It was 1835 when Angus Malloy dammed Gum Swamp Creek, in the headwaters of North Carolina’s Little Pee Dee River, a stream that flows through mountain laurels and longleaf pines in southern Scotland County. Malloy built a sawmill, and no doubt figured that he was making his own small mark on the nascent history of the destined-for-glory Sandhills region. What he could not have imagined was that his Richmond Mill Lake would one day power a gun factory that turned out 25 muzzle-loading rifles a week for a war tearing his nation apart. Or that a man named Sherman would burn that factory to coals. Or that a cotton mill would go up where the gun factory went down, filled with textile machinery reclaimed from a sunken blockade runner. Or that the waters from Gum Swamp Creek would found a textile empire with offices in Manhattan’s garment district, and whose products would be touted by the likes of Lucy and Ricky Ricardo.
But therein lies the early story of a curious and unforgettable destination known today as the King Fisher Society.
Today, the turkey-foot-shaped Richmond Mill Lake is a 120-acre refuge of quiet waters studded with cypress trees and surrounded by some 3,000 private acres of forest and field. A small lodge is tucked under magnolias and oaks, stocked with fine wines and cigars, and is the site of top-shelf dining and jazz music events. There’s a fabulous sporting clays range, miles of walking paths, and a historic home used for grand, Old South weddings. Families and friends and some very famous people find their way to the King Fisher Society, as do business groups meeting at the resorts of nearby Pinehurst and Southern Pines.
And to add to the curiosity and unforgettableness, consider this: King Fisher Society is best known, and world famous, for a true icon of the South — big, fat bluegill. By which I mean bigger and fatter than just about anywhere else on the planet. It’s turned the King Fisher Society into sort of a fish camp, but a fish camp in the way that, say, Kennebunkport is a fish camp. A luxury destination predicated on fishing, but so much more.
It’s a safe bet that ol’ Angus couldn’t have imagined that, either.
• • •
A hard rain had moved through the Sandhills when I pulled into the King Fisher Society’s subtle, stone-walled entrance, lending the early spring day the piney, earthy scents of a season in transition. Located near Laurel Hill, 32 miles south of Pinehurst, King Fisher Society is off the beaten path for sure, deep in the rolling pinewoods where the Sandhills gives grudging way to the Inner Coastal Plain. While the resort’s past is writ in the long-gone days of Confederate history and textiles glory, its present incarnation as a luxury destination is entirely rooted in the vision of Jim Morgan Jr., whose great-great-grandfather, the gunsmith Murdoch Morrison, built his gun factory on the shores of Richmond Mill Lake. In addition to running King Fisher Society, Morgan oversees the family’s real estate business, is an ordained Presbyterian minister, and plays jazz piano on the side. He’s bearded and avuncular, quick to smile and to put his visitors at ease as he recalls a pastoral upbringing that he wasn’t quite ready to relegate to eras past.
“I had a pretty firm idea of the atmosphere I wanted to recreate here,” Morgan explains. The family lake had spent nearly a century as a recreational base, first for textile mill employees and then as a public fishing lake. After the dam began to fail, the lake was closed to the public in 2001. As the dam was being rebuilt, Morgan was pondering the next chapters of life on Richmond Mill Lake.
“I learned early on that there was something special about being outdoors with friends,” Morgan says. “You like each other more. You trust each other more. Back in the ’60s, in the country, we were friends with whomever was around, and there was a group of us kids, three white guys and three black guys, and we did everything together. We hunted, we fished, we water-skied, and we called ourselves the King Fisher Club. That’s what I envisioned: a place where families and businesses and professional people could strengthen relationships. That’s become a theme here.”
In 2007, Morgan founded King Fisher Society, built the small luxury lodge — the main lodge has two bedrooms; the property can sleep up to 14, including lodging in the Home Place — and opened the lake to guests for the first time in more than four decades. “Now, we have people coming from all over the country,” Morgan beams. “We have PGA golfers, NASCAR drivers and owners, and major league ballplayers. For years, the coaching staffs of ACC schools have come here to brainstorm and catch bluegills. It’s very private. There are two security gates you have to go through. There are no cameras. Nothing here is going to end up on social media. People who live in the spotlight can fish and relax and just be who they are.”
To get a feel for the five-square-mile spread, Director of Operations David Buhler and I tour the property along well-graded farm paths and timber roads. More than 2,500 acres of King Fisher Society are under the conservation mandates of a Forest Stewardship Plan, and we take long drives through savannas of mature loblolly pine veined with creekbottoms, and longleaf pine stands lording over tawny carpets of gorgeous wire grass. There are fields that date to the antebellum years, and a pine grove that hosts a small colony of endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers — feathered proof of the caring hands that govern this landscape.
And despite the wild surroundings, it’s clear that man has made his mark on these lands. We stop at an old cabin, with walls built of dovetailed logs with adze marks running their length. This has long been a working landscape. “This land has been in cotton and tobacco, used for turpentine and pitch in the old naval stores industry, and worked by sharecroppers and tenant farmers,” Buhler says. “But our plan is to let it revert to pines and old fields. The Morgan family has had a heart for conservation for generations, and Jim has honored that and still does. He’s out here putting up fox squirrel boxes and wood duck boxes himself. We all know how rare it is to have this much intact ground under private stewardship. And we’re all thrilled that the public can now share it.”
• • •
One of the newer means of sharing the King Fisher Society is through one of North Carolina’s oldest and most beloved sporting traditions. It’s midday when I meet Richard “Ozzie” Osborne on a trim farm path that describes a sandy border along stately pines. Osborne is one of a half-dozen hunting guides who run their bird dogs for quail at the King Fisher Society, leading hunters through pine-studded broom sedge fields gridded with strips of milo. The bird dogs aren’t out of the truck five minutes when one of them slows to a near-crawl, flanks quivering.
“I think Bailey’s trying to tell us something,” Osborne says. Half a football field away, Bailey is as birdy as a bird dog gets, on the edge of a milo strip, muzzle to the ground, with geese honking overhead. A tricolor English setter, Chloe, senses the drama at hand, and, without hesitation, she locks up so tight and quick there are skid marks behind her paws.
Osborne grins. “How nice is that?” he murmurs, whether to himself, to me, to the dogs, or to the grass and sky, it’s hard to say. The scene is a tableau so utterly, perfectly lifted straight from the pages of North Carolina’s past that I hesitate to move in, loath to disturb the moment with the report from a shotgun.
Of course, it’s a momentary hesitation only, for a quail in the air is followed soon enough by a quail on a plate. When I’m lucky, of course.
And good fortune continues to smile into the evening hours. After the hunt, Morgan joins Buhler and me for dinner, kicked off with a rare treat of Pappy Van Winkle bourbon. Inside the main lodge, overstuffed leather chairs front a crackling fireplace, and a glassed-in dining porch is all warm woods and miles of glass overlooking the storied lake. Morgan’s uncle, Morris Morgan, was a well-known jazz pianist, and the family’s jazz history is proudly displayed. There are album covers framed on the walls — the Dave Brubeck Quartet, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane. I love the collection of old books from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, and the boxed collections of vintage Road & Track magazine. A few old family photos are subtly stacked on a side table, and it’s just enough, a nuanced family touchstone that stops well short of Victorian bric-a-brac. This is a cherished, meaningful place, and remains so, but it’s wide open to new memories and new traditions.
King Fisher Society draws on a list of culinary talent for meals, and tonight’s chef, Scott Wolcott, runs one of Southern Pines’ best fine-dining restaurants, the eponymous Wolcott’s. We struggle to carry on a conversation between flights of Scottish salmon, squab with foie gras, and a filet mignon served with gnocchi Bolognese, but we muddle through bravely. “This is a different kind of experience; we realize that,” Morgan says. “It is very personalized. What wines do you prefer? Which are your favorite cigars? We want to know what you want very specifically. It’s like somebody coming to your house — you want them to be happy.”
Adding to the intimacy is the exclusive nature of a King Fisher Society stay. Typically, a single group books the entire lodge — its two bedrooms have two queen beds each — with additional access to the historic Home Place on the King Fisher grounds. Corporate groups here for the day could number as many as 250 people, with outings that include not only fishing and bird hunting, but sporting clays, kayaking, falconry, and archery. And the spas and shopping and golf of Pinehurst are about 40 minutes away.
“When you are here, you are all we have,” Morgan explains. “It’s that idea that you know who’s out on the lake or in the woods because they’re your friends or family or colleagues. That’s how it was when I was growing up. That’s what people still look for.”
Despite its ongoing evolution as a multifaceted resort, King Fisher Society is still a fishing destination, and, sooner or later, the dinner conversation turns toward bluegill the size of a dinner plate. Morgan’s primary goal was to offer North Carolinians the kind of quality largemouth bass fishing found in Mexico or Florida. Bass Anglers Sportsman Society (B.A.S.S.) founder Ray Scott helped redefine the bottom of the lake with a custom-built fish structure. Famed fisheries biologist Bob Lusk plotted a feeding system involving computer-controlled pellet feeders, and stocked the lake with a strain of bass known to grow fast and stay hungry. And although the lake posts some pretty fabulous bass numbers — an average of four to five pounds and all you want of those — the lake’s northern latitude address stymies dreams of 12-pound monsters. Instead, the lake’s coppernose strain of bluegills went bonkers. During the spawning season, ridiculous catches of ridiculously sized fish are the norm. Even in the shoulder seasons, the bluegill fishing is nearly beyond comprehension.
Morgan laughs at the turn of events. “We have anglers who will catch one five-pound bass after another and curse every one of them, because they’re taking up valuable bluegill time! We won’t likely be a trophy bass lake in terms of lots of fish weighing double digits. But we are definitely a world-class trophy bluegill water.”
It’s a bit of a Cinderella story, how the fishing at King Fisher Society wound up going back to its yeoman roots — but with a fairy godmother’s surreal twist.
“This is not fancy trout fishing,” Morgan says. “It’s not deep-sea fishing. It’s just bluegill and bass. But that’s what we grew up with, and we are learning that the rest of the world just loves it. This lake has turned into a mythological destination for a lot of serious anglers. There are three-and-a-half-pound bluegill out there right now, I just know it.”
• • •
Morgan’s confidence helps explain my jitters the next day. During my visit, so early in spring that it might yet be late winter, the bluegill are still skulking on the pond bottom, and I’m working a tiny lead-head jig with the slightest of motions. The King Fisher Society keeps a roster of about two dozen guides on tap, ranging from Georgia bass tournament fishermen to NC State University bass club standouts to locals like my guide today, Robbie Everett, part owner of a locally renowned tackle shop that caters mostly to bass tournament anglers, and a bluegill addict with few peers.
“What’s so cool about the bluegill fishing here is that it’s a big accident,” Everett says, eyes fixed on a sonar fish-finder that’s sweeping the lake bottom for fish on siesta. “They didn’t start out to build the best bluegill water on the planet, but I think we have it now. What makes this place so magical is just how many fish there are over two pounds.” Once, after guiding all day, Everett and two other guides caught 23 bluegill weighing more than two pounds in three hours of fishing. Two years ago, nine were landed more than three pounds each.
We have nearly four miles of shoreline to fish, and we try the feeders first before we move to a deeper channel and go to work with the sonar. In the spring, summer, and early fall, bluegill fishing here can be fast and furious. With today’s cold water, we have to hunt to find them. When a constellation of white blips appears on the screen, Everett grins broadly. “I knew they were here,” he says. In the next 45 minutes, I land the four largest bluegill of my life, one after another. One is 1 pound, 14 ounces, another 1 pound, 15 ounces. These coppernose bluegill are flanked with tiger stripes, and roll under the boat like tuna. We cross our fingers. “We’re all around the magic two-pound mark,” Everett says. “Let’s stay at it.”
My response has to be pretty standard for a King Fisher Society guest: No complaint, I think. I’ll stick around for as long as you’ll let me.
King Fisher Society
Laurel Hill, NC 28351