They fished in shirts and ties, wore straw boaters and fedoras, and even had a fight song to spur them on to greater heights of angling excellence. They were the early members of the Asbury Park Fishing Club, currently the oldest active organization of its kind in the country.
The Birth of Asbury Park Fishing Club
First formed in 1888, the club began when James A. Bradley, the founder of the city of Asbury Park, gathered together nine of his fishing friends who shared a passion for surf fishing. In addition to the original members, the club consisted of four rocking chairs and a brass bell that was rung every time a striped bass was caught. Two years later, according to an excellent history of the club by member Bill Feinberg, the group took on a loftier goal when it adopted the name Monmouth County Protective Society. Its mission was “to prevent the useless waste of fish and to assist in breeding game fish.”
In the early days, the favorite target of the club was channel bass, more commonly known as red drum. (Striped bass consume most of the member’s time these days as red drum have become scarce in local waters.) In 1902, with a growing membership and a new purpose, the Asbury Park Fishing Club was born, dedicated “to protect saltwater game fish, to create good fellowship and to promote the interest of anglers.” For the last 118 years, the club has succeeded on every front. In that time, angling legends were born, lifelong friendships formed, and thousands of fishing stories told, many of them true.
World Record Striped Bass
Fishing and casting tournaments between clubs, many of which have since passed out of existence, were the main activities. From this era, one of New Jersey’s first celebrity fishermen emerged, Edward E. Davis. He gained the spotlight by catching a 58-pound, 8-ounce striped bass in the Elberon surf in 1913. The fish, considered a giant at the time, became the new world record. He and the bass appeared in newspaper ads for the Central Jersey Railroad, inviting anglers to take the train down to fish the Jersey Shore. Judging by newspaper coverage at the time, it appeared that Davis never went anywhere without that fish.
World Record Bluefish
Davis was also the world record holder for bluefish with a 17-pound, 14-ounce chopper caught at the Manasquan Inlet in 1912 and held a world record in casting distance. He even penned fishing poetry. It was around this time that club membership grew to 350 members, then reached its peak of almost 650 by 1925. Among the notable names on the membership roll were Ezra A. Fitch, the co-founder of Abercrombie and Fitch, and J. Lyle Kinmonth, publisher of the Asbury Park Press.
For the last 34 years, the club has been under the stewardship of president Joe Pallotto, an Asbury Park native and one of its favorite sons. He’s been a member for 57 years, joining the club as a teenager. To say Pallotto lives and breathes the Asbury Park Fishing Club would be a gross understatement.
Since he was a boy, Pallotto has prowled the jetties along the Asbury Park oceanfront. His first encounter with a striped bass came on a Creek Chub lure. “Not many people fished with plugs then – it was mostly tin squids,” he said. “The big bass broke me off, so I ran to Baba Graziano’s tackle shop in town to get another. I was hooked.” Pallotto has been chasing “slobs,” his term for big bass, ever since, and he was in an ideal position to do so. He worked for the city of Asbury Park and ran the beaches in the summer as head lifeguard. He was intimately familiar with all the rocks, walls, and jetties, and, having dove on them all, he knew where the big fish lurked.
Once, when a frantic young woman reported her fiancé had disappeared beneath the waves, a subsequent search gave Pallotto a chance to see where all the giant bass were feeding along the wall in front of the city’s Convention Hall. He soon learned that bass of similar sizes all swim together. “You could see that all the 40-pound fish swam as a group, and the same with the 30 and 20 pounders,” he said.
So, what became of the groom-to-be? “He turned up in Florida three months later. His ‘drowning’ was an attempt to escape the altar,” Pallotto said.
Pallotto has a deep well of similar fish stories, such as diving in after bass stuck in rocks and pilings, following the lines down to trapped fish and pushing his hand up into their gill plates to grab them.
At that time, Pallotto said, guys fished with partners. They shared the chores of collecting bait, scouting fishing spots, and landing fish. Mike Fidek, a fellow lifeguard, was Pallotto’s partner. Members come from a wide variety of backgrounds and vary in their style of fishing. Some are pluggers and others live-liners, while still others fish eels, worms, or calico crabs. Most do a bit of everything. Some fish from the jetties, others stick to the rivers, and then there are those who walk the beaches for hours on end.
Mel Martens, a member since the early 80s, did a lot of his fishing out on Sandy Hook. “I’d lose 20 pounds every November hiking out to the Rip,” he said. “It was a lot of fun, but it was an Army base so we had to dodge military jeeps and other anglers so they wouldn’t know where we were fishing.“ One thing united them all: the desire to catch big stripers. And to do that, they had to put in the time.
Gene Amato, club vice president, said that when he was courting his wife, Jeanine, he felt compelled to make a confession: “I smoke cigarettes and fish every night.” He has since quit smoking and is still happily married. Amato estimates that he fishes 60 to 70 nights in a row during the spring and many other days during the year. “I love the nighttime,” he said.
Pallotto and his fellow club members are almost maniacal in their dedication to their sport. He spoke wistfully of dreaming about large bass breaking in the surf and then jumping out of bed at 3 a.m. to get to the beach to see if one was around.
Pallotto said the biggest fish he ever landed was about 50 pounds. A much bigger one, around 70 pounds, took a herring he was live-lining off a jetty one day. He wrestled it around the rocks and close to the beach, where its giant head and enormous girth were easy to see. However, he made the mistake of tightening the drag and the fish raised its dorsal fin and pulled away. Out popped a folded herring and the slob was gone. The hook had never struck home. “I was fighting his stomach the whole time,” Pallotto said.
Herring, folded or flat, are a big part of the Asbury Park Fishing Club’s story. Deal Lake, which began as an estuary between Asbury Park and Loch Arbor, was a fertile herring spawning ground. Every spring, thousands entered the lake through the flume that connected the lake and then reproduced. “The water was black with them as they came into the lake,” Pallotto said.
Herring were easy pickings for big bass that congregated in the area and for club members and other anglers who scooped them from the flume. Large pens were built in the lake and Shark River to keep the bait for future use. In fact, live herring were a go-to bait for fishermen competing in the inter-club tournaments. Pallotto credits Herbie Kingsland, a former WWII fighter pilot, with teaching him to liveline herring.
Striped Bass Tournaments
The tournaments are fierce but friendly fishing competitions for bragging rights among the very best fishermen along the Jersey Shore. These are hard-core anglers who put in long hours in tough conditions. The main combatants in the tournaments have been the Asbury Park Fishing Club, the Bradley Beach Fishing Club, Berkeley Striper Club, Monmouth Beach Cartoppers, Shark River Surf Anglers, and the Spring Lake Liveliners. All bass must be caught from shore and the club posting the highest total weight for five fish is the tournament winner.
Selling Striped Bass to Fish Markets
Back then, losing a fish did not sit well with Pallotto because it was a matter of pride and economics. In the 60s through the 90s, he and most of his fellow club members made extra cash selling their catches to restaurants and fish markets. The size limit was 18 inches, and an angler could keep 10 stripers. Just a few of the names Pallotto mentioned as fellow fanatics in the club were Gerry Reidinger, Bill McFadden, and Anthony “Motts” Martinelli. Pallotto calls Motts the best fisherman he ever saw.
Jersey Shore Beach Restoration
Sometimes, the club fights more than fish. Beach replenishment along the Jersey Shore has been called the single worst catastrophe for surf anglers. The sand-covered jetties and rock piles destroyed marine nurseries and eliminated the deep pockets that held baitfish. Replenishment also blocked the famous flume, foiling efforts by most of the herring to get into the lake to spawn.
Pallotto and the Asbury Park Fishing Club went to war with the Army Corp of Engineers and New Jersey politicians to stop replenishment and restore the flume. The long fight for the flume ended with its restoration in a somewhat diminished capacity, but the battle against replenishment goes on. Unfortunately, it has largely been a losing effort as precious habitat continues to disappear. “Replenishment was the big killer,” Martens said, “Trying to find deep water is impossible.” It’s the worst thing that happened,” Dave DeGraw, the club treasurer said. He used to fish the sea wall in Sea Bright where the ocean ran right up to the rocks. “It used to be so much fun, but now it’s gone.”
Another impact of replenishment, De Graw said, is that more members who used to fish the surf now own boats. “The guys who used to despise boats and throw sinkers at them now own them,” he said.
Asbury Park Fishing Show
For all of its rich history, the Asbury Park Fishing Club continues to add to its storied reputation, and its Annual Fishing Show is a prime example. What started as a flea market for members to sell their extra and unused tackle has turned into one of the premier plug shows in the country. At the same time, the event raises much-needed funds for local Asbury Park charities.
Organized by Pallotto and fellow member Tony Saunders, the inaugural show took place nearly 30 years ago at the Asbury Park Senior Center. In addition to the tables full of rods, reels, lures, and tackle, club members Lefty Carr, his son, Wade, and Bill McFadden sold handmade wooden plugs. The event drew unexpected crowds, and the plugs were an immediate hit. Before too long, the show moved to the much larger venue at Convention Hall, and more members and non-members began displaying their custom-made plugs for sale. Soon, a table at the show became a highly coveted prize.
While Lefty Carr’s sealed plugs drew the most attention and longer lines, Bill McFadden’s simply made and less expensive lures generated a loyal following. Amato brought his Fish-On Lures and DeGraw sold his line of plugs, HT Lures.
Paul Lindner, an Asbury Park Club member for 23 years, has been a plug maker for most of his life, building them with his father and grandfather. Lindner said he met Pallotto during a blitz in Long Branch. “He asked me to become a member because I was catching fish,” Lindner said. Pallotto seems to have a habit of appearing out of nowhere and recruiting new members. Lindner’s Cyclone Lures quickly became one of hot sellers at the shows, with several hundred plugs usually disappearing in a matter of minutes. He, too, seals his plugs and adds an extraordinary amount of detail along with a meticulous paint job. His creations are in great demand by collectors.
Fishermen are notoriously tight-lipped about where, how, and when they catch fish and plug makers are no different about their craft. However, when it came to sharing information, Bill McFadden was an open book. “He was the most open, sharing person,” said Rob Pruszynski, builder of Sunset Customs. “He lived the plug-building life.” A transplant from Hawaii, Pruszynski became intrigued with striped bass fishing and, as a lure maker, building plugs. “In Hawaii, a 2- to 3-pound fish off the beach was a big deal. I wanted to catch these huge stripers.” He joined the club about 13 years ago and McFadden immediately took him under his wing.
Everyone agreed McFadden’s plugs were great. They swam well and caught plenty of fish, but the only trouble was they took on water. DeGraw was also a disciple of McFadden’s, turning plugs in his basement and tying tails. He also mentioned the water issue. “You could fish them for a day, then you had to leave them on your dashboard to dry out,” said DeGraw.
Pallotto estimates that about 20 club members currently make plugs and dozens of other builders from around the country are featured at the show. All proceeds from the event go to support various causes in the city, including Little League baseball, kids’ fishing contests, and the local food bank.
A New Era of Fishing
As of now, though, it looks like the 2021 show will have to be postponed due to COVID-19, but the Asbury Park Fishing Club will certainly go on. It’s survived two World Wars, the Great Depression (which claimed its clubhouse), and other assorted calamities, natural and manmade, that have threatened its existence.
Of course, there have been changes. Cell phones and the Internet have had a tremendous impact on fishing and fishing clubs. Conversations take place online, so actual meetings disappear. Finding fish requires less footwork since much information is immediately shared, but in talking to the club members, the word uttered most often was camaraderie – something hard to replicate in the digital world.
Along with a number of other fishing organizations and clubs, the Asbury Park Fishing Club had luck getting menhaden reduction boats, which netted tons of bunker off New Jersey, banned from coastal waters. Once this key forage species was restored, the state became home to a world-class striper fishery.
The club’s greatest strength is the members. “They are just great people. We’re like a family,” said Martens—a family with a hardcore fisherman by the name of Joe Pallotto at its head.