After two and a half months of construction, the fishing pier at Anclote Gulf Park reopened July 26 and that has the morning regulars settling back into their routine.
"Big Al" Dunkerley, 71, is typically the first to show up, lugging his gear to a favored spot just as the morning sky is breaking into layers of pink and blue. For an hour or so, the Nashville transplant pretty much has the place to himself, hoping for the best, but not bothered if he catches anything or not.
"I find this to be so therapeutic," he said while following a habit that has him casting his line, counting to eight until his lure bounces off the bottom, and then giving 12 quick jerks to drag it across the rocks.
"I wouldn't come out here just for the fish and I wouldn't come out here just for the scenery," Dunkerley said. "You get to catch a meal once in awhile. You get to enjoy the sunrise. You see the presence of God all around you."
A little after 8 a.m., the others start to straggle in.
There's Dennis Cujdik, 62, who sometimes comes with his wife, Amy, 45. He started out as a kid fishing for food on the Jersey Shore, but comes here now to experience what he missed after 35 years of working in management for Comcast.
"It's a nice place to be," he said. "You see eagles, hawks, manatees. Last week someone caught a blacktip shark here."
Then comes Seymour "the Birdman" Brown, 84. The friendly character from the Bronx spent years wading the local waters back in the days when "everybody was catching everything." But now he settles for small baitfish that he'll take home to feed to a friendly blue heron he nursed back to health some time ago.
Add to that the lone Florida native, "Two Pole Bob" Hall, who has opinions about all sorts of things and is not afraid to share them.
Finally, there's the "Prince of the Pier," Dominic Magrone, 65, from Chicago. He's known for eating what he catches and always lending a helping hand while casting a net across the way from his son, Gaetano, 38, who doesn't have a nickname yet, and is there to catch "whatever."
They get along just fine, probably because they follow a fisherman's basic etiquette. That includes respecting someone's space and keeping your distance so lines don't get crossed; waiting your turn for the "hot spots"; and tossing your waste lines into a covered trash bin so birds and other wildlife don't get tangled.
"There's definitely a pecking order. A lot of (fishermen) understand it, but a lot of them don't," said Two Pole Bob, who really wishes, by the way, that everyone would pick up after themselves and use the new cutting boards when they cut their bait, instead of mucking up the railings.
The pier is a busy place on the weekends and in the winter months, but ask any one of the regulars, and they'll tell you that come summertime, you don't tend to catch a lot.
So, why bother?
Turns out, it's not just about the fishing.
A lot of it is about greeting the day with friendly conversation, not-so-gentle jibes and solving the world's problems while the egrets wade and the sun beats down on your face.
"The people are more interesting than the fish," said Two Pole Bob. "You can catch fish anywhere, but you can't always get the people."
Michele Miller can be reached at [email protected].