The first day of a northeast blow had put a perfect chop on the surf in Ocean City. I’d just gotten my driver’s license and was eager to take my first solo trip to the shore to fish for stripers. Everything I’d read about striper fishing said the conditions were prime, that the building waves would be smashing together clams and crabs, leaving an invertebrate buffet strewn across the bottom for the fall-run stripers. I bought a dozen surf clams and dragged them, along with a handful of pre-tied surf rigs and pyramid sinkers, to the 52nd Street beach.
Not long after I’d set up, a man approached, honey-colored fiberglass surf rod in one hand, filthy six-pack cooler in the other.
“What youse fishin’?” he asked, eyeing my bucket.
“Clams,” I said.
He nodded, put down the cooler, withdrew the lit cigarette from his mouth, and held the glowing tip to my line between the first guide and the reel. The line parted, sending 50 yards of freshly spooled braid off into the surf.
“That won’t happen if you fish with bunkah,” he said, before reaching into his cooler and tossing a gaff-sized J-hook, a nearly empty bottle of anise extract, and a chunk of bunker in the sand at my feet. “Now youse might actually catch something,” he said, before continuing down the beach.
It’d been nearly two decades since that day when I recognized him as the subject of the Field and Stream Hook Shots documentary, Talkin Trash: The Legend of “Bob The Garbage Man”.
In the months that followed the documentary’s release, Bob Bratananananewski has ascended from local fishermen of ill repute to surfcasting antihero, and my bosses here at On The Water wanted an interview with him. Given my South Jersey roots, they assigned it to me. It took weeks to track him down, but when I did, he agreed to answer my questions and let me photograph him for a modest fee.
On the agreed-upon day, at the agreed-upon time, I approached Bob at what must be the last working payphone in the Atlantic City, if not all of New Jersey. He argued with whoever was on the other end for nearly 15 minutes before acknowledging my presence by saying, “Alright, let’s get this over wit.”
Jimmy Fee: Since the release of your documentary last fall, what’s changed? Has all the attention affected how and where you fish?
Bob The Garbage Man: What’s changed? Jesus Christ. I can’t walk to the goddamn corner coffee cart without someone yelling, “Hey, Bob, how’s Irish Greg?” You wanna know how Greg is? He’s dead. He was the only firefighter lost in the Sands Casino Buffet Blaze of ’85. When the call came in, he was riding his moped to the station and got run over by a bus on Baltic Avenue. So, when yous think it’s funny to ask how Greg is, pretend you’re asking his mother.
Anyway. It ain’t affected my fishing in the least. I got so many spots it don’t matter. Places nobody knows about. I mean I’ve pulled 50s out of storm drains behind Port Authority. In some of my best spots, there ain’t even any water.
JF: Have any companies approached you about sponsorship or pro staff opportunities?
BG: McCormick Spices still has not returned my call about an anise deal if that’s what you’re asking. Although, the number I gave them (nodding to the pay phone) has been on the fritz, so that could be the issue.
As for pro staffs, I ain’t entirely sure what you mean by that, but I was asked to be the bingo caller at First Presbyterian over on Pacific during one of their famous Wednesday night showdowns. That was an honor. I also got to be the head judge of the chili cook-off at VFW Local 193 Ventnor. And I mean, chili don’t really agree with me, but that pro staff gig came with free food and all the ShopRite brand soda I could drink, so you know. Saved me from another night of baloney and hose water.
JF: When does your striper season begin? When does it end?
BG: I typically start midnight on January 1 and keep at it until about 11:59 p.m. on December 31.
JF: Who introduced you to striper fishing?
BG: Guy named Wayne.
JF: So how does your commitment to 20-hour soaks and fishing everyday affect your job and home life. Is there a Mrs. Garbage Man?
BG: These questions are getting unbelievable. What’s your job? What do you really do? Why you asking about my job? Stripers is my job. Jesus Christ. Though, I would like it to be known that I am Atlantic City’s most eligible bachelor.
JF: What’s the longest you’ve ever sat—excuse me—stood on a chunk?
BG: Long enough that my entire lower body from my big toe to my waist was completely numb. I mean, I don’t remember exactly. That could have been the Merv Griffin Invitational Blitz of ’85? That was like a four-day event. All I remember is Dirty Socks Dave smacking my knees repeatedly with a bucket lid trying to help me get the feeling back. I had to get Vinny the Poo to drag all my fish up from the wash because I couldn’t move.
JF: You’ve been there for so many great blitzes. Is there one you can say was the best ever?
BG: I mean, hell, they all blend together. I can barely keep track of what was when and where. But put a gun to my head and I guess I’d say the best ever was the Don’t Tell Richie Blitz of ’74. That was Huguenot Beach during my tour of duty on Staten Island. For 63 hours nonstop, we was sliding 50s to high 70s through the suds. And when I say nonstop I mean it was nonstop. I look back on it now and it was great, but while it was happening it was so ridiculous, it was actually boring. After the first hour, you prayed that all the 30s and 40s just shook off. We was paying a couple local kids in skin rags and cigarettes to cut our lines and tie on new hooks for us. By the tenth hour, anything under 55 was a cutter. Twenty hours in, our runners had bought out every 8/0 Mustad on the island. Juicehead Tomasello had to drive to Jersey to find more hooks. Jeff the Janitor ran as far as Ronkonkoma for more anise extract. We absolutely murdered them. I mean except for Richie, you know, but f— him anyway.
JF: When was the last big blitz you fished?
BG: What’s today’s date? About five hours ago. They’re probably still going but we’re playing 20 questions over here, so…
JF: In the documentary, you suggested that Javier the Russian taught you that it’s disrespectful to sit down while you’re chunking. Any other words of wisdom from Javier?
BG: I mean, most of the time you couldn’t understand a goddamn word the commie was saying. But there was one time me, Javier, Arty, and Kenny the Benny was fishing over in Brigantine that I’ll never forget. We was probably in it for 9 or 10 hours and hadn’t caught a thing. All of a sudden, Arty ties up. Then Kenny. The fish were coming right down the line and I was next. Javier starts running around acting all crazy. Suddenly I swing and I’m on an extra-horny cow. It was kind of a shitty night. Real windy. Spray flying everywhere. And as I lean into this fish, Javier is screaming “Bol’she tabletok! “Bol’she tabletok, friend Bob! Bol’she tabletok!” He was so full of rage that it got me all charged up! I felt like we was in the heat of battle and Javier was the general leading the front to glory. I mean, it turns out what he was screaming was “more pills.” He was high as a kite, man. I mean just gone. Blitzed out of his mind. But still, it was so invigorating, you know?
JF: If the bait shop is all out of bunker, what’s your second choice for chunks?
BG: OK, first of all, if a bait shop is out of bunker, it ain’t a bait shop. It’s just a five-and-dime for the mooks. Second of all, it ain’t the bunker you gotta worry about. It’s when the Shop N’ Bag runs out of anise extract that you panic, know what I’m saying? As I explained in the major motion picture about myself, the bunker is a vessel for the anise. But over the years in a pinch? A dishrag has been a vessel for the anise. I seen Frank the Scalper and Teddy Tickets beach 60 after 60 on pieces of a TV Guide soaked in it. Meatloaf. Fiberglass insulation. Use your imagination, know what I’m saying? We’re not dealing with a particularly intelligent animal here.
JF: What length and strength leader do you use for chunking? Do you use monofilament, fluorocarbon, or wire?
BG: Next question.
JF: You put down roots in Atlantic City in 1976. Were you fishing the AC surf on September 21, 1982, the night Al McReynolds caught the world record?
BG: Here we go. How did I know this was coming? For the record, I never had no beef with Al. He was a good guy. Stand-up guy. But by ’82, we kinda lost touch. He started running with a bad crowd and they turned him, you know what I’m saying? All of a sudden he’s out on the rocks pushing that plastic, throwing that junk, which I could never figure out because he was a good chunker.
Anyway, that night he and Pat was on the Vermont Avenue jetty and me and Marty was on the Metropolitan Avenue jetty a couple blocks south. By the time those boys walked out, we’d been on the soak 12 or 13 hours already, and by all counts it was slow, you know? Couple high 50s, two in the mid-70s, one that maybe would have went 81 if you leaned on the scale a little bit. So, all of a sudden, Marty comes tight and he goes, “Yo, Bob, this don’t feel right.”
In comes this high 70s, but it’s like swimming in circles with its mouth open. Rolling around, trying to snap at the chunk that had slid up the line. I said, “Mart, we ain’t eating this one. It’s sick or something.”
So, we let it go. Thirty minutes later, we hear Al screaming and hollering, and we thought, hey, good for them, you know? They finally got one. Next morning I’m driving past Campbell’s Marina in Margate and there’s Al with that brain-dead fish strung up. At first, I was hot, but he did buy me a beautiful pair of cuff links after he cashed in. ‘Course I traded them for a gently used cooler a few years later, but I mean it is what it is.
JF: It’s been well documented that the striped bass population is in decline. Have you noticed this? Have your catches declined in recent years?
BG: Whose catches are declining? Yours? Your momo friends? Yous ain’t getting as many nibbles on your rubbers and your Tragic Swimmers? Problems I don’t have. Let me tell you, the only thing that’s declining is the number of people willing to put in some real time to catch big bass. These kids these days want to go out for a couple hours, get a 50, and be home in time for The Cosby Show. It’s disgusting. And it’s sad because it’s like God invented the Cape Cod Canal just for these people, you know?
JF: Have you ever fished the Cape Cod Canal?
BG: Once. I mean almost, anyway. In the summer of ’87, I was doing a little side work with Boog Dickerson. We drove up north in a rented Ryder truck packed to the gills with misappropriated scented candles. Someone told Boog you could unload shit like that in less than an hour on the streets of Hyannis. So, we figured, hey, we’ll check out this whole Canal thing while we’re up there. But nobody told us you needed bicycles. So we get to the parking lot and I flag down this local kid on a Schwinn and offer him our last case of Gypsy Rain candles to borrow his bike. But he ain’t interested, and as he’s telling me no, I decide I’m borrowing it anyway. Next thing you know, there’s baseball cards flying everywhere, he’s crying because we snapped his Ugly Stik, he’s boo-hooing because we dented his basket, and he gets up and runs away screaming about the cops. I said, “Boog, I don’t need another charge, and neither do you.” So we just split. But we did end up mowing down a handful of low 50s behind the Cumberland Farms in New Bedford on the way home.
JF: I get the impression there’s bad blood between you and Cape Cod anglers in general. Why is that?
BG: I wouldn’t say there’s bad blood, you know? Some of the greatest chunkers in the scene were on the Cape. Guys I read about when I was a kid. But now, you say ‘Cape’ and every momo on the planet just says ‘canal.’ It’s like the Make A Wish Foundation of striper fishing up there. It’s like the Oprah Winfrey show, you know? You get a 50! You get a 50! The blind guy with one arm and the fanny pack gets a 50! There ain’t no honor in it, you know what I’m saying?
JF: What kinds of things bring you good luck?
BG: Chunks and anise.
JF: You say your catches aren’t declining, but there are, in fact, stricter striper regulations going into effect. Any thoughts on that?
BG: What do you want me to say? That’s a better question for Trollin’ Al Michaels over there in Gardiner’s Basin. It’s guys like that pulling them dinner plates on 300-strand telephone cable or whatever they do. Out there dribbling along at one mile per hour dragging 900 rubber perch while they sit in a comfy chair eating wine and cheese and listening to show tunes or whatever. They got time to clean under their fingernails, you know what I’m saying? It ain’t fishing, I can tell you that.
JF: You’ve been criticized for not actually catching a fish in your documentary. What do you have to say about that?
BG: I say that I’d have to be a complete idiot to catch a fish while there are two movie cameras pointed at me. Jesus Christ. That was something that was understood in the old days. We only took pictures at the tackle shop. Never on the water. Never. Anyone who would criticize me for that is the highest level of mook.
JF: If you’re so secretive, why did you agree to shoot the documentary at all?
BG: For the same reason I’m talking to you now. You’re paying me. And I’d like to remind you yet again that the Denny’s gift card I was promised needs to be made out to my Christian name, Robert Bratananananewski.
JF: Before we part ways, any advice for a young surfcaster looking to master chunking for stripers?
BG: I’ll leave you with this. Back around ‘77 or ‘78, there was this kid named Ralphie Stutz that hung around the tackle shop. Good kid. Smart. Came from a good family. He’d help me and the guys weigh fish, sharpen hooks for us, whatever we needed. He always used to say, “Mr. Bob, I wanna catch stripers like you.”
He was so persistent that one day I decided I wouldn’t completely ignore his existence as I had before. I pulled him aside and said, look kid, if this is what you wanna do, you have to devote your entire being to the craft. Forget school. Forget college. Forget having a career. A family? Wifey and a couple kids? Ain’t happening. By the time he was 16, he wasn’t “that kid Ralphie” anymore. He was Ralphie the Chonzer.
That kid caught more 50-plus-pound bass before he turned 20 than most guys in the Northeast could ever even dream existed. Of course, I mean, Ralphie died cold and alone in a porta-jon behind the Shoney’s in Northfield between soaks in ’88, but he died doing what he loved, you know? He lived the dream.