he Navesink River holds many memories for me. It is the place where I was introduced to fishing in the mid to late sixties by my grandfather, Pop, and Uncle Johnny, my grandmother's brother. Pop grew up and worked on a farm on Pershing Road in Clifton, originally owned by his father. Somehow, he met my grandmother who had spent a lot of time on the banks of the Navesink in Rumson. Over the years, this had become their favorite fishing grounds.
They first started taking me along when I was about five or six years old. I would get to sleep over at my grandparents' house on the couch. We would wake up at about 3 o'clock in the morning. There was something about those early summer mornings, a feeling like it was special for me to be up that early when the rest of the world was still asleep and the neighborhood was so quite. We always had a breakfast of shredded wheat, which I hated, fruit and orange juice. We would pack away the lunch my grandmother made the night before. This usually consisted of salami sandwiches with butter and lettuce, (Why butter on salami? My grandmother insisted that I loved it, even though I really hated it!) home-grown tomatoes and cucumbers, if we were lucky, fried chicken, and of course, a cooler full of beer for Johnny and Pop, and root beer, 7-UP, and ginger ale for me.
The farm had long since been sold to real estate developers, except for the parcel that my grandparents' house sat on. Pop worked at a wholesale florist in downtown Clifton, and we would always stop there and get crushed ice from their machine for our coolers. I always felt like we were being sneaky, going in there at 4:30 A.M. and filling our coolers with their ice. We would go on to Lodi and pick up Johnny, and then head down the Turnpike. The early morning odor of low tide in Secaucus will never leave me. Pop would say that it was because of all the pig farms that used to be there, but today I know better. As we passed the airport, went over the Raritan River, and onto Route 36, my excitement would start to grow.
We would always stop for bait at Julian's on Route 36 (boy, it took some real memory jogging to come up with that bait shop's name!), then head to Rumson over the draw bridge, to Paul's boats at the foot of the bridge. The boats they rented were all old wooden rowboats, which leaked like sieves. If you happened to drop your bait knife on the bottom, it would leak even more. Every one of them had an old milk jug with the top cut off for bailing. At that time, I think they charged about $15 for a full day without an outboard, so we couldn't complain. Pop would bring his little outboard that he was forever fixing and trying to get started. It did the job though, even if sometimes we had to row while he was trying to get it going.
We would leave the marina, make a right and go under the drawbridge, and then go to their treasured spot in the "old channel". They would count out eight bridge pilings, line up with the big maple tree on the east shore, and we were there. I guess at some point they found this hole, caught a whole lot of flounder, and always went back to the same exact spot year after year. I guess they didn't care that the tides were forever changing the river bottom; that was their hole, and that was where they fished.
Johnny would always bring some kind of exotic chum to help us along. Sometimes it was corn, sometimes rice, sometimes some silvery stuff which I never could identify. If it were rice, he would always congratulate the bride and groom as he threw it overboard. We almost always bottom fished with bloodworms, sandworms or squid, looking for flounder, blowfish, eels, snapper blues, weakfish or whatever else might come along. Pop would always talk about "the good old days" when they would get a lot of porgies. We usually made out pretty well. After pulling up an eel, it would get chased all over the boat, getting slime everywhere, until it was finally subdued and thrown into the well that held the anchor rope. Okay, so it wasn't really a well, just a compartment made by the board that acted as the front seat in the bow. I would always get a thrill of the blowfish inflating themselves, and the sandpaper belly they had when they were all puffed up.
When things would get slow, it was time for lunch. Pop had a theory that as soon as you got out your sandwich, cut up a tomato, and opened up your drink, the fish would start hitting like there was no tomorrow. Funny thing is, more times than not, he was right. Sandwich and drink would end up on the bottom of the boat, full of river water and eel slime, but the fish would come. Somehow, everything tasted better after that (except the damn butter on the salami). Otherwise, we would just watch the other boats go by, listen to the bell that rang every time the draw bridge went up or down, or take a nap until the fishing picked up again. Some times at low tide, we would pull anchor and head over to one of the sandy islands in hopes of finding some sand worms. Usually we would get there and Pop would realize he forgot to bring a shovel or a pitchfork for digging, so we made due with our hands or whatever.
Both Pop and Johnny loathed the hated bait stealer, the "Sollygrowl". These are ugly fish (I think related to a monkfish), which were six to eight inches long, all mouth and spiny bones. You could always tell when it was a Sollygrowl by the way that it hit and the fight it would give you. Pound for pound, the are probably the fiercest fighting fish in the river. And of course, with that big mouth, they were always gut hooked. Pop and Johnny would really butcher them, sometimes to get their hook back, but mostly I think, because they hated them so much. Johnny would always say when he was through with one of them "The operation was a success, but the patient died."
On one trip, a particularly warm day, Pop had decided to bring a burlap bag to put the fish we caught into, instead of throwing them into the bow well. He had tied it off over the side of the boat, being held just by a small screwdriver in the gunwale. We had done pretty well that day, and the bag was pretty full of fish. We had decided to either move or go dig some worms, so Pop started the outboard, Johnny pulled the anchor, and off we went. Only, we sort of forgot about that bag of fish. The line snapped, and suddenly there was a bag full of chum on the bottom of the river! We tried for close to an hour to snag that bag with our rods and big treble hooks, but unfortunately weren't successful. As you can imagine, there were quite a few frowns to go around. We did manage a few more fish, but the bulk of the day's effort was gone.
As luck would have it, another boat happened by, and the gentlemen on it had had a spectacular day with weaks and blues. They asked if we wanted any since they had so much, and we were more than happy to relieve them of some. Pop, being the joker he is, told the guys to "throw" them over so he could tell the women back home that we had "caught" them. Somehow, the lost bag of fish was soon forgotten. I don't know if he ever told my mother and grandmother the truth about how we caught them, but I never did! I think they were having enough of a problem believing the fish story of the lost burlap bag that was full.
At the end of the day, we would head back to the marina, and I was always a little sad that it was time to leave. We would pack the gear, fish, and crabs in the car (I think pop hated the blue claws as much as the Sollygrowls, but he would let me keep them because he knew how much I love them). At the marina they had a tank of "fresh" water to run the outboard in to get the salt out. I never quite understood that, because the water in that tank was the dirtiest, greasiest, slimiest water I'd ever seen. On the way home, we would usually stop at the Stewards Drive-in on Route 36 for a hot dog and some root beer. By the time we reached the Raritan River Bridge on the Parkway, I was sound asleep until the time we dropped Johnny off in Lodi.
Back at Pop's house, it was time to clean the fish. He had a big old apple tree and if we had any eels, he would hammer a nail through the head into the apple tree, slit the skin around its neck, and pull the skin off with a pair of pliers. He had a similar trick for the blowfish. All the guts and such would become fertilizer for his tomato plants. My grandmother would fry up the eels and blowfish, and my grandparents, mother, sister and I would have the best dinner of the entire summer.
As I became a teenager, baseball, girls and eventually a supermarket job and college all but wiped out my fishing time. I did manage to get back to the Navesink in 1979, but all had changed. The marina had different owners and new fiberglass boats, and the river had changed its topography. The spot that was the old channel was now no deeper than six inches. But the memories were still there.
In the early eighties, most of the family moved to Massachusetts and left the Jersey Shore behind. Pop is 84 now and is limited in the amount and places he is able to fish. He will come with me to Duxbury now and again, but his ability to stand and cast for long periods of time has diminished. I rarely get to see Uncle Johnny anymore, and don't know if he gets to the shore much, though his son John Roger spends a lot of time at Sandy Hook and Island Beach State Park. Myself, my love of fishing returned to me about eight years ago when I was introduced to the resurgence of the striped bass in Massachusetts waters. I even manage to get to Island Beach a few times a year. However, if it had not been for those days on the leaky rowboat in the Navesink River, I wouldn't know the joy of this great sport. Thanks, Pop and Uncle Johnny.