Originally created 08/16/98

The lure of Thurmond Lake



"I probably fish 150, maybe 170 days a year," said Mr. Butler, who became a professional fishing guide 12 years ago. "I just decided one day: That's what I wanted to do."

Most mornings, he wears his favorite business attire: faded shorts and a T-shirt. His 19-foot Glassmaster boat is packed with tackle. Bait-sized herring swim lazy circles in a tank near the vessel's stern.

"Once you get above the parks, there's hardly anybody up here," he said, piloting around a secluded point in McCormick County, S.C. "You see eagles, deer, anything you want."

On a good day, there are fat hybrid bass, schooling and swirling at dawn; or solitary stripers, cruising 40 feet below the surface. "Sometimes we catch flathead catfish, 20 pounds or so."

Mr. Butler's affection for the 70,000-acre inland sea isn't unique; an estimated 8 million people visit the lake each year, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.

Their interests are as endless as the amenities: six state parks, five marinas, 13 campgrounds, golf at Savannah Lakes Village and Hickory Knob State Resort Park, dozens of boat ramps, 10 major recreation beaches.

And for those who crave privacy, there are 60,000 acres of federal lands accessible to everyone.

Marshall Wesby and his wife, Minnie, often sneak away for an afternoon together at the lake. It's like a date.

There are cold drinks, a lounge chair for napping and -- of course -- a dozen fishing rods scattered at intervals along the beach, each equipped with a tiny brass bell.

"The fish bites, the bell rings and you reel him in," Mr. Wesby said with smile, showing off a plastic bucket half filled with white bass and bluegill.

Nearby, Mrs. Wesby was grinning. Moored with a rope to a stout tree was a carp, nearly a yard long, weighing 35 pounds or more, lazily blowing bubbles in the clear water.

"I caught this one," she said. "Took half an hour just to reel it in."

The smiles and laughter of patients from Gracewood State School and Georgia Regional Hospital are what lured Ken Riddleberger to Thurmond Lake.

For 20 years, he operated the lakefront Oellerich Memorial Park, where he helped the handicapped enjoy the water. Although Mr. Riddleberger has retired, the park, on Ridge Road in Columbia County, still serves clients of those facilities.

"Years back, I had a house in south Richmond County," he said. "I didn't want to leave, but they talked me into going up here, and I did. After I got there, I just went to work."

During his decades at the park, he built playgrounds for handicapped children, a log cabin for them to see and touch, even a wildlife observation platform.He also helped install a 190-foot concrete ramp allowing wheelchairs to reach the cool water.

"We put a life jacket on the client, float him right off the chair," he said. "Then you just squeeze a little WD-40 into the wheel bearings. For most of them it's the first time they've ever been in a lake."

Mr. Riddleberger fell in love with the lake. He even retired there.

It takes a while for Betty Baell of Modoc, S.C., to decide what she loves most about the lake. There are so many choices.

"The first clear memory I have of putting a boat in is Mother's Day of 1954," she said. "There were no parks. We put in on a dirt launch ramp."

In 1966, she bought a lot on the lake's northwest shore. The rest is history.

"I wanted to live on the water," she said. "I didn't want to have to take a boat out and come home just as the sun was going down. That's the prettiest time."

The tranquility is a consistent routine. Even the migratory mallards that patronize her feeders make a return each year.

"They showed up four years ago," she said. "They arrive up in March and leave in June. I don't know where they go. But they always come back."

Her home offers the view of a lifetime -- every day.

"If you see the sunset, year round, every day, looking full west, sitting on your screened porch, across a body of water, that's the way things should be," she said.

Jack Lake first saw the mammoth reservoir in its natural state.

"It was full of timber when I got here," he said. "That was in 1946, when I got out of the Army."

Mr. Lake made a career out of logging the wilderness that would become Thurmond Lake, watching it slowly fill in the early 1950s.

And he's stayed around ever since, catching fish, watching the formations of Canada geese and making many friends.

"I spent a lot of time on this lake and enjoyed every bit of it," he said "Every bit. Every now and then, I'll even run into a tree I know with the depth finder on the boat."

This 4-part series

THE PEOPLE: Meet a few of the estimated 8 million people who visit Thurmond Lake each year, including some who make it their home.

AUG. 23

THE PAST: From Indian artifacts to underwater ruins and a 19th century mill, Thurmond Lake's history remains alive today.

AUG. 30

BOAT LOVERS: With 70,000-acres of water, Thurmond Lake is a year-round mecca to boaters of all types.

SEPT. 6

THE FUTURE: Public lands along Thurmond Lake are targeted for commercial development. Plans call for resorts, golf courses and other amenities.