Fishing of food is a tradition here

Published 12:13 pm Wednesday, July 5, 2017

By Ryan Kushner

Staff writer

It’s a hot, but still breezy Monday afternoon and the fish in the Cypress Creek are biting.

Marlow Diggs reeled in two in a span of just 10 minutes after setting up his rods at the wooden pier in Windsor Castle Park.

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Both catches were croakers, small and silver, with almost googly eyes. They sang the frog-like sound that prompted their name as they swung gently from Diggs’ red fishing rod.

Diggs, like many fishermen and women who take to the piers around the Pagan River and its offshoots, fishes for food, and came to the park armed with a blue cooler.

On a good day, he said he brings in 30 to 40 fish. On a particularly good day, he takes home 100. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

Besides croakers, Diggs said he catches spot, puppy drum, and stripers, also known as rockfish. Last month, the catfish in the river were biting like croakers, according to Diggs.

On this particular fishing day, with its occasional breeze and pending high tide, Diggs is optimistic.

“That’s a good sign of a good day of fishing,” he said of the elements around him.

For bait, Diggs uses peeler crab, squid, shrimp and worms. He said he’s had the most luck using peeler crab, a hard-shell blue crab that is beginning to molt.

Diggs was born and raised in the Thomas Park community in Smithfield, and has been fishing all his life, 50-some years, he said.

Diggs said he works a couple of different jobs, and likes to come to the pier on his days off.

“I love it. Fishing and hunting,” Diggs said.

He puts his still-wiggling croakers into his cooler. He said he cooks them up and eats them, and occasionally he’ll sell them.

Diggs said he prefers to clean his catches when he gets home, but others frequenting the spot get right to work gutting the fish along the railings of the pier. The unusable parts make small splashes as they’re dropped back from where they came.

Aside from the occasional splash and purr of a discontented croaker, it’s quiet as the fishermen there tend to their lines. One young fisherman, sitting in a foldout camping chair, has four lines going. Another sits on his cooler, one line out. The wind blows. It’s peaceful.

In the shade, farther back from the pier, sits a woman who also said she had been fishing in the area for some 50 years, cooking up whatever her family catches. She said she enjoys coming to the pier at the park because there are always people around. Her grandsons are fishing. Another breeze comes by in the calm.

“It’s like heaven,” she said, noting that she picked a good spot to sit.

Upstream, the pier at Clontz Park, until recently owned by Smithfield Foods, features a wider venue for fishermen of the Pagan River’s northern banks to cast off from.

It is, however, in decidedly worse shape. Splintering boards buckle in disrepair, some leaving large holes along the pier. Rusted nails stick out sharply in some areas.

Still, fishers make frequent use of the site, which was built to be used by employees at Smithfield Foods as well as the general public by its former CEO, Joseph Luter III.

It was deeded over to the town by the company in 2015 so the town could qualify for a VMRC grant to build a public boat ramp at the location.

On another day, an afternoon turned sunny after the rain, a woman and her two young children are seeing what they can reel in along the pier.

“It’s mostly croakers, if they’re a nice size,” the woman said of the fish they catch, which she will then either bake or fry. “Just like you would buy a fish already cooked in a store.”

She said squid is a popular bait to use in the area, but she’s not too picky.

“I just try anything, whatever I can,” she said of bait.

Her son caught a massive catfish along the shore a few weeks ago, she said. He proudly held up a picture of it on his mother’s phone. It was the size of an arm. They still haven’t gotten around to cooking it, but it’s in the works.

The family, with three lines going, typically catches around a dozen fish before heading back home. Even on days with little luck catching-wise, there’s no real downside in coming out to try their luck at the pier, the woman said.

“If I catch fish, I catch fish,” she said. “If not, I’m out in fresh air.”

James Goodwin, another fisherman who frequents the pier, wasn’t expecting to catch a crab Wednesday afternoon. If he was, he would have brought his crab net. Nonetheless, a blue crab grabbed right onto his fishing line and didn’t let go. That’s never happened before.

“I guess that one was hungry,” mused Goodwin.

He calmly reeled it in onto the pier, much to the glee of his grandchildren, who had come along with him and gathered around the crab excitedly.

Goodwin showed them its claws, and let it grab onto his shoe to demonstrate its strength.

Goodwin was born in Chuckatuck and moved to Smithfield with his parents when he was young. He said he’s been fishing ever since he was “knee-high as a frog,” and comes to Clontz Park about once a week.

“We normally go according to the tide,” said Goodwin. “Out here they bite low tide and high tide sometimes.”

On “good days,” days that most fishers in the area seem to know of, Goodwin said he will bring home 16 or 17 fish. He said he throws back anything smaller than the size of his hand and wrist so that they can grow.

Goodwin also said he has a somewhat passive view of fishing.

“It ain’t all about the fishing,” said Goodwin. “I mean, I love the fishing, but if I catch them, I catch them. If I don’t, I don’t.”

On this particular day, he’s reeled in two good-sized croakers along with his unusually hungry crab.

As he spoke by his fishing line, one of his young granddaughters marched up to him.

“Poppa James, can you catch another fish?” she asked.

He looked down at the excited young girl and responded in a slow, patient voice.

“I’m trying, baby.”  {/mprestriction}