Sand in My Shoes: Ocean City Fishing Club marks centennial with massive surf tournament

Ocean City Fishing Club members Ben Werntz, of the Marmora section of Upper Township, left, and Mike Hayes, of Palmyra, walk the fishing pier at 14th Street in Ocean City. The fishing club will be sponsoring the club’s 100th-anniversary fishing tournament — with more than 40 teams — next week along the city’s beach.

The Ocean City Fishing Club has hosted lots of tournaments in its 100-year history. But the club has never held a tournament nearly as big as the one it's running over three days next week - to celebrate the fact that it now has 100 years of history behind it, which qualifies it as the country's oldest continuously operating fishing club.

At last count, the club's Centennial Surf Fishing Tournament had drawn 44 teams, with six people each, from as far away as North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland - although the organizers say they know of one surf fisherman from Idaho, of all places, who heard about their tournament and put together a team for it.

Still, no matter where they come from, all these teams should add up to at least 264 fishermen spread out over about 5 miles of beach - and chasing almost $20,000 worth of prizes - when the horn blows shortly after sunrise Friday to start the fishing. And the tournament is still accepting new teams, for any fishing fans out there who somehow didn't know about this competition until now. (For full details, see

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"I think it's the biggest surf-fishing tournament in New Jersey, ever," said Rich Hedenberg, of Galloway Township, a professional fishing-rod maker who will lead his Team CTS in the contest. The team is named for the New Zealand-based brand of surf-casting rods he uses as the blanks for his RH Custom Rods products.

Hedenberg says he enters a surf-fishing tournament somewhere on his home state's coastline almost every weekend of the summer and fall. And he's a veteran of the Cape Hatteras Anglers Club's fall tournament in North Carolina, an annual tradition that cuts off registrations at 120 teams. He has fished in that tournament for 30 years - even though he's just 40 - and he says this OCFC contest reminds him of Hatteras.

"Up here, this is like the first thing of its kind." said Hedenberg, who's also a sponsor of the Ocean City tournament.

But all those those lines won't hit the water off the town's beaches Friday until after most of a full day of tournament-related activities Thursday. They include registrations, planning and organizing meetings for different groups of judges, another meeting for the team captains, an informal welcome-to-town event for the teams at night, plus a morning casting contest for tournament competitors.

And long before those preliminaries will ever start, members of the OCFC were arranging all the logistics involved in putting together an ambitious tournament whose schedule also includes a Saturday-night banquet, a Friday-night fishing-tackle show with almost 40 exhibitors, a canned-food drive and several more side activities.

"This is more than a fishing tournament," says Augie Conte, a longtime club member who splits time between homes in Ocean City and Cherry Hill. "This is an event. And we're doing it in honor of all the people who came before us."

Mike Hayes, the tournament coordinator - and the son of a former OCFC president, the late Tom Hayes Sr. - said he had his first meeting with city officials about this tournament/event in October. That's October of 2011.

The town definitely needed to be on board for a two-day competition that would sprawl over so much of the beachfront, from just south of the fishing club's home pier on the Boardwalk at 14th Street all the way to the south end of the island, at 59th Street.

The club members had thought it would be a nice fit to draw 100 teams to their 100th-birthday fishing party, and although they won't hit that goal - they blame a weak national economy - they did get the city to approve beach-driving permits for three vehicles per team. And the teams all have to move around to four different places to fish along that sprawling stretch of beach, to make sure that no team gets lucky just by being assigned to the hottest spot of the weekend.

"The city outdid themselves," Conte added. "They said, 'We're going to help you with maintenance, we're going to help you with police'" - and his list goes on.

Hayes, another veteran of the Cape Hatteras tournament - he looks forward to being back there next month - agrees that he wanted to model the OCFC tournament on that 56-year-old magnet for fishermen on North Carolina's Outer Banks. So part of the setup process involves volunteers from the local club going out before the tournament and marking off 300-foot-long sections of beach that the teams will draw in a Thursday lottery.

And before that, the volunteers will break up those five miles of beach into equal-size quadrants, because each team is assigned to spend one of the four fishing sessions - they run Friday and Saturday morning and afternoon, three hours apiece - in each quadrant, again to avoid hot spots affecting the outcome.

The OCFC also used the team list from Hatteras to recruit people to its own tournament, adds Don Ladik, a part-time Ocean City resident who figures he sent out what "seems like 3,000 emails" over almost 18 months to help set up this tournament.

Ladik emailed 120-plus teams from Hatteras every few months, plus many more from North Jersey to New England. He also spent lots of time going after "fishing tackle dealers for prize donations," he said. "And I doubt that we missed any."

The club also recruited tackle makers and dealers to its Friday-night show, which is at the Ocean City Civic Center, just off the Boardwalk at 6th Street, and is open to the public at $3 per person.

Plus the Civic Center will host an awards banquet Saturday night, which is another whole logistical challenge. Ben Werntz, of Marmora, the tournament's food chairman and a past OCFC president, doesn't expect to know until Friday how many people plan to sit down at the banquet - but the club's best working guess is that the count will be about 200.

"The two caterers are working with me," Werntz said the other day, "because we're shooting from the hip."

There is more food involved over all three days. And then during and after the actual fishing sessions there's a whole lot to keep the judges busy - and probably about 50 judges to keep busy, Conte says, with 5 miles worth of beach, hundreds of competitors, and presumably many more fish than that to judge and measure and rule on and add up and convert into point values and then prize money.

Actually, there are so many jobs to keep so many volunteers running around for this three-day fish fest that there's one notable thing most OCFC members don't plan to do any of during the OCFC's biggest-ever competition.

They won't be fishing in their own birthday tournament, they say, because running the show will keep them way too busy.

Contact Martin DeAngelis:


If You Go

The Ocean City Fishing Club's Centennial Tournament includes a public Tackle Show

7 to 9 p.m. Friday at the Ocean City Civic Center, Sixth Street off the Boardwalk. Admission is $3 and refreshments are available.

The first competition of the tournament is a casting contest on the beach starting

9:30 a.m. Thursday. The casting is open only to those in the tournament, but spectators are welcome to watch competitors who are scheduled to include Ryan White, of Cape Hatteras, N.C., whose average cast is reportedly 725 feet. The best viewing spot is on the beach at 18th Street.

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