By John Burton
ATLANTIC HIGHLANDS – It can be hard work and long days helping people catch fish for pleasure. But those who do it wouldn’t have it any other way.
Eight party boats set sail daily from the municipal harbor in Atlantic Highlands offering four-and-a-half hour or longer trips. Old salts to complete novices board the boats to try their hand at catching what’s available in local waters.
“Some folks know what they’re doing, some don’t,” said Tom Buban, captain of Atlantic Star. “Those who don’t, you try to show ’em.”
Kevin Bradshaw captains the Dorothy B., a 60-foot craft, almost every day out of Atlantic Highlands. “I love catching fish and I love helping people catch fish,” he said.
Both men, long experienced in operating fishing boats referred to as “head boats” because they charge by the head for passengers, work in a competitive but congenial business, taking care of clients for comparable prices.
“They really do add to the character of the town and the harbor,” and have been part of the character for generations, Atlantic Highlands Mayor Frederick J. Rast III said.
The borough-owned and operated harbor welcomes the party boat business while many marinas concentrate on privately-owned pleasure craft, Rast said. “At least here, people who can’t necessarily own a boat have a great opportunity to go fishing with their kids and grandkids, and have a great day out on the water.”
It’s a tough business with many of the boat owners “just trying to scrape out a living,” Rast said.
“It’s a fun business. That’s why I stay in it,” said Bradshaw as he prepared to shove off for his afternoon sail.
Buban’s Atlantic Star is a 73-foot Lydia Yacht, built in 1977. He has owned and operated the business for 20 years.
A borough resident, Buban, 63, has been a licensed captain for more than 40 years, and has worked on and around boats most of his life.
“Most of the guys who do this started as a deckhand,” he said. He is no exception. He began working on boats in Belmar as a teenager before enlisting in the U.S. Coast Guard in 1969. Four years later he left the service and started running party fishing boats.
The party boats operate from late March-early April and, in the ***ITAL**Atlantic Star***END**’s case, continue until the Sunday after New Year’s Day. “Then I go away and go fishing” for part of the winter, Buban said.
From Atlantic Highlands he runs two trips a day, seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 1:30 to 6 p.m. His rates are $42 per person; $37 for seniors 65 and older; and $27 for children under 12. Fishing rods can be rented for $5 and rigs for $2. Bait is provided. Cold soft drinks and light package snacks are available for a fee.
Buban has a crew of three with two mates on board for each trip.
“It’s about service, service, service,” mate Joe Troiano said about his job.
He and the other mates make most of their money in tips. The crew offers whatever assistance customers need, including baiting hooks, netting catches, unhooking fish, throwing back undersized catches as well as filleting fish that are caught to be kept.
“It’s a good day but a hard day,” Troiano said of his summer runs. Days can last from 6 a.m. to as late as 7:30 or 8 p.m. because, once they return to dock they have to clean and hose the boat and prepare it for the next day – “make everything pretty,” as Troiano said. “Safety and service are the main concerns here.”
Most of the year Troiano works as a teacher in the Elizabeth school district. He’s been working on fishing boats for about 20 summers, noting that he loves to fish. But then, “I think every deckhand down here loves to fish,” he said.
Certainly that’s the case for Rich Silvani, Troiano’s fellow mate. Silvani has worked with Buban for 17 years as a full-time, year-round employee. “I’m the maintenance guy in the winter,” he said.
Silvani was an electrician for 13 years. “I spent everything I made going fishing … Eventually, I hung up my pliers,” he said, and returned to what he loves.
“What’s not to love?” he said. “You’re out on the water, in the sunshine, in nature.”
Different times of the year mean different fish are running. Right now it’s fluke season.
Earlier this week Buban took his boat out about 2½ miles into Sandy Hook Bay before his 30 customers began casting on the hazy, warm morning.
Finding fish is all “about the drifting conditions,” he said. That involves the wind and current, and how the boat drifts in it. Buban relies on his crew and his experience to locate the best spots.
“You want people to catch fish,” he said, adding, “they don’t always.”
“It’s the luck of the draw,” Silvani said.
That seemed the case on Monday, Aug. 4, as the fluke weren’t biting. Customers were catching small sand sharks and skate, which look like stingrays. Those were thrown back as were most of the fluke caught that morning because they were too small.
Fluke are returned to sea when they fail to meet the minimum 18-inch length required by the state Department of Fish and Game. “The last couple of days we caught a lot of short fish,” Buban said.
He chafes some state and federal regulations that impact his business and his customers’ fun. Last year the minimum length was 17½ inches. A number of fish caught Monday could have been kept had the rule not been changed, he said.
State and federal regulations along with the weather are the biggest issues affecting this type of business, Buban said. Like other seasonal businesses, “we’re held hostage by the weather.”
But weather wasn’t a factor on Monday when people, young and old, seemed to revel in the day.
“I love the fresh air. I love the sea,” said Bill Chanley of Westfield. The 64-year-old said he’s been “coming down here” since he was 8. He tries to go fishing every couple of weeks in the summer. “It’s relaxing, a good time every time.”
Bob Kilijanski of Woodbridge also has been fishing since he was a boy. “A bad day of fishing is still better than a good day at work,” he said.
“This has been fun,” said Susan Grams, a Wisconsin resident on vacation and visiting her parents in Long Branch. She brought her 17-year-old son, Matthew, to let him try saltwater fishing. “I did catch a short one. That was kind of neat,” she said. “I’ll do this again and I think I’ll bring my (14-year-old) daughter.”
“It’s a tough way to make a living but I don’t know anything else,” said Bradshaw, citing the regulations that vex Buban and the high overhead costs.
Bradshaw, 69, is the third generation of recreational fishing captains. His grandfather, a painter in the 1920s, got lead poisoning from inhaling paint. He needed to get out and get fresh air to recover. That led to him buy a boat and he began operating a charter out of Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn.
“I do love the water and I love being around people,” he said. “So it’s good for me.”
“They’re good men, trying to make a living and living their lives doing what they love to do,” Rast offered as a coda for these individuals and their way of life.