Thunderstorms, snook and other adventures at the City Pier
It was nearing six o’clock in the evening as I steered the boat towards the Mainsail Marina. My clients sat in front of me talking about how many fish they had caught while enjoying the warm air that was blowing over the hull as we travelled at 20 m.p.h. over the flat. It was fall and the sun was getting low in the sky. We were nearing a low tide, which was apparent by the wading birds standing along the edges of the channel looking for shrimp and small fish to eat.
Upon arrival at the dock, I tied up the boat and instructed my clients to hop out and to stand by the fillet table if they wished to watch me clean their fish for them. I grabbed my fillet knife, sharpened it, and put a couple gallon-size Ziploc bags in my pocket. I opened the fish box and unloaded two limits of spotted seatrout and one hefty redfish. I placed the fish in a bucket and made my way to the fillet table. After filleting the fish, rinsing them and bagging the meat, my clients thankfully grabbed their dinner, paid me and headed toward their car.
Now, was time for the fun part. It was nearing 7 as I began to hose down the boat. I filled a bucket with water and added my normal dose of Dawn soap. After a good scrubbing and a nice rinsing, I wound up the hose, gathered up my rods and nets, turned off the battery switch and headed to my truck. At that moment, Capt. Mac Gregory pulled into the parking lot.
“You wanna go to Duck’s for a beer?” he asked.
I thought for a moment — my wife and daughter had left to go out of town that morning so I was on my own for the next couple of days.
“Heck ya,” I replied. “Bekka and Izzy are out of town, so why not.”
“Ok,” said Mac. “I’ll see you there.”
Rather than just place my rods in the bed of my truck I put them in the cab so I could securely lock them away. No need to leave a thousand dollars with of tackle just laying out in the open for anyone and everyone to see.
Luckily, I found a clean shirt in the truck. I changed, locked the truck and wandered across Marina Drive towards D’Coys. The girl working at Sun & Surf was wheeling in the parrots as I passed by. I gave a wolf whistle to the African gray and it quickly responded with the same. I hadn’t been out to a bar in quite a while. Family life will do that to you. As I opened the door to the bar I was quickly overcome by a large cloud of cigarette smoke.
“Some things never change” I thought to myself. I saw Mac perched at the end of the bar and took a seat next to him. Within seconds Lisa, the bar tender, already had placed an ice-cold Coors light in a can in front of me. I was impressed that she remembered what I drank, even though I hadn’t been there in ages.
So, we sat and drank beer, talked about fishing and boats and whatever else. We even managed to chug down a couple Yaeger bombs in the process. It was getting dark outside and I was getting buzzed. I decided to make my way home. I bid Mac farewell and stumbled out the door, but rather than go to the truck I ventured over to Jessie’s to buy a 12-pack and a fresh pack of Camels. After talking with April for a bit, I wandered out toward Marina Drive. I was feeling pretty good so I decided to go back to the boat and drink another beer and listen to the radio. Well after three beers I realize I need to stop if I was ever going to be able to drive home.
The trolley was pulling up to its stop in front of the Wells Fargo northbound on its route to the City Pier.
I had an idea. A trolley ride was and a walk on the peer was just what I needed to sober up enough to drive home. I grab the remainder of my 12-pack, put it in a bag, and boarded the trolley. Upon entering the trolley the air conditioning inside was a welcome feeling as it blasted me with 65-degree air. The trolley was practically empty despite a couple of tourist families getting a ride home after eating out at one of the local restaurants. By now was almost 10 at night.
Where had the time gone?
We finally arrived at the City Pier. As I exited, the driver instructed me, “This is my last run.”
“Okay,” I replied, “Have a good night.”
So there I was at the foot of the peer. Stranded. With nothing but a little less than a 12-pack and a pack of smokes. All of a sudden I realize my predicament.
Then I remembered my buddy, Rodney. He was a bartender at the Waterfront Restaurant.
If he’s working, I can catch a ride with him when he gets off, I thought.
I called him on my cell phone and a sigh of relief fell over me when he answered.
Unfortunately, that was short-lived because he wasn’t working.
He offered to come get me, but I told him, “don’t bother I’ll figure something out. There’s always Bruce’s taxi.”
Well, I thought, I’m here. Might as well see what’s biting at the pier.
I walked out in the darkness seeing the restaurant lights on the pier and the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in the background.
The pier was empty except for a couple fishermen here in there. Upon arrival at the end of the pier I notice the bait shop and restaurant were empty and looked locked up.
They had obviously closed early.
Even the employees were gone.
I started my walk around the perimeter of the pier looking over the edges to see if any snook were around. In the water, schools of shiners gathered along the edges of the pier where the light shined down. There were a few snook milling around in the shadows waiting for the prime time to ambush bait. The tide was coming in, so I decided to take a seat on the west side corner of the pier to watch the snook feed. I cracked a beer and sat patiently watching as the snook sat nose into the current amongst the schooling baitfish.
The water was calm and clear. The air was warm and stagnant. No breeze whatsoever. Then I heard a pop. A snook had risen to the surface to strike a bait. My heart rate increased with anticipation as I scanned the water’s surface to see where the commotion had occurred.
And suddenly, another pop.
I managed to see this one. A large snook quickly came out of the shadows and burst into a school of shiners. I saw the glow of the light reflected in his big eye as he turned sideways on the surface, the black lateral line was clearly visible as the fish breach the surface of the water before swimming back into the depths under a huge splash and under a swirl. Now my heart was really racing and I wished I had a rod handy.
I had no rod so I just sat there contently waiting for another blast.
Suddenly without notice, a cool breeze pressed against me. I looked up from water to enjoy the fresh cool air and noticed I couldn’t see the yellow arches of the Skyway bridge anymore. The breeze grew into a cold wind and I realize a thunderstorm was quickly closing in on the pier.
The storm was close.
Within minutes I felt the first raindrops and then a “cloudburst.”
The rain was so heavy I had to grab my beer and hide in the breezeway between the restaurant and the bait shop.
I was alone.
Alone in the rain.
It rained so hard I could only see a little way down the walkway of the pier. No land in sight except for the faint glimmer of the street lights on Pine Avenue.
Holding true to a typical Florida thunderstorm, the rain ended about 20 minutes later.
The breeze stopped.
The air grew warm and muggy and I began to sweat again. At this point I was ready to figure out a way to get home. It was just past midnight and I was tired and wet. I stood up and began to walk towards land. As I rounded the corner of the restaurant I was startled to see I wasn’t alone. I froze where I was for a moment only to see an old man standing there. He had a New York Yankee ball cap, which covered a head of wavy gray hair.
He looked at me through his thick black-rimmed glasses and took a sip of his coffee he had in a Styrofoam cup. Then he put a toothpick in the corner of his mouth.
“Nice little shower we had, huh?” he said.
Upon hearing his voice, I realized that I knew him.
It was Vic.
I had known Vic since I was a kid. He was one of the old-time snook fisherman that night fished at the pier.
“Hey Vic, I haven’t seen you in forever.”
“You haven’t been out here in forever,” he replied.
Vic was a legend in these parts. Like I said he’d been fishing these parts for probably 30 years. He knew these fish better than anyone. He caught some of the biggest snook I’d ever seen and he was a “no muss, no fuss” snook fisherman. You could tell just by the gear he used. A 7-foot boat rod combined with a 6/0 Penn reel spooled with 100-pound mono was his choice of tackle. And for bait, he only went big, whether it was a pinfish or ladyfish or even a ballyhoo. His method of fishing was the “old-school” method. Nothing like the sporty stuff we try to use nowadays.
We sat and talked for a while. And it was like it always was. We never talked about anything but fishing. Heck, I’d known Vic practically my whole life and didn’t even know his last name. He was pleased to hear that I had become a charter captain, although he kind of scoffed little at the fact that I take tourists out fishing. To him being a good fisherman was something you learned, not something you paid for.
We sat and watched the boat rod as it sat in a hole drilled into the pier in anticipation of getting a bite. Suddenly, the rod bent over double, pointing towards the water. Vic quickly jumped up and pulled the rod out of its holder. The rod swayed to the left and right as Vic held on with every ounce of his strength. I could hear the fish splashing under the pier trying to shake the hook.
“Keep him out of the pilings!” I shouted.
Upon hearing that, Vic reeled down, pointing the rod tip towards the water, and with one quick lift he hoisted the big snook up on the deck. The fish thrashed and flipped around the dock eagerly trying to find the water. Scales covered the area surrounding the fish. Then blood. Vic slit the throat to bleed the fish, which is believed to make the meat better. It was a slot-fish measuring in at 32 inches. We stood there a moment admiring the catch.
“I knew that ladyfish would catch him,” panted Vic.
He was still slightly worn out from the battle.
“Yeah that sure is a nice one snook,” I said congratulating him.
“If anybody is going to catch a keeper out here, it’s you.”
He smiled and sat on a bench taking a sip of his coffee.
“Well I suppose I’ll take him home and fillet him,” said Vic. “I’ll see you, Danny.”
“Good to see you, Vic. It’s been too long.”
Vic grabbed his rod and a 5-gallon bucket which acted as his tackle box in one hand. He bent down and slipped his fingers under the gills of the snook with the other to begin the walk down the pier.
I stood there, pleased that I had gotten to see him again. And was pleased that I got to see he was still going strong after all these years.
After all the excitement, I figured I would sit and drink one more beer before calling “Bruce’s Taxi.”
It was late and I wanted to just sit in silence and remember the days when I was a boy fishing at the pier. I sat in the northwest corner bench and stared toward Egmont key. The lighthouse flashed its beacon over the water as I sat and sipped my beer. Every 11 seconds it would flash. I watched it and counted. Another flash. Another 11 seconds. Another flash. Another 11 seconds. Flash.
I woke to someone yelling my name I was laying on the bench I had been sitting on. I must’ve fallen asleep watching the lighthouse. I sat up and looked around the pier but no one was there.
“Danny! Over here!”
The sound was coming from the water. To my surprise it was Capt. Aaron Loman. He was in his Carolina Skiff and he just arrived at the pier to catch bait for his morning charter.
“What are you doing out here?” He exclaimed.
“Waiting for you to give me a ride back to the Marina. What else?” I replied.
It was still dark out but I could see Lowman behind helm.
He pulled the bow of the boat up to the edge of the pier.
“Hop in Bubba!” he chuckled. “What the hell are you doing out here?”
I explained my evening to him and he just shook his head and laughed. “I guess I have to tell your wife she’s not allowed to go out of town anymore.
He laughed again as I sat there holding my head due to the headache that was coming on. Although my head hurt badly I offered to throw the net for him to help catch bait in trade for him running me back to the mainsail Marina.
After a couple of throws we were baited up and started heading back. By now the sun was just peeping over the horizon. We made it back to my dock and I thanked Aaron for the lift. He just laughed and shook his head.
“Go home and get some sleep,” he chuckled.
I went to my truck, drove home and did just that.
A couple of weeks passed. My family was home and we decided to go take a walk at the City Pier. We enjoy going out and talking with the fisherman and also visiting Dave Sork, the manager of the City Pier Restaurant. Dave is a friend of the family and we were due to “catch up” a little bit. Plus, I wanted to tell him I saw Vic. Dave and Vic had been buddies for as long as I could remember.
We made our way to the pier. I parked the truck and we began our walk. As we started, we noticed the seagulls and pelicans were ferociously diving into the vast schools of bait fish that gathered all around the pier. Spanish mackerel could be seen skyrocketing through the bay amidst the diving birds. Eager fishermen were casting spoons and jigs quickly retrieving them in hopes of hooking one of these hard-fighting ferocious fish. We made it to the City Pier Restaurant and went inside to see Sork.
“Hey Dave,” I said.
He was happy to see us. We sat and talked for a while and then I mention seeing Vic.
Dave had a confused look on his face.
“Vic?” He asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “I watched him catch a big snook.”
I continue to comment on how Vic still looked the same as always. The New York Yankee hat, toothpick, coffee and thick black rimmed glasses.
“You must’ve seen someone else,” said Dave.
“No it was him,” I said.
“Well the problem is, that Vic passed away a few years ago, Danny,” stated Sork.
My jaw dropped.
Now I was confused.
I know what I saw.
We even had a conversation. All of a sudden I was uncomfortable. I agreed that I must’ve seen someone else just to change the subject. I knew what I saw, but for sake of not sounding crazy, I just let it go.
I look back at the incident and I’m thankful that I got to spend one last night on the pier snook fishing with Vic. He was one of the best fisherman I’ve ever known and I’ll never forget him.
Maybe one night after a random thunderstorm I’ll venture out into the pier and I’ll get to see him again.