Fresh bait has to work twice.
Before it can lure a striped bass, tautog or other popular local fish to the hook, the bait has to lure fishermen to the shop to buy it.
If ensuring nibbles on the hook and in the shop were as simple as choosing the appropriate and freshest baits, business would be pretty easy for bait and tackle shops at the Jersey Shore.
But there’s one, big problem: Fresh, often live, bait is highly perishable.
Neither bait shops, nor fishermen for that matter, can purchase supplies much in advance or keep them a week or more — not if they actually want to catch customers and fish.
Each bait purchase by a store is a gamble that the conditions in the next few days — weather, fish biting, TV sports — will prompt fishermen to buy enough bait so the store can turn a profit.
Overbuy or fail to anticipate rain and the bait goes right in the garbage, said Mike Cunningham, owner of Sea Isle Bait and Tackle.
“You’ve got to be a meteorologist and track the Eagles games,” said Cunningham, 30, of Woodbine, calling it the most aggravating part of the business. “If there’s an Eagles game, we sell half as much bait.”
Noel Feliciano, owner of One Stop Bait & Tackle in Atlantic City, said staying informed about the fish present locally is also critical.
“What if a kingfish run shows up and you’re ready for bluefish? It’s a real touchy situation, and you’re always balancing all of the factors,” said Feliciano, 41, of Egg Harbor Township.
On top of the perishable inventory problem posed by fresh bait, bait and tackle shops face additional hurdles these days imposed by regulators.
Scott Albertson started Scott’s Bait & Tackle in a tire cage next to a Little Egg Harbor Township gas station in 1985. He’s seen catch limits and closed seasons become important factors for the fishing industry.
“When the sea bass season was still open, customers could go out on a boat, take multiple species of fish and make a day of it. Now there’s no point running a wreck fishing trip,” said Albertson, 46, of Little Egg Harbor. “Tautog are being caught now, but you’re limited to one tog. On Nov. 16 it goes to six fish.”
Last year demonstrated the difference rules and runs can make, he said, with summer flounder fishermen typically catching 20 fluke in a day but none big enough to keep under government regulations.
Then, last fall, a big run of striped bass turned the year around, “the store was fun, and anglers were happy and upbeat,” he said.
“In November 2011, you went catching, not just fishing, and took fish home. That changed the whole attitude about fishing,” Cunningham said.
This year, shops and anglers are hoping for a repeat … hoping and waiting, as unusually warm water keeps the striped bass north of the waters off New Jersey.
“Everybody’s got the hype of striped bass in their mind,” Feliciano said. “There’s a lot of bait in the water — peanut and regular bunker, herring, mullet, spearing — but the water’s too warm and the fish are up high. They’re killing them up at Montauk (Long Island).”
The water is so warm, in fact, that unusual southern fish are turning up at his Atlantic City shop, such as sheepshead and red drum, he said.
On a recent Friday, a fisherman brought in a live, medium-sized octopus he had just caught. Feliciano said he could eat it, but when that idea seemed to disgust the angler, suggested donating it to the nearby Atlantic City Aquarium.
Cunningham said striper mania has “almost become a detriment because so many people stop fishing when flounder season ends, and don’t show up until the stripers come.”
They’re missing out on the fish being caught now, including bluefish, weakfish, tautog and kingfish, and even some stripers in the evenings in the back bays, he said.
If the main school of striped bass doesn’t come down soon, its arrival might come too late, Albertson said.
“Thanksgiving is the hatchet for the fishing season, whether due to obligations, parties, visits to relatives, or they can’t go fishing because they’re putting up lights,” he said. “And a lot of guys fish by themselves, and if you fall out of the boat after Thanksgiving, you’re dead” from hypothermia in the cold water.
For that reason, most bait shops close after the striper run and reopen in the spring.
Feliciano broadened his business base this year by opening a satellite bait shop in Historic Gardner’s Basin near the restored seawall.
“The first season was OK. It held its own, or close to it,” he said. “If everything was making money, everybody would be doing it. But I’m happy. I’m looking for the long run.”
Cunningham’s strategic difference is having a guide service onsite run by a friend, which can handle all boat, bait and tackle arrangements for fishing parties, simplifying their day.
None of these can compensate for the long-term threat to fishing that Albertson sees developing.
He said national fishing organizations have found that the next generation of anglers is shrinking, due to a combination of factors: parents working too much, economics, kids playing video games, more single parents.
“Kids are not getting involved in the fisheries, so we’re not only hurting today but the future is bleak,” Albertson said. “The good old days was the year 2000. That was my peak, and I’ve been doing this for 27 years.”
For whatever reason, not enough parents are like Feliciano, who loved fishing first and then became a fishing business owner.
“We fished the other night, me and my son,” he said, referring to Jeremy Feliciano, 20, who also works at the store. “The night was cold, the tide was right, conditions were perfect, and I swore up and down there was a bass out there with my name on it.
“But not yet.”
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