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A pier for everyone

Amick Johnson of Socastee had two fishing rods perched before sunrise Saturday morning off the Myrtle Beach State Park pier. He was alone, except for one other lone fisherman nearby, two flocks of brown pelicans soaring by in single formations, and some pigeons resting on the wooden railings.

By 7:30 a.m., families and groups, including some folks with fresh-brewed cups of coffee in hand from the pier shop, were strolling onto the pier as another busy day got into full swing.

Fishing is one of many ways life slows down and relaxes at any of the eight public piers that reach out into the Atlantic Ocean across Horry County, from North Myrtle Beach’s Cherry Grove section south to Garden City Beach. Peer from any pier to meditate, observe wildlife, read, watch a sunrise, or let the surf provide a natural soundtrack louder than any earful a sea shell can give. Even though hurricanes, especially Hugo in 1989, have taken a toll on the area piers, they’re rebuilt and made ready to make new memories for local residents and vacationers alike.

Sporting a Clemson orange T-shirt and tan shorts, Johnson said he casts his rods from the pier five or six times a week at the state park’s pier. The retired high school teacher and coach from Hickory, N.C., who also later managed a former hotel in Myrtle Beach, said camaraderie with other angler regulars marks his favorite part of fishing there.

“If you catch a fish,” he said, “it’s a bonus.”

Pointing out the numbered pier spots where fishing colleagues set up their respective camps, Johnson said they all share in a “healthy competition” of the sport and fun of reeling in catches, and “we all pull for one another,” helping, for example, when one person brings in a king mackerel.

“I can look for my buddies,” Johnson said, “by where they fish.”

One friend, he said, “will tell me everybody who’s here ... even before I get out there and set up.”

The “family atmosphere” there has kept Johnson coming back to the park pier for six years, and he said he and other fishermen and women are happy to oblige youngsters seeking tips of the sport.

“It’s fun for us,” Johnson said, “and they remember us when they come back.”

Looking northward at the calm, clear ocean waters reflecting sun rays, “It’s going to be a gorgeous day,” he said.

Ann Malys Wilson, an interpretive ranger at the park since 1994, loves walking the pier at any time of the year “because you never know what you’re going to see out there., whether you’re fishing, crabbing or enjoying a walk.”

She’ll never forget her own whale of a tale from second week on the job.

“I saw a humpback whale,” Wilson said, remembering its breeching “a couple of times.”

She’s always on the lookout for marine life such as sea turtles, females of which will crawl ashore to nest near the beach dunes.

“June is the month for cownose stingrays,” Wilson said. “Sometimes you see dozens at a time ... more near the surface. To me, they’re just really happy.”

Wilson said piers, like lighthouses, each pile on history. The park’s first two piers were built on the north side of the park, taken out by Hurricane Hazel in 1954 and a plane crash, respectively, then after the pier’s relocation south from the runway path of what is now Myrtle Beach International Airport, Hurricane Hugo destroyed the third pier in 1989.

She also appreciates how every pier boasts its “own family of fishermen.”

“I bet,” she said, “the die-hard fishermen love that pier for whatever reason.”

Springmaid Beach Pier, with a 110-foot long T at the end, sits within eyesight from the park, about a mile north.

Mary Jo Davis, a cashier in Springmaid’s new tackle and gift shop, said dolphins show up occasionally, mostly in January or February, perhaps making the Grand Strand their turnaround point.

“It seems they like to come here and go back,” Davis said.

She said visitors to the pier enjoy sitting on a porch swing or in a big Adirondack chair, also great spots to snap photos, and that people make use of picnic tables at the start of the pier to munch on meals.

Second and 14

Two other piers in Myrtle Beach sit on each end of the city’s new boardwalk, paralleling North Ocean Boulevard.

Teak Collins, owner of the Second Avenue Pier, which anchors the south edge of the boardwalk, said the pier has been in his family for 50 years.

He said some manatees were seen Sunday in the water there.

“Two big ones and a little ones,” Collins said. “They just came by and headed north.”

Lengthening his wildlife sightings on a larger scale, he said whales are spotted every year, “some beached ... and some healthy ones, still swimming.”

A search for 15-pound flounder lies flat atop Collins’ wish list, but no matter what people like to do on a pier, “you’ll be able to enjoy what you like doing,” also with a “perfect viewing spot” for the Oceanfront Merchant’s Association’s summer fireworks every Wednesday from the Pier House Restaurant, built two years ago.

Follow the boardwalk to its northern terminus for Pier 14, owned by Marc Devereux’s family.

Recalling causalities from Hugo, Devereux said the pier’s front ramp and back end washed away, but the restaurant remained intact, so the pier was rebuilt with a 200-foot extension.

Besides manatees and sea turtles which arouse sightseers’ eyes at times, Devereux has found waterspouts imprinting the most on his mind, especially one on a path crossing the Second Avenue Pier. One postcard, he said with sympathy in his voice, “shows our pier in the foreground and the Second Avenue Pier in the background, with the twister in it.”

Devereux said tourists make up most of the summer business, and “we have a good local following.”

“You can’t beat the location,” he said.

South and north ends

Two piers occupy the south and north Strand ends each.

Curt Kremer, owns the business on the Surfside Pier, which includes Pier Outfitters.

Kremer said along with the spotting of manatees last year, he remembered a man catching a 100-pound tarpon on the pier.

He said the pier touts itself “as a family pier ... for fishin’ and lookin,’ ” and that a new eatery on site, the Surf Diner, will open soon.

“The minute school lets out,” Kremer said, the crowds pick up for the summer.

Paula Green, general manager of The Pier at Garden City, said the landmark in Garden City Beach provides “a community gathering spot.”

She said “The Liars Club,” a group of mostly retirees, gathers every morning and afternoon “telling fish stories” in The Pier Cafe.

Green tipped her cap to the regular fishermen, “great guys” who offer help to anyone asking, such as “for what rod and reel to use.”

She also about a board downstairs where goofy questions get logged, including “What times do the dolphins come by?” and laughed remembering patron who evaded the no-pets rule after walking in with a baby stroller.

“I saw people gather around her,” Green said. “It was a pet beaver.”

On the Strand’s north side, at Cherry Grove Fishing Pier, in northern North Myrtle Beach, Steve Gann said he has seen an alligator, usually a freshwater reptile, off the pier, which includes a two-story observation deck.

The operations manager, Gann said the pier remains “a rallying point for a lot of people who visit” the area, and that the customers who return make a tradition that spans decades.

“I’ve seen two, three and sometimes, four generations at once fishing on the pier,” Gann said.

He sees every pier “having its own identity,” a pillar for people who get engaged there, and that a recent visit of one couple where the man popped his question and the woman accepted, lets them recollect the mindset of so special a day.

At the Apache Family Campground Pier, just north of Myrtle Beach, Deon Grainger, the pier manager, said “people from everywhere” show up, from as far as Canada, California, Colorado and Germany. Last month, Thomas Davis, a Carolina Panthers linebacker, brought his family.

“It’s a nice way to spend the day,” she said,

Having spent four years working on the pier, Grainger said she has “learned so much about fishing,” including “what kind of bait for what fish” works best.

Asked to name her favorite attribute to pier life, she summed it up as “just the view.”

“Every day you come to work,” Grainger said, “you couldn’t ask for a better view every morning.”