Camping near Erwin: Snakes, turtles and the proverbial big fish in a small pond

Jeff Bobo • Sep 5, 2019 at 3:00 PM

After scouting campgrounds across the region all summer, we finally tested one out this past weekend near Erwin on the Nolichucky River that provided us quite an adventure with its snakes, turtles, and the proverbial big fish in a small pond. 

It wasn’t intended as a fishing trip. 

It was more of a family camping get-together with games, grilling, swimming, and some high-quality hanging out with Lynn’s brother Jerry; his wife, Nikki; their three sons and their wives; their kids and grandkids; and other assorted kinfolk. The party totaled about 24 people divided among five campsites. 

Fishing became our last resort after all other activities had been exhausted over the course of three days, but for me it became the top highlight of the weekend filled with highlights.

Swimming with the snakes

We stayed at Riverpark Campground, which is right on the Nolichucky about halfway between Jonesborough and Erwin on Route 81.

Despite the “No Swimming” sign, we spent about an hour Saturday floating in the river until niece Ashley discovered a nest of brown water snakes living under a rock on the shoreline about 6 inches from her feet.

Ashley let out a bloodcurdling scream that sent everyone in the campground running toward the shoreline to see who had been murdered at the river.

We all survived, and the snakes seemed more traumatized than Ashley, but that put an abrupt end to our Nolichucky River swimming expedition.

Freezing our giblets off

On Sunday, we drove about 10 miles to Rock Creek State Park near Erwin to use the ice cold, spring fed, concrete swimming hole. After an hour of freezing our giblets off in that pool, the prospect of swimming with the snakes didn’t seem so bad.  

Having exhausted all of our swimming options, on late Sunday afternoon nephew Tyler and I decided to drown a few Canadian nightcrawlers in a pond located about 15 feet from my campsite.

It’s been a while since I went fishing, and all my tackle was stolen years ago, so I bought a $9.99 Zebco at the Erwin Walmart Saturday. Tyler’s brother Jason had invested about $15 in his new rod and reel from that same store.

I’m sure there are fish to be caught in the Nolichucky River, but I’ve never had good luck fishing anything bigger than a creek.

My gut told me that a hack fisherman like myself who is more interested in quantity rather than quality would have better luck in the pond.

Jason had tried to interest his grandsons Wyatt and Presley (ages 5 and 6) in fishing that same pond earlier in the day. But the fish weren’t biting and it took about two minutes for Wyatt to exclaim, “This is boring” and move on to his next adventure.

So, Tyler commandeered Jason’s rod and reel and I shared my Canadian nightcrawlers with him.

A modern day Huckleberry Finn

Apparently it was suppertime in the pond when we started, because we immediately started pulling out bite-size bluegills and bass.

Of course, when the fish are biting, it’s no longer boring to the little people. Canadian nightcrawlers make good fish bait, and fish being yanked out of a pond make good bait to attract children wanting to get in on the action.

Just one problem. We only had the two poles, and neither Tyler nor I was willing to quit and hand over our pole to a little person in the middle of our hot streak.

Tyler's 14-year-old son, Peyton, used his ingenuity to solve the fishing pole shortage problem.

Peyton found a stick, some line and a hook. He stole half a nightcrawler from our supply and proceeded to start pulling bluegill and turtles out of the pond right beside us like a modern day Huckleberry Finn.

Kids wildly swinging sticks and hooks

The next thing you know there are about six little kids with sticks, lines and hooks swarming our spot on top of a big boulder beside the pond.

It was mayhem, but I had a little bit of wisdom and experience on my side, and right away I zoned in on a nesting location which to the untrained eye probably just looked like a tangled mess of shoreline vegetation.

Generally you can find a nest beside a tree that’s right on the shoreline with exposed roots creating underwater obstacles, and/or with branches hanging down into the water.

The second clue was the dozen or so lost bobbers and hooks stuck on one of those branches hanging over the water where previous fishermen weren’t very successful at putting a hook in the nest. In fact, Tyler lost one of my two brand new Walmart bobbers in that very spot.

From my rocky perch, and surrounded by a pack of little people wildly swinging sticks and hooks, I somehow managed to get my Canadian nightcrawler into the suspected nesting spot without getting snagged.

A big fish in a small pond

There was a white flash of a bass belly in the murky water, my slack line straightened out, and then BOOM!

I set the hook and started reeling it in, and right away I knew this was no bite-size bluegill. The gears on my $9.99 Zebco started stripping.

He put up a heck of a fight, but I reeled that big fellow in. When I saw what I had, I let out a crazy victory war cry — as I’ve been known to do on the rare occasions when things go my way.

Everyone in the campground came running to see who had been murdered at the pond.

It wasn’t snakes this time

It was the proverbial big fish in a small pond. A large mouth bass, at lease 18 inches in length, and maybe 2-3 pounds. 

A borderline trophy fish. 

Definitely the best fish I’ve caught in the past decade. Basking in the glow of my triumph, we gently removed the hook and threw that big grandpa back in the pond so we can catch him again next year.

That was a major highlight, but I wasn’t through giving the stick-wielding little people a lesson in pond fishing. There was a big turtle resting on the bank across a small inlet of pond water. I tossed my worm into the water beside him, and he chased it down as they both disappeared into the black pond water.

Creature from the black lagoon

About two seconds later, I had this weird, prehistoric-looking creature dangling from the end of my line. A real life creature from the black lagoon. 

Had I know what kind of creatures were living in that pond 15 feet away from my camper, I might have been a little more on-guard while relaxing around the campfire the previous two evenings.

I’m a catch-and-release fisherman, and the creature was allowed to return to his black lagoon, with assistance from 5-year-old Wyatt, who literally picked that snapper off the ground before anyone could stop him and tossed him in the water.

Thankfully, Wyatt managed to keep all his fingers, and the creature stayed in his pond Sunday night rather than try to crawl in bed with me, Lynn and Maggie.

My final score for the day: Six fish and two turtles, barely edging out Huckleberry Finn, who caught four fish and one turtle with a stick and line, and Tyler, who caught two fish and one turtle.

The only real loser for the day was the local emergency room surgeon, because somehow with six little kids wildly swinging hooked lines on a stick, no one lost an eye, got hooked in the ear, or required stitches.

Jeff Bobo covers Hawkins County for the Times News. Email him at [email protected]