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Sea worthy

North Carolina islands offer more than sun, sand and surf

ATLANTIC BEACH, N.C. — Take the meanest man in the world, put a fishing pole in his hand, bring him out fishing for a day and by sunset he'll be smiling.

A man bearing a chauvinistic ode to fishing on his faded, greasy baseball cap offered me that nugget of wisdom while on a visit last month near the southern tip of the Outer Banks.

"What if he doesn't catch any fish?" I asked.

"That's OK," he said. "That man'll still be smilin'."

Yeah, right, I thought. Speaking from experience, I'd say a day of fruitless fishing isn't something to smile about.

This philosophic, old, red-headed, weather-beaten, stubbly stranger had not landed a single flounder, and the sun was getting higher and hotter on Sportsman's Pier. Self-help adages, I suppose, work better when you're down on your luck.

Still, no one along the 1,000-foot pier early on a Thursday morning seemed the least bit hurried or unapproachable — shoulders slack, quiet conversations, easy laughter. Yet the only fish anyone was catching, except for the guy who caught an 8-pound Hatteras blue, were the size of bait.

Maybe there was some truth to the old man's hyperbole.

After my own unsuccessful attempts that same day to catch fish off the back of Dr. Jack Harrell's 32-footer named Sea Cat, the good tooth medico later told me, "It's not just about catching fish."

I hear these guys, but it's a hard pill to swallow. Maybe I've been living in the city too long.

Harrell has been coming to Bogue Banks Island since he was a boy and his granddad owned a house here. He has baptized his own adult offspring, Drew and Gray, into the same lifestyle and mind-set.

Jack and his wife Kay now have a two-story home that overlooks their boats parked in the peaceful Money Island Slough right out back. You can hear the ocean from their deck.

Lyn Turner, a college buddy of Jack's, writes in a book about the "Crystal Coast" that before you cross the bridge over Bogue Sound, you leave your worries at the entrance. Turner says the worries won't seem as heavy when you pick them up again on your way back home.

Oh yeah, Turner has a home right on the beach, close enough for spray from the Atlantic Ocean to mist your glasses. He tells a story about how his own sprawling deck gave way under 70 or so people during a party — and how none of the injured sued.

It reminds me of a saying on a hand towel in one of the Harrell's bathrooms. It goes something like this, "You never know how many friends you have until you own a beach house."

So, it may not be the case that not catching fish is still good fun — it's probably where you get skunked that matters.

On this surreal, idyllic barrier island near the Outer Banks, happiness lies in just being here, fish or no fish. It's more than just being someplace different or falling under the influence of good friends who, when they talk in that pleasing southern drawl, even sound more relaxed.

Here, I'm told, you're either a boat person or a beach person. The boat people tend to be those who have homes on the islands and have the money for the bigger, flashier vessels with names like Miss Libby and Virginia Lee. Having tasted the boating life here, I could get used to cruising around, waving casually to other weekend captains (Drew says you never know when you might need one of them — so, wave to everyone), taking a slow trip to the Cape Lookout lighthouse or to a waterfront restaurant in Beaufort.

The beach people would be those who scrape and scrimp just to live here, or the townies from nearby Morehead City and tourists who find their way to the few motels and public parking spaces around here — high-rise hotels are unheard of in these parts. I could eke out a happy existence just being a beachcomber here, fishing for whatever treasures the sea washes to shore.

Dr. Harrell even asked that I not write about this place for fear more people will discover its allure, which remains relatively untainted by an overly touristy feel.

Sorry, Jack.

Barry Waters, 43, discovered Atlantic Beach and he moved here last December. For him, it was about grabbing an "opportunity" that comes along once in a lifetime. Nowadays he likes to wade out into the rolling surf in a T-shirt and shorts to try his hand at fishing.

Surfers love it here, too.

The waves I saw at high tide looked small, too numerous and short lived — most of the rides lasted only five or 10 seconds. Some boarders couldn't catch a good curl. Most spent a good deal of time bobbing around in chilly, salty water.

But as one female surfer put it as she came ashore, it wasn't all that bad.

Kind of like pizza, I suppose — even when it's bad, it's still pretty good.

My family now has a standing invitation to revisit the Harrell house in Atlantic Beach. I suspect with so much unfinished business there, we'll return.

I still want to take the drive on state Route 12 from Ocracoke to Corolla, a drive that runs all along the Outer Banks. I want to go boating again and run into schools of porpoises gliding through blue waters.

I want to walk the gently sloping beaches some more, watch the surfers, collect more shells, fall asleep in the sand with the ocean breezes as my blanket. I want to find more philosophers like that man on Sportsman's Pier — people who will help me shed my city skin once in a while.

And, of course, I still wouldn't mind catching a fish or two.

If you go . . .

Getting there: You'll want to fly into RDU (Raleigh/Durham) International Airport, about two hours from the nearest access to Bogue Banks Island and Atlantic Beach or the Outer Banks. A direct flight from Salt Lake City could not be found, but United Airlines can fly you round trip through Chicago for less than $300.

Things to do: Bogue Banks Island has four small towns and the Civil War site Fort Macon. From this island you can charter fishing boats, take a ferry or sailboat ride, kayak, golf and check out museums or shops. For more information, call 1-800-SUNNYNC or visit the Web site www.atlanticbeach-nc.com (look for the "Links" icon). If it's the true Outer Banks just to the northeast you want, check out any of the following Internet sites: www.outer-banks.com, www.outer-banks.nc.us, www.nc-outerbanks.com,www.outerbanks.com.

E-mail: sspeckman@desnews.com