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The lore and lure of O'Neill's Marina, Pinellas County's last fish camp

For longer than I care to admit, I have been a patron at O'Neill's Marina, on the south St. Petersburg waterfront, often with a fishing rod in hand, but often without. I like to smell the fish smells while standing on the dock, and I like to test the spring of the fiberglass rods stacked in the tackle shop. I like to roll the sinkers around my palm and listen to the old men talking about the big fish they caught or lost over a half century or so.

On the weekend I lean across the counter and chat with Norris Bryan, the ancient mariner whom I have known for more than half my life. Norris is the 81-year-old shrimp monger at O'Neill's who is paid to dole out bait and fishing advice. Of course, that's only half of his responsibilities.

Over the decades he has been a father-confessor to many, a teacher and a scold. Perhaps I shouldn't mention this, but he is also a walking advertisement for the importance of using sunscreen if you spend any time on the water. Not long ago a dermatologist felt compelled to snip off the top of the cancer-ridden right ear of the leathery old fisherman. Such is life on the waterfront.

• • •

"What kind of shrimp do you sell?'' asks an earnest tourist.

"Male and female,'' replies Norris Bryan in his deadpan manner.

O'Neill's has been an institution in St. Petersburg since the end of World War II, when Hap O'Neill and his two sons, Grant and Howard, opened a restaurant and marina on Pinellas Point. In 1954 they moved the operation to the present location at 6701 34th St. S, on the St. Petersburg end of the Sunshine Skyway causeway. Grant's stepson, Alan Phillips, runs the place now. He has kept O'Neill's from falling down without making it modern.

Many of us drawn to the water and to fishing cannot imagine a St. Petersburg without O'Neill's. But soon we may have to. The city owns the land under O'Neill's and proposes taking over the marina in the future. Of course, many of us hope it will never happen.

Although the sign above O'Neill's says "marina,'' the place is actually a fish camp. Marinas are for rich gentlemen with expensive yachts, crisp boating togs and flashy jewelry; fish camps attract average folks who often forsake shaving, shoes and church. Sometimes they smell of Old Spice and sometimes they reek of beer — after breakfast, of course.

Once there were hundreds on Florida's coastline. Most are gone, victims of waterfront prices and civilization. In Pinellas, O'Neill's is the last genuine fish camp standing, a fried mullet sandwich in a sushi world, a mule in a cigarette-boat kind of state. Speaking of mules, one of Norris Bryan's former co-workers once kept one at O'Neill's. On foggy nights, you could hear the mule braying.

Years ago O'Neill's never closed. Shark fishers could buy bait at 2 a.m. on Christmas Day. In the 21st century, the bait store closes around sunset, but the docks are always open.

Norris Bryan arrives in the dark on Saturday morning braced for another wholesome day of shrimp mongering.

"Can you guarantee these shrimp?'' asks a waif.

"I can guarantee my shrimp," says the shrimp monger, "but I can't guarantee you.''

• • •

Old fishermen never die. They just smell that way.

Norris Bryan was a boy when his parents moved during the Great Depression to St. Petersburg. As a teen he rowed a skiff to Mullet Key to camp among the mosquitoes and the rattlesnakes. Mullet Key, now connected to the mainland by a series of bridges, is home to Fort DeSoto Park, where thousands of tourists lie on the beach today. "We hunted — and we fished everywhere over there.

"I started, let's see, hanging around O'Neill's in the 1940s when it was on Pinellas Point and then hung around O'Neill's when they moved when the Skyway Bridge started. I was a mail carrier for the post office for 18 years back when we wore a Pony Express patch on our uniform. Then I retired 35 years ago from the post office and come right away to work at O'Neill's.

"Oh, the fish I caught and saw caught. Saw hanging right here where we're standing right now. Grouper 500 pounds. Sharks even bigger. Tarpon. Snook. You could catch anything you wanted back then — and never even have to leave the bay! You could go out there on the bay and look down in 30 feet of water and see the sea grass waving back at you.

"And the old-timers. Whew! Pappy Kelley. Billy McIntyre. L.W. Clay. Remember them? Sure, you knew them, that's right! They could sure catch fish, couldn't they?''

After a day on the water, the fishing superstars in old St. Petersburg would return to O'Neill's and unload their catch, drink beer and mislead anyone within earshot. Appropriately, the fishing legends placed their behinds on what was known as "The Liar's Bench'' while holding court. The old men, normally a closed-mouth bunch, could talk hours without actually revealing anything useful about their techniques or knowledge.

You could ask them about their boats, their dogs, their education, their annual income, whether they beat their wives. That was allowed. If you dared ask where they had caught their spotted seatrout that afternoon, they'd give you the eye, maybe spit a stream close enough to your flip-flops to make you step back, and say, "Well, Mister. I caught those fish in the corner of the mouth.''

If an old-timer at O'Neill's was in a good mood, and that happened sometimes — don't take my word, check with Norris Bryan — the old-timer might tell you, "Son, see that water over there? That's Tampa Bay. I caught them fish in Tampa Bay.''

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at klink@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8727.

The lore and lure of O'Neill's Marina, Pinellas County's last fish camp 02/20/09 [Last modified: Sunday, February 22, 2009 7:32am]

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