To call fishing a pastime, or hobby, is an understatement in Cape May . For many, it’s an entire life. Families live by the sea — their livelihood dependent on Mother Nature’s good will. Their lifestyles are different, reliant on weather, tides, seasons.
Most are born into fishing families, many lose loved ones to the sea. It’s difficult for one to become a fisherman, it’s either in the blood or not. Oh, one can go out and buy a rod and reel, even a 110’ fishing boat, but to really feel the sea, live and die by it, is something else entirely.
I know this first hand because I just ain’t got it in me though I should as I’m surrounded by it. But learning through osmosis doesn’t work. By now I should at least understand some of the lingo — fishermen speak a different language — and be able to catch a fish. I can do neither.
Crab and lobster traps are called “pots”. The “canyon” is a place to fish, not climb. Ropes are sheets and of course the bathroom is called the “head”. Fishermen also tend to drop the “g” from most verbs ending in “ing” and usually omit pronouns or anything that gets in the way of fish.
Answer: “Caught some weakies yesterday.”
“Have you caught any fish lately?”
“We caught some weakfish.”
“Were they big enough to keep?”
The ability to keep a fish depends on size. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in Massachusetts sets limitation on various species which are over-fished or likewise, under-fished. Serving as a sort of scale, the NMFS promotes ecological balance deep beneath the waves. A current point of issue is a proposed ban on catching white marlin. For tournament and sports fishing, this ban is an annoyance and inconvenience which could also be financially devastating to some sports fishing captains and marinas. These captains make their living from charters. And here in Cape May , the South Jersey Marina hosts the Mid-Atlantic $500,000 tournament — the marlin most sought after. Fortunately, most fishermen understand the need for regulations — the striped bass being a prime example.
“That’s good eatin’” everyone says of the striped bass or “striper” in fishermen lingo. Because this fish was such good “eatin’” it was over-fished for years heavily depleting the species.
After a size regulation was placed by the NMFS, there was a lot of grumbling, but as little as two years made a difference in stock quantity. Today the size regulation has been minimized and there are plenty of “stripers” frying in pans across Cape May County .
The commercial fisherman feels these regulations a bit differently. Lives depend on “the catch.” It can be feast or famine. Unfortunately, and certainly unintentionally, endangered fish can get snared inside nets or dragged fishing lines, and are killed. Hence, commercial fishermen face stricter rules and regulations, and livelihoods suffer.
As the non-fisherman-type, I should be lauded by the NMFS. If I had to live on the fish I catch, well, you’d all be saying your adieus to me. I went once on what’s called “the mackerel trip”. It’s the first catch of the spring season, and sports fishermen stock up on mackerel to use as bait for the summer season. Each rod is loaded — I know that’s the wrong lingo, but what the heck — with six or seven, even up to nine hooks and fish are hauled in such. It’s a lot of hard work, but well worth the effort. Summer charters mean money.
I’m not sure why I was along, I rocked back and forth, green at the gills standing mostly in everyone’s way. Perhaps it was to take photographs. If it was, there weren’t many pictures taken that day.
Nevertheless, I was determined to do my share. I cast my line, tugging the pole like the others, and caught nothing. Meanwhile, fish after fish were landed on deck and promptly put on ice. I recast my line, still hopeful — how hard could it be? — and suddenly felt a tug. I had a fish! Perhaps a whole school of fish! I reeled and reeled in the line, ecstatic in my victory, when there at the end flayed one little fish. A tiny fish, certainly not a mackerel or anything like one.
“She caught a herring!” everyone laughed. “Look at the little herring!” That’s when I learned that herring “run” — a real fishing term — with mackerel. And that’s when I knew I had a lot to learn about fishing which might take a couple of lifetimes of experience to even catch up with these folks.
I haven’t caught a fish since, though I’ve tried. Fly fishing off the beach and off the jetties (called “rocks”). It’s a bit ironic, any fish caught would be thrown back. Catch and release. If only they knew.
But I’m not the only hard-luck fisherman out there, but maybe the only truthful one. I could tell you about “the one that got away” — that quintessential avowal one uses when asked “catchin’?”
Martin Dipper, captain of the Sea Star, told CapeMay.com of his “secret” spot. “I always tell my charter we’re going to a secret spot. Then we don’t find any fish, and I tell them that’s the secret!”
Dipper is a bit sarcastic and a bit of a joker. The Sea Star fleet has been operating for at least 20 years and is one of Cape May ’s most popular charter fleets along with the Miss Chris boats. They do catch fish.
As did Bob Pacilli, owner the sports fishing boat, The Penguin, who told CapeMay.com of the 615 pound marlin he caught this summer, though he laughs when he says he caught it “before” the Mid-Atlantic tournament he participated in.
A highlight of the Cape May fishing season is the “Special Kids Fishing Day” sponsored by organizations like the Cape May Marlin Tuna Club and the Elks Club. Last year 47 vessels were donated allowing more than 200 developmentally-disabled children a chance to “hook the big one”.
Captain Jim Heinhold chairs the event and told CapeMay.com he has used his own vacation time to organize the Association of Retarded Citizens (ARC) clients since 1990. Ironically, despite one of the driest summers on record, the event was canceled due to a northeastern storm. Says Heinhold, “It’s not the rain that cancelled the day but the wind. And I hate disappointing the kids.”
But fishing has been good this summer in Cape May despite — or maybe because of the weather. Flounder has been abundant, as has bluefish, marlin and tuna. The only fish that has been rather sparse is the weakie, that no one has been catchin’.