Wildwood, New Jersey – The early 70s
Once my parents had acquired the house at the shore, they quickly fell into the lifestyle. Days at the beach for mom and the girls, and dad taking up surf fishing. I don’t know exactly when he started getting into fishing, but I remember what he normally did when approaching something new. He read several books on the subject and got to know people in the fishing community on the island.
I remember us going up to a tackle store on the corner of New Jersey Avenue and Juniper. We would hang out in the store and he’d chat with the owner, Charlie Glenn. Mr. Glenn was a master angler. Well known on the island as a guy who could”high hook” every other fisherman around. High hook meant if they were ever out fishing Mr. Glenn would usually catch something and everyone else would go home empty-handed.
His store was a classic seashore town bait and tackle shop. All sorts of rods, reels, lures and stuff to send you on your fishing adventures. I remember a sign he had hanging on the wall among the photos of fish he had caught. It read: “Early to bed. Early to rise. Fish like hell, and make up lies.” I always liked it for its clever play on words and the idea that men probably lied all of the time about what they caught and how big the fish was. (Or the big one that got away!)
My father invested in some good surf fishing gear. He purchased a big ten-foot rod with a Garcia reel. Unlike fishing in streams and off boats, you need a long rod to throw the bait beyond the waves to where the fish were. My dad’s goal was to hook and catch a big bluefish. Weakfish and Striped Bass were also popular types that the fisherman sought after.
Bluefish – These suckers get huge and fight like a fish twice their size.
Weakfish – This guy is actually a sea trout, but his nickname comes from his tender mouth. It’s ‘weak’ so it’s hard to get a hook in him.
Striped Bass – The name is pretty obvious.
My dad wanted to catch one of those big blues because they put up a hell of a fight if you got one on your hook. We started out using bait, like bits of squid, but quickly abandoned that. It was slimy, smelly, gross to handle, and just seemed boring. You’d see guys at the beach sitting in their chairs with their rods standing in spikes that were driven into the sand. They’d be puffing cigars and drinking beer and just waiting and hoping something would come along and hit their bait. Boring!
My dad got into lure fishing. Using steel lures like Hopkins and Castmasters that had reflective surfaces that resembled little fish that the bigger fished liked to dine upon. Those were my favorite!
But to catch the bigger fish, you needed to use a lure called a plug.
They resembled the type of fish called mullet that the bigger fish went crazy over. My father gave me books to read on the subject of fishing in general. I could still tie the proper knots to secure the lure to the line if you asked me today.
The key to catching fish in my opinion was pretty simple.
Fish the areas where you think the fish may be feeding. That meant looking to see where the seabirds like gulls were feeding. If you saw the gulls diving down to the water and snatching up little fish, that usually meant there was something bigger beneath the surface driving the little fish to the surface. If you can cast your lure out there, you may get a hit.
It seemed the best fishing was in the fall. My dad would head down to the beach in his waders and cast his heart out trying to catch a big blue. I don’t think most people realize how strong these fish are. The line these fishermen are using is heavy monofilament. A steel leader is tied to it, and then that’s attached to the lure. You have to cast it out as far as you can, and then work that lure through the water so it looks like a little fish doing its thing to fool the bigger fish. It’s truly a skill to be learned.
My dad got me a seven-and-a-half-foot Fenwick glass on glass rod, that had incredible action. On it was a Penn reel. I loved that fishing pole. I had thrown the big ten-footers in the surf without much success, and to a skinny kid like me, they were just too heavy. My older sister had a beautiful blue fishing rod, and she was an avid fisherwoman along with my dad. She put the time and practice in on the beach with dad more than I did. With that dedication came a pretty good-sized weakfish she caught on her own. I was impressed and we have the pictures to prove it. I hadn’t caught anything during any of my fishing endeavors.
As time and practice went by my dad started catching a few bluefish. Which was cool, because he would bring them home, and we’d all dine on them. I think up till then the only fish I had eaten was in the form of fried fish sticks and crab cakes. They were all bought at the supermarket from the frozen food section!
But freshly prepared seafood was delicious! My dad showed me every aspect of the fishing experience. How to hold the fish if you caught one, and how to carefully and mercifully remove the hook from the fish’s mouth.
The fish would be brought home and washed, scaled, and cut into filets. If he had a successful day and had caught more than his share, he’d share his bounty with the neighborhood. Everybody loves free food, especially when it’s absolutely fresh. Another cool thing my dad showed me, was to take the carcasses of the fish and bury them in the garden. So nothing was ever wasted from the catch. As the fish decomposed underground, they served as fertilizer. This yielded terrific, robust Jersey tomatoes. My father seemed to be very pleased with this whole cycle of life program he developed. I imagined him as the Indian warrior and me his little brave.
The filets were cooked in a pan or broiled with a bit of lemon, butter, and pepper. You can really taste the difference when you devour something that was alive and well a few hours ago. Sea to the table! (Just watch out for the bones!)
Dad finally caught a monster bluefish. He was so proud. It was three feet long and probably weighed over 20 lbs. A beast! He showed me photos he had taken. He also showed me how during that battle to bring the fish to shore, it had beat up his tackle pretty bad. Steel leaders all chewed up and bent, and hooks nearly straightened. I was shocked at the raw power of these sea denizens as they fought their final battle on earth.
My dad became a hardcore fisherman. He and his buddies would get in his VW minibus and drive down the beach in the off-season. You needed a permit to do that, but it was awesome to take the van on the beach. He would drop the bed in the back and you could lay the fishing rods right in there. I remember going with my dad a few times, but I remember not catching anything and freezing my butt off in the van. But I was happy to spend time with my father, just the two of us.
One of the things you had to always watch when you were casting out your lure was to check that the line wasn’t tangled around the end of the pole. If it was and you didn’t notice the twist when you cast out, the line would snap and you basically threw away an eight-dollar steel lure. You’d watch your lure sail through the air and think for a second, “That was an amazing cast!” Then you’d see it disappear beneath the waves and watch as all you had left was a broken line twirling in the wind on the end of your rod. Fun!
I kept plugging away at the fishing without much luck. But one day I was down on the beach casting away with my dad and pro angler sister, and something happened.
“I got one!” I yelled as I felt the sudden tug on my line and the drag on the reel whir in my hand as the line went out of the reel. I had to think quickly and remember what my dad told me. Pull back on the rod, to seat the hook, and as I lower it, reel in like hell. I did this automatically as I did it over and over. I instinctively started to back away from the water hoping to haul out my catch. I saw him break the beach and I had him! I ran over and put my hand down on the small bluefish. I had finally caught one!
This was a father-son moment. An ancient art passed down through the generations. The father teaches his children how to catch and prepare their own food from the wild. It just felt like we were aligned with our ancestors that day on the beach.
Once I got it, I was back to casting away again. I think we caught 14 blues that afternoon. I went from zero to hero in one day! But that can happen in life. You feel like a failure, but if you keep at it, you’ll eventually find some success. This has followed me throughout my entire life.
Here are a few final words about fishing and fish in general.
I once found a three-foot sand shark on the beach one night. It was dead and some fisherman had cut a chunk out of it to use as bait. I found this cruel and unusual. Why not simply throw the elegant animal back in the sea if you didn’t want him? I had never seen a shark close up or ever touched one. Their hide is like sandpaper. Really cool. I decided to keep him. I dragged him home and hid him under the bush out front of our house. Of course, after a few days in the heat of summer, that boy was ripe! My mom was wondering what that horrible smell was coming from the front bush. I told her my shark story and she told me to drag that sucker back to the beach and dispose of it. So, I dragged “stinky” back to the dunes and left his carcass for the seagulls.
Once my dad, sister, and I were out on a little boat doing some fishing. I’ll tell the whole story about my experience in a future post, but this one is worth mentioning here. We’re fishing and dad drives the boat over to where he sees some birds working. I cast out a few times without luck. But at one point I accidentally hooked a seagull. I felt terrible. That’s not what I was out there to catch. My dad told me to gently reel him in and we’d figure something out. The eerie thing was, all of the birds stopped feeding. They all just started hovering and some floating in the water around the boat in some sort of Hitchcockian moment. My dad put on a pair of gloves and when the snagged bird was close, he gently removed the hook from the bird’s wing. He seemed unhurt and flew away to my relief.
But during this whole melee, my sister’s line got tangled and the bucktail lure she had been working sank to the bottom of the bay. While my father worked to untangle her line, I just tried to stay out of the way. Once the line was untangled and my sister could reel in her line from the murky depths, she pulls up the lure, and to our amazement, she’d hooked is a big Flounder!
Yea, I try to catch fish and instead hook a bird. My sister is so awesome, she catches fish without even trying! High hooked us all that day!
These stories are just about us being a family and doing things together. Learning new skills and sharing fun-filled days.
In the end… what else is there in life?
If you like fishing and fishing stories, check out my buddy George’s site! He even has a show on YouTube!
His link is right here:
I also wrote a piece about George in the Fall of 2020. You can check that out here:
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