In Va. Beach, One Pier, No Pressure

What's the lure of fishing this way? If you have to ask . . .

At more than 1,000 feet long, the Virginia Beach Fishing Pier has plenty of spots for casting a line.
At more than 1,000 feet long, the Virginia Beach Fishing Pier has plenty of spots for casting a line. (Virginia Beach Convention And Visitors Bureau)
By Tim Warren
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 28, 2008; Page C02

Nobody loves fishing the piers on North Carolina's Outer Banks more than I do, but sometimes a six- to seven-hour drive from my house in Silver Spring simply isn't feasible. The piers closer to home, whether on the Chesapeake Bay or on the Atlantic in Ocean City, range from adequate at best to downright appalling.

So what to do when the weather gets warm and the fish are biting, but I have just a short time available?

On a recent weekend, my son Matt and I found a great alternative: Virginia Beach. It's only a four-hour drive from my house (anglers from Northern Virginia can get there in a little more than three hours), and, with a wealth of piers both big and small, Virginia Beach is a perfect spot to wet a line, breathe the salt air and bask in the sea breezes.

A word about pier fishing: As much as I love it, I'm well aware that it's often considered the poor cousin to other forms of the sport. The very things that make it so appealing to some of us -- it's cheap, low-tech and not especially demanding -- produce sneers from the deep-sea crowd, the obsessive fly-fishermen or the serious bass anglers, with their flashy jump suits, $200 polarized sunglasses and revved-up powerboats that blast over the water at the speed of sound. To these folks, there's no appeal in the easygoing nature of pier fishing. It's like keeping on the training wheels when you've learned to ride a bike.

But on the pier, nobody's interested in pushing any stinkin' envelopes, testing their manhood or reaching a higher spiritual consciousness by matching the hatch. You go pier fishing because you want to relax, for goodness' sake.

None of this nervously changing lures every five minutes; it's usually a matter of baiting the hook, dropping it over the railing and seeing what happens. You talk to your fishing partner or socialize with your neighbors: From Florida to California, I have found pier anglers to be a most democratic and welcoming bunch. You have a cool drink and watch for flocks of sea birds, often a signal that a school of rampaging bluefish is on the way. Mostly, though, you just slow down. You forget about work and remember why life can be so good.

The weather didn't look promising as Matt and I drove to Virginia Beach; it was cool and rainy, and a strong wind was forecast for that evening. Indeed, we scrubbed our plans for night fishing when it turned downright blustery, consoling ourselves with a seafood dinner at a waterfront restaurant.

Matt, who is 21, and his younger brother, Nick, learned to fish through our annual vacations on the Outer Banks, and we had a good time at dinner recalling some memorable moments. Matt brought up the evening I cast out expectantly, only to watch in horror as a sea gull flew in front of me and became entangled in the line. Fortunately, we managed to release the bird unharmed.

It was still overcast the next day, but the wind had died down by the time we reached the pier a couple of hours before high tide, often the best time to catch fish. We had chosen the Virginia Beach Fishing Pier because it's more than 1,000 feet long, offering lots of angling opportunities, and because it has many of the facilities you want for a day on the pier, such as a shop that sells bait and tackle, and a snack bar. We paid our eight bucks and hoped for the best.

It didn't look good when we saw that folks were catching a ton of skates, which steal your bait and are also a pain to unhook. We were mentally preparing for a slow day when I noticed that a couple of guys at the end of the pier were bringing in bluefish.

Now, bluefish aren't popular with some anglers because they are super-aggressive predators with a nasty set of needle-sharp teeth, and their oily flesh isn't considered as desirable as, say, that of a flounder. But catching them can be great fun. You toss in a lure called a Gotcha plug, which is a piece of hard plastic with treble hooks at either end. It's meant to look like a crippled baitfish, and you reel it in on the top of the water, twitching it this way and that in hopes that a bluefish will come out of nowhere and smash it. Whatever you think of bluefish, they are not subtle.

We rerigged our lines to go after the bluefish, and within a couple of minutes I had brought my first victim over the railing. Using pliers, I carefully unhooked the fish, whose jaws continued to work furiously, almost malevolently. No wonder that bluefish of this size -- one to two pounds -- are called snapper blues. Big ones are called chopper blues, and anybody who has fished the Atlantic can tell you stories of the unsuspecting angler who tried to unhook a bluefish the way you do a bass and ended up with mangled fingers.

When you encounter a school of hungry bluefish, it can be nonstop catching, and so it was for the next 90 minutes for the seven or eight of us pursuing them. I figure that Matt and I each caught about 20 blues, either releasing them or handing them over to two nice women who were planning a big fish dinner.

It was all the fishing action you could want, but when high tide was over, the catching came to an abrupt halt -- bluefishing is like that. But we had gotten more than our fill, and it was time for another fish sandwich and more stories.

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