Darkness gulps in the last few patches of light as I bring my family to the Nags Head fishing pier, the same place my dad took me so many years ago. Everyone carries something. My husband Kurt is loaded down with cameras, two oversized boxes of tackle, a gaff and four fishing rods, one for each of us. His is a jazzy new Father’s Day model, deep red, that dismantles into two shorter, handy pieces. He chose it because it has “a lot of give,” which means that when a big fish bites, it will bend nearly in half without snapping. Mine is an old and sturdy, long, brown surf rod that my father eagerly loaned me, his “lucky sea bass rod.” Andy’s is a short, thick, red and white model called an “Ugly Stik,” a Christmas gift from my dad. And Aimee’s is a $14.99 rod/reel combo special we picked up en route at the Tackle Express. We had needed one more rod, the price was right, and most important--this one was pink. Sold! Have you ever known a real fisherman who bought a rod for the color?
Andy, our fisherman-in-training, carries sweatshirts, his fishing box (also a gift from my dad), an old fleece Georgetown U. blanket, and a huge pumpkin-colored, chenille bedspread thing we take in the car wherever we go. These are for us to snuggle up in, to ward off the relentless wind at the end of the pier. Aimee, who is mostly interested in having a picnic, clumsily carries a large, empty Styrofoam cooler that we plan to fill with fish before midnight. The top is blown off at least twenty times before we reach our fishing spot. I follow with-- what else--food. For us, peanut-butter sandwiches, carrot sticks, juice boxes, homemade brownies and a thermos of hot chocolate. For the fish, baggies containing two dozen bloodworms and a plastic cup of frozen shrimp.
We stop at the front counter and pay to be able to fish off the pier. $5 each for Kurt and I. Too much, someone in line mutters. Less than a movie, I say. $2.50 for Andy. And since Aimee is shorter than the yardstick nailed to the wall, she is free. She says this is not fair. Behind the counter, the gnarled and smelly man, wearing a nametag that says only “Hello, My Name Is,” swiftly grabs a part of each of our clothes--a collar, the bill of a baseball hat, the hem of a jacket, another collar--and methodically staples receipts to us. Andy thinks this is cool. Aimee is more than a little huffy that a stranger almost stapled her chin to her favorite fishing shirt, the pink one with Ariel and Flounder on it.
Then we purposefully march almost a half-mile to the end of the pier, right where I used to fish with my dad. “Grandpa used to love it here,” I tell them. Passing other fisherman, we carefully study the tips of their poles for signs of a fish on. Nonchalantly, we glance in each bucket we pass to assess whether anyone is catching much. If someone reels in a fish, we slyly take notice of the type of bait they are using. Show-and-tell begins as I knowingly identify fish we see: sea skates, croakers, bluefish, sea trout, sand sharks. Some people glance up as our small parade passes by. Conscious of their stares, I tell the kids to lower their voices so they won’t scare all the fish away. Most folks just continue to stare out at the water, waiting, waiting.
I notice the familiar bits of dried worms, fish scales and shrimp tails stuck on the bench we share, and I can almost smell Dad’s cigar. A fishy, salty scent fills the air and a fine chilly mist of ocean water occasionally sprays us. The waves splash far below, and the pier gently rocks from the movement of the incoming tide. It’s a good time to catch fish. I hug my kids close as my husband baits our hooks.
"Come on, aren’t we going to fish?” he asks. The lines are ready to be cast, but something is fishy. We are content in our snuggle. No one picks up a fishing pole.
“I love it here,” Aimee says.
“But do we have to fish?” Andy asks.
My husband looks over and stops himself from calling us again. Instead, he cozies in next to us on the bench that was made perfectly for this family of four. Under warm blankets, we munch our brownies, sip hot chocolate, and vote whether to release the bloodworms on the shore or give them to another fisherman.
One by one, stars light up the sky, and an orange crescent moon slowly starts to work its way higher and higher over the horizon. I love it here, too. Now I realize that maybe my dad didn’t bring us here years ago just to catch fish, either.