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Pier Pressure
Can an amateur venture onto one of those Outer Banks docks and actually catch fish?

By Earl Shores
The Washington Post
Sunday, August 10, 1997; Page E01
   


My sinker fell like a rock out of the predawn sky, hitting the water with a lame "plunk." A school of silver-sided finger mullet scattered, lighting up the area like a hundred underwater flashbulbs. Completely undisturbed by my clumsy cast were half a dozen broomstick-shape gar fish, floating effortlessly around a piling 30 feet below me.

It was 5:20 a.m., and the activity in the floodlit waters around the Nags Head Fishing Pier surprised me. But what didn't surprise me was my first cast being less than perfect. I mean, the pole was a rental, the coffee I'd bought at the pier house hadn't kicked in yet -- and I hadn't been fishing in 20 years.

When I'd walked into the pier's compact tackle shop the day before, I wasn't sure I would actually end up with a pole in my hand. I had never been fishing on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and for good reason: I was intimidated. I'd driven by those commercial piers many times; they tend to be populated with the sort of laid-back, leather-skinned, supremely confident anglers who look like they eat bloodworms for breakfast. Could a rank amateur like me actually catch fish here?

With my heart drumming, I approached the tidy counter and mumbled: "How's the fishing?"

The man behind the register, wearing a blue "Nags Head Pier" polo shirt with "Oakie" embroidered on the front, didn't seem to mind the question. With a pleasant smile and a Carolina drawl, he said, "Let's see, they've caught some spot, croaker, gray trout and some pompano."

I had been ready to bluff my way through any "fish talk," but Oakie had me feeling . . . well, comfortable. I put my fishing cards on the table.

"Could someone who hasn't fished in 20 years go out and catch fish?" I asked.

He looked up and answered without hesitation. "Probably as good as some of 'em who fish every day."

True or not, it was a damn good line -- and I bit.

So there I was in the morning darkness, sharing the 750-foot-long Nags Head Fishing Pier with one other person.

For more than 60 years, pier fishing has been popular in the Outer Banks. Jennette's Fishing Pier at Whalebone Junction (Milepost 16.5) is said to be the oldest Outer Banks pier, tracing its wooden ancestry back to 1932 (all piers along the Banks have been destroyed by storms and rebuilt numerous times). Today, eight public fishing piers dot the coast between Kitty Hawk and Cape Hatteras.

These stilted structures stretch out into the fertile Outer Banks waters like giant wooden centipedes, allowing anglers to get their lines into deep water beyond the surf line. As a result, spot, croaker, snapper bluefish, sea trout and flounder are all common catches. And if you really know what you're doing, larger fish like king mackerel, cobia, bonito, amberjack, red drum and black drum are there for the taking.

But more than that, pier fishing is easy. All you have to do is show up. Poles can be rented and bait is available in each pier's tackle shop. Plus, you can leave when you get tired.

In the tackle shop, I picked out a six-foot pole and spinning reel combo, mine all day for $5.

Next issue: bait. I felt more than a little queasy when the guy running the pier (a retired steelworker from Dundalk, not Oakie) advised me to go with bloodworms. Their name is doubly appropriate: Besides being bloody themselves, they have a nasty set of pincers that can draw blood from a careless finger. With this in mind, I almost went with frozen squid for bait.

But a friend had told me that fresh bait was always more effective, so I bought a bag of worms and a $2 filet knife, and soon was playing sushi chef as I carefully quartered my wriggling bait on the wooden railing of the pier.

I cast off. I did it again. And again. With each attempt, I felt more comfortable. The only sounds I could hear were the buzz of line coming off a reel, the plunk of my sinker and the occasional wave breaking on the beach. It was so peaceful. I had forgotten how pleasant fishing could be.

Half an hour later, I still hadn't felt anything resembling a nibble on my line. But after 20 years, would I even know if I got a bite? And what was I going to do if I actually managed to catch a fish?

While I pondered this, a strange sound came out of the darkness beyond the pier. My head snapped around.

"FWOOOSHH!"

It was the blowholes of the dolphins we'd been watching all week. Out on the pier, I could hear them breathe, even if I couldn't see them.

I'd been on the pier almost an hour without a bite. But I didn't care. The nature show had been worth getting up for. More fishermen were showing up, and some were roving up and down the pier casting artificial lures for gray trout. I had just made a nice cast to my left when I felt a nibble. It was unmistakable: I could feel the vibration where the rubber butt of the pole rested against my hip. My heart started racing.

The vibrations came down the line again. I fought my instinct to yank hard to set the hook: Maybe the fish was still playing with the bait, and hadn't taken the hook -- or maybe the bait was all gone and so was my catch. When the vibrations came again, I yanked the tip of the pole firmly skyward and started to reel in.

I had him. The line felt heavier than just my six-ounce sinker, and the pole had an extra bend in it as my left hand intently worked the reel's handle. I tried to keep an even tempo on the reel.

My eyes followed the line to water, concentrating on the spot where I thought my catch would appear. A silvery shape broke the surface, and I pumped the reel furiously. When the fish got even with the pier, I quickly swung it over the railing, and gently laid him down on the deck.

My catch was maybe 10 inches long, with a plump little belly. Its colors were hard to gauge accurately in the halogen glare of the pier lights, but I could see a dark spot just behind each gill opening. So I knew that I had just caught a spot. Abundant in these waters, it is probably the easiest fish to catch in North Carolina.

It hadn't even gotten the bait off the hook. Fortunately, it was hooked cleanly through the upper lip. This removal was going to be simple -- even for me.

I carefully removed the barb of the hook back through the hole. With a sharp tug and a flick of the wrist, the hook was out -- but now I had a decision to make. Did I go into the tackle shop and buy a five-gallon plastic pail so I could keep him, or did he go back into the ocean?

The answer was easy. Since I was already feeling sorry for my bloodworms, I knew there was no way I could clean my catch with a clear conscience. Over the side went my first-ever Outer Banks catch.

A few minutes later I got another bite, and reeled in another spot. "Excuse me," I said to the guy next to me. "Is this fish a `keeper'?"

"Yeah, he's good size for a spot," the man said. "But I don't keep 'em. By the time you cut off the head and the tail, there ain't much left."

I nodded in agreement. Over the side went catch No. 2.

The horizon started to brighten, and at 6:30 exactly, the pier lights went off. The dolphins returned, their dorsal fins visible as they swam circles just beyond the T-shaped end of the pier, which was filling with cobia fishermen and their heavy-duty tackle.

I landed a third spot. Then I was surprised by a very hard strike on my line. This fish pulled hard; I had visions of a snapper bluefish, or maybe a keeper sea trout. But when I got the fish on the pier, it was just a little bigger than my biggest spot -- and spot-less. In the flat morning light, the fish had an orangey color.

Before I even touched the fish, out of its mouth came a guttural sound that made me flinch. No wonder they're called croakers!

Things slowed after that. The pier was now lined with anglers, but nobody was pulling up anything. The best fishing was past.

I was considering packing it in because nothing had touched my line for half an hour. Then I had a nibble. When I reeled it in, it didn't feel like anything was on the line. But on my hook was a small, dark-colored shape. Before I got it on to the pier I knew what it was -- a tiny blowfish.

Wrapping the fish in a paper towel to protect my hand from the rough prickles on its head, I removed the hook. The fish seemed a little dazed, but just before I dropped it back into the water, it puffed up like a party balloon.

A few minutes later I walked off the pier feeling much the same way.

Earl Shores is a freelance writer in Columbia, Md.

Details : Outer Banks Fishing Piers

Fall is the best time to fish the Outer Banks, according to Robert J. Goldstein, author of the excellent book "Coastal Fishing in the Carolinas -- From Surf, Pier, and Jetty." And the best thing a novice can do before fishing is ask for advice. "Watch what other people are doing," says Goldstein. "Use the same bait they're using, and use the same lures they're using."

PIERS: There are eight public fishing piers between Kitty Hawk and the village of Hatteras. Most are open from April through November, and are open 24 hours a day during the summer and early fall (hours vary, so call before you go). A 24-hour fishing pass generally costs $5 or $6. Season passes are available. All piers sell bait and have tackle shops where you can rent poles (about $5 a day). 1/4

- Kitty Hawk Pier, Milepost 1, Kitty Hawk, 919-261-2772. 1/4

- Avalon Fishing Pier, MP 6, Kill Devil Hills, 919-441-7494.

- Nags Head Fishing Pier, MP 12, Nags Head, 919-441-5141.

- Jennette's Fishing Pier, MP 16.5, Nags Head, 919-441-6116.

- Outer Banks Pier Fishing Center, MP 18.5, Nags Head, 919-441-5740.

- Hatteras Island Fishing Pier, Rodanthe, 919-987-2323.

- Avon Fishing Pier, Avon, 919-995-5480.

- Cape Hatteras Fishing Pier (Frisco, 919-986-2533).

GETTING THERE: The Outer Banks are about a five-hour drive from Washington. Follow I-95 south, then just north of Richmond, take I-295 south (toward Virginia Beach). Exit on I-64 east toward Williamsburg and follow I-64 through the Hampton Roads tunnel, or exit at I-664 and take the new tunnel to Portsmouth. From either direction, exit at Route 168 South (Battlefield Boulevard). Route 168 becomes Route 158 and takes you directly to the Outer Banks.

WHERE TO STAY: Renting a house is probably the most popular way to spend time on the Outer Banks. There is also a wide variety of chain hotels and privately owned motor lodges. The Dare County Tourist Bureau (see below) can provide a list of accommodations.

WHERE TO EAT: While soda and snack machines provide the hungry angler with sustenance day or night, some piers have snack bars. The Kitty Hawk, Nags Head and Jennette's piers have oceanfront restaurants serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. For those who crave really fresh seafood, the Pier House Restaurant on the Nags Head Pier will clean and cook your catch.

INFORMATION: Dare Country Tourist Bureau, P.O. Box 399, Manteo, N.C. 27954, 1-800-446-6262, http://www.outer-banks.nc.us.

-- Earl Shores

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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