Dawn's first rays filtered through a stand of cypress trees, sparkling on the silky water like a necklace of yellow diamonds draped against a black velvet dress.

It's amazing Rhodes Pond is called a "pond" because the description simply doesn't do justice to this alluring body of water. In few North Carolina locales is a 471-acre impoundment defined as a "pond."

At the very least, it seems this place should be called a lake. On the other hand, the English language has few adjectives to describe such a superlative stretch of water. Rhodes Pond must be seen, floated and challenged for an angler to appreciate its beauty - and the fish that live in its waters.

After working with the Sandhills Area Land Trust for three years, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission acquired this crown jewel. Found six miles south of Dunn off U.S. Highway 301 in Cumberland County, funding for the purchase came through a partnership formed by the N.C. Department of Transportation and the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources. The N.C. Ecosystem Enhancement Program buys natural lands for conservation to replace other lands lost or damaged by highway construction.

The WRC manages the property as a fishing and wildlife-viewing area. Waterfowl utilize the pond and it's also being evaluated for inclusion in the WRC's Game Lands program as a limited-access waterfowl hunting area. Permit-only waterfowl hunts could begin as soon as the winter of 2006-07.

Rhodes pond dates to 1740, when the Black River was dammed to create a mill pond. Gamefish lurk beneath its surface and ducks, geese and water birds fly overhead. Lilies bloom in the openings between the cypress and tupelo stands.

Fishermen ply the more open waters with canoes and john boats. It's not a place for high-performance bass boats. An angler spends more time using a paddle to push his boat through the trees or lily pads than he will running a trolling motor or an outboard.

"It's my first time here," said Danny Cagle of Lumberton. "I've already caught three bass this morning."

Cagle, 46, was fishing from a 10-foot wooden boat during June 2005. The pond had just been opened for free public use. In the past, it had been managed by private ownership. But the owners charged only a small daily-use fishing fee.

Cagle had read about the pond in a newspaper story and decided to give it a try with his favorite method.

He was using a cane pole to catch largemouth bass and a fiberglass "bream- buster" pole to reach between tree trunks to catch panfish such as bluegills and crappie.

"I won't show you my lure," he said. "If everyone knew how effective using a jigger pole was at catching bass, they would fish out all the waters of the state."

Using a homemade paddle carved from a plank, Cagle propelled the tiny boat deftly, maneuvering it past every bit of cover. The rod tip beat a tap-tap-tap rhythm against the surface with the lure close behind, tethered to the tip of the cane pole by a couple feet of line. The line then wrapped around the cane pole to the butt, giving it extra support against breaking.

A bass struck, exploding the water beside a cypress knee. Cagle played the fish until it tired, then retrieved the rod hand over hand until he could reach the fish and add it to the others in his livewell - a wooden box built into the deck of the boat with a hole in the bottom to let water slosh in and out. Three other fat, almost black, largemouth bass already were inside, along with a few panfish.

Cagle grinned as the bass splashed water on his face, then sculled his boat along until its black-painted sides were was hidden among Spanish moss shadows cast against the soot-black water.

Jerry Silas Honeycutt and his wife, Dorothy purchased Rhodes Pond in 1964. Honeycutt died during Nov. 2000, and the state previously had made some unacceptable offers to buy the pond. Dorothy Honeycutt, 65, then married Jimmy Moore.

"We owned land that joined the pond," she said. "It became our livelihood. Along with what we made from farming, we charged for fishing in the pond. But it was never more than $3 or $5. One pastor used to stop by and share a cold soft drink with Jimmy. He would call Jimmy the 'Black River Philosopher' because he loved nature and the outdoors so much."

The original asking price was $500,000. But the sale was eventually concluded for $375,000 and other incentives, including the relocation of some buildings.

"At one time the lake was 500 acres," she said. "Jerry said bass, crappie, and all other kinds of freshwater fish, except mountain trout, were in the pond. There was a fish kill a few years ago, and he said it would make a fellow cry to see all those 10-pound bass going belly up. The biggest ones were hit the hardest."

Dorothy Moore then lowered price, and it was eventually accepted because of sentimental reasons.

"My five children all live within sight of the lake, and I'm down there several times a week," she said. "They were really concerned about who we sold the pond to. We wanted to keep it as clean and natural as we could for family recreation. A lot of children got their first fishing lessons at Rhodes Pond. Kids always fished for free.

"It was a grist mill in the past. My mother is 94, and she talks about how people would bring their corn there to make flour. I think Jerry would have been real happy with the sale. We didn't get as much as we could have, but now we know it will be there for our children and grandchildren."

Mallards and Canada geese flying overhead provided the background music during a day of fishing for Alvin and Lori Tatum. A group of men from Raleigh once leased hunting rights, as evidenced by a nearby duck blind. Some of the old duck blinds provide cover for fish, so they were worth the effort of prospecting with a few casts.

Lori Tatum boated a bass, and her husband added it to a stringer already heavy with three bass and a bowfin.

"I didn't know what it was," Alvin Tatum said. "It looked like a cross between a bass and a catfish, except with teeth. You call it a bowfin. Is it good to eat?"

Eating a bowfin depends on one's appetite and upbringing. Some anglers in southeastern N.C. make bowfin stew. But with three fat largemouth on the stringer, the bowfin was probably destined for release. The Tatums were making their eighth fishing trip to Rhodes Pond.

"It took us a while to learn our way around," Alvin Tatum said. "I'm glad we came because it's a beautiful place to fish."

He had been to a nearby discount store and bought a package of floating worms in four colors. He used several wire hooks with offset shanks for rigging the worms weedless, Texas-style, with the hook point going into the nose, threading out of the body a quarter-inch back, then inserted through the body and out the other side. He tested a hook point with his thumb to make sure it was sharp then checked to see it was lying flat against the worm so it wouldn't snag any lily pads or weeds.

"(Bass) like the pink and the yellow," he said. "I just cast it into the holes in the pads and between the trees. I move it slowly and kind of twitch it along the surface. The light wire hook lets it float so it keeps it from snagging the pads. When a bass hits it, I give him just a little line before I set the hook."

The Tatums fished from a 16-foot john boat equipped with a trolling motor. Many anglers use canoes, kayaks or wooden boats that can be carried on car tops or inside pickup beds. Smaller boats are easier to maneuver into the aquatic vegetation and flooded forest at the upper end of the lake.

A causeway divides the lake. At the downstream side of the causeway, the water is relatively deep as it's within a cleared area extending 50 yards on the upstream side.

"Jerry was a dreamer," Dorothy said. "He built the causeway with the idea people could walk out for a stroll or to go fishing. It looks like a dam, but it was never intended for that. It looks like a bridge was going to be built at the end of the causeway, but he never finished it."

The causeway is now overgrown with trees and shrubs that make fishing from it impossible. Perhaps the WRC will clear a walking trail along the causeway in the future, perhaps not. But the excavation at either side offers some of the deepest water in the lake.

The causeway may form the dividing line between fishing activities and the waterfowl hunting area. Once waterfowl season begins, anglers will be prohibited from entering the area upstream of the causeway to prevent disturbing resting ducks and geese and detracting from hunting opportunities. Even so, the open waters between the dam formed by Highway 301 and the causeway still offer open and deeper waters. The entire pond will remain open for fishing except near and during the waterfowl season.

Bob Powers and Jimmy Griffin have fished together for many years. They were enjoying a day of crappie fishing. Using live minnows fished with float rigs not far from the dam, they had caught several nice-sized black crappie.

"We get together whenever we can," Powers said. "Jimmy lives out of state now, but we go fishing to have a little fun every time he visits."

The pair fished from a heavier run-about style boat. Such boats can be launched at the ramp and access channel at the southeast corner of the lake. The access channel is shallow and poling or paddling is necessary to reach deep enough water to run a motor.

A vehicle lot features compacted soil and has a generous amount of parking spots. Some of the buildings on the site will be moved, including a former concession stand. Other than the parking lot and ramp, there are no other facilities.

Fishermen catch crappie and other panfish near the southern shoreline where the water is deep enough to reach with a cast from the bank. A few private homes sit near the western bank of the dam. The other banks are too thick with trees to fish and also adjoin private properties. While there is some good bank fishing, the best way to sample the fishing is from a small boat.

"It's just beautiful," said Ned Connelly of Wilmington. "It's like you're in a scene out of a movie. The pads are blooming and the fish are jumping. The ibises and herons are everywhere, and there's an egret roost up in the Black River channel."

Connelly was fishing from a 16-foot john boat and using his favorite spinnerbaits, topwater lures and Carolina-rigged plastic worms to fish the pads and Black River channel. He had made the two-hour drive from Wilmington, but it took him a few extra turns to find the ramp so he had missed the daylight bite.

"I've caught chain pickerel, black crappie and bluegill," he said. "It's some of the best-looking water for bass I've ever seen, but I haven't been able to catch one yet.

"All you have to do is look at the water and watch the largemouth bust a few dragonflies to know that there are some nice bass in Rhodes Pond. Next time I'll have some floating worms.

"The fish seem to bite better at dawn, so the other thing I'm going to do is set the alarm clock earlier so I can get an earlier start bass fishing."