Back Bay Adventure
By C.C. McCotter
ItÕs not often I skip opening day of dove season to pursue other adventures, but I did this year, and it was worth it.
At 9:30 am on August 30 my wife, 10-year-old daughter, 7-year-old son, 10-year-old Jack Russell and I drove our packed Jeep and trailer eastbound toward the coast on I-64 until we could go no further. Our destination was Ram Island Lodge, a nearly 100-year old renovated hunting lodge literally on Back Bay. It sits on pilings as the original island has long since washed away.
At Mill Road Landing we meet our host and lodge owner Kevin Riggs – a life long resident of the area and a terrific fellow. HeÕs the son of a farmer and assembly line worker at the now closed Norfolk Ford plant. I think he has Back Bay water in his blood and is kind enough to want to share his knowledge with others.
Some of you might remember Back Bay as a premier largemouth bass fishery 25 years ago. Before all its submerged aquatic vegetation died from saltwater intrusion, it was also known for world-class waterfowl hunting. Then came the grassless years when the bass retreated far up into freshwater creeks and rivers and the ducks and geese stopped coming.
I had never been to Back Bay in its hey day or post boom, but for the next three days, I would experience much it had to offer by living in a house about a food above the water.
You access Ram Island Lodge only via boat; you can bring your own or rent KevinÕs. Either way, guests usually launch and ferry gear from the stateÕs Mill Road Landing.
Kevin met us here on a windy and rainy afternoon where we loaded up two Emotion kayaks on his 21-foot Proline. Chrissie and I used our 18-foot flat-backed canoe with an ancient 6 hp Johnson outboard to follow Riggs the 1.5 miles to the lodge.
We were to use the kayaks for fishing and paddling trips around the lodge. One of the little boats was a 2010 Emotion Mojo Angler - one of only two in the nation I was to field test in some challenging conditions. The plan was to use the canoe to cross the bay to access the remote False Cape State Park on the barrier island to our east.
Turns our Mother Nature had here own plan. We had 15-30 mph northeast winds the entire time we stayed at Ram Island Lodge, so the canoe was not seaworthy enough to make the 3.5-mile run to False Cape.
Enter Riggs and his 21-foot center console and 150 hp Mercury. I think he took pity on us and left us the sturdy craft to reconnoiter as we wished.
By sunset we had off-loaded at the lodge, Kevin had given me a brief tour of the surrounding area via boat and I had dropped him back off at the boat landing. I turned the Proline back into the wind and was tied up at the lodge dock in a few minutes.
The lodge sleeps six with two bedrooms, a bathroom and a front room that consists of a kitchen and den. Every seat in the house has a water view. The windows are plentiful and big.
When everything was unpacked, I lit the grill and spread out some clams, oysters (from Florida) and tuna steaks for dinner. As the food cooked I decided to make a few casts along the old pilings that ring the house. Milfoil grew in great green, lush clumps here, too. I knew that this exotic plant was what made Back Bay so great years ago and hope I could experience just a little of that legacy.
On my second cast I did. The white spinnerbait I had tossed beyond a particularly bassy-looking clump of weed disappeared and my rod jumped. I pulled back with a hook set and wrangled a fine two-pound largemouth over the rope rail.
Incredible, I thought. I just caught a Back Bay bass from the deck of the lodge. Was this fabled fishery back? I had three days to figure that out as well as explore Back Bay Wildlife Refuge and False Cape State Park with my family.
This was going to be my kind of trip – adventure, exploration, fishing and only natural entertainment for the kids.
I was up before dawn to make the coffee my wife likes. The children remained fast asleep. All was quiet except for the lapping of the water around the pilings under the house.
Our plan today, the first full day of our stay at Ram Island Hunt Club, was to take the Proline and navigate across Back Bay to the boat dock at False Cape State Park. IÕd carefully studied the GMCO Pro Series Back Bay map so I knew where I needed to go. This, along with KevinÕs tour yesterday, and I was pretty certain I could find our destination.
I did feel a little like an early explorer with folks counting on me to take them through the desert and over the mountains. I guess fatherhood is like this, too. TodayÕs adventure would be a literal example of the metaphor.
Despite the small craft advisory and some wet wind spray over the bow, we made the False Cape pier with no mishaps. Kevin has a beach cart with those big tires so we loaded up our chairs and lunch and hit the 1.4 mile tail to the beach.
Along the way the transformation from bay to surf was memorable. We started out in shallow, brackish water filled with submerged weeds, then the trail passed through a live oak swamp. Next came the sandy pine forest where I expected to see a feral hog at any moment. Finally, we entered the dune zone where the trail turned to soft sand, rising toward the sound of the crashing surface ahead.
We walked between 20-foot tall dunes covered with thriving sea oats that waved in unison with each gust of wind. Cresting the final rise through a pass in the dunes, we saw the ocean full of foam and waves.
During our stay we saw no other people. As far as the eye could see there was only the ocean, crashing surf and sand dunes. Could this be what the early explorers saw over 400 years ago?
Chrissie and I set up two camp chairs while the kids played in the surf. Higgins swam, surfed waves as he retrieved and dug holes – many of them. This was Jack Russell heaven, a place where he could dig all he wanted.
Around 4 pm we decided it was time to begin the journey back to Ram Island. I took a different route homeward in the boat, this time staying more in the lee of islands to avoid soaking my fare.
We were back in time for showers, a spaghetti dinner and a fine sunset. I even caught another largemouth bass on that spinnerbait off the deck.
The full moon came up early and lit up the sky, reflecting off the now gently rippling water. I lingered on the deck before bedtime. Today was fulfilling for so many reasons. Instead of navigating the maze of resort tourist traps at a popular vacation beach, we navigated a real maze of islands and shoals. Rather than seek out the only place on the beach where you can set up two chairs and a blanket, we discovered a remote beach with no one else present. Dinner did not involve a 45-minute wait and a half dayÕs pay. Bedtime did not include hoping the neighbors would quiet down at a reasonable hour.
This was life the way it was intended to be lived. Think of the wonderful things we would all do if we didnÕt have to worry about making money and instead just focused on our families, our friends and exploring.
I went back inside to find Maggie nearly asleep in her bed. My son was asleep in ours. I gently lifted his seven-year-old body in my arms and carried him to his bed.
I managed to turn three pages of a Louis LÕAmour book I brought with me before I hugged Chrissie and sleep took me.
My morning ritual of making coffee and taking Higgins via kayak to a nearby island did not vary. I was a little sleepy though this morning, as the wind had picked up after midnight and waves made unfamiliar lapping and thumping noises under the lodge.
Chrissie and I did a quick paddle this morning into a nearby creek. The Mojo Angler kayak I paddled was great in the nearly two-foot chop. Once we entered the creek, we left the wind behind except for the whishing sound it made in the dense marsh grasses that lined the shores.
After stowing the boats on the deck, we fixed a big breakfast for the kids and made plans to return to False Cape State Park, this time via the BarbourÕs Hill landing, about a half mile closer.
Back Bay is not influenced much by lunar tides like the Chesapeake Bay. Instead, the tides here are wind driven. The northeast winds we were experiencing were literally blowing the water out of Back Bay. We saw this first hand as we approached the BarbourÕs Hill pier. At around 20 feet out we could get no closer. I roped off two bow lines and ferried our gear and the kids on my back. The water was only two feet deep and mostly sandy with thick weeds. I was on the lookout for Ōno-necksĶ reputed to thrive here.
This hike to the beach was a little longer and slightly less pleasant. At BarbourÕs Hill youÕll find a park rangerÕs residence and an information center along one of the trails to the beach. A new center was being built during our visit. It will be quite grandiose for such a remote place. Also along the trail are primitive campsites and potable water spigots.
We walked nearly two miles until we hear the waves above the wind. The kids ran excited through the last dune pass and we planted the flag on another remote beach.
Again the wind blew fiercely on shore. Our sandy sandwiches were still delicious after long beachcombing walks. The sun played hide and seek with us and the kids werenÕt in the water quite as much today. I wore a jacket.
Tonight Kevin had offered to take us to Blue PeteÕs, an on-the-water favorite restaurant of his. At 3:30 pm we packed up and headed for the boat to stay on schedule.
About halfway back I heard Chrissie exclaim behind me. Higgins had walked up on a cottonmouth snake laying in the trail and it reared up at Maggie as she walked by afterward. She never saw the snake, but Chrissie did. I doubled back after they had passed the native and watched the fat, two-footer meander into a trailside swamp.
We stopped just long enough to compose ourselves and attract those big beach mosquitoes, and then we pushed hard to the safety of the boat and eventually our home at the lodge.
We picked Kevin up at 6:20 pm at Mill Road Landing and headed toward Sandbridge and Blue PeteÕs. Along the way our hose pointed out many old hunting lodges and landmarks. The submerged grass on the bottom was thick all the way up to Sandbridge. Blue PeteÕs turned out to be wonderful. The crap soup was perfect for the cool night. The chef did incredible things with cream and sherry, I think.
At 10:30 pm we headed back under sky of patchy clouds and an early full moon. Kevin was doing great until he risked a run through Cedar Creek, normally a shallow short cut to the lodge. I heard the motor strain and felt the hull slow on a mud bottom a second before we ran aground. There was nearly one-and-a-half foot less water in Back Bay now and we were stuck.
Not to worry, though, Kevin called in a favor and his buddy, Jeff, arrived 15 minutes later to tow us to deeper water. The kids were happy and exhausted as I waved good night to Kevin and Jeff. Before collapsing in bed, Maggie and I went up to the top deck of the lodge for a spectacular view of the moonlit, windswept bay.
I wanted my 10-year-old to remember this day and night forever. It was a good lesson for a little girl that you can do what you want with good planning and even a few bumps in the road can be overcome.
Departure day is always tough after a good trip. Coffee and a dog paddle again this morning. The wind was only blowing 10 mph at sunrise, so I took my fishing rods on the kayak. I paddled to HigginsÕ favorite spot, dropped him off and started casting that white DaveÕs Tournament Tackle spinnerbait tight to an ancient bulkhead.
I didnÕt have to make many casts before I found the bass. The lee the bulkhead created gave them a fine ambush spot, and I caught four fish up to nearly four pounds. I lost two on CASE Paddle frog, but that spinnerbait was money.
I would say Back Bay bass fishing is back; in less than one hour of fishing during my three-day stay, I caught seven bass. Imagine what you could do with a bass boat and five hours!
After my brief fishing interlude it was time to load the Proline and head for Mill Road Landing. I was wary of the low water and approached slowly with four souls, our baggage and two kayaks on board. We towed the canoe.
Turns out I couldnÕt quite get to the dock due to the low water. No problem, though, because after all weÕd done and overcome, this was minor. Maggie volunteered to paddle the Charger kayak. Chrissie paddled the Mojo. I off-loaded the other gear (with Mitch helping) into the canoe and we had done it.
The Jeep and trailer once gain took on a very Clampett look and we headed for home.
Things I still remember vividly from this trip include the rich smell of the bay and surrounding swamps, the lapping of the waves on the pilings of the lodge, the sight and sound of 400 purple martins gathering each night on the power lines leading to the lodge, our children playing happily in the ocean and the satisfying feeling of successfully navigating new water and exploring new country.
If youÕd like to stay at Ram Island Lodge, visit www.ramislandhuntclub.com or call Riggs at 757.407.7449. Kevin also has special weekends available for duck hunting this winter. Woods & Waters Adventures has two prime weekends reserved for all inclusive duck hunts. See page __ for details and call or email to reserve your spot.