By Nick Muckerman
I’ve never been to prison, mostly thanks to a combination of semi-clean living and some fortunate timing with the statute of limitations of a state that will not be mentioned.
I have, however, fished from a public pier.
If the advice Samir and Michael in Office Space received from their lawyer friend is correct, both places are similar on the first day, so you must act accordingly. That’s right. You might have to kick someone’s ass.
Despite the prevailing notion that beach vacations are relaxing and so you should just sit in the sand and drink, I can’t be close to big water and not go fishing. Charters are expensive, but the pier costs $7 per day to fish, so the tradition in my annual extended-family vacation is that I leave every morning before light for the pier; whoever can help catch bait and won’t complain is welcome to join.
After the first pier excursion of my most recent trip, one of my nephews spouted off to his mom the exact thing I was hoping he wouldn’t.
“Uncle Nick almost got in a fight again,” he said with a big grin, full of some sort of misplaced pride.
My sister-in-law looked at me as if I was perhaps not the greatest adult influence.
“We also caught two tarpon that were six feet long, which I would say was a more noteworthy highlight, but consider the other little thing an anti-bullying lesson,” I said.
“It was just like last year when Uncle Nick told some dude he was going to throw him off of the pier,” said my nephew. I made a mental note to talk to him about how Vegas rules apply when we go fishing together.
“I’ve never said I was going to throw anyone off the pier,” I said. “From time to time, I’ve told certain individuals that if they mouthed off to me again, they’d be going for a swim. If they happened to infer I would be the reason for the swim, that’s their business.”
My sister-in-law smiled at that.
I’d been fishing this particular Florida gulf coast pier since I was eight years old, but only for a week at a time once every year or two. When I was 11, I was the last one on it before Hurricane Opal blew it away. Unbeknownst to me and having been dropped off at the pier at dawn, my parents decided to abandon our Florida vacation early with the incoming hurricane. My dad had planned to run by the pier to pick me up on the way out of town. The other fishermen had already left right around the time the 55-gallon metal trash bins began blowing over the railing and into the sea. For an hour or so, I’d had the whole thing to myself. I didn’t mind the rain, but that wind was a bitch to cast into.
Twenty-five years and one rebuild later, I was on the same pier on our first morning of our week-long family vacation. I ignored the sneers of the locals who inhabit the enlarged end of the pier, or the “octagon,” as we call it, for its UFC-inspired shape.
Locals don’t like vacationers fishing from the octagon because it’s where the big fish are caught, and they aren’t shy about letting you know you’re not welcome. I am a vacationer, and I like catching big fish, so I fish from the octagon. Confrontation is inevitable.
This one began as I was traversing the pier after grabbing a baitfish from our five-gallon bait bucket. I stepped over a rod that was leaning on a railing—not a breach of etiquette—but some will do anything to make a scene with the hope that it will make a vacationer uncomfortable enough to vacate the octagon.
“Hey man! Watch it, that’s my rod!” a guy said. I turned around and looked him over. He was a typical sun-fried, local pier rat with flip-flops, sun-bleached hair and a face full of stubble. He was not big, but not small either, perfect actually, other than the giant filet knife hanging from his belt. I passed. Maybe he was a crazy person. I wasn’t leaving my spot on the pier, but I’d wait for another opportunity.
“Sorry about that,” I said.
I moved over to the edge of the pier where my dad and nephews were. I began the short but tedious process of getting my treble hook between the upper lip and eyes of the 10-inch baitfish, right in the sweet spot that holds the hook well but doesn’t suddenly paralyze the fish.
“Well, watch your fucking step next time, asshole! That’s a hundred-dollar reel!” he said.
Here it was. First day in prison.
I handed my rod to my dad, my baitfish now dangling from my hook, and he gave me a resigned, fatherly expression. Whatever aggressive gene I have, he didn’t give me, or it skipped a generation or something, but he knew me well enough to see the inevitable.
“Watch the knife,” he said. I nodded back to him as I stepped toward the guy.
It is kind of an art, this process, and the object is to gain a reluctant acceptance of a place in the octagon. The goal is to let people know it’s not worth their time or effort to screw with you, and ideally without actually getting into a fight.
A commanding volume is paramount so that it only needs to be done once, but I’ve found demeanor is just as important. Unhinged is the goal, rather than tough. Crazy people tend to make not-crazy people uncomfortable enough to want to get along.
“Listen bud, I’ll step over your rod if it’s in my way. You’re welcome to move it somewhere else.” The volume stopped all movement on the octagon. I took another step that put me two feet from the guy’s sunburned face. “But if you say something like that again to me, my old man, or those two boys over there, it’s going to be a long swim to the surf for you,” I said. Suddenly, something on his flip-flops caught his attention. He stared intently down at whatever it was.
I glanced around. Everyone was watching.
I addressed the guy again. “We’ll be here all week,” I said.
I looked down at his spare fishing rod that had started the whole thing. Then I kicked it. Not super hard, but not lightly either. It slid off the rail and hit the pier deck, clattering on the concrete with a few metallic clanks before coming to rest. Totally unnecessary at that point, but I was on a roll.
The pier was completely still and silent for a solid five seconds.
A seagull squawked.
“And keep your shit out of my way,” I said.
Then I walked back to my spot that would no longer be contested.
I grabbed my rod from my dad and casted my squirming baitfish—a silver thing locally called
an LY that tarpon and king mackerel love—into the deep blue.
My nephews glanced up at me with looks that betrayed two conflicting thoughts: admiration and a deep questioning of whether or not I belonged in a cage. I winked at them. They relaxed and smiled back.
I gazed down the pier toward the surf where the rest of the vacationers were, too terrified of the locals on the octagon. Fifty yards down the pier, one vacationer, a grown man, squealed in delight as he reeled up a fish that was almost big enough to qualify as bait on the octagon. The poor bastard wouldn’t last a single day in prison.
It was a cloudless day with calm seas, and the sun was pushing up from the east. I looked out into the water. A hundred yards away, I saw a glint reflected from the sun, then a procession of silver backs rolling out of the surface of the water, headed right to us.
“The tarpon are coming,” I told my nephews. “Get your bait in the water.”