- The Washington Times - Friday, September 2, 2005

SOMERS POINT, N.J. — Backing the 45-foot pontoon boat out of its slip and onto fog-shrouded Great Egg Harbor Bay, Duke O’ Fluke skipper Brook Koeneke heads out for another fishing trip. Around him, his passengers have their poles at the ready.

John Weber, 66, has brought his grandsons Joe Mirenda, 10, and Steven Mirenda, 12. “We have a summer place at a campground, and they’re staying with us,” he says. “We’re doing grandkid things.”

John Folz, a regular, is also on board for the four-hour trip, which he prefers to fishing on his own boat. “You can fish. You don’t have to worry about drifting or cleaning the boat,” says Mr. Folz, a 37-year-old contractor from Richboro, Pa.

The Duke O’ Fluke is one of a half-dozen Atlantic City-area party boats that offer fishing trips, charters and nature cruises on the back bays. The excursions attract vacationing tourists looking to spice up their week at the shore, serious fishermen who like the laid-back atmosphere of the boat, and landlubbers who need help with everything, from baiting their hooks to reeling in their catch. Similar fishing excursions are offered in many waterfront communities around the country, a big draw for anglers of every variety.

B.J. Matthews is another regular on the Duke O’ Fluke. Once a week, he chooses the big rectangular boat over a deep-sea expedition or a solitary session surf casting from the beach that’s a block from his nearby Ocean City home.

“It’s not the fishing, it’s the fun,” says Mr. Matthews, 61, a retired pipe fitter. “You just always have a good time. … If you don’t catch anything worth keeping, it doesn’t matter.”

As the trip progresses, Mr. Koeneke and first mate Michael “Ponytail Mike” Mulveen dole out helpful hints, gutting services and good-natured gibes. Mr. Mulveen, 51, combines the gruff facade of an old sea salt with the patience and intuition of a schoolteacher.

He tends to the fishermen who stand elbow-to-elbow along the rails, untangling lines, baiting hooks, netting fish; Mr. Koeneke — a former accountant and contractor who bought the boat 11 years ago — pilots it and scopes out the spots where the fish might be biting.

“It’s a great opportunity for a family,” Mr. Koeneke says, standing at the helm, his long gray hair pulled tight under a Duke O’ Fluke baseball cap. “You don’t get killed like you do on the boardwalk, going home with a deflated wallet. People say, ‘We’ve never done this before; can you help us?’ Sure. We love that.”

On this day, there are 36 aboard, many of them vacationers from Ocean City, N.J., some on the Duke for the first time.

As the boat pulls away from the dock just after 8 a.m., Mr. Mulveen explains the rules: No illegal drugs, no jumping overboard, $50 charge for lost reels, and when you feel a tug on your line, yell “Fish on.”

Then comes the important part: “We have a pool on this boat. It’s three dollars each. If you catch the heaviest legal fish, you win the pool,” he says, walking around the boat collecting tickets and pool money as the boat accelerates into open water.

It’s length, not weight, that decides what gets kept and what gets tossed back. By state regulation, a flounder must be 161/2 inches long to be kept.

“Fish on.”

The call comes from Vince Voiro, 55, a tractor-trailer driver from Maple Shade, fishing from his spot near the stern. Mr. Mulveen rushes to his side, stands on the bench, reaches over Mr. Voiro’s shoulder, grabs the fishing line with one hand and lowers a fat, squirming bluefish into the long-handled fishing net he’s holding with the other hand.

“Being that Vince is in the pool, we’ll weigh this thing,” he says, taking it to the bait table and using a hand-held scale. “It’s two pounds.”

He guts it, wraps the filet and throws the remnants —the rack — into a bucket under the bait table.

Waiting for the next fish, he walks around the boat, checking to see how the newcomers are doing.

“See how your handle’s all backed up? That’s not the way to do it,” he tells a young boy, moving the boy’s hands down toward the butt end of the rod.

Minutes later, he’s cracking wise, teasing, reminding people to use their sunscreen. He sneaks up behind one young man and wiggles the handle of his rod. The man fastens his grip on the pole and yells, “Fish on.”

Mr. Mulveen laughs, and the man turns around to see it was him making the rod shake.

Up at the helm, Mr. Koeneke smiles. “He’s good with kids, good with adults, quick with a snappy line, and he senses it when someone’s in trouble, even before they know it,” he says of his mate.

By trip’s end, the Duke O’ Fluke has a half-dozen keepers, three dozen content fishermen and one pool winner.

“Let’s hear it for Vince,” Mr. Mulveen yells to the bunch as the boat eases into the slip. “He won that money fair and square — with a crappy bluefish.”

• • •

The Duke O’ Fluke sails from Higbee Avenue in Somers Point, N.J.; www.dukeofluke.com or 609/926-2280. Fishing trips weekends through mid- to late October for flounder, bluefish, sea bass and weakfish. Adults $19; seniors $14; children 12 and younger $12; rod rentals $3. Charters available as well.

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