Albert Moody's refrigerator is filled with items that you might not find appetizing, but the fish do.
He turns to the fridge next to his chair behind the counter at Clarks Hill Herring Hut, pulls out a clear Tupperware container and swishes around the dormant mill worms inside. This brick-and-concrete fortress of fishing bait on South Carolina Highway 28 isn't a convenience store selling the cup of night crawlers.
"We're for the guy who wants to put meat on the table," Mr. Moody says.
Beside the store, encased in corrugated tin walls, are concrete basins filled with blueback herring used to catch bass, and minnows to catch perch. He grows his own wasp larvae in the spring. Don't be surprised to see containers labeled "crickets" and "catalpa worms."
The "south Georgia wampus cat" head that sits atop the candy shelf ... well, that's for catching conversation.
If there's one thing the self-proclaimed Ayatollah of the Fishing Hole-ah knows, it's a good fish story -- such as the time he and a cousin caught the same fish from opposite sides of a boat.
"It's like Andy at Mayberry. There's always somebody in there," his wife, Pat, says about the shop. "I feel like I need to put a barrel and a checkerboard set out there."
Albert caught his dream of running a bait and tackle shop a year ago. In disillusionment, he left an 18-year career of selling Mercedes-Benzes and Mazdas and wandered into the Herring Hut. A few months later had the keys to the door.
Now his work hours coincide with dawn and dusk. He's the master of ceremonies for the morning gossip in the community of Clarks Hill.
"I can't repeat some of the things they say. They tell terrible men stories," Mrs. Moody says. "Albert is such a story teller. He attracts people. People with personality attract many people, and Albert is one of those. He attracted me a long time ago."
For those who want to know what's biting in J. Strom Thurmond Lake, they ask the ayatollah. And don't call it Thurmond Lake around him.
"It's Clarks Hill. I'm sorry. I'm sure Mr. Thurmond was a great man, but it's Clarks Hill Lake," Mr. Moody says. "Write on the sign what you want to, but it's still Clarks Hill Lake."
Born on the water
Mrs. Moody swears that her husband was already holding a fishing pole when he came out of the womb.
"On the verge of being obsessed with it," he explains of his hobby.
He can list off the biggest catches in his life as though he were reciting the box score from the last Georgia Bulldogs football game: a 45-pound catfish, a 39-pound striped bass and a 12-pound, 3-ounce largemouth bass.
Albert Moody grew up within sight of Lake Olmstead in Augusta, where he was taught to fish by his father at age 4. He comes from a long line of obsessed fishermen, beginning with grandfather O.T. Moody Sr., who oversaw Augusta's fire and police departments as the director of the civil service commission in the 1950s.
Family members recall Albert sitting on the steps of the house at age 2, holding a stick and pretending to fish. He had been left behind from a fishing trip because he was too little.
He was born 17 years after his brother O.T. Moody III; they were sons from their father's different marriages. Albert came as a surprise, his wife says, because mother Ella was nearly 40 when she had him.
O.T. was Oliver Theodore.
"He had friends his entire life that never knew what that stood for," Mr. Moody says of his father, who ran a sign business until he died in 1978.
There aren't any O.T.'s left. Albert's brother, who was a banker, died of cancer in 1998.
He still has plenty of family around him. His mother was a Parks from Parksville, S.C., so the Herring Hut is surrounded by cousins. Many of those cousins are on the fishing boat with him Wednesdays and Sundays.
Mr. Moody says he used to go to work at the car dealership on Fridays with his boat already hooked to the truck. After the day was done, he was off to a lake, river or creek.
"It is amazing what he can see in the water that none of us can see," his wife says. "I've learned some of it -- how to look for the dark spots and where the fish are laying. There's a real science to fishing."
The use of herring, for example. Drop some live fish in front of the boat and they will attract stripers.
Mr. Moody got a lot of his fishing knowledge from family and from doing it for 43 years.
He never followed his father into the sign business because his dad died the year he graduated from Westside High School.
"I was about to go in and learn his business," he explained.
He turned to welding for a union shop, Hamburg Industries, that welded for the railroads. The union went on strike, he recalled, and was busted. He joined a chain of electronics stores called Military TV and Stereo, and moved up its ranks from the warehouse to sales to manager. Then it went bankrupt.
The next stop in 1988 was Rader Volkswagen Mazda Mercedes-Benz on Washington Road.
"Everywhere I went, I was going to stay there the rest of my life," he says.
When the dealership was sold a few years ago, he couldn't stay happy in the car business anymore. He tried a few other dealerships but decided in fall 2006 to semiretire and devote most of his attention to fishing. Eventually, he was going to settle on a 40-hour-a-week job somewhere.
"I couldn't get happy selling cars ... I was probably on my way to becoming the cart man at Wal-Mart," he says.
Fate twisted his career into a different direction. The Herring Hut had a second-generation owner who wanted to sell. Albert walked in with a cloudy future.
"I called my wife and asked. 'Can I buy the Herring Hut?' and she said, "Yeah.' It happened that quick."
Mr. Moody points into one of the 10 water-filled concrete tubs bubbling from the filters: "Ninety percent of the people who come here are after those critters right there."
A typical striper fisherman is going to leave the Hut with four to five dozen blueback herring. There are only two tanks filled with the small fish right now, but he has three tanks of bait coming to handle the weekend crowd.
He doesn't feed the bait.
"That's the crazy thing about fish. They'll sit in here for weeks before I sell them," he says. "They don't need to eat anything. The place that sells them (to me) feeds them. If one of them dies, the other fish will eat him. I know it sounds cruel. The more you feed, the more ammonias they build up ... the more they kill themselves."
Cousin Karen Bricker says Mr. Moody's getting the bait right has paid off in the success of the business. She calls him Big Boy. Well, because he's 6-foot6. It is his personality that has as much to do with the business' success as anything else.
"My family is full of Type A personalities," Ms. Bricker says.
It is a fun place when the owner comes dressed for Halloween in a pink tutu.
The suppliers came with the store. There are companies that provide the live fish, the crickets, the worms. It is no different from the Budweiser man filling the cooler when needed.
The clientele is different in the wintertime. Except for the diehard fishermen, the store largely sells sundry items to local people. In the spring and summer, most of the patrons are travelers.
Information is an important commodity at the Herring Hut, more so than the beer and snacks.
"If you stop in a service station, buy a bucket of worms and ask what's biting, generally they don't know," he says.
He keeps up with the water levels at the lake, cross-matches them with the boat ramps. Regulars are always reporting what's biting and where.
If something is biting really well, Mr. Moody can close the store for an hour. From the time he closes the door, he can have a line in the water on the lake shore within three minutes.
"He's had a lot of help from a lot of people. I know it's a hole in the wall, but he's got all kinds of filtering systems that were never there before. Makes the bait great," Mrs. Moody says. "You'd think that running a bait store would be easy. But maintaining herring is much harder than we thought."
He puts in more hours than he did as a car salesman. At 5:30 a.m., Washington Road is dead and the lights are green. He drives from his home on Lake Olmstead to Thurmond Lake by 6.
"A fisherman wants to see the sun come up," he says. "I've got to beat that by 45 minutes so they can get their bait and get in the water to watch the sun come up. That's the best fishing."
The fish bite at dawn and dusk. In the wintertime, he can leave the Hut around 6 p.m. In summer, the day doesn't end until after 9 p.m.
"I've been up here on Saturday nights in the summer at 9 o'clock and someone calls up that they are coming, please stay open five more minutes."
He reaches up into the bookshelf behind him and switches on the sea radio. He turns the dial to Channel 68. It is quiet at the moment.
"These VHF offshore radios are the best thing," he says. "If you can't find someone to fish with you, there are people to talk to. It breaks the monotony."
There's a safety aspect if someone has a breakdown on the lake or the Savannah River.
"You catch more, too, because friends will call you over," he says.
Needing his own radio handle, he found inspiration in a clip from the movie Mad Max. There's a scene in the Australian post-nuclear holocaust movie in which one a goon proclaims himself the "Ayatollah of Rock 'n' Roll-ah."
Thus was born the Ayatollah of the Fishing Hole-ah. It is even on his business card.
A real ayatollah is an expert in Islam. its philosophy and ethics.
Albert Moody is an expert on wasps. Wasp larvae are good for catching bluegill.
"You end up with a lot of blue wasps flying around your building, but you end up with some good bait," he says.
Blue wasps don't sting, he explains, and they love dirt. This spring, he will get a 5-gallon bucket, cut a hole in it, fill it with chicken laying mash and cover it with a board.
"I can raise 1,000 a week," he says. And charge 10 cents apiece.
The fun part is getting the wasp larvae out of the bucket.
"That's a lovely scent," his wife says.
The Moodys have fun with the mythical south Georgia wampus cat, teasing little kids that they need to buy candy to throw at the creature in order to escape it if they wander too far from camp.
"Most of them don't fall for it much anymore," Mrs. Moody says.
She took the head to work one day. It was a scream for co-workers, who petted the taxidermist-created item. They were screaming at the end of the day when she told them what it really was, the butt of a white-tailed deer.
You'd think that someone who has been fishing for 43 of his 47 years would have eaten a whole mess of fish. Nope.
Greasy, breaded fish from Long John Silver's or Captain D's smothered in tartar sauce, sure, but the catch of the day gets released right back into the lake.
He's been saving some of the fish, though, for the upcoming church fish fry.
Though not responsible for ots reopening, the Moodys have been part of the resurgence of Bethlehem Community Church in Clarks Hill. The church re-opened nine months ago after being closed for a decade. It was erected in the 1840s.
"We love that little church," Mrs. Moody says. "It's church church. It doesn't matter what you look like. It is not all about the politics."
It is easy for them to catch a service: close the shop for 90 minutes on Sunday and drive over.
The church is small, about 25 members. The couple has added to the congregation. His stepdaughter attends now.
His wife says it is comfortably sized. She'll be scared if it gets too large.
"The pastor's wife is always bringing clothes down to the store for Albert to give out to people in the area," she says. "There's a kid up there he's been trying to keep out of the dark side. He hasn't got a dad. We might lose him, but we're not going to give up yet."
Mr. Moody is also involved in the Concerned Citizens of Clarks Hill.
"They call it the town meeting," he explains. It formed nine months ago and the residents try to make the town a better place to live. A baseball field has been added for the young folks.
"There's nothing for kids to do up here. If you're 15 years old and don't have a driver's license and you live in a little town like this, what do you do?" Albert Moody says.
If only his boat were big enough.
Reach Tim Rausch at (706) 823-3352 or email@example.com.
BORN: March 26, 1960
TITLE: Owner of Clarks Hill Herring Hut
FAMILY: Wife, Pat
HOBBY: Fishing: "There's nothing else."