EMERALD ISLE, N.C. Pick a pier, any pier: Each of the more than 20 fishing structures that extend hundreds of feet from the North Carolina coast, from Kill Devil Hills to Sunset Beach, offers a cross-section of anglers and their prey.
‘‘You can see the different classes of fishermen as you look along the pier,’’ said Emerald Isle fishing guide Richard Ehrenkaufer, who publishes a Web guide to pier fishing under the pseudonym ‘‘Dr. Bogus.’’
‘‘The spot and flounder fishermen are in close. A little farther out you get the bluefish and Spanish mackerel and at the end you get the big-game fishermen,’’ Ehrenkaufer said. ‘‘I’ve seen a 150-pound tarpon caught off the end of a fishing pier.’’
For many, a trip to the pier stirs memories of a first fishing trip with Dad or other relatives, when they gazed through the boards at the ocean below or held the rod as a struggling fish was hauled up. To Ehrenkaufer’s way of thinking, the piers offer an ‘‘average Joe’’ experience for everyone from experienced game-fish anglers to wheelchair-bound fishermen closer in.
And for many beachgoers, a day on the pier is the best kind of vacation.
‘‘Everybody talks about coming to the fishing pier,’’ said Clara Flowers of Kingston, N.C., as she sat on a bench at Bogue Inlet Pier, her rod propped on the railing as she waited for a bite. ‘‘It’s worth the drive to get away and relax.’’
Flowers gets nostalgic as she remembers a day at Bogue Inlet that was so good she ‘‘was pulling them in two at a time.’’
On a recent day at 1,000-foot-long Bogue Inlet Pier, equipment being used ranged from discount store rod-and-reel sets to specialized surf gear hauled in special carts with cooler racks and bait-cutting boards.
Mike Stanley, whose family has owned the pier since 1971, said an average summer day draws about 200 paying customers, while the busy fall season can bring crowds of 500 or more anglers to the pier.
For folks who love to fish but lack the resources to buy or charter a boat, piers are the way to go, he said.
‘‘Everybody gets access to be able to walk over the water,’’ Stanley said. ‘‘Boats are good because you can go to the fish if you know where they’re at. The pier is like a conveyor belt and you try to pick what’s on the belt.’’
Regular Dale Collins enjoys the camaraderie among the pier anglers and said he turned down a chance to go out in a boat that day.
‘‘When the fishing’s good inshore (within 3 miles of shore), you stand as good a chance as fellows on a boat,’’ Collins said.
Many piers charge a modest permit fee for anglers but are free to those who just want to take a stroll or snap a family picture. Nearly all sell food, drinks, fishing gear and bait and there’s almost always someone willing to help a novice looking for advice on technique.
For those family members not interested in landing fish, the beach is close at hand.
Piers are ‘‘popular culture in North Carolina because they’ve been around for decades,’’ Ehrenkaufer said. ‘‘You can fish for anything from pan fish right in the surf all the way to game fish at the end of the pier.’’
Ehrenkaufer worries that the days of fishing piers are numbered, as coastal development makes the land they occupy so valuable that owners have little choice but to sell. Before 1996, there were as many as 31 piers along the North Carolina coast, he said. Storm damage and developers’ high-dollar offers have shrunk the number; along Bogue Banks alone at least three piers have come down in the last decade.
And Stanley is concerned that a new salt water fishing license being created by the state will require anyone who wants to fish from a pier to pay a license fee, driving down business. He said the only way he sees the new system working is if pier owners are allowed to pay a one-time license fee to cover all their customers, which they can recover through admission fees.
At the end of the pier, Collins rinsed a bait bucket attached to a long rope and lamented that his only catch of the day so far was a flounder too small to keep. He brightened, though, recalling the day he paid an extra charge to go to the special section of the pier where fishermen get more room to battle game fish, and landed a 43-pound cobia.
Asked how often he comes to the pier, he had an easy response: Any day ‘‘that my wife doesn’t have anything planned for me.’’
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