A school of boats tethered to a pair of piers along the northern shoreline of Lake Waccamaw rocked fore and aft, their bowlines creaking as they came taut in the face of a brisk westerly wind. Beneath the roof of one of the boathouses, its owner, Rick Neisler, cooked sausages on a grill and announced that breakfast was ready.
As the anglers drank hot coffee, folded the sausages into buns and slathered on mustard and other fixings, they also headed for a table to write down their names and plunk down $20 bills – the entry fee for each boat participating in the White Perch Open. Altogether, the informal tournament had seven boats carrying 15 anglers. The rules were straightforward, with the winning boat determined in three categories: the most white perch longer than 8 inches with boat’s total catch divided by the number of anglers aboard, the longest white perch and the largest fish of any species.
“We fish everywhere, for everything that bites,” said Bob Crutchfield, a 71-year-old retiree who lives at Lake Waccamaw. “We get together once a month to eat at a member’s house, but this is our annual tournament. The competition is always friendly because what we are really fishing for is fun.”
The anglers members of the 5 F Club along with a few guests. The original name was the 5 Friends Club because it originated as group of five friends who began meeting in a barn owned by Dave Smith Jr. in 1971. He and four other anglers – Bill Scott, Harold Marlowe, Joe Gore and Phil Edwards – met once a month to swap stories about their latest fishing trips and cook their catch along with garden produce and whatever other table fare they had to eat. Over the years, as the original five members grew older and passed on, the club added fishermen until it now has 20 official members. In 1984, the club changed its name to the 5 F Club, which stands for Friendship, Fellowship, Fishing, Food and Fun.
The club chose the Friday before Memorial Day for the White Perch Open because the 9,000-acre lake would not be as crowded with boats and water scooters as it would become over the holiday weekend. A recent rain had turned the lake’s normally crystal-clear water the color of the coffee steaming in the angler’s cups.
After Neisler went over the tournament rules at 8:30 a.m., the anglers untied their boats and departed, fanning out across the lake to secret fishing spots. Some were in large skiffs, while others were fishing from 16-foot aluminum johnboats. The larger boats had the advantage of easier navigation in the choppy waters. Terry Littrell and Ben Bahr were fishing near the shoreline, where towering cypress trees draped with Spanish moss blocked some of the wind. They were fishing in a 19-foot Carolina Skiff, a fiberglass boat with a flat bottom and a T-top that was the boat of choice by the majority of the anglers.
Very few other boats were on the water. Either they were waiting for Saturday to begin their holiday water sports or the wind and dark water kept them away. The tournament ended at 1 p.m. sharp. Since one of the boats, last year, had cut the dock time so close it caused a friendly squabble, the last boat this year made it back with five minutes to spare.
The anglers dropped their flopping perch onto the pier deck. Bob Crutchfield used a tape to measure the longest fish. Three had identical lengths of 12 inches, which is impressive considering a 12-incher is long enough to earn an award a certificate from the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission’s North Carolina Angler Recognition Program.
Nevertheless, Rick Neisler won the longest white perch category when he brought in a white perch 13.5 inches long. Al Hackney and Brad Johnson caught 24 white perch greater than 8 inches long to win the most fish category with a score of 12. Bob Crutchfield, Dick Crutchfield and Jerry Berry brought in a 4-pound gar to win the biggest fish category.
The anglers carried coolers and buckets filled with fish across the road to Neisler’s house and cleaned them. The aroma of frying fish and hushpuppies soon filled the air. As the anglers filled their paper plates and sat around the picnic tables, they laughed and shared tall tales of the day. The 5 F Club lived up to its name.