When It’s More Than Just Fishing

Midnight Rambler

By John Papciak

When It’s More Than Just Fishing

It seems every five to ten years I see a new vintage of surfcasters come, while others go. Some hit the scene like rabid animals, fishing anywhere and everywhere. Some of the most gung ho-go do land some impressive fish. Some become permanent fixtures, but a healthy percentage appear to show burn out after about 8 years.

This phenomenon fascinates me.

On one hand, I am grateful we have this turnover. The rip would be awfully crowded if the crew of 1990 joined the current regulars, and all decided to fish hard this fall.

Sometimes it’s age or health, sometimes it’s a more demanding job. But for the younger guys, it’s sometimes a new wife who will not put up with the shenanigans of late night comings and goings, and a constant obsession that takes away from household and family duties.

More on this in the future, I think. I could write volumes, literally.

Sometimes I wonder if the attrition is linked to when and how the guy got into the sport of surfcasting.

Lots of reasons. I’ve heard some good ones.

Like one guy who started surfcasting in his 60’s after he retired. He was driving his wife crazy and she finally told him he needed to get some type of a hobby “outside of the house.” Then there is always a guy who picks up surf equipment after witnessing a fisherman beach a large bass close to a bathing area. You know the thinking – “Landing that big fish in the middle of the day, that’s so easy, all you need is a fishing rod.” But will these guys have staying power, and will they be at it five years from now?

My own limiting factor right now is time. But when I do have more time (when the kids are back to school), will I continue to have the same fire? Will it always be there? I did have it for most of my life.

I myself started in this game in my early teens. The exact start depends on how you define a trip to the beach versus very targeted fishing with a realistic expectation of catching something worthwhile. There is a difference.

I did a few surfcasting trips with my father in the late 60s and very early 70s, but these were more family outings. Fishing was a backdrop. It wasn’t until about 1975, when I was in Junior High School, that I started to take things more seriously. This was the year dad got a new boat, and docked it at Chris’ Landing in Sea Bright NJ. I remember that year, this was also the summer that the movie Jaws came out. We never looked at the ocean the same way since.

Anyway, my father was as die-hard a fisherman as any family man of that day could be. We planned trips at least twice a week, sometimes more. Yes, we even did party boat trips all winter. There was excellent winter whiting fishing back then. There was even a viable winter surf fishery for whiting. I got to see the very tail end of it, but guys getting into surf fishing today would look at me like I had two heads if I told them people used to go surf fishing on the coldest nights an February and actually had good fishing.

A good chunk of down-time was spent on boat maintenance, or on preparing tackle. We didn’t have much money, so dad got himself a “project,” as opposed to a turn-key fishing machine. More often than not, it seemed, the boat had mechanical problems. Most of you who have done the “boat on a budget” thing know how this goes: wake-up at 4am, pack lunch, load the car, drive for an hour, buy bait …and then the trip is a bust because the boat won’t start. I learned most of my swearing vocabulary from my dad, and a healthy percentage of that explicit language directly from those mornings when the boat didn’t start.

And when he was cursing up a storm trying to fix the thing, I was free to explore, sometimes literally for the better part of the day. On most days when the trip had to be called, we didn’t go back home. He usually stayed to do other boat maintenance. Other times he would sit in a chair in the tackle shop with the marina owners shooting the bull (he knew them from way before I was born). They would usually talk about how the fishing was going downhill, how much better it was in the 50s and 60s. Even then. So I was basically free to roam the town of Sea Bright for days on end.

For those who do not know, Sea Bright sits at the northern tip of the Jersey Shore, just below Sandy Hook. It is a thin strip of land, with the Shewsbury river on one side and the ocean on the other. There is a huge rock seawall that protects the town. It runs the entire length, from Sandy Hook to Monmouth Beach.

My father would tell me how there used to be train tracks underneath where the seawall stands today. This was hard to imagine, because the water so often hit the seawall at high tide in many locations. During storms in the 70s you could see waves washing right over the top.

The local Sea Bright kids were very different from the kids from my own suburban neighborhood. Most appeared to be expert fishermen and surfers. They were a bit more adventurous, even a little wild. I liked that. There were two bridges over the river and on hot summer afternoons we would watch older boys doing trick high dives off the bridge into the fast moving river, right in between the heavy boat traffic. I don’t think this would fly in 2013, I could only imagine the 911 calls if kids tried doing this today. In my eyes, this took balls – and therefore this was very cool stuff.

It also didn’t take long to see that surfcasting held a special position among local fishermen – surfcasters were considered an advanced form of saltwater fishermen. Only the most capable fishermen were surfcasters.

Some of these older kids were also rumored to be expert surfcasters, and I recall hushed chatter that this one or that one had recently landed a large striper off the seawall, or off a local jetty. This was almost heroic – such a large fish taken in the surf – but there was proof right there in the pictures displayed at the local tackle shop, Giglios.

I just had to be part of this.

A month’s worth of paper route money was exchanged for a South Bend surf fishing combo outfit from the Two Guys department store in Union, New Jersey. And then each week I had just enough money to buy a lure or two.

The walk from the Chris’ Landing marina to a handful of reportedly productive jetties was under 3 minutes. Suddenly, the risk that the boat would not run, or that the trip would be blown out, became an opportunity to go surfcasting.

From that point on, I packed the surf gear whenever we were bound for Sea Bright. Dad used to shrug his shoulders and questioned why I was bringing the surf rod and lures on a fluke trip. I never wanted to tell him that I had my doubts about the boat, so I usually made up some story about the possibility of running into some bass, blues or weakfish if we were close to the beach.

It got to the point where I would ask if I could make some casts from the beach in the morning, before going out on the boat, even when the boat was running fine.

I remember dad getting really pissed off when I failed to come back a few mornings. He would be there with the boat idling, looking to undo the ropes, but I was nowhere to be found.

But there was probably something more interesting going on in the surf. A single fish hooked in the surf was now worth more to me than ten fluke on the boat.

Hopefully I will always feel this way.


7 comments on “When It’s More Than Just Fishing

  1. big cee

    “A single fish hooked in the surf was now worth more to me than ten fluke on the boat.”

    I couldn’t agree more!

  2. Jerry

    For me, getting involved later in life is a hobby, a fad, a pursuit. When the old man spends time with you as a kid and the time spent with siblings and cousins,, later in life those times become the most precious memories. I don’t remember much about golf when I fist started playing with some college buddies in my mid 20s other than I thought it was great. Now I could care less, rarely play and barely remember those college pals. But like you I can remember otherwise inconsequential details of fishing, swimming, biking, camping with my long gone dad and my family. When I do those things now I always recall some dumb little event or adventure from 35 years ago. I guess the lifelong passions are the ones with ghosts.

  3. Joe GaNun

    I started early in the Spuyten Duyvil and yes, we did jump off “The C”, about 103 feet MHT. All we caught were little guys to about 20″ and that along with my dad always telling me that when I grew up we could go to Montauk. So the facination began but my Dad died young, I was 12. Fished till I was about 18 and dropped it. I returned when a friend showed me a pix of a 38# bass he took locally on a fall morning. Now into my 6th year I don’t think I’ll be bailing out at 8 years, more like 20 when I get my picture on a Smukers Jar. My Mom told me a couple of years ago that had my dad lived his dream was to someday live in or near Montauk….she tells me this 47 years after he died ?

  4. CaptnBob

    My start wasn’t much different. Garcia rod from two guys, Waders in my basket on my bike, (back when the morning paper was delivered by kids) riding down the Atlantic city boardwalk to fish off the jetty. Still at it 44 yrs later, and still get excited about the sunrise, no bike just an old Jeep Cherokee. Reading this brought back a lot of memories.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *