Fishermen form community on the pier

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“My dad taught me how to fish. I brought him out here not long before he passed away a couple of years ago. We didn’t catch anything, but that wasn’t the point.”

By Heather Osbourne | 315-4440 | @heatheronwfdn | hosbourne@nwfdailynews.com

In this occasional series, the Daily News offers a glimpse into the day-to-day lives of folks who work and play along the Emerald Coast.

OKALOOSA ISLAND — Thomas Mix wheeled a large ice chest and five fishing poles onto the Okaloosa Island Fishing Pier early Tuesday morning. 

The 59-year-old from Shalimar has made the 1,262-foot trek to the edge of the pier for the past 44 years, beginning when he and his military family moved to the Florida Panhandle from Africa. 

“I practically lived on this water as a teenager,” Mix said. “My dad taught me how to fish. I brought him out here not long before he passed away a couple of years ago. We didn’t catch anything, but that wasn’t the point.”

Mix attached an “LY” ribbon onto his pole, which is a string tied into small squares to trap bait fish, and lowered it down into the water. The “hardcore fisherman” uses the bait fish to catch Spanish mackerel, king mackerel, bonitos and other popular Gulf species from the pier.

“I have plenty of time on my hands, so I like to spend it out here,” Mix said. “For people who can’t afford boats, this is it. This is the next best option.”

Mix said he rarely eats the fish he catches, but instead uses them as bait to go after his favorite catch of all — sharks. 

“I like to catch large fish, so that’s why I like to fish for sharks,” Mix said. “A couple of months ago, I caught a shark and we were able to feed about 60 people with just half of it.”

Mix said, however, eating a shark is a very rare occurrence for him. He releases 98 percent of the sharks he lands and works with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to tag them for research. 

When it comes to fishing off the pier, Mix said there is one nuisance that has been plaguing the fishing community for generations — dolphins.

“They like to eat the Spanish mackerel,” Mix said. “Last year, I caught 25 Spanish mackerel and the (dolphins) ate 11 of them. You spend a lot of time and money on tackle and trying to catch these fish, and then that happens. It’s terribly frustrating.”

Mix spends on average $1,000 per year on tackle and fishing line. He said just one of the reels he owns costs $700. 

By 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Mix hadn’t caught one fish. He said it’s not uncommon to fish for an entire day and catch nothing. On a good day, though, he might catch three king mackerel and a couple of tarpon. 

“Those good days don’t happen very often,” Mix said. “Yesterday was a pretty good day (for the fishermen on the pier). I didn’t fish yesterday, so it figures, the day they bite good, Tom stays home.”

Mix said being a fisherman isn’t only about catching fish, it’s about the community who cast alongside him. 

“I just love coming out here,” Mix said. “It doesn’t get much better than this. I love coming out and just talking to my friends. If nothing else, we’ll just sit out here and tell fish stories.” 

Mix said he’s a believer in passing down tradition, so he currently mentors a 17-year-old boy from Fort Walton Beach and teaches him the art of fishing. He said all he hopes is that the next generation enjoys fishing as much as he does. 

“I enjoy it so much,” Mix said. “If it can keep someone out of trouble and give them a hobby, then that’s wonderful. If I can just teach one person how to fish, then it’s a blessing for me. I just want to give away what I have.”  

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