Big O’s River Retreat

From 2010 through 2014, Raleigh photographer Julie Williams Dixon traveled east to gather material for educational films being produced by the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences about American shad restoration and the Roanoke River. One of the films, We Are the River, has toured the state in classrooms and public forums.

text and photographs by Julie Williams Dixon

Springtime on the Roanoke River is a fisherman’s paradise. First come the hickory shad, sometimes as early as mid January. As the days stretch out and the water warms, large numbers of fish move upstream to spawn, and fishermen migrate like patient pilgrims back to the ancient river’s banks.

In February, you might find yourself alone at your favorite fishing hole, but by March when the rockfish get steady, so do the lines at the public boat ramps. By April, you won’t be the only one dropping anchor at Devil’s Gut, or Speller’s Ditch, even if you do know how to navigate your boat in the dark grey of pre-dawn using only the old trees as guideposts.

Cabins and lean-tos crouch nonchalantly amid the cypress trees, though these hunting and fishing clubs are less numerous now than in days gone by. I didn’t grow up in this world. I can’t claim to know about shad darts, or how to tie a fly to catch a striped bass, but what I can declare is that I’ve encountered a kind of serenity among the fishermen here that I have rarely found for myself.

It was a great pleasure to gather stories about the people and places along this crooked ribbon that snakes through the old north state. There are many to be told. For now, join me for a glimpse into Big O’s River Retreat.

If the word “retreat” brings to mind a spa or glamorous surroundings, let go of preconceived notions, because Big O’s River Retreat is not swanky or shiny, and you’re more likely to get offered an old can of red wrigglers than a cup of Red Zinger. There’s a mischievous peace shining from the eyes under bills of well-worn caps. But Big O’s is also oozing with contentment. The river and woods offer sanctuary. Waders and camouflage jackets slip on meditatively.

On the second and fourth Thursday of the month – every month, all year long – one of the members is in charge of planning the menu. Cooking duties are shared among members and loyal guests. In spring, fresh fish is on the menu, but the meals also range from chicken pastry, to deer or wild turkey, to a traditional North Carolina pig pickin’, downeast style. “Immediately after they ask the blessing, it’s just an uproar,” says member Billy Spruill. “But the minute their plates are full and they sit down, it’s absolute silence. Not a sound nowhere.” The group welcomes friends and family, and sometimes the crowd swells depending on the time of year and what’s on the menu. “You don’t know how many people are going to come sometimes until the day of the meal,” member Jimmy Spruill says. “We have some families close. They’re people that need food. Low income people.”

There’s been scant turnover in the original 14 members who formed what would become Big O’s more than two decades ago. At the time photographer Julie Wiliams Dixon met them, at least one original member was too ill to attend, and sadly, one of the younger members passed away unexpectedly in 2014. Two more, including a WWII veteran, have passed since then. Many are well into their 70s, and a few are in their 80s. As one member put it, “this group has a way of living a long time, and there’s speculation it might have something to do with the regular fishing.”