By Everette Wall
I may never make it to Heaven but if I don’t, I’ve been close enough to have an idea of what it’s like. It was the backseat of an old Buick, surrounded by the thick, heady aroma of lilac bath powder.
It wasn’t what you might think, though. I was about six years old, sandwiched between my paternal grandmother and one of her friends. “Sandwiched” is an appropriate term because both ladies were what is known in today’s jargon as “full-figured.” I didn’t mind, however, because we – including two other women in the front seat – were heading to the coast to go fishing. For a youngster who loved fishing and his grandma with equal passion, life just couldn’t get any better. And, I don’t think it ever has.
Those journeys, and others that followed, were a combination of agony and ecstasy. On one hand they seemed to take forever. Those were the days before four-lane highways and bypasses in eastern North Carolina and our route wound through the middle of towns like Beulaville and Chinquapin. Not only that, but the driver didn’t believe in exceeding 45 miles per hour, regardless of the circumstances. I thought we’d never get there and, if we did, every fish in the ocean would have already been caught.
In Granny’s scheme of things, the time to go fishing was whenever she and her buddies got the notion. She would just leave Granddaddy a note that said, “Gone to the coast.” That was his signal to fend for himself until she returned.
For Granny and her cohorts, fishing at the beach was a reprieve from doing laundry, cleaning house, and the other things that made up their day-to-day existence. It wasn’t that they didn’t love their families and taking care of them, but ever so often, a girl needed a break. And the weathered, wooden deck of an ocean pier, bathed by a cool breeze as it swayed slightly in the relentless, blue surf was a wonderful place to take one. Gulls squawked as they wheeled overhead, dipping toward the waves periodically to investigate a possible meal, or maybe just because it was fun. Farther out toward the horizon, sleek gray forms arched above the blue water as porpoises followed schools of fish down the shore.
The Surf City Pier was Granny’s preferred base of operations. When she and her entourage arrived, they would take positions along whichever side seemed to be most productive and arrange their rods along the rail. Then they would settle back on the pier’s weathered benches or in folding chairs to watch for bites. The tips of Ocean City rods with level-wind Penn reels would dip slowly and rhythmically as waves passed beneath the pier. Every so often, one would give a quick, definitive jerk. That was the signal for the angler closest to it to grab the rod and begin cranking. More often than not a silvery form, sometimes two, would be swung over the rail and flopped onto the deck, to be admired and then tossed onto the ice in a waiting cooler.
Granny and her crew were no fair weather fisherwomen. Once the battle was joined, they were in it for the long haul. They would man their stations all day and, often, most of the night. They knew some of the best fishing was in the wee hours of the morning when most tourists were dozing in their rented cabins and only serious anglers remained at their posts.
If the daylight hours were interesting, nighttime on an ocean pier was magical. I would curl up in a blanket and stare in wonder at a canopy of stars that looked close enough to touch. Sometime during the evening I would doze off, immersed in the smell of shrimp and salty air, serenaded by the woosh of waves against the pier’s pilings, and content in the knowledge that Granny was within reach if I should need or want anything. The rising sun would be my alarm clock, that and the heavy tread of anglers coming out for the early morning bite.
Spots, Granny’s favorite species, can be caught pretty much all year, but early fall is the best time. That’s when the fish begin to congregate to shallow inshore waters in preparation for their winter spawning migration. It’s the time of year when they are the fattest, many of them sporting bright yellow bellies – evidence of their elevated hormones. Eventually they make their way offshore to breed. The eggs hatch at sea and the fry, barely a millimeter long, slowly wash back into the estuaries and begin the cycle all over again.
So it is with fish – and sometimes with little boys. They eventually grow up, move to distant shores and assume lifestyles that insure their existence and that of future generations. Before it’s all over, however, they return – if not physically, at least in their hearts – to those places that were most special in days gone by.
In one lad’s case that’s an ocean pier, right beside Granny. It might be a great place to spend Mothers Day.