The bustle of the Atlantic City skyline a mere afterthought on the horizon, the focus of the 30-some people lining the gently rocking deck of the North Star is on the anticipated rod-bobbing tug of a catch from far below.
It is a calm, warm Friday morning and 10 miles off the coast, the patrons aboard this Ocean City party boat are enjoying one of the shore’s prized attractions — mile after mile after mile of saltwater fishing.
From avid anglers with their own gear, to youngsters and weak-kneed novices like this reporter, the vessel is filled with a mix of vacationers from Atlanta to New York.
The four-hour “deep sea” trip is one of three Captain Tim Barrus will make with the North Star on this day and is just one of a plethora of party and private boats making similar treks across the state’s coastline and peaceful inlets.
Whether from roadside piers, the ocean surf or casual trips like ours, hundreds of thousands of people will drop a fishing line in New Jersey’s salt waters this year — making the age-old sport among the most popular of all activities at shore points from Brigantine to Cape May.
“It’s one of the main attractions for people,” fishing enthusiast and columnist Nick Honachefsky said of the shore’s vast array of fishing options.
And although those in the business say increasingly stringent fishing regulations over the past decades have cut into the industry, New Jersey’s marine anglers continue to pump hundreds of thousands of dollars into the state’s economy.
“Fishing is a huge part of the economy for the entire state,” said Adam Nowalsky, chairman of the state’s chapter of the Recreational Fishing Alliance.
A report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration puts the total dollars spent by marine anglers in the state in 2006 at $1.6 billion.
From the summer flounder and black sea bass targeted by boats like the North Star to big-time game fish like tuna and marlin available to avid anglers in canyons farther off shore, Nowalsky and others entrenched in the industry brag that the fishing opportunities here are among the best in the nation.
“New Jersey offers an experience unlike you can find anywhere else in the country,” Nowalsky said.
Hoping for a taste of that experience myself, I board the North Star in Ocean City with a photographer on a slightly overcast Friday morning earlier this month. After paying our combined fare of $115 — which includes bait, rods, tackle and the service of two mates — we climb aboard and lay claim to one of the last remaining open spaces along the side of the boat.
Dan, one of two mates aboard for the trip, brings us each an outfitted rod and later gathers those around us to the bow of the boat for a brief tutorial on the best way to catch the sea bass and flounder we’ll be fishing for.
With the island of vacationers still asleep around us, the North Star rumbles to life shortly after 8 a.m. with sea gulls trailing behind. The one-hour ride out into the Atlantic Ocean has begun.
Barrus cuts the engines an hour later and those lining the side waste no time in dropping their lines to the ocean floor 60 feet below. Black sea bass are biting immediately and within minutes the lightweight fish are being hoisted up to hoots of acclamation.
The fishing is steady throughout the morning but the majority of the sea bass and the few flounder pulled in fall short of the state’s requirement for keepers.
Many, like myself, are happy to simply find something tugging at the other end of the line and two hours later when Barrus starts the North Star on its return trip to the marina, the boat has tallied about 25 keepers, nearly all black sea bass.
The two mates make quick work of filleting the fish and many of the groups aboard walk away with that night’s dinner tucked away in their coolers.
When it comes to catching dinner, Honachefsky said that summer flounder or “fluke” are the current top draw.
Honachefsky, who checks in regularly with captains and tackle shops along the shore, said the fluke fishing this summer has been stellar in both the back bays and ocean reefs, thanks in no small part to a slight reprieve on the size limit. After an earlier moratorium on the species, black sea bass populations are also said to be booming.
In a rare move, the regulations were decreased this year for keeper flounder from 18 to 17½ inches.
“They are catching the same kind of size fish but last year they were throwbacks,” Honachefsky said.
The requirement for flounder was once 14 inches.
Intended to help species populations, Honachefsky and others said the regulations have also hurt the industry, contributing to the closure of party boats as keepers in different species became harder to find.
While shore rentals make the summer the most popular fishing season, Honachefsky said the spring and fall are when New Jersey’s fishing opportunities really take off for striped bass, blue fish and tuna.
With more 30- to 40-pound striped bass being caught here than anywhere else, Honachefsky proclaims New Jersey as the “new Mecca” for the prized species.
“It’s like taking candy from a baby,” Honachefsky said.
Watching all the action below from his perch on the second deck, Barrows, the captain, describes our day aboard the North Star as a typical outing.
Barrows needs 15 adult fares to make the four-hour trip worthwhile. He had to cancel one trip this year because of a lack of interest.
“It depends on the day,” Barrows says of the crowd.
A lot of his customers are from the South Jersey and Philadelphia region. Some are regular anglers while many have little to no experience.
“A lot have aspirations of coming out with their family and catching dinner,” Barrows says. “It’s not something they can do in their normal lifestyle.”
During my morning aboard the North Star, I experience the long-dormant boyhood joy of reeling in one keeper sea bass and with a sense of seasickness beginning to grip my stomach, I set down my rod for my notepad and pen.
To my left, avid freshwater angler Jeremy Fanucci is using his own rod, while patiently coaching his son Nicolas on the art of resting his line on the ocean floor. The energetic 7-year-old eventually finds more interest in crossing back and forth across the boat yelling out the different fish being hauled in.
For Fanucci and his brother-in-law Phil Detwiler, whose families are vacationing at the shore, it is the second fishing trip of the week. Days earlier, they went on a party boat in the bay. Detwiler has brought his 7-year-old daughter Madison along on this trip.
“You can only sit at the beach so much,” Fanucci explains.
Throughout the morning Fanucci pulls in a steady stream of sea bass but nearly all fall short of the 12½-inch size limit.
“Dinner is served,” Fanucci yells after eventually landing a keeper.
Toward the back of the boat, Moorestown resident Steve Ungrady and his father Dennis are enjoying what has become a traditional outing during the family’s yearly vacations at the shore.
“My dad and I like to fish together, it’s a little family bonding experience,” says Ungrady, a 35-year-old attorney at Haddonfield’s Archer and Greiner law firm.
The pair have been out on the North Star several times before and chose it again this day after an attempt to go out on a party boat in Sea Isle City earlier in the week was foiled. The trip was canceled as only eight passengers had showed up by departure time.
“We have caught some good stuff out here,” Ungrady says of trips aboard the North Star.
Later, with his rod bent nearly in half, Ungrady lets out a whoop as he hoists up a sizable black sea bass.
But seconds later the elation turns to dejection as the catch squirms from his father’s hands and flops underneath the railing on the boat back into the water.
Ungrady jokes that at least now the fish can live among the stories of the one that got away.
“Oh yeah, it was at least 8 feet,” he says laughing.
All in all, it’s a good day for the pair as they take home several keepers.
But like others I talk to, it’s not just about the fish for Ungrady.
“How can you not like it out here,” he exclaims, gesturing toward the wide-open waters.
For Dean Bowser, the four-hour trip aboard the North Star has become a passionate routine.
The 26-year-old Bucks County native said he comes to his fiancee’s shore house each weekend and always goes out on the water, whether it’s aboard the North Star or by renting a boat.
This trip is his sixth on the boat this year.
“It’s too fun to pass up,” Bowser offers as way of explanation. “You come out here and talk to people and have a fun time.”