Lee Tolliver The Virginian-Pilot ©
Brynner Parks let out a deep sigh of relief as he peeled his fingers off the helm.
He throttled down the diesel engines on his sportfishing boat and contemplated the best way to describe another day of fishing out of Oregon Inlet.
It didn’t have much to do with catching fish.
“I tell everybody when I pull back into the slip that I did my job,” said Parks, a charter captain for nearly 40 years who now runs the Smoker. “I got you home.”
Just that makes for a successful day.
“Fishing is a bonus,” Parks said with a laugh. “It really is.”
Oregon Inlet was in bad shape a few weeks ago, and earlier in the year, and late last year. It has been often through the years. Skippers deal with shoaling, ever-changing channel locations, river-rapid tides and howling winds. They can rarely relax while navigating parts of the inlet whose reputation for danger has earned names such as Hell’s Gate.
“It’ll make you pucker,” Capt. Chris Stine said on the Bi-Op-Sea.
But coastal cowboys brave the conditions to keep doing what they love.
They couldn’t pay the bills if they didn’t.
“We evaluate it ourselves all the time, and we know what we’re doing,” Parks said, as other captains pulled into their Oregon Inlet Fishing Center slips sporting the same “whew” facial expressions. “It can be dangerous and sometimes treacherous, but I wouldn’t call it scary.
“I know people are talking about the inlet. But we’re open for business and going fishing. And fishing is starting to get pretty good.”
So is the inlet.
Over the past week, Army Corps of Engineers dredges have been trying to clear the way for hundreds of boats that depart daily underneath the Bonner Bridge.
Charter boats, private watercraft and commercial vessels from the fishing center, Pirate’s Cove Marina and Wanchese, N.C., annually pump billions of dollars into the Outer Banks economy, which means the captains have to deal with sometimes hazardous conditions.
“I’ve gotta make a living, man,” said Capt. Billy Maxwell of Tuna Fever.
Local knowledge is the biggest advantage Oregon Inlet captains have. After storms, Maxwell and David Swain of the High Return head to the inlet in a skiff with a depth finder and a long pole marked with 1-foot increments to test the water. They place poly balls – large floating markers – decorated with reflective tape alongside the natural channels, using large brake drums to anchor them to the bottom.
“You hit (the poly balls) with a spotlight, and that channel gets lit up like Dulles Airport,” Maxwell said.
The Corps helps as much as it can.
Three dredges are working the area, and aerial photographs with depth numbers are provided weekly.
“We’ve got better water than we’ve had in months,” Capt. Danny Wadsworth, who runs the Point Runner, said this week. “It’s just not very wide. It doesn’t leave any room for error.”
And errors happen – even for highly experienced skippers. Conditions often make navigating the channel a precision operation.
“You run in and out of this inlet enough, you’re going to bump,” Maxwell said, referring to when a boat touches the bottom.
On Tuesday, it happened to Dennis Endee, a skipper of 20 years who runs the A-Salt Weapon out of Pirate’s Cove. His 56-foot Paul Mann scraped on the way out.
“It’s the first time I’ve hit right there,” said Endee, who bent a rudder and is looking at a couple thousand dollars to fix it. “The current swept me a little to the north of the narrow channel they have cleared, and that was it.”
Endee’s boat was pulled out of the water at Bayliss Boatworks in Wanchese, where owner John Bayliss said he has a boat suffering from nearly $100,000 in damage.
Endee said such incidents cause more hurt to the inlet’s reputation.
“And economically, that’s horrifying,” the New Jersey native said. “The number of boats that don’t bother to come in here for a few nights or for a tournament is staggering, and it’s costing the area an awful lot of money.
“They just need to fix this problem, and it’s an easy fix.”
Captains say a rock jetty on the north side would keep sand from sweeping into the inlet. The plan was approved decades ago and financed. Environmental lawsuits tied up the project in courts.
“I’ve been up and down this entire East Coast,” Endee said, “and every inlet other than Oregon and Hatteras are jettied. … It just doesn’t make any sense.”
Until things get fixed, captains will continue to exit and enter the Atlantic Ocean and its fertile fishing grounds through a swirling world of sand and sloughs.
The other option is to run to Hatteras Inlet, a costly round trip of about 100 miles.
“Hatteras isn’t in much better shape right now,” Maxwell said. “And that eats up any money you can make on a trip.”
Sitting in a chair in the fishing center, Maxwell looked at weekly charts provided by the Corps and marveled at the ever-changing waterway. He glanced at the clock and realized the day’s fleet should be approaching the inlet. Reaching for the VHF radio, he called out and asked how much water incoming skippers had.
“About 10 feet,” Parks barked back. “But it sure is narrow.”
Fishing center General Manager Minta Meekins stood nearby and slowly shook her head.
“I’ve got lots of respect for these guys,” said Meekins, who has worked at the center for nearly 40 years, some 15 in charge. “They just do what they have to do. Sometimes, it amazes me that they go out.”
But they almost always do.
Lee Tolliver, 757-222-5844, firstname.lastname@example.org