At Chris Baliban’s bait and tackle shops, two workers can cover the 9-to-5 shift.

But Baliban always has three people on the job when things really start hopping.

That’s from midnight to 4 a.m. on weekends.

That’s the real rhythm of 24-7 Bait & Tackle, which Baliban opened six years ago in Egg Harbor Township, then later in Marmora.

And those overnight shifts get jamming this time of year, when it’s striped bass fishing fans that get hooked.

New Jersey’s saltwater recreational fishing industry generated $1.7 billion in sales in 2013, the National Marine Fisheries Service estimates.

The executive director of the New Gretna-based Recreational Fishing Alliance knows much of that money is from people chasing two special species — summer flounder and striped bass.

The striper are the spring and fall bookends to the flat flounder, the catch of choice in summer.

On a recent weekday, alliance Executive Director Jim Dinofrio got reports from people on three boats who had luck catching striper that morning — even though the fish’s fall run got a late start in South Jersey.

“They were trolling bunker spoons. So they had to have special rods, special spoons. ... That’s all specialized equipment people are going to buy,” he said, adding that among other major fishing expenses, “You’re looking at boats, motors, charters, trailers” and more.

And while he couldn’t give a reliable estimate on what people spend on fishing just for striper in New Jersey, “We know it’s a multimillion-dollar business,” Donofrio said.

Baliban tries to catch his piece of the pie by running the most convenient bait shop he can.

In its spring-to-early-winter season, the Egg Harbor Township store, just outside Somers Point, is open 6 a.m. to midnight from Monday to Thursday, and the Marmora store closes at 6 p.m. those days

But when both stores open up for business Friday morning, they don’t lock their doors again until Sunday night meets Monday morning.

“You take the Philly market, nobody has to rush down to get their bait. They can get off work at 9 or 10 at night ... and get here when they get here,” Baliban says. “And word of mouth spreads pretty quickly in fishing.”

Colin Naumchik is a veteran of the fishing industry, even at 17.

He’s worked at tackle shops since 10, the last two for Baliban. Now a senior at Mainland Regional High School, he understands the seriousness of striper fever — he has it too.

So he knows that people going after striper at night aren’t just going because that’s a convenient time. They’re going because that’s the best time to catch a fish prized both for its fight on a line and its taste on a plate.

“These fish, they really turn on at night,” says Naumchik, who sees a lot of Pennsylvania license plates in the parking lot after dark.

But Baliban says many of his customers never see his parking lots. They call in orders for an offshore boat trip and have it delivered to their dock — if that dock is between Cape May and Long Beach Island, and they buy a minimum order.

And this is hardly the only fishing business that uses convenience as a selling point.

At Cape May Bait & Tackle, the owners can be home in bed and still making money — with a specially designed bait vending machine. Margie Orth says it works like a basic snack machine, only refrigerated.

“People just coming down on a whim have no problem getting salted clam or shucked clam out of the machine. We have squid strips, blood worms ... night crawlers” and more, she said, not all of it ideal for striper.

Plus at least a few local fishing-shop owners live upstairs from their stores, and say they’re willing to open their doors after hours for fishing emergencies.

At Surf City Bait and Tackle, Sue and John Castrati extend their normal hours for the striper runs. But a few years ago, they also let customers know they could call any time.

“There are times I just stop going to bed. ... You have to do what you have to do, and our main thing is customer service,” Sue Castrati says.

Robin Scott lives above Ray Scott’s Dock in Margate, where “I’ve been cooking dinner with the windows open and heard people yelling up, ‘We know you’re up there, Robin. We can smell your dinner,’” she says.

Some of those impatient types are looking to weigh in their prize catches in the annual Atlantic County Surf Fishing Derby — her shop was the headquarters. But if they just need bait, “We do a lot of honor-system stuff,” Scott said. “A lot of customers have my cell number, and if they won’t be here until later, I’ll put the bait out” and they can set up a way to pay her.

Much of that striper business was pushed back this year because the fish are running late. And just as fishing fans have a natural streak of optimism streak, fishing-shop owners can too.

Baliban closes his 24-Hour stores for winter, but he says that’s always a floating date. So if the striper stay open for business late, he wants to do the same.

“Maybe,” he said, “we’ll be fishing into January.”

Contact: 609-272-7237

Print Director

Press copy editor since 2006, copy desk chief since 2014. Masters in journalism from Temple University, 2006. My weekly comics blog, Wednesday Morning Quarterback, appears Wednesday mornings at PressofAC.com.

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