By Bruce Collier
I visited the Okaloosa Fishing Pier early on a sunny Wednesday afternoon. The entrance to the pier sits alongside a large, well-known seafood restaurant. Passing under an arch leads you to an information station, promising maps, discount coupons, and information on local attractions. The station was unmanned and void of any brochures, leading me to conclude that it may not open until the high season. Proceeding from there, one crosses into a small enclosed structure that serves as bait house, refreshment and comfort station, and ticket booth. Admission to the pier costs according to one’s intentions. Non-fishing visitors pay $1; persons fishing pay $6.50, with discounts for seniors and free admission for small children.
It appeared to be a beautiful day for fishing of any kind. I expected to see more than a few fishermen taking advantage of it. Then I walked out onto the pier, and the crosswind hit me. I heard one person guess it was about 40 miles an hour. He may have been joking, and I am not a meteorologist, but I’d not have disputed him. A look down the length of the pier showed most of the fishermen sporting windbreakers, hooded sweatshirts and snug caps. One die-hard spring breaker type in swim trunks and nothing else was doing the Freezing Guy Dance with a group of sensibly dressed buddies. Finally I heard him say, “I’m outta here” through chattering teeth, followed by a barefoot sprint toward the bait house. Strangely, you could look off to either side of the pier, and see bikini-clad tourists playing comfortably in the sunshine on the beach.
I don’t know the exact length of the pier, but it is a healthy stroll out to the end, livened by the wind and the sight of seagulls flying backwards or hanging suspended in mid-air over the water. There were only about 30 or so fishermen, ranging in age from toddlers to old people, standing at well-spaced intervals along the length of the pier. Nevertheless, they were an intense bunch. Some had up to four spinning and casting rods at hand, laid out on the rail like a surgeon’s tools. They baited, cast and re-cast, staring holes in the water with all the intensity of Hemingway heroes. I’ve heard more small talk in church. I believe this is what is called “serious fun.”
At the end of the pier a small group of silent men stood pulling small fish, one after another, from the water. One was having especially good luck. I asked him what he was catching. “Herring, speedos, cigar minnows,” he informed me. He was tossing them onto the pier, where a friend would retrieve them and bag them. Occasionally one of the others would take one out to re-bait his line. The rule seemed to be share and share alike. Back toward the shore the anglers were making do with cartons of shrimp purchased at the bait house. These were of particular interest to a large heron. He walked among the fishermen, apparently without fear, keeping a bird’s eye out for open bait boxes. I joined a pair of visitors who were following the big bird, waiting for it to strike a photogenic pose. The heron stood about two feet away, staring at them. Finally it rose into the air, and our cameras snapped. “Did you get it?” we asked each other.
I ducked into the bait house to get out of the wind, pausing at a wall of fame bearing photos of great catches of years past. Next to the cash register is a hand-lettered sign, detailing what fish were being taken, yesterday and today. Today was cobia and mackerel, which seemed wishful thinking. Business was picking up, as a large group of teenage boys came in to purchase bait. The man at the register told me he believed the pier had been built in 1972. “It’s been damaged by several hurricanes. Opal was the last.” He pointed to some photos on the wall behind him, one of the pier being smashed by waves, vintage 1995. “The fishing’s not as good as it was.”
“Was that because of the hurricane?”
He shrugged. “People say it used to be better.”
As I left, I saw a sign on the wall, one of those you see in bars along fishing piers. It read: “Best Times for Fishing: Five minutes before you got here, and 10 minutes after you leave.” Those teenage boys probably did pretty well.
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