Monday, July 28, 2014

Salty Memories Part 3 - Time and Tide

If you haven't had a chance to read Salty Memories Part 1 - The Beginnings, and Salty Memories Part 2 - The Pier Years, please click the links and give them a read first. This post picks up at the end of Part 2.

Time and tide wait for no man - Unknown

"Old Baldy" The Lighthouse on Bald Head Island
Time has a way of slipping by unnoticed, and when I got a phone call from my Dad asking if my wife and I would like to take a trip to Oak Island and Southport for the Fourth of July, I was shocked to realize that none of us had been down there in four years. For most of my life, a trip down to the island was such a regular part of summer vacation that it seemed I took it for granted. Most years, especially after high school, involved two trips each summer - once for the annual fishing trip and a second trip with the family that also usually included a couple mornings of fishing. I knew that this would be a short trip and that there wouldn't be an opportunity to fish this time, but I was still looking forward to seeing the surf and sand and also seeing how things might have changed on the island.

Trina and I at Oak Island - 2009
The last two trips that I made to Oak Island with my family also were the first two trips that my wife Trina made with us. Our first time at the island together we were able to visit Cape Lookout and see the lighthouse along with some of the wild horses that call the Outer Banks home, and we returned to the beach house that evening just in time to find out that there were some sea turtles hatching just down the beach. We made it down to the water in time to witness the baby turtles making their mad dash to the surf, and that is a memory that I will never forget.

Provision Company
One of the most obvious changes, and one that we all noticed right away was the completion of the Swain's Cut Bridge onto Oak Island. The last time I was in the area, the bridge was under construction and there was still only a two lane bridge serving the entire 14 mile long island. The new bridge is in addition to the old bridge, and is a four lane bridge and road that seemed to help with traffic immensely. After checking into our hotel on Friday, we drove down to Southport for the NC Fourth of July Festival on the waterfront. We somehow found a parking space and spent the afternoon walking around Southport and taking in the festival. Our plans included lunch at the Yacht Basin Provision Company, one of my family's favorite places to eat in the area, but they were closed for the Fourth. I was glad to see that the Provision Company was still there, and we made plans to return on Saturday for some steamed shrimp and crab cakes for Dad and I, and a cheeseburger for Trina. Trina has always said they make one of the best cheeseburgers she's ever had, but I've only eaten one thing from there over the years - "Thee Special" - a half pound of steamed shrimp with a crab cake.

Oak Island Lighthouse from Southport Waterfront
One major change that I did notice was the nice big new houses on the oceanfront that occupied the site of the former Long Beach Pier. The last few years that I had been to the island, the former pier site was just an empty stretch of beach. A developer had bought the pier several years ago and tore it down, with the intentions of building condominiums on the beach, according to what I had been told. This was about the time of the major drop in the real estate market, and those lots sat empty for several years. Personally, looking at it from a fisherman's point of view, I always thought it was a terrible thing to see the pier go, but I guess that business is business. I worried at one time that the old Yaupon pier would suffer the same fate when it came up for sale, but luckily it was purchased by the town of Oak Island, who leased the pier to the former owner of the Long Beach Pier who now runs it.

Surf Fishermen and Old Baldy in the Background on Oak Island
Friday morning we spent time riding around Oak Island, and we took time to stop by Oak Island Pier and take a walk out to the end to see how the fishermen were doing. One major change I first noticed from the pier was the amount of people on the beach, but I chalked that up to it being a holiday weekend. I didn't see anybody catching much on the pier, but then again it was midday and Hurricane Arthur had passed through the night before and had the water stirred up and muddy.  Our best luck fishing was always early in the morning on days with a southeast wind that helped clear the water.

Southport Fireworks
We hung around Southport on Friday afternoon, and were able to see the fireworks display to end our day. The fireworks were launched from a barge out in the waterway, and it was one of the better fireworks shows I have seen. According to a little research I did, this tradition at Southport has its roots in the founding of our nation, when ships anchored in the harbor fired their cannons to celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Saturday found us back down in Southport where we got the chance for lunch at the Provision Company and spent a little time walking along the waterfront. Southport didn't seem to have changed much from the last time I was there, although a few of the businesses and restaurants had new names and I'm assuming new owners. There were a few new changes on Oak Island as well, but some of our old favorite places were still there. All in all, it seemed that other than a new bridge and new houses being built in various places on the island, it was much as we left it four years ago. We ate at a few of the same restaurants, and bought some fudge from the same shop that we used to buy it from when I was a child.

Shells and Sand
Sunday morning we went for a walk on the beach before we had to head for home, and standing out on the beach watching the waves are where the inspiration for these blog posts came from. I couldn't help but think about the fish I had caught, the people I had met, and the memories I had of friends and family that were all tied up with this place. I hope that it doesn't take me another four years or more to return, and one day soon I hope to get out all the old pier fishing tackle and take a trip down memory lane while I watch the sun rise over the ocean. They say that time and tide wait for no man, and it is scary how quickly time seems to slip by any more. I only hope I have a chance to make a lot more memories and find more special places like Oak Island before my time on this earth runs out.

- Joseph

Monday, July 14, 2014

Salty Memories Part 2 - The Pier Years

If you haven't had a chance to read Salty Memories Part 1 - The Beginnings, please take the time to click the link and read it. This post picks up where I left off in Part 1.

At the end of Salty Memories Part 1, I made mention of a chance encounter on a pier at Oak Island that changed the way I would saltwater fish. This encounter happened at the Long Beach Pier, named for the town of Long Beach that merged with Yaupon Beach in 1999 to form the Town of Oak Island. Dad and I took a walk on the pier early one morning while we were at the island on vacation, and happened to see several people catching some nice fish which we found out were spotted seatrout, or speckled trout as they were sometimes known. These fish were  bigger than anything I had managed to catch in the surf with shrimp and bloodworms, and I wanted to find out more about these fish and how to catch them.

Oak Island Pier
My previous experiences pier fishing had led me to believe that I was just as well off surf fishing, because I caught the same small spot and whiting from the pier that I did in the surf, and didn't have to pay anything to do it. What I didn't know at the time was that the true value of a pier ticket was access to fish that I couldn't catch from the surf as easily, and that it was my choice of tactics and bait that had limited my success on the pier in the past. The fishermen I saw that morning were mainly catching trout, but I also saw the occasional bluefish and Spanish mackerel brought onto the pier. All of these fish were species that I hadn't caught before, and so I began talking to some of the fishermen and asking a few questions to find out what I needed to do to have the kind of success they were having. One gentleman was nice enough to show me that the fish were being caught on live shrimp, and also showed me how to tie a basic rig to fish the shrimp for trout. Armed with this new knowledge, I decided to buy a pier ticket the next morning and try my luck.

Yaupon/Oak Island Pier
I don't remember catching any trout on that first attempt, but some of the local pier fishermen helped me out tremendously by showing me how to hook the shrimp, how to tie my own bottom rigs, and other tips about tackle that would help me out in the future. I was also shocked to learn just how expensive live shrimp were to purchase. If my memory is correct, live shrimp at the time were somewhere around $8 - $10 a dozen, depending on where you bought them, and this was 14 or 15 years ago! I knew that if I did very much trout fishing, I was going to have to find out where to catch my own shrimp like most of the regular fishermen did. Once again, the friendly fishermen that I met on the pier came to my rescue, and shared a few publicly accessible spots on the island where shrimp could be caught with a cast net.

The Crew at Oak Island - 2008
The next summer marked my graduation from high school, and a good friend and I decided that we were going to take a trip down to the coast to do some fishing after graduation. I was fortunate enough to have some relatives that had a mobile home on Oak Island that they used for a vacation home, and they graciously allowed two broke kids to stay there for a week and do some fishing. This was the first time that I had any real success pier fishing, and we caught trout on live shrimp, and bluefish and Spanish mackerel on Gotcha plugs. We ate bologna sandwiches if we couldn't catch enough fish for dinner, and even one day cleaned a bunch of shrimp that we caught in the cast net and made fried shrimp for lunch. All things considered, we lived like kings for the week.

The Homemade Pier Cart
This marked the beginning of a series of trips that would last for several years, and that grew in the number of participants. It started out the first few years just being two of us, but as some of our close friends heard about the success we were having they asked to join in, and the last few years we all made the trip there were five of us that went down to Oak Island for a week to fish. By this time we all were out of college and working, so we started renting a house for the week and were able to afford to eat more than just bologna sandwiches. The trip took on some traditions of its own, such as not buying ice for the fish cooler until the first keeper was landed, and a certain Hardee's restaurant that was the only place on the way down that we would stop for a biscuit for breakfast. We even used a little bit of redneck engineering to turn a lawn cart into a pier cart complete with rod holders for ten rods, thanks to some hose clamps and PVC pipe. It seemed like it weighed a ton, but it did the job for us for several years.

Our first few years, we fished off of the Long Beach Pier, but when the pier was closed due to being sold we moved up the island and spent the last few years of the trip fishing on the former Yaupon Pier, now named the Oak Island Pier after its purchase by the town of Oak Island. There was a year in between the closing of Long Beach Pier and the opening of Oak Island pier where we fished from the other pier on the island, Ocean Crest Pier. We had good luck at all three piers, but wound up at Oak Island because that's where most of the fishermen we had come to know on Long Beach Pier wound up going after it closed. Over the years we got to know several of the locals, not the least of whom was Henry, the unofficial mascot of the Yaupon/Oak Island Pier. Henry was a snowy egret who made the pier home, and was the only egret I've ever seen on the island who didn't seem the slightest bit afraid of people. He would fly over to the pier in the morning, and spend time making the rounds and getting fed by the fishermen. Henry wasn't above helping himself if you happened to leave the lid open on your bait bucket either. We always made sure to give Henry a shrimp or two for good luck.

Trout, Pompano, and Spanish Mackerel
These trips lasted for several summers, and were always the highlight of the summer for us. The last trip we all made together was in 2010, and after that marriages and children and life in general seemed to prevent everyone from being able to get together for a week. We all still keep in close touch and even occasionally fish together, but we've not been to the beach together since. Some of my friends still make it down to the island every year, and I will occasionally get a call or a picture message on my phone of some nice trout or flounder. I'm glad that I was able to share a place that I enjoyed with some good friends, and now some of them take their own families to the island. For several years I was lucky enough to make two trips to the island every summer, once with the fishing crew and usually again in late summer with my family. I hadn't been down to the coast since a family trip in 2010, so when my wife and I got the opportunity to go over the July 4th holiday with my Dad I was looking forward to seeing how things might have changed in four year's time.

To be continued.....

- Joseph

Friday, July 11, 2014

The Fruits of Our Labor

Corn Stalks
It's summertime once again, and I spend at least a part of almost every day working in our garden. It's one of my favorite summer activities, and its always exciting when the vegetables begin to ripen and can be harvested. Soon it will be time to can green beans and make pickles. The corn will be ready to pick and freeze, and ripening tomatoes mean tomato sandwiches for lunch. The garden gives me an outlet for my outdoor energies on the days when fishing is out of the question, and serves to keep me occupied during my summer break from teaching.

This year's garden has so far yielded Georgia sweet onions and Red Pontiac potatoes, along with several cucumbers and a lone squash. Our squash and zucchini vines fell victim to squash bugs, and were wiped out before they had a chance to bear much fruit. I was surprised, because the first few years we had a garden the squash bugs and squash vine borers weren't a problem. I'm going to have to be more diligent in future years to make sure these pests don't become a problem again. The most disappointing thing about losing our squash and zucchini will be the lack of fried squash and homemade zucchini relish in our house this summer. Another loss from the garden earlier this year was our cabbage and broccoli plants. Judging from the tracks left behind, these fell victim to the deer that call the woods behind our house home. I was hoping to attempt homemade sauerkraut this year, but the deer decided that fresh cabbage was on the menu and didn't leave me any to experiment with.

The rest of the garden, minus the onions, potatoes, cabbage, and broccoli, was planted later this year than in years past. Normally I try to plant our garden soon after April 15, our normal frost free date, but some unusually cold weather caused me to delay planting until close to May 1. So far, this hasn't seemed to have a negative affect on our garden since we've been lucky enough to have fairly frequent rain showers. The only difference I've really noticed is that of course planting two weeks later has caused everything to ripen about two weeks later.

Charleston Gray Watermelon

One thing that has me excited about this year's garden is our watermelon vines. For some reason, my attempts at growing watermelons the past few years have been less than stellar. The watermelons seem to stop growing and ripen while still very small, even though I planted a variety that was supposed to produce large melons. This year I'm trying a couple new things with the melons, planting a different variety  and also changing the location of them in the garden. So far, our watermelon vines seem to be much more vigorous, and the melons are growing at a faster rate than I've seen in previous years. I don't want to declare it a success yet, but I'm hopefully optimistic about this year's crop.

Time will tell what this year's garden will produce for us, but the thoughts of fresh vegetables  make all the hours spend pulling weeds and picking beans worth every minute. This winter, the corn in the freezer and the canned green beans will serve as a taste of the summer gone by, and give me a reason to till the ground and plant more seeds come spring.

- Joseph

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Salty Memories Part 1 - The Beginnings

I want to dedicate this series of blog posts to the memory of my mother, Betsy Hord, who lost her battle with cancer on July 13, 2011. This was one of her favorite places in the world, and I can only hope that Heaven has it's own version of Oak Island that Mom can enjoy. This is part one of  a series of blog posts that will reflect on Oak Island, NC and some fond memories I have of it. These posts were inspired by a trip that I took with my wife and father over the July 4th holiday weekend, and the more I thought about all of the memories associated with this particular place, the more I felt led to write about it. I am planning for this to be a series of three posts. The pictures in these posts will mainly be a combination of ones I've taken over the years, and some from my wife (who is a much better photographer than I am).   Thanks for indulging me in a trip down memory lane. 

- Joseph
Mom and Dad on the Southport- Fort Fisher Ferry

It all began with a last minute decision to go somewhere for the July 4th holiday weekend, and a phone call from my Dad. He suggested that he, my wife Trina, and I all go somewhere to take advantage of Trina having Friday off for the Fourth of July. We talked over a few different ideas, and finally settled on trying to find a place near Southport and Oak Island so we could attend the NC Fourth of July Festival that is held at the Southport Waterfront each year. Luckily we were able to get the last room left at a hotel about 20 minutes away, since everything in Southport and on the island itself was full. Before I talk about this past weekend however, I'd like to go back a few years to the beginnings of my outdoor obsession and the role that Oak Island played in this.

The Beginning
Oak Island has been a place that my family has vacationed at for as long as I have been alive. My mother's family had been vacationing on the island since my mom was a little girl, and two of my grandmother's brothers and their wives had houses on the island, along with other cousins and kinfolks of my grandmother. We would always combine a trip to the beach with visiting relatives that we only got to see a few times a year at most, and this made a trip down to the island special in itself. My earliest memories of the island are pretty fuzzy, however there is one memory that is clear in my mind. I remember Dad telling me once we got down there that he was going to take me fishing. I was probably 3 or 4 years old, but I can distinctly remember that bag of bait shrimp sitting in an old yellow refrigerator in the beach house, and the anticipation I had of the next day's fishing trip to the surf.

I'm not exactly sure how old I was at the time, but I must have been pretty young because I remember having to have Dad help me with casting the rod, and letting me know when I had a bite and how to reel in the fish. My grandparents were down there with us, and it was one of my grandfather's fishing rods that I was using. Everybody made a big deal out of my first fish, which taking my best guess from looking at the old picture was a pompano. I'm not sure looking back why I had never been fishing before that trip to the beach, but that first fish had me hooked for life. I couldn't tell you much else about that year at the beach. I don't know what else I did, or where we went, but there are two things I remember very vividly - a bag of shrimp and the feel of that fish tugging on my line.

Oak Island Surf
As the years went on, we took a family trip down to the island almost every summer. As I got older, I would spend the majority of my time at the beach surf fishing and catching small pompano, spot, and whiting, with the occasional small shark thrown in to keep things exciting. I graduated from bait shrimp to bloodworms, and I used to know every place on and around the island that sold them and who had the best price for them. It was always a little exciting to fish with bloodworms, because they had a head with pincher-type jaws and could bite you if you weren't careful. Any time we were at the beach and weren't doing something as a family, I was on the sand with a surf rod trying to catch fish. I spent a lot of time freshwater fishing, but I always looked forward to our beach trips because I knew that for a week, I could fish almost every day without having to worry about where to go or who was going to take me. The Atlantic Ocean would be right out our door, and to me it seemed absolutely full of wonderous possibilites.

There were always other things to do besides fishing at Oak Island, and I enjoyed swimming and playing in the waves, and riding the ferry from Southport to Fort Fisher to visit the NC Aquarium. Dad and I would walk the beach at night with flashlights and look for ghost crabs and other wildlife, and there were always the shore birds to watch and try to identify. Even as a child, I had a fasinaction with nature and loved discovering new things. Mom and Dad bought me a nature guide for the Carolina coast, and I would take it with me each year and spend time reading it to see what types of birds, fish, and other animals were around us. Another activity that Dad and I both enjoyed was walking on the piers on the island and talking to the fishermen. It was a chance encounter on one of these piers that would change the way I fished at the island and open up a whole new chapter in my fishing life.

To be continued......

- Joseph

Wednesday, July 2, 2014


It's been way too long since I've taken the time to sit down and write on this blog, and I feel bad for neglecting it. I have occasionally updated the blog's Facebook page with outdoor happenings, but this little corner of the Internet has sat quiet since December. There's several things I plan to write about in the next few weeks, and I hope you will indulge me by letting me look back over the last six months or so and catch things up around here. To start with, I wanted to write about a trip my wife and I made last week, and the frustrations (and rewards) of fishing a new spot.

Lake Ruth Ann, Small Country Campground, Louisa, VA
Last week the 2nd anniversary of this blog came and went without a mention on here, mainly because I was on a family vacation trip in Louisa, Virginia. My wife and I were staying with her extended family at the Small Country Campground, and visiting with people we only get to see a few times a year since the majority of her family live in Pennsylvania. We actually stayed in what was called the Manor House, which was built around a pre-Civil War era log cabin. What had me excited about the trip was finding out that the campground sat on the edge of a 25 acre private lake, and that it was open for fishing by anyone staying in the campground. After hitting the Internet to do a little research, I found out that it was called Lake Ruth Ann, and that it contained largemouth bass, bluegill, black and white crappie, and catfish. I was a little apprehensive about my chances of catching anything, because I had no idea if the lake was heavily fished or even fished out, but I decided to throw lots of fishing gear in the car for the trip.

Small Bluegill With Lily Pads in the Background
I packed my 8 wt flyrod along with my vest and fly boxes with the intentions of doing a good bit of flyfishing for both bass and panfish, and I also packed a baitcaster and spinning rod for bass, and an ultralight spinning rod for the panfish in the lake. I considered taking along some catfish gear, but decided that I already had enough fishing equipment to keep up with and find a place for in the car. I wanted to be prepared for almost anything because although flyfishing was my intention, I really wanted to be able to catch a few fish if the flyrod didn't work out. When we arrived on Saturday afternoon, I grabbed the ultralight and a few spinners and headed down to the lake to check things out. What caught me off guard about this lake were all the small lily pads lining the shore and going almost unbroken all the way around the lake. These lily pads extended from the shore out about 20 - 30 feet depending on the area of the lake. There were some spots of open water around the banks, but the majority of the edges were completely covered.

Crappie from the first day
I picked one of the relatively open areas along the bank and made a few casts with a black and gold Rooster Tail spinner, and managed a nice black crappie and a small bluegill. I figured that this was a good sign, especially since I only had a few minutes of fishing time between unpacking and dark. The biggest challenge that I could see to flyfishing this lake was going to be finding enough open water to work a popper or streamer without tangling in the lily pads. I decided that since I had a week to figure it out I wouldn't worry too much about it on the first day. With a few fish caught, I headed back to the house for the night with a head full of plans about the week to come. I figured the next day I would get serious about trying to catch a few bass, especially since talking to a few other fishermen around the lake revealed that people were catching bass on a fairly regular basis, and one young fisherman told me he had caught a nice bass the day before we arrived. I had a vest full of flies and a large tackle box full of all kinds of bass lures, and I thought I had the situation well in hand. Unfortunately I would find reality to be an entirely different situation.

The next day found me down at the lake with a spinning rod in hand rigged up with a plastic frog imitation rigged weedless. I figured that with the challenge of fishing the lily pads and the amount of bullfrogs I had heard the evening before, a weedless frog would be just the thing to catch a few bass with. I fished this particular lure for a couple hours at a time over a two or three day period, without much success. It worked wonderfully for fishing through the thick cover of the lily pads, and I had a missed strike or two, but I couldn't seem to hook up. At one point I switched to a wacky rigged soft plastic jerkbait (Senko-style lure), and manged to hook a nice bass that broke the line as I got it in close to the bank. I'll chalk this one up to fisherman's error, because the line actually broke at the knot and I was fishing 14lb test that was brand new. All I can figure is that I must not have tied the knot correctly for it to break that way.

Solo Flyrod Fish of the Trip
 Then came the most exciting and heartbreaking moment of the trip. I was fishing the frog and had casted out past the lilies to some deeper water, when I felt the thump and saw my line moving. I set the hook and the rod doubled over, and then one of the biggest largemouth bass I've hooked in quite a while jumped out of the water and threw the hook with a violent head shake. I hesitate to try to guess the size of a fish that got away, but this time I'm going to try anyway. I know losing a fish always makes it seem bigger, but my best estimate was that this fish was in the 5 - 6 lb range (and maybe larger). Regardless of its size, it was tough losing that fish after several futile attempts at catching a bass. I felt encouraged that I might be on the right track, but I wasn't getting very many strikes on the frog and decided to switch things up.

I had originally come with the intentions of doing a good bit of flyfishing, and I decided that it was time to change things around for an evening and get the flyrod out. I picked one of the few spots that had enough open water to fish, and started off throwing a streamer with the hopes of hooking up with a bass or possibly a crappie. After several minutes of unhooking lily pads and fighting underwater tangles, I decided maybe a popper would be easier to fish. Once again going with the frog idea, I tied on a green popping bug and began working the open areas between the lily pads. I never got any bass to strike the popper but I did manage to hook a nice bluegill, and I decided to call it a day shortly after.

First Largemouth
 The next couple days of the trip saw more of the same, with me fishing almost exclusively for bass. At this point it had become a personal goal to catch at least one largemouth out of this lake before the week was over. I must admit I was getting a little frustrated, however that just made me more determined to figure out something that would work. I switched lures around and tried buzzbaits early in the morning and late in the evening, along with a lipless crankbait and Texas rigged worms, all without any luck. However, I stuck with the frog the majority of the time, mainly because I was getting a few strikes and also because of the ease that I could fish it through the lilies. Finally a small largemouth decided it wanted a bullfrog lunch, and the first bass of the trip was in hand. As excited as I was to finally catch a bass, I couldn't help but think about the big one that had got away a few days before. I also knew that our week in Virgina was quickly coming to a close and that if I wanted to catch a big bass from this lake I would have to do it soon.
Last Day Bass

Friday evening came and I knew that this was my last chance of the trip to fish, since we would be packing up and leaving the next morning. Other than a few bluegill on spinners, I hadn't had any more luck since catching the small bass on a frog. It was time to get serious about catching a few bass, and I decided that maybe a change was in order. Working off of a hunch, I rigged up with a blue soft plastic jerkbait, fished wacky style, that used to be one of my go-to lures for summer bass fishing in ponds before I started chasing fish with the flyrod in rivers the majority of the time. After a short time fishing this lure, I hooked up with what felt like a good bass. Once again, this fish jumped but this time I remembered to lower the rod tip and managed to keep the fish hooked. After a good fight, and a wrestling match through the lily pads, I finally had a nice sized largemouth in had. It wasn't as big as the one that got away, (they never are), but it was the type of quality bass that I am happy to catch anywhere.

Last Fish of the Trip
 After a quick picture or two, I released her and kept fishing. I felt like I was finally onto something, and of course it took until the last day to figure these fish out. As time was running out, I did manage to hook up with another nice largemouth that wasn't quite as big as the first. Either way, these two bass were the highlight of the trip, as far as the fishing goes, and there were lots of great times and great memories made with family as well. It had been a while since I had done much bass fishing with non-fly tackle, and I forgot just how much of a challenge summertime bass in a lake can be. I think the challenge is what made these fish stick in my memory, it wasn't necessarily the size, or the numbers since I only caught 3 in a week, but the fact that I finally was able to catch a few fish by persevering and trying new techniques. I've often said that fishing has a lot of life lessons to teach, whether we as fishermen realize it or not. I'd like to think that this trip was one of those lessons, and the lessons I took from this trip were don't give up, and keep on trying until you get it right. Sooner or later, the big one will make a mistake and if you're lucky, it won't get away.

Thanks for stopping by!

- Joseph