by Donna Byrd
“Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that is not fish they are after.” Henry David Thoreau
“There ain’t but one time to go fishin’, and that’s whenever you can.” Diron Talbert
Fall is the season for fishing here in Sneads Ferry and Topsail Island. And with that in mind, on a warm and sunny Thursday afternoon in November, I decided to visit the Surf City Ocean Pier. With all the rain we’ve had recently, I couldn’t resist the urge to get out in the beautiful weather before it turned cold. What better way was there to spend an afternoon than on a pier with the sun bearing down on your back, the wind in your face and the sea whipping up white caps underneath your feet? I headed down the island to find the pier.
I’ve never been much of a fisherman but my granddaddy was. He had a small boat he’d take out into the coastal waters of North Carolina. Spending the evening going through his fishing gear and tackle box, he’d go to bed really early and get up at three o’clock in the morning to head “down to the coast.” He’d come home about “dark thirty” with his cooler loaded down with ice and fish and then proceed to clean them on a special “cleaning table” he had built on the back of his property. My grandmother wouldn’t clean them but she sure could cook them! I loved it when she would call our house and say, “We’re cooking up a mess of fish that Luther caught yesterday. Y’all come over, we’re having a fish fry.” Those are some of the best memories of my childhood.
Upon arriving at the pier, I realized that I had to park down the street. The parking lots around the pier area were full and cars lined both sides of the street. If all of those people were fishing I wouldn’t be disappointed. I was going to find me a fishing story!
Hungry, I remembered that I had read that the grill at the pier was known for its hamburgers. I ordered one and chatted with the friendly clerk behind the counter. She gave me a bit of the pier’s history.
Surf City Ocean Pier was the first pier built on Topsail Island in 1948. In 1973, a resident from Smithfield, NC, Edwin Lore, bought the landmark pier and it’s been in his family since then. Over the years it had weathered many storms and hurricanes but in 1996 it was destroyed by Hurricane Fran. The Lore family rebuilt it and in August of 1997 it reopened to the relief and joy of local and vacationing fishermen.
The pier is nine hundred and thirty-seven feet long with a forty foot octagon shaped deck at the end. It has two large fish cleaning stations with fresh, running water on it and there is lots of lighting for night fishing. Looking around me, I noticed that the place was a fisherman’s paradise, chock full of fishing equipment, tackle and had a good selection of bait. You could buy souvenirs in the gift area. There was even a record board mounted on the back wall, showing the largest fish ever caught off the pier. The records were impressive!
My cheeseburger was ready and I headed out to the dining area outside. It was a nice, shady area that overlooked a little garden filled with whimsical signs, fountains and flowers. What a lovely surprise! I sat at an umbrellaed table and just for a moment, had a sensory overload: ocean, sea breeze, gulls laughing, waves crashing and the smell of a good burger wafting up to tantalize me. Wait a minute. Was this heaven?
An old fellow shuffled down from the pier and sat down heavily in a chair near me. He had a blue cooler with a fishing pole attached to it. Looking tired he settled back in his seat and I could see that he was resting. I couldn’t help but start a conversation with him.
“Did you catch anything,” I asked. “Well,” he said. “I got me two blue fish but somebody gave those to me. The most thing I caught was some fresh air.” He laughed when he said that and shook his head. “Yeah, got me some fresh air and two fish. That’s about it for me today. My sciatic nerve is bothering me. Pain all down my leg. Done all I can do for today.” I thought that for someone in pain, he still looked content and happy.
I asked if I could see his fish and he opened the cooler and seemed just as proud of them as if he had caught them himself. I wanted to know more about this “old timer.”
“Do you mind if I ask you your name?”
“No, my name is Clarence.”
“Clarence, my name is Donna and I write blogs for Treasure Realty. Today, I’m writing about this pier. Is it OK if I mention you in it?”
“No. I don’t mind,” he smiled. “A blog, huh?”
“Yes. You can be famous to somebody reading my blog,” I laughed.
“Are you a local, Clarence? You live around here?”
“Well, I live in Wilmington but this is where I like to come to fish.”
“How long have you been coming here?”
“About fifteen years.”
“Wow. That’s a long time. What is it about this pier that makes you want to come all the way from Wilmington just to fish here?”
“I like it because it’s clean. The one I used to go to in Wilmington has a bar above it and after a while, people get too foul-mouthed. When they drink, they end up saying what’s in their hearts. I don’t like that. This place is clean, no alcohol. It’s a good place.”
I shook Clarence’s hand and told him I’m glad he liked coming to Surf City Pier. I wished him a good day and told him I hoped his leg would stop hurting. He sat there, grinning. I could see that just being there made him happy.
I decided it was time to “walk the planks” and headed on up to the pier. It was loaded with people! They were mainly standing on the left, the northeast side. I asked someone why everyone was standing on that side. “The fish up north are headed down south to the warmer waters. We’re trying to catch them as they migrate.” That made sense to me. I supposed that in the springtime, they would fish from the right side of the pier as the fish headed back up north.
As I walked toward the end of the pier, I saw one fisherman after another, pull fish from the ocean; blues, spot, black drum, trout and flounder. There was such a happy spirit on the planks. At the octagon shaped deck on the end, I noticed that most of the fishermen there were seated with their buddies, talking and laughing, while their poles were stationed by the edge, waiting for a nibble or bite. These folks knew how to enjoy a beautiful day!
Coming back towards the tackle and bait shop, I realized I had never seen so many blue coolers in one place. They almost formed a line down the nine hundred and thirty-seven feet of wooden planks. I stopped and asked one of the men if I could look inside his cooler. He proudly showed me his catch of the day: a cooler full of some flat, brownish flounder. I could imagine a fish fry for his family in the near future.
The day was gorgeous and the fish were biting. The breeze was stiff and the American flag hoisted up over the pier was unfurled and stiff in the wind. I realized I had let my worries fly away with the breeze just as these happy folks had and that I had picked up another thing that was in abundance on the pier: hope. There was so much hope and expectancy in the people fishing that it was contagious. No wonder Clarence liked to fish here.
If you want to experience some good fishing and clear your head of worries, I’d recommend a visit to the Surf City Ocean Pier. Oh yeah. Bring your hope with you and if you’re running short of that, you’ll just catch some there along with a lot of fresh air!
The Surf City Ocean Pier is located at:
112 South Shore Drive Surf City, NC 28445
Telephone number: 910-328-3521