The tourists were the first to flee. With Hurricane Diana battering North Carolina's southeastern coast, and experts unable to predict where it was likely to move next, the day-trippers and weekend renters loaded their cars and left the Outer Banks. Slower to leave were seasonal and full-time residents. But the howl of the wind and its smell of destruction persuaded many to visit inland relatives.
That left 170 miles of the Outer Banks, from Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills to Nags Head, Hatteras and Ocracoke, to the defiant, the foolish and the brave. Winnie Barnard was among them. The elderly angler rode out the hurricane watch on a wooden fishing pier that reached 600 yards into the threatening sea.
"The fishing was great. The spot were biting anything you threw in," said Barnard, who caught so many fish one day last month she had to pay someone to carry them to her home.
For most people, the fishing season ends after the Labor Day weekend. They pack their fishing rods in a closet and begin gearing up for the ski, hiking or hunting seasons.
But on the coast of North Carolina, September is the start of a second fishing season. Most of the fish that migrated up the Atlantic in spring return in the fall, fat and sassy after their summer feast. And anglers come from all over the country to greet them.
The Outer Banks are well situated for the ambush. Because these barrier islands jut farther into the ocean than any other point of land on the mid-Atlantic seaboard, fish pass very close to shore.
A fleet of charter boats can put you in the Gulf Stream within a few hours for a shot at trophy fish such as marlin, dolphin and tuna. More than 100 miles of beach provide cheaper thrills for surf anglers, who can hook giant drum and bluefish with a decent cast.
For easy fishing, however, nothing this side of a farm pond beats the Outer Banks' eight commercial piers. For $3, you get access to water impossible to reach anywhere else without a boat, along with the convenience of lights, cleaning tables, bait and tackle shops and restaurants.
The piers, which are open 24 hours a day, resemble stationary party boats. Bait, advice and stories are liberally shared. If you spend a day on a fishing pier and don't make at least one friend, you're certifiably antisocial.
"You could come out here without bait, with no rod or reel, and I believe you could go home with fish to eat," said Bob Richardson, a red-bearded, 38-year-old government worker from Portsmouth, Va., who comes to the Outer Banks about 20 times a year. Like all good things, the piers can get too close with anglers for comfort. Especially when word spreads about a run of fish.
"When those spots are biting, it's just elbow room and hardly that," said Barnard, who this day had a whole section of pier to herself. Sitting on a bench, covered in a blue, hooded sweatshirt, Barnard spent most of an afternoon replacing worms stolen by crabs and remembering more productive days.
"One day last fall, the bluefish came past here by the thousands. I thought they were gonna knock the pier down they were so big. It was fun to see them."
The Outer Banks have always provided easy pickings. Pirates, including the legendary Blackbeard, found the islands a great base from which to prey upon ships. Treacherous offshore shoals made plunder even easier for old-time residents, who merely had to wait for the cargo from more than 300 shipwrecks to float to shore.
One of the reasons there have been so many wrecks is the ever-changing nature of the islands and the offshore sand bars. Because ocean currents constantly are carrying sand to new locations, there are few charts of the area that can be trusted.
The problems encountered trying to keep a safe channel cleared at Oregon Inlet, which provides the Banks' only opening to the Atlantic for commercial and recreational boating for roughly 135 miles, are indicative of the ocean's fickle power. Every year, hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent dredging sand from the channel. Every year, the ocean fills it back in.
This year, a North Carolina congressman and the Army Corps of Engineers proposed building a mile-long jetty on each side of the inlet at an initial cost of $100 million. Opponents of the jetty protested the project was not only expensive but impractical. Pointing to previous, failed attempts at jetty building, environmentalists warned that the project would destroy miles of beach in the Cape Hatteras National Seashore and Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge adjacent to the Inlet.
Fortunately for surf fishermen and others who use those beaches, Congress adjourned without acting on the proposed jetty building bill. But like the fish that come and go each season, you can be sure the idea will reappear next year.