At midnight, when the moon is bright and the ghosts of dead pirates roam the beaches, Dianne Scatchard likes to climb out wooden piers over the Atlantic with the men in her family to rob the ocean of its bounty.
"This is a ritual for us," says Scatchard, who is helping filet a bucket of bluefish that she, her husband, brother-in-law and father have just pulled out of the water with a delight that Blackbeard must have felt capturing ships. "We've been coming down here for a lot of years."
If you like to fish from sunrise to sunset or any of the dark hours between, the Outer Banks of North Carolina are at your service. During the spring and fall when the fish are plentiful, and even during the summer months when too often they are not, this is an angler's Times Square.
For the trophy hunter, a fleet of sleek charter boats sets out each day for marlin, sailfish and wahoo. Surf fishermen have almost 100 miles of beach, ranging from absolutely isolated to comfortably close to a motel room, to choose from. Then there are the fishing piers and bridges.
"The fishing here is easy," says Jim Canty, Scatchard's brother-in-law, who manages a mortgage office in Fredericksburg, Va. "You don't have to know a whole lot about it to catch fish."
On the Outer Banks, you begin with an advantage. Because these barrier islands jut into the Atlantic farther than any point of land on the mid-Atlantic seaboard, they are closer to the warm, fish-sustaining waters of the Gulf Stream.
"You can catch fish on these piers that anywhere else you'd have to charter a boat to get at," said George Steingart, a 46-year-old Philadelphia printer who caught a sea trout, bluefish and spot in the five minutes I stood with him this week on one of the seven commercial fishing piers that point into the Atlantic from Kitty Hawk to Cape Hatteras.
Good fishing is not guaranteed. Over the years there have been times here that tried the souls of vacationing anglers and the local chambers of commerce. But when the fish are hungry, especially during spring and fall migrations along the coast, the string of barrier islands becomes the world's longest fishing party.
"This is America's best-kept secret," says Al Grucelski, fishing with his wife Lynne on the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge that crosses Oregon Inlet. The Grucelskis are sharing a ramp designed particularly for fishing with 30 other anglers and almost all of them are catching fish. "We've been coming here 10 years and we've never been skunked."
The fishing was so good this week that even Rob Leibner and Tom Jacomo, both Brooklyn-born and living in Washington, caught fish. Leibner, 28, a Legal Aid Society lawyer, and Jacomo, 37, who owns The Palm restaurant in Washington, have a collection of fishing disaster stories that they deliver like vaudeville comics.
"Last year we made one cast and then spent two days untangling line," says Jacomo, who snagged a sunfish and a blue in the surf this week.
"The closest we got to fish before this was eating seafood at his restaurant," said Leibner, who was so confident after catching a few saltwater fish this week that he pointed his rod at a brackish pond near their beach house and caught a largemouth bass. Depending on whose judgment you believe, the fish was either three pounds or just a few ounces shy of 30.
If you like company while you fish, the piers are the place to be, even if they do charge from $2.50 to $3 for the day. Men and women, boys and girls, veterans and first-timers lean together over railings on the old wooden piers pulling up fish and trading stories. Along one section of pier, people will be catching spot while just a few yards away everyone is getting blues. There are sinks to clean the catch and restaurants to keep the whole enterprise well fed.
"This is a nice clean way to go fishing," says Ethel Scolpini, who has been fishing the piers near Nags Head for 10 years with her husband Frank. She does most of the catching and he gets the hooks out of their mouths. This day she daringly disconnected a fish from its hook for the first time.
The Scolpinis are from Westchester County in New York. Three years ago, he retired from his job driving a truck and she from her job as cashier, and they moved to the Outer Banks. The first thing they did was buy a 19-foot fishing boat. Most of the time it floats beside a dock.
"To me, this is a lot safer," says Ethel, standing at her favorite spot on the Joe Justius pier. Justius sold his machine shop in Philadelphia and retired to Florida about 10 years ago. Three years later he came out of retirement to buy his pier. Now he is captain of one of the 24-hour fishing platforms that attract anglers the way a casino draws gamblers.
"I don't come down here just to go fishing," says Canty, fileting fish under one of the Kitty Hawk pier lights and a nearly full moon. "But I wouldn't think of coming down here and not fish."