- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 7, 2005

Virginia bridge

is a reel keeper

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — Retired homemaker Nancy Barnes drives several hours from North Carolina every other week just to fish from the James River Bridge Fishing Pier.

On some nights, she fills several coolers — too many fish to count, Miss Barnes insists.

Other nights, she may pack just six croakers in a single cooler after almost seven hours of fishing.

“It’s really iffy — the number of fish you might catch on any given night,” Miss Barnes said. “They may run and then shut down and there could be nothing, and then all of a sudden it picks up. You just don’t know.”

Walk the pier at night and you find lawn chairs lining both sides with fishing poles resting against the metal railings.

As the wind whips up and down the concrete path, devoted fishermen wrap themselves in blankets or heavy coats — even newspapers — to keep warm.

Die-hards like Miss Barnes have been braving the wind, cold and sometimes bitter nights on the pier for decades.

Dubbed one of the longest piers on the East Coast, it has a pull that reaches to North Carolina, Maryland, the District, Virginia and even Florida.

Those who fish know that everything including black drum, flounder, speckled and gray trout, croaker, spot, bluefish, blue crabs, striped bass and even shark have been pulled from these waters.

They say the fishing is best at night when many of the fish are feeding. The pier generally opens April 1, earlier if warm weather settles in and the croakers have moved in.

The crowds show up daily starting at 9 a.m., paying $8 to fish for just a few hours or until closing time at 11:30 p.m.

Lawrence and Sheila Jefferies and two friends recently fished into the night and walked away with dinner — 23 croakers.

They position themselves at the midway point on the almost mile-long pier because that is where the fish tend to bite.

“Croaker bites better at night,” Mr. Jefferies said. “That’s when they feed. But this has been a team effort. They catch ‘em, and I eat ‘em,” he said, referring to his wife and friends.

The original two-lane James River Bridge opened in 1928, stretching four miles from Newport News to Isle of Wight County. The current four-lane bridge was built in stages from 1975 to 1982.

While the new bridge was under construction, area businessman Jim Wharton worked to keep a portion of the old bridge in place so that it could be turned into a fishing pier.

Today, the Wharton family leases the pier from the city, giving the city a percentage of sales from business there.

Mr. Wharton and his partner, Nick Hionis, also run the Crab Shack restaurant, which was built in 1997.

The pier and the restaurant are considered one business, Mr. Wharton said.

“Some days, there’s as many as 300 people fishing on the pier, and some days there’s none because of rain,” he said. “This pier has become more popular with people because there’s not many piers that are concrete … meaning it’s not so scary to walk out on as some of the other local wooden piers.”

In fact, when the weather takes a turn for the worse, the James River Fishing Pier is a sought-after haven.

Sometimes at night, when the water is bouncing against the pier and the wind is whipping poles from side to side, the only noise heard on the pier is the hum of traffic on the nearby James River Bridge, fishermen talking and the fish themselves — hooked and flopping on the ground.

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