The Ocean City Fishing Club is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year - a birthday that qualifies it as the oldest continuously operating fishing club in the United States - in all kinds of ways.
Last week the members helped open an exhibit on the club's century of history at an appropriate spot, the Ocean City Historical Museum. The centerpiece of the show is the proudest item in the fishing club's past, the Ocean City Cup. The trophy weighs in at 13-plus pounds of sterling silver and used to go to the winner of an annual casting tournament the club sponsored for years.
Earlier this month, the club also held a rare open house at its own historic home, the fishing pier off the Boardwalk at 14th Street. Two more open houses are scheduled this summer, including one from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday.
In October, the OCFC plans a surf-fishing tournament that leaders hope will draw 100 or more teams from up and down the East Coast to fish on Ocean City's beaches. That's less than a month after a planned Centennial Celebration Dinner, scheduled for Sept. 28 at another Ocean City institution with a long history, the Flanders Hotel.
Plus, the fishing club was recognized this year with what may be the ultimate Ocean City tribute: Every 2013 beach tag the town sells shows off the name, "OC Fishing Club," along with a small, stylized drawing of the pier.
There's more to the fishing club's 100th-birthday party, but mostly, the members plan to spend this anniversary year doing what drew them to the club in the first place, and what keeps many people going back for decades.
"Fishing," five active members said, almost in unison, as they sat around their simple clubhouse one afternoon this month.
"Fishing," two more veteran members said by phone, when they were asked what's the pier's big lure.
The people in this club take their fishing seriously - and apparently always have.
Tom Spaccarelli Sr. was recruited by an old member who saw Spaccarelli surf-casting on the beach more than 30 years ago, and thought the new blood could improve the club's casting teams. Now three generations of the family fish on the pier - Tom Jr. joined a few years after his dad, who also enjoys fishing with his five grandchildren and teaching them how to do it right.
"That's the best thing," Tom Sr. said. "I also take them out on the beach, and you get a lot more fish on the beach. But it's much safer on the pier."
Other longtime members, including the current president, Paul Keuerleber, say they had to pass a test of fishing skills to join - a test administered by longer-time members. Keurleber, who splits his time between homes in Ocean City and Hatboro, Pa., remembers that he had to show his skills to get in even if the end of the pier was high and dry at that point, after one of the city's beach-replenishment projects.
"In 1992, I joined and couldn't even fish, because they were working here," Keurleber said, with a small smile at the memory. "You could walk past the end of the pier and not get your feet wet."
But now the toughest test to become a member of the pier may be patience. In its bylaws, the fishing club's membership is limited to 190 people, and there's usually a waiting list to get in.
"It took me a year and a half," said George Ingram, of Ocean City, who finally did join in 2001, and is now an OCFC trustee.
Most current members definitely aren't rushing to leave the club.
"Probably half of our openings revolve around somebody's death," Keuerleber said.
Frank Pizzutilla, the membership chairman, estimated the current waiting time now is about two years - but adds that in 2012, 15 new members got in.
"That's an odd year," added Pizzutilla, a retired math teacher who lives in Ocean City and also is the piermaster, the head of the bait club and a trustee.
"Guys who live in town handle a lot of the things that have to be handled," he said, estimating only about 25 percent of the current members are full-time residents of the Ocean City area.
Don Rose remembers showing off his skills when he was invited to join the club - by an old-time member who was on the pier, spotted Rose strolling down the Boardwalk and called out to ask the passing stranger if he liked to fish. That was in 1985, after Rose had walked by the pier for probably 40 years and never thought about joining. His wife had deep summer roots in Ocean City, and Don started visiting the town about when they got married, in the 1940s.
He retired and moved to Ocean City in 1985, and he joined the club - even if he answered the fishing-club veteran's invitation honestly, and said he liked to hunt more than fish. Now he still does both, at age 93, and he's glad to have the pier and club in his life.
Rose still laughs as he remembers five "old guys who looked grouchy as hell" giving him his casting test. Rose passed it, but he got a stern warning from one of his judges:
"'You have to fish to join this club. If you don't fish, we don't want you,'" the guy told Rose, who has heeded those orders. He still tries to go out on the pier every day, and he fishes if the weather's decent. If not, he walks and socializes.
"Yeah, I'm one of those old, grouchy guys out there now," he said.
Bill Lundahl has been there longer than any other current member, since 1968. A friend invited him out to fish, and Lundahl managed to catch a few small ones - on a day when all the regulars were getting shut out.
That turned out to be his fishing test, and he's still a member 45 years later - even if he lives in Philadelphia. He's in Ocean City just a few weeks per year, but he spends most of his time in town out on the fishing pier.
"Fishing was the name of the game back in the '60s and '70s, and it's getting more back to fishing now," Lundahl said. "But there was a time when pinochle was probably as popular as fishing out there."
Margaret Feil made fishing-club history of her own when she joined in 2002 - because she was the first woman to become a full member. But she had fished there for years before that with her husband, Fred, a member since 1988.
She remembers that on Sunday mornings, "I'd go to church, and he'd go out and fish - so he'd have his services out there, and I'd have mine."
And she may have been just a guest at the time, but Margaret Feil remembers dark days from the fishing pier's history.
"After the Halloween storm in 1991, we found parts of the pier down at 36th Street" - 2-plus miles to the south.
Don Smedley, of Ocean City, is the fishing club's webmaster - sure, the club born in 1913 has a web site in 2013, oceancityfishingclub.com, and it includes a 6-minute pictorial on the pier's past. Smedley says that story was hardly an isolated incident.
"It's been damaged, it's been destroyed in storms," he said, with probably the worst one being the historic northeaster in March of 1962. "It's been extended" - now it stretches 635 feet off the Boardwalk out into the ocean.
"And a barge went through it," adds Margaret Feil, the club secretary - although the official history says that two barges actually sliced through the pier in that 1980 incident.
But each time, the club has rebuilt its home. And the members who love it considered themselves lucky last October when Hurricane Sandy did only minimal damage to the fishing pier - despite the fact that several of them heard devastating radio reports that the Ocean City Fishing Pier was knocked down in the storm. (That turned out to be the pier in Ocean City, Md. that was hit. It has since been repaired.)
The members of this Ocean City club have lots of history in their home - old trophies, old fishing rods, old memories. And then there are old pictures, including one in which the club's casting team, whose competitions used to be covered in The New York Times, were all properly dressed for their favorite sport. In 1918, that meant they wore bow ties and dark blazers.
The members don't dress that way to fish anymore, but they still consider their pier a special spot.
"There's a little mystique about joining this pier," as Pizzutilla puts it. "A lot of people walk by and wonder what's behind that gate."
And now, after a century of survival, the members of the country's oldest fishing club are happy to answer that question.
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