January is not a month when most people consider taking a camping trip, let alone a fishing trip. However, on the last weekend of the month, with a chilly wind whipping the waters of Lake Phelps to a frenzy, Dave Hissey and his wife, Julia, parked their camper and walked a hundred yards along a paved road on a tiny peninsula. Then they readied their fishing rods at one of the piers at the boat landing of Pettigrew State Park while spray from the waves wet their jackets.
The couple had been camping at Pettigrew in Creswell for two days at a cost of $13 per night for the campsite. A sign at the campground said the campsites were awarded on a first-come, first-served basis unless campers made reservations. However, Dave Hissey said only one other camper was there that weekend. Staying in a tent, the other camper had only made it through one night when the wind had blown and the temperature dropped to just above freezing. The Hisseys’ accommodations, a 19-foot, 6-inch Roadtrek camper, offered much better protection from the elements.
“The good thing about camping this time of year is that there are not many other people and there are no bugs,” said Dave Hissey, who lives in Frisco and is semiretired. “In the warmer months, battling bugs is a problem at most of the coastal campgrounds.”
Two days before, the Hisseys had been camping at Merchant’s Millpond State Park, where Julie Hissey caught a crappie.
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“I caught the first fish, the most fish and the biggest fish because it was the only fish,” said Julie Hissey, 58, who works part time in a gift shop at Buxton. “I caught it on a white grub with a hard-head jig. I have caught dolphin and other saltwater fish, but it was my first freshwater fish and it weighed at least a pound.”
Julie Hissey said she enjoyed their stay at Merchant’s Millpond because it was much more fun than working. Trying out the camper proved better than she had expected.
“We might go to Lake Waccamaw State Park when we leave here,” she said. “After that, I think we will wind up somewhere in Florida. The drive is not long and the weather is much better than it is here.”
The couple leaned their spinning rods against the railings of one of the boat dock piers. They rigged them with bobbers and tied some feather jigs to the lines. Making a few casts, they discovered that the water was much shallower than they expected. While Lake Phelps is too acidic to hold crappie, the lake has some great fishing for other native species.
Chase Bennett, 23, is the park ranger. He said he has been at the park for less than a year. Prior to landing a job at Pettigrew, he worked at Jockey’s Ridge and Hanging Rock state parks.
“I think we had five campers all week,” he said. “That is a lot for this time of year. We had a little warm spell that may have made them get out and cure their cabin fever. Now that it is cold and windy again, the campground will not see much use. Most of our campers wait until warmer weather.”
Bennett showed a photo of fish in a cooler that anglers had caught the week before from a new fishing and swimming pier to the south of the boat ramp area. Enough catfish and yellow perch were in the ice to cover the bottom of the cooler.
“Sometimes the fishing can be very good,” he said. “The new pier seems to have boosted our visitor numbers. The season before, the park had 70,000 visitors. Last year, it was 80,000. Some of them are day-users who live nearby. But I think a few more anglers and campers may start to come from farther away once they find out about the new pier.”