Stories from the Surf

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By Jack Sparacino
My wife, Jane, sometimes tells people that I must have been born with a fishing rod in my hands.  Well, not quite, though I have been at it a long while and it is a passion. Some of my very favorite fishing experiences have been off the beaches and piers of both coasts, including acrobatic blues from the surf at Great Point in Nantucket and muscular bonito and kelp bass off the famous Malibu and Santa Monica piers in California.  Along with the wonderful scenery and fishing, I’ve been fortunate to meet some interesting people, both fishermen and “non’s” alike, and to harvest a string of memorable stories.  Collectively, they represent a box of unforgettable keepsakes in my mind.
That lucky string rolls along here.  Last year, my friend Steve Brotzman and I met more wonderful people while fishing at Hunting Island.  The first story here comes from an afternoon of surf casting, the second from the pier.  While we caught fish both days, these stories are really about the people we met and why they help make the Lowcountry fishing experience so special.
1. 110 in the shade. We picked a beautiful October day and headed out for Hunting Island beach.  Reports we heard first hand earlier in the week at the Nature Center of TUNA being caught off the beach piqued our interest. Frankly, though, it sounded too good to be true so we prepared for the usual whiting and small sharks. Which is mostly what we caught, along with small pompano and even a sand dollar.  We took a break after an hour or so to reassess our bait situation and grab a soda from the cooler.  Steve then ambled across the jetty to say hello to a family playing in the surf.
What a nice family, it turned out.  The father was mid-30’s, we estimated, as was his wife. Both attractive and fit, accompanied by their two children and two dogs. This “postcard” soon became more interesting as Steve learned that the man was born in the Dominican Republic, was now an active Marine, and was stationed here.  As the conversation unfolded, Steve noted that he was old enough to be the man’s grandfather.  “No, you’re really not,” our Marine noted, “my father was born in August, 1900.”  Wow, Steve thought, that’s incredible … “when did he die?”  “Oh, he’s still alive” said our Marine, “and just had his 110th birthday party back home in Mendoza.”
We marveled at this encounter as we headed home. Back at his computer, Steve did a little digging on Wikipedia and found a list of people known to be 110. A bit more sleuth work uncovered a web video of the birthday party for the man from Mendoza, which we watched with amazement and delight. The gentleman in question, Jose Lantigua Ramirez, has 24 children and (deep breath…) 1,200 grand, great grand, and great-great grandchildren.  He attributed his super longevity to perseverance and persistence. Judging from the video clip, which you can view on YouTube by typing in “Hombre dominicano celebra sus 110 anos de vida,” there must be a lot of additional mileage to be gained by being enveloped by the shade cast by a huge, rapturous family.  If a picture was ever worth a thousand words, this one sure proves the point. Happy birthday indeed, Senior Lantigua Ramirez!
2. Living off the land.  Our second story comes from the Hunting Island pier, one of our favorite places to play with the fish and meet people. Lots of tourists, easy to identify by their questions (what kind of fish/bird is that, is that a dolphin, what are you using for bait, etc.) or clothing (pink is usually a giveaway, as are Beaufort shirts though in my case a Beaufort hat is a necessity).  But also lots of locals and some semi-locals, like two ladies from Sun City.
We didn’t recall their names, but they were smiling from ear to ear at all the whiting they were catching (yes, Steve and I caught our share, too, though it was incidental on this perfectly lovely day.) They told us how well the fish would go with a dinner including the vegetables they grow themselves and how they loved to crab.  They were also excited about taking a class to learn how to throw a cast net so they could catch their own shrimp and baitfish for their crab traps.
We nodded and laughed in admiration as they explained how little they spent on food, though they planned to stop at Dempseys on their way home to pick up some supplementary produce and they also liked to stop in Beaufort for lunch.
They reminded me of a conversation we had with some of our son’s friends who came here to visit. Both Laura Amodeo and Rachel Stern dove right into the fishing and crabbing, marveling at the ready abundance of seafood in the Lowcountry. They even took it upon themselves to jump into the creek bed behind our house at low tide one day —in January no less. Within a half hour, they jumped back up over the bulkhead with a pail of husky mussels that they dug out of the mud.  “Livin’ off the land!” they shouted in unison. Then they proceeded to make delectable lemon squares using some of the Meyer lemons we grow in our back yard.
In subsequent trips back to the pier, we’ve met and chatted with an unending stream of interesting locals and visitors.  With such good company and gorgeous scenery to be had each time out, catching dinner takes a distinctly back seat. Well, not quite.  We always love the wonderful meals afterward, perfectly seasoned by those stories from the surf.

Jack Sparacino has a Ph.D. in psychology from The University of Chicago.  He has published over 20 articles in psychological and medical journals.  He is retired from United Technologies Corporation and now lives with his wife, Jane, and their two dogs on St. Helena Island.  His hobbies include fishing, clamming, crabbing, shrimping and writing.