CAPE MAY - The biggest fish Dominic Petrocci has ever caught was a 23-inch striped bass he reeled in under the concrete bridge coming into town.
But after visiting the Mid-Atlantic $500,000 big-game fishing tournament this week, he is dreaming bigger - much bigger.
Petrocci, 11, of Delaware Avenue in Cape May, got to see the weigh-in of a 441-pound blue marlin during a visit to the Canyon Club during the richest marlin and tuna tournament in the world. He saw the multimillion-dollar boats in the tournament and learned all about the big marine engines used to get to the fishing grounds and the high-tech electronics that help find the fish. He even handled the reels, some costing $2,000.
"It's a little too big for him yet," said his fishing camp teacher Eleanor Bochenek as Petrocci handled one of the big Penn reels.
"You've got to start off with something," said Greg Jones, a Penn reels distributor at the tournament.
Petrocci, who has caught a striped bass and a weakfish, said his immediate fishing goal is to land a bluefish. Someday, though, he does want to land a big-game fish such as a blue marlin, tuna or white marlin.
"I probably will get one, if I ever get a boat," Petrocci said.
It was a lot to take in for a boy just learning how to fish. The weeklong fishing camp at the New Jersey Audubon Society's Nature Center of Cape May starts with the basics, such as tying knots and learning how to cast, but also includes a day of crabbing and a fishing excursion aboard a party boat.
Wednesday evening brought the 30 campers, ages 9 to 15, to the tournament, which pays out $500,000 in prize money but with side bets, called calcuttas, is expected to result in $1.8 million in payouts this week.
"These are how the big guys fish. It's not just fishing off the docks," Nature Center Director Gretchen Whitman told the campers as they arrived at the Canyon Club.
The tournament organizers want the young anglers to learn about their sport, which involves going far offshore to the canyons to catch the largest fish in the ocean.
"The goal is to turn these kids into tournament fishermen so someday they can buy boats and gear," tournament coordinator Mark Allen joked.
Actually, the truth is big-game fishermen love their sport and want to recruit others, especially the young. The visit made it clear that it is a pricy sport.
"If you guys become successful business people in the future, you can buy one of these boats," said Bill Brockelman, a dealer of Ransome Cat marine engines. Brockelman gave each of the campers a free hat.
The campers were impressed that a typical boat in the sport has the horsepower of 20 cars. They were more impressed that a single fish can bring thousands in prize money and sometimes more than $1 million at a Japanese fish market.
Some already were aware of the technology at work. Asked what powers the electronics and lights on a boat, Sean Galvan, 11, of Cape May Court House, chimed right in.
"A generator," said Galvan, later admitting that it was "just a wild guess."
For one 9-year-old girl, the camp changed her whole view of fish. Olivia Corrato said she is no longer scared of touching a fish. That's a very important start.
The class also came with a big dose of science. The campers spent one day tagging fish, and John Graves, a professor of marine science at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, spent an entire morning with them. Graves even did a necropsy on some of the fish weighed in at the Canyon Club to teach the children about their biology.
"The more they know about the animal, the better fishermen they will be," Graves said.
The lessons were big on conservation. Graves explained how using a certain type of hook will give a released fish a better chance to survive. Graves, who for more than two decades has used the Mid-Atlantic $500,000 to study large pelagic fish, said 95 percent of the catches here are released.
Graves said he was impressed with the questions the campers asked, since few had any experience with offshore fishing. Bochenek, the Rutgers University biologist who taught the class, said some had only fished in freshwater before the class but were now interested in marine science.
Some may go on to catch them, others to study them; either one brings its own rewards. Bochenek studies fish for a living, but her interest doesn't end there.
"I like to fish, too," she said.
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