Don Tapp learned how to fish as a boy, growing up surrounded by water in Atlantic City’s Inlet section.
But he wasn’t just the kid out on the dock or jetty with a rod and reel. He was also a kid going out on commercial fishing boats by age 9 or 10 — even if he needed to stand on a crate so he could see to steer the boat while the men in the crew hauled in their catch.
And by 15 or 16, said Joe Merollo, an old Inlet buddy who grew up the same way, Tapp was going out on bigger boats that could stay at sea 10 days or more. The boats would travel as far as Maine or the Carolinas to catch scallops, Merollo added.
Tapp, who lived for years in Ventnor and was 82 when he died last month, loved to fish his entire life. But he didn’t stay a commercial fisherman.
He went into the U.S. Navy in 1953, during the Korean War, where his specialty was aircraft electronics.
Then when he came home, he financed his fishing habit — and a family that grew to include his wife, Darlene, and sons, Dennis, Darren and Douglas — with a long and busy career as a union electrician. He also helped light up a modern Atlantic City: He was electrical foreman for the building of the Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort and the rebuilding of historic Haddon Hall into Resorts International, the city’s first casino when it opened in 1978.
Tapp retired in 1991 from Atlantic City’s Calvi Electric, where he was widely known as “The Captain” — because anybody who knew him knew how much he liked taking his little boat out fishing, said his brother-in-law and electrician colleague, Herman Schenker, also of Ventnor.
Dennis Tapp, of Somers Point, the oldest son, said that naturally his dad taught the boys to fish — but they had to earn their keep.
“We’d go out in this little, piece-of-junk garvey,” Dennis said, laughing at the memory. “And my job was, I had to use a hand pump to pump the water out of the boat while Dad fished. ... He’d say, ‘Hurry up, faster — the water’s coming in.’”
But The Captain later upgraded his fleet to a 15-foot MAKO fishing boat — although even that’s now probably 35 years old, said Dennis, its current owner.
And his dad didn’t need the latest and greatest to catch fish. He had a natural talent for it, from years of practice.
“Fishing was really his only form of recreation,” added his son, who knows all his dad’s secret spots, including one near The Captain’s longtime home in Ventnor Heights. “There are a couple holes, he would just drift right across them and he’d always pick up fish.”
After his wife Darlene died, The Captain went back to fishing — and back to “the best place there is, anywhere around,” as he told a reporter for The Press in 2012 for a story on the Ventnor Fishing Pier.
But last year, his own health started going with a series of strokes.
“It was very fast,” Dennis said, adding that specialists suggested surgery that could fix the problem — but came with high risks. The Captain understood and accepted them.
“He told us, ‘What’s the worst thing that can happen to me? I’m 82, and if it happens, I’ll be with mom’” his son reported. “‘But I can’t live like this.’”
As he was being wheeled to the operating room, Don stopped the procession to give another son instructions: Darren should go out and order flowers for the wives of all The Captain’s three sons — “‘To thank them for all they’ve done for me,’” Dennis said, quoting his dad again. “And that was his dying wish.”
Sure, the The Captain loved fishing. But he loved his family more.