OAK ISLAND - A commotion at the end of the pier had people scurrying to the king deck Thursday evening. A kid had something big on his line, as his drag was singing.
“It feels like a shark,” he said.
“Could be a tarpon,” someone suggested. “Or a big grouper.”
“If it’s a grouper, it’s 100 pounds or more,” the kid said.
“Well, then it’s not a grouper,” an older angler said. “The state record is only about 45.”
“I think it’s a shark,” the kid said.
We watched as the his line disappeared into the deep, running down and away from the Ocean Crest Pier. Lines were pulled in so he could work free of entanglements. Onlookers stood back and let the young teen and his father work the drag, moving the rod under and across other stationary rods baited for king mackerel.
They were locals, and they knew the choreographed dance between angler and fish repeated over time as kids grow up on the end of piers and become men before their time.
I was once that kid.
He refused help from the men around him, listening only to his dad who never touched the rod. The fight seemed to be a stalemate until whatever was on that line began to tire. For the next 30 minutes, yard by yard of 60-pound braid was spooled back in. Anglers and vacationing families gathered again at the rails and looked down in anticipation.
And then out of the blue, it surfaced. People gasped. Fisherman swore with little children wide-eyed at the savage and sometimes gritty scene that is common at the end of a fishing pier.
The creature was the size of a small car, splayed wide and thrashing, rolling in the braid until it came to a critical moment. Either the rod was coming out of the kid’s hands or the almost unbreakable line would indeed break or the pier itself would end the struggle.
It was no shark at the end of the line. No beautiful silver-side tarpon or weathered old grouper. It was no fish at all.
“It’s a ray!” someone yelled.
Indeed it was, a massive Southern stingray almost six-feet wide, a female with a long rapier tail and venomous spine thrashing about, a menacing sight from above. There was a brief conversation about raising it in a net, but the talk ended suddenly when the ray veered into one of the barnacle-covered pier supports and snapped the line.
“Damnit!” the kid said. “That was awesome!”
And then as if on cue, on the other side of the king deck, another rod began to sing. The rays, apparently, are running at the North Carolina coast.
This is an odd phenomenon. We hear of annual drum runs and frequent blues running. Two weeks ago down here, the speckled trout were abundant, and a week ago the Spanish and king mackerel were everywhere.
But for some reason, on Thursday afternoon at the Ocean Crest Pier, we got into a group of stingrays. I hooked one that I only got a glance at before it broke my meager 15-pound test mono line. I hooked another that was the size of a Buick Skylark, a massive sheet of gray that surfaced and simply floated down until, again, my line snapped, sounding like a gunshot and making people around me duck for cover.
I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy it. I went down to try and get in on the Spanish bite, but it had moved on by the time I arrived with the thunderstorms Thursday. But I got there in time for the strangest run I’ve ever seen.
By nightfall, most everyone had left the pier. The vacationing families and the young tourists had lost interest, and the rain and unpredictable lightning flashes had driven in almost every fisherman.
The kid was one of the last to leave, giving me a fist bump as he pulled a wagon behind him, loaded with gear, headed home with a story he’d tell for the rest of his life.
I stood there in the last minutes before the pier closed and tossed one more cast into the dark waters, a wad of cut bait and shrimp on a small grappling hook, standing in silence, the rain picking up and the lightning becoming more menacing.
And then I felt a tug. And then a long slow pull. I lowered my rod tip and loosened the drag to let the fish run.
It ran until I was almost out of line, 200 yards of monofilament stripping and singing and disappearing into the dark.
The creature ran until it tired of my nuisance hook, two football fields from where I stood. I reset the drag and began to slowly apply resistance.
Suddenly there was a violent jerk.
A gunshot in the distance.
And another ray swimming away into the night.
The strange running of the rays had ended. It was pouring. I was the last person to walk off the pier, smiling in the gathering storm.
I felt like a kid again.