A wise man once said, “Screw it, I’m going fishing.” And he lived happily ever after.
I’ve always had this strange fascination with fishing. Well, not actually fishing, but rather watching people fish. They seem so content and unconcerned about everything around them. Fishermen aren’t trying to change the world or make any kind of political statement. They’re just single-mindedly fixated on snagging a worthy prize from the sea. That’s about it.
I tried my hardest to be one of them. I was always fine with throwing a line into the water and waiting, but the actual catching part of fishing — the dehooking, the bloody guts and the death-watch scene — was just not the relationship I wished to have with the fish in my life. I came to accept that I prefer my fish pan-fried, neatly plated on a bed of rice with a side of slaw.
But watching fishermen has never lost its wonder to me. The historic Juno Beach Fishing Pier on Florida's east coast is an endlessly fascinating place to be an observer. I visit whenever I can. It’s where the serious fishermen go. No amateurs there. No screwing around, no loud noises, no music. Fishermen go there for one reason: to hook a big one, which they do all the time.
The Pier is massively long — about the size of three football fields. To enter, you have to first pass through a gate, pay $1.00 and get a wristband. Once you enter, you’re instantly transposed to an alternate reality. Outside the gate, there are families, bike riders, skaters, people carrying surfboards — a loud and happy beach vibe. But once you pay your buck and enter the pier, it’s a whole new world. A fisherman’s world.
The first thing you notice is how strangely quiet and serene it is, except for the sound of steady waves crashing against the base of the pier. The fishermen are serious and busy. They are the picture of diversity — black, white, brown, old, young. It’s like the United Nations there, with myriad ethnicities and languages on full display, particularly Spanish and multiple Asian languages. No one speaks loudly.
The differences among the people are ultimately irrelevant. Everyone is a fisherman, that’s all. There’s no hint of hierarchy, prejudices or competitiveness. No racial or ethnic groupings — everyone fishes besides everyone. The overriding code appears to be cooperation and kindness. They root for each other. When someone snags a fish, surrounding fishermen rush to assist, if needed. They’ll grab a net, help bring the fish in and, once the fish is up, they’re quick to examine it and compliment the fisherman. But no one gushes over the catch. This is business, so once they’re done, they quietly return to their rods.
I stroll by them, and only occasionally make conversation. They’re not unfriendly towards me, but I get the sense they don’t wish to be distracted. They’re focused. I’m the outsider, the rare non-fisherman on the pier. When I say things like “nice catch,” they look at me like I’m a lame tourist, which I guess I am. (Do fishermen even say “nice catch” anymore? Isn’t that a nice thing to say?)
Sometimes I’ll see them bring up an impressive fish and I’ll stop and watch and get excited for them. But when I ask what kind of fish they caught, I usually just embarrass myself. They either don’t share my excitement or they’re surprised that I’m even asking such a dumb question. Some might not speak English or they’re happy to give me that impression. “It’s a mackerel,” one guy said recently. I almost reflexively joked “Holy mackerel!” but thought he wouldn’t see the humor.
But it’s all good. I love watching the scene on that pier. I admire the people and the culture there. It’s beautiful to witness such courtesy and solidarity among strangers. Everyone helps everyone. I’ve never seen any hint of selfishness or heard an unkind word. It’s them against the Atlantic Ocean, and they seem to genuinely pull together to battle the odds.
The only pier pressure is to be patient and helpful. If only life were like that beyond that old pier.