort of like a second daddy to me.
As I grew up, he taught me his secrets of the wild things, and I became more knowledgeable of life and wildlife through his teachings than in all of the books. Percy has been dead for right many years, but still today, I talk to him and listen to him often. I have several lifetimes of wildlife in my mind and in my blood, and hardly any of it came from books. One important thing that Percy taught me was how to think like a wild animal instead of like a man. He often said to me, “Look at the situation through the eyes of whatever creature you are after.”
Percy taught me how to take a piece of meat and kill a big buck deer. He made me swear to never show that to another person except my son, if I ever had a son, which I do not. The reason was that if other hunters knew it, there would be no big buck deer because it won’t work on small bucks or doe deer.
Percy’s ancestors also lived on the Roanoke River. They passed down to him their secrets and lore pertaining to animals and events on the river. When Percy was a young boy, and when times were tight, and times were always tight for folks back then, the river provided them with food and a little money. In the 1700s, there was a small tribe of Native Americans living across the river and upstream a ways. They were peaceful and didn’t bother the people across the river.
There was a greater number and variety of wildlife on the river and its forests and low grounds than further inland toward Macon and Warrenton. For instance, it was a rare thing indeed for a deer to be seen in lands away from the river, except for an occasional sighting on Fishing Creek. Soon after Lake Gaston was formed, deer began showing up in many places inland.
Now let’s take a look at some of the animals that were on the river before Lake Gaston, and some that are here now and were not here before Lake Gaston.
One of my favorite wild animals is the river otter, usually called simply “otter.” The otter lives a laid back lifestyle, almost happy-go-lucky. They are almost lightning fast swimmers and when hungry, very soon have caught and eaten their fill of fish, crayfish, frogs and, probably their favorite, fresh water mussels. They know how to bite the shell of a mussel in just the right spot on the side to make it pop open to get the mussel out. If you pick up a mussel shell lying open on a stream bank or in the water’s edge and see two white scars about two inches apart, an otter opened that shell.
After they have eaten their fill, they play, swimming, sliding and rolling. An otter will not slide back into the water at the spot it crawled out of the water. They prefer to catch and eat carp, catfish, suckers and other oily, bottom-swimming “trash” fish over bass, bream and crappie. Otters are constantly on the move and travel roughly a 30-mile circle. The otter’s fur is so thick that water never touches its skin. In the old days, otter pelts were the most valuable of all. Otters were in the Roanoke River and continue to thrive in Lake Gaston today. The fish scales they excrete and upchuck often tick off owners of piers and boat docks.
Another fur-bearing water animal that was in the river and is fairly abundant today in Lake Gaston is the muskrat. They were something of a blessing in the old days, furnishing food and fur, but today they are causing many mega-bucks in damage to bulkheads and lawns as they honeycomb banks and yards with their tunnels. Muskrats will never be eliminated from Lake Gaston because they are prolific breeders. I know of only two ways to partially control their numbers and minimize the damage they cause. One way is to trap them, and I cannot by law say what the other method is.
The opossum has been here for a million years and has plans for at least another million. Percy said that when he was a boy, they often ate possums, but he really didn’t like it because their meat was too greasy, and the more you chewed it, the bigger it got in your mouth.
—Continued next week.—