Thrills, tradition at Long Beach Island fishing tournament

NOVEMBER 22, 2009

Author’s Note:

I wrote this article in 2009 for The Press of Atlantic CityOne of the hardest things to do as a reporter is to take something that happens every year, that’s been covered countless times, and find a new and interesting angle. I spent several days experiencing and interviewing this event in order to bring out the emotion in what would have otherwise been a generic event story.

This was the most personally meaningful article I wrote as a reporter, because my grandfather participated in the LBI fishing tournament for decades, and I wrote this the year after he passed away.

Fisherman on Long Beach Island

BARNEGAT LIGHT — John Flynn’s cell phone rang at 9:39 a.m. The birds were working, the fish were blitzing and he needed to get down to the beach, the voice on the other end said.

Flynn hung up and told his nephew Michael Dicellis to get his gear. The northeast winds were near 40 mph with a constant rain across Long Beach Island, but they were hurrying to get outside if the fish were biting.

They trudged out of the Ninth Street house they rent each fall and then hiked the half-mile path across the dunes yet again. Waves crashed at the feet of a handful of other fishermen already waiting for them in the surf, poles resting in sand spikes.

The scene on a recent Wednesday was familiar to those who remain on the island into the fall, when the Long Beach Island Surf Fishing Classic begins and anglers retake the province they owned long before the influx of sunbathers and sightseers.

The tournament, now in its 55th year, runs from Oct. 10 to Dec. 6, and attracts competitors from all around the state and far beyond its borders. Nearly 1,000 people register annually to win thousands of dollars in prizes by catching the largest bluefish or striped bass.

For some, the tournament’s attraction is not its promise of trophies, but its tradition. It is freighted with fish tales, fond memories and friendships forged during long hours together on the beach year after year.

“It’s just something I’ve always done,” said Flynn, 62. “It feels like if I don’t go, I’m missing something. If I don’t go, I feel like I left something out in my life.”

Flynn started coming when he was in the fourth grade with his brother, Tom, and his father, Bob, who was better known among his fishing buddies as “Pop.”

Then, as now, they rented a home in Barnegat Light for the length of the competition. They saved their vacation days through the warm spring and summer months to take off weeks at a time during the cool off-season on Long Beach Island, spending every day monitoring the tides and fishing reports.

Other fishermen up and down the island share similar stories. The tournament regulars are like an extended family — there are tight-knit clusters in each town, but there is also a large web of acquaintances who know each other, if only from seeing the others’ names next to the latest list of fish weighed in.

Harold Ferreri, 82, who rents a home on 10th Street and stood waiting for Dicellis and Flynn when they reached the water, is part of the close group of guys who fish daily in the quiet, northernmost town on the island.

“They were in there thick, them birds,” he explained to them. A good-sized colony of seagulls indicates there’s a shoal of bass below.

But there wasn’t much action anymore, the birds gone to hide behind the dunes and out of the strong winds that shook Ferreri’s raincoat.

Flynn and Dicellis cast out into the choppy waves and began to do what surf fishermen do best: Wait.

The lure of the surf

In 1955, a few local businessmen started what was then “The Striped Bass Derby” as a way to attract tourism to LBI during the off-season. The registration fee was $3, prizes included boats and dune buggies, and the regulations were lax.

Today it costs $30 per contestant to enter, strictly monetary prizes are awarded in dozens of categories, and regulations have been added to limit the amount of fish killed.

A bluefish has to be at least 32 inches long to be entered, for example, and an angler can only enter two per day. Bass have to be 34 inches long, with the same daily restriction.

Michelle Cuff, the office manager for the Southern Ocean Chamber of Commerce, has run the tournament now for 30 years. Today there are five bait shops on the island where fish can be weighed in, but when she started, all the fish were weighed in at her office.

“For a couple of years I would have to get up from my typewriter and weigh fish,” she said. “So then I had fish scales in my typewriter.”

Today the tournament is still a help to the local economy. The island’s population plunges from summer to fall, but the influx of fishermen bring business with them.

“A lot of coffee and a lot of gas wouldn’t get sold if it wasn’t for the tournament,” Cuff said. “This a big part of their business. They rely on this to get them through.”

To the unfamiliar, it’s hard to grasp the attraction of surf fishing — anglers sit and wait for long hours, day and night, often in the cold or rain, and more often than not they catch nothing.

Most narrow the allure down to two things.

First, there’s the thrill of the catch, the adrenaline rush from finally seeing that pole bend toward the sea, and then hooking and landing the fish in the midst of crashing waves.

“The end result is what makes you feel good,” said Joanne Sullivan, 62, of the Brant Beach section of Long Beach Township, whose husband, Ray, 65, introduced her to the sport. “It’s just a thrill, but it’s not always easy.”

Second, there’s the serenity of it, being surrounded by nothing but sand and water on a near-empty beach, hearing only the hypnotic rhythms of the waves and the dull intermittent drone of a buoy’s foghorn coming from the jetty in the distance.

After the sun sets, the stars shine bright, far from the glare of the nearby town.

Seals, foxes, dolphins and pelicans are among the wildlife often seen. On special nights, phosphorescent organisms light up the waves and sweep onto the beach, glowing in the wash.

“I take all of my problems and I throw them away when I come down here,” said Dicellis, 31, who makes a gesture of heaving a heavy weight from his chest.

“It’s almost spiritual.”

Fishermen in the sky

The contest regulars also seem to shed the rest of the details of their lives off the island. They take on nicknames, with some of the more colorful ones just among this group in Barnegat Light being “Bricklayer,” “Foghorn,” “Pepper Joe,” “Ohio Charlie,” “Crooked Stick Charlie” and “Big Stick John.”

It doesn’t matter where they come from. Ferreri is from Berlin Township, Camden County, while Flynn and Dicellis are from Rahway, Union County, but for six to eight weeks each year they sleep a block away from each other and it’s like they have known each other for their entire lives.

“You see guys in trucks with poles wave to other trucks with poles,” said Margaret O’Brien, 62, the owner of Jingle’s Bait & Tackle Shop in Long Beach Township. “I think fishing guys are all very, very friendly.”

Around 11 a.m., Jack “Tobacco Jack” Donnelly, of Philadelphia, made the hike across the dunes to join the other men in Barnegat Light, as he has since the tournament began.

“Explain to me how he parks in the handicapped spot, and then walks a mile in the sand,” Flynn likes to say, usually leaving the other guys roaring with laughter. “He walks better than I do.”

Donnelly is 82, has bad knees and is on his second pacemaker. He rents a home now on 25th Street, but for a long time slept in his car when he visited on weekends.

A reformed alcoholic, he is one of several so-called old-timers who partially credit the tournament with keeping them alive.

“I feel rejuvenated when I come down here,” he said. “I don’t break any records walking, but I still put one foot in front of the other and I get to where I want to go.”

Still, every year it seems one of the names commonly seen on the tournament list is gone forever. Flynn’s father died in 1997, and his brother died three years ago.

“There are so many people we miss now,” Donnelly said. “They’re all fishermen up in the sky.”

Basil Shehady, the owner of Barnegat Light Bait & Tackle, looks at Donnelly as one of the few remaining members of the tournament’s first generation of anglers who have come back year after year and made the competition a success.

“All the old-timers that started this, thanks a lot,” he said. “They started a great thing for our economy and all the bait and tackles. But we did lose a lot of the good ones.”

Wetting the lines

At the same time there are new names on the registration list every year, as those introduced to the tournament by their parents are now bringing their own children.

“I guess I’m a third-generation tournament fishermen,” said Greg O’Connell, 34, of Mays Landing, who is following in his grandfather and father’s footsteps, and who now brings his 7-year-old.

Donnelly introduced the sport to his son Paul and his girlfriend, and Ferreri did the same for his grandson Josh.

“I believe he’s getting the enjoyment the same way I am now,” Donnelly said of his son. “Even if you don’t catch anything, you’ll still come back. Fishing in the surf teaches you patience.”

There are a variety of phrases fishermen turn that revolve around patience and the belief that anyone, at anytime, can land The Big One.

Flynn, after a few hours on the beach and no fish, used one when he returned to Ferreri’s house for a few drinks around the kitchen table to trade jokes before waking up and doing it all over again.

“You never know what’s going to happen,” he said. “Anyone who wets their line has a chance to win.”

Donnelly used another, one that has kept him going for years, when sickness or the sadness of his wife’s death threatened to keep him from the shore. It’s a maxim he said applies to more than fishing — one that he takes back with him every time he heads back across the bay at the tournament’s end.

“As long as you got the line in the water and bait on the hook,” he said, “you got the same chance as anyone of catching ’em.”