Escape to Long Beach Island

In the midst of the East Coast’s largest metro areas, a community of islanders relies on the water to feed their families and soothe their souls.

Clamming has held a long tradition on Long Beach Island, or LBI, in New Jersey.

Life along the New Jersey barrier island known as Long Beach Island is so distant from the pace of New York City and Philadelphia that it feels like another planet. The 18 miles of beach, dunes and breaking waves moves to the rhythms of tides, storms, surf and fish migrations. Once the summer tourists disappear, the off-season is like loosening the drag on life. Yet fishing continues to shape the island, as it has for generations.

“The community embraces fishing,” says Steve Palmer, who with his wife, Carole Ann, bought Jingles Bait and Tackle in North Beach Haven five years ago to live the fishing life and keep open a neighborhood mainstay of almost 50 years. “The last few years, we’ve had kingfish in the surf all summer. That’s great for families because it’s instant gratification for the kids.”

Anglers traversing LBI’s 18-mile stretch of shoreline are bound to run into some action. The fall run of striped bass is especially good for big fish.

“Penn Reels was founded right there in Philly, and they would test their gear off LBI,” says Capt. Karl Anderson, who is 60 and a native of Beach Haven on LBI. “The Penn Long Beach is one of the most iconic reels ever made.”

One can hear the excitement in Anderson’s voice as he talks about his early fishing grounds and the mark this area made on sport fishing. “It’s so historically significant,” says Anderson, who now lives in Florida and has captained fishing boats the world over. “Even before World War II, it had the largest charter fleet on the East Coast, and that didn’t count the small docks renting garveys.”

Unlike beach towns to the south that are easily connected to Philadelphia, or those to the north with a direct train line to the Big Apple, LBI is isolated. From the famed jetties of Barnegat Inlet to the 400-acre Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, there are no bridges connecting LBI to the other barrier islands. To the west, save for the waterfront towns, is mostly Pine Barrens, blanketed with pitch pine forests and ice-tea-colored tributaries. The centuries-old “Piney” communities endure along the cranberry bogs dotted with hunting cabins.

Islanders work the lands and waters to sustain their families and souls.

While the summer season’s flounder and bluefish keep lines tight, the LBI fishery is surprisingly diverse. “It’s the kind of place that offers so much opportunity inshore — weakfish, bonito, flounder and sea bass,” Anderson says. “That’s not even getting into the crabbing, clamming or that feeling you get throwing a plug at a sod bank and watching a striper just pile up on it.”

Driving the beach from one end to the other, anglers are bound to find fish worth casting to, and those looking to venture farther can choose from one of two inlets within 20 miles of each other that open this world to tuna, sharks and other offshore species.

The 13-week summer season, from Memorial Day to Labor Day, coincides with good fishing. “It may be a short window of the year, but within a half an hour, you can be into a multitude of species that you’d have to go to the Florida Keys to find,” Anderson says.

Harvesting shellfish takes muscle and commitment.

But LBI really comes into its own in the off-season. The end of summer brings a palpable feeling of relief for the locals. With money in the bank from pouring countless pints, servicing outboards or turning over rental units, the shift to the off-season is blissful for many residents. After September, the towns actually turn off the traffic lights. There’s no wait for a bowl of chowder. Temperatures and humidity ease. The pace slows, and the bite gets hot.

The main attraction shifts to migrating striped bass. While schoolies can be caught almost year-round, larger bass become the focus as the ocean cools and the fish move south. When the bite turns on, fishing cancels out just about everything else on the island. And if you can’t make time to fish, neighbors might leave a bag of fillets at your doorstep. It’s that kind of place.

Residents understand the importance of protecting the local habitat and marine resources. 

LBI has a long tradition of surf fishing. Turn-of-the century hotels catered to families of sportsmen who traveled to the island to hunt and fish. “In the early ’70s, I attended a Saltwater Flyrodders of America event held at the Coast Guard station on the northernmost end of LBI. They paired visiting fly fishermen with club members who had four-wheel-drive buggies and beach access,” says Bob Popovics, a respected pioneer of saltwater fly-fishing. “I quickly found out the versatility of this seascape. You had Barnegat Inlet on the north side and Holgate on the southern tip to Beach Haven Inlet, with the Atlantic Ocean kissing it’s white, sandy beaches. And most importantly, the hideaway of beautiful Barnegat Bay on the west side. Fishing was dependable and varied. From the shrimpers on the rock jetties, to the waders of the surf and bay, it offered much to all who came. It really was and is a jewel of the coast.”

Beachfront action is mostly overshadowed by Island Beach State Park to the north these days, and has been impacted by beach replenishment that buried the jetties. Yet there are fish pulled out of the suds by locals who ride bikes up the street holding a bucket of clams and a rod, or those who patrol the sands with four-wheelers after September. “We sell surf clams and fresh bunker to people who take their trucks up on the beach and fish all day,” says Palmer, the tackle shop owner. “November and December are prime for those slot fish. We see those same faces all through bass season.”

LBI was founded on the “independent spirit of hard work and the opportunity that fishing provided.”

New Jersey governs striped bass catches using a slot length of 28 to 38 inches. “We don’t always hear about the cows they catch now because they’re not getting weighed,” Palmer says. “Those fishermen want to get that big fish back in the water as soon as possible, and those guys aren’t posting photos.”

The increasingly developed island is no more than five blocks wide. About 10,000 people live on LBI year-round, but in the summer, humanity explodes tenfold. Even with an influx of tourists, LBI remains a community based on its waterways. Many who make their living from the water use a garvey, the flat-bottom workboat traditionally built of cedar. Beautiful and functional, the simple boats have changed little since the 1700s, though modern versions are made of fiberglass.

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Viking Village and Lighthouse Marina are home to a commercial fishing operation known for its red-hulled longliners, draggers and scallop boats. The fleet is a point of pride among the community, and these vessels fish from just off the beaches to well offshore. “There are 34 commercial boats out of Viking Village, and another 10 out of Lighthouse Marina. So everyone pretty much knows everyone,” says 59-year-old Kevin Wark, a third-generation fisherman and captain of the Dana Christine, a 46-foot Mussel Ridge Down East-style commercial boat.

The fleet of commercial vessels at Viking Village.

Growing up on LBI, Wark started clamming for his grandfather when he was 11 years old. He would also catch and sell minnows and crabs. “You had a clam bucket and a surfboard — that was all you needed,” he says with a laugh. “This place was founded on that independent spirit of hard work and the opportunity that fishing provided.”

Wark has fished for flounder, Spanish mackerel, weakfish, shad, bluefish, menhaden, tilefish, whiting and even sturgeon. In addition to harvesting, he takes part in research work, prompted in part by the decline of fisheries. He’s encouraged by the tuna numbers of late, but he recognizes the challenges that the local boats face from climate change, foreign vessels and regulations. He’s one of those rare fishermen who is trusted by both the commercial captains and NOAA as a go-between. “If we don’t support the small, independent docks like this, they’ll be developed into something else, and they won’t come back,” he says. “That’s why it’s important to keep celebrating the history and culture.”

Restoration programs aim to bring back the once-booming harvest that sustained generations.

One of the most unmistakable landmarks in the area is Barnegat Lighthouse, or “Ol’ Barney,” which was built in 1859 and renovated in 2022. It remains a beacon for captains and an icon of the inlet that gives LBI and bayfront communities easy access to the Atlantic. From here, boats can run to nearby lumps and wrecks as close as 30 miles, or out to the famed Hudson Canyon 100 miles due east. Since the “new” Barnegat Inlet south jetty was built in the early 1990s, sand has accumulated here, creating a secondary dune system. At the northernmost point, near Barnegat Light, it’s a long walk to the water, but the meandering trails are worth the effort for beachcombers and surfcasters after Labor Day, when the goldenrod turns the dunes into a brilliant blonde full of monarch butterflies.

The rich, 600 square-mile Barnegat Bay watershed — the interconnected Barnegat and Little Egg Harbor bays — is the heart of LBI. The watershed has provided food, jobs and recreation dating back to the native Lenape people. These waters held an abundance of shellfish for generations, but unchecked development and destruction of wetlands has caused declines. Fortunately, the bay has gone through a rebirth fueled by a mix of awareness and policy change, resulting in a healthier ecosystem. Those who work the water understand that giving back to the bay is as important as taking from it.

Blue crabs are a local favorite.

Dale Parsons, who is 45 and a born-and-bred Tuckerton Creek bayman, has become a conduit between the scientific community and the watermen. Parsons’ ancestors made their living harvesting, buying and selling shellfish. Today, he is a direct link between the bay and academia. Parsons works with marine experts to restore critically depleted habitat but still breaks ice in the winter to launch his garvey.

“Since my childhood, I was inexorably drawn to this culture of men who had intimate knowledge of the bay,” he says. “They knew it better than their own backyards. It was more than an occupation; the work was their passion.”

Tuckerton, known locally as Clam Town, is a small township settled in the 1600s. Before a railroad bridge was built some 10 miles to the north, from Stafford Township to LBI, Tuckerton was the main connection to the island. Protected and with good access to Little Egg Inlet, Tuckerton has a rich history of farming, shipbuilding, clamming and oystering.

“Over the generations, that passion and the grueling work formed a deep local bayman culture,” Parsons says. “From their handcrafted garveys — which were works not only of function, but art — to their ability to instantly recognize the size difference between a top-neck, cherrystone, regular or chowder [clams], they were truly a breed of their own.”

Surf fishing became popular in LBI at the turn of the century and continues to keep angles busy though many anglers have shifted their focus to Long Beach Island State Park.

Parsons has witnessed wild clam recruitment, or sets, begin to fall off, along with the culture of hardworking baymen. So for the first time in company history, Parsons Seafood spawned its own clams at a hatchery on the bay in Tuckerton. “It’s about my family’s long-running commitment to sustainable stewardship of Barnegat Bay and shellfish farming practices that embody our century-long tradition of providing work for the baymen who have dedicated their lives to this,” Parsons says. Superstorm Sandy sidelined that vision when it made a bullseye landing at the hatchery in 2012. With the operation swallowed by the sea, Parsons was forced to start over.

While there were still clams in the bay, wild oysters had long been wiped out by disease that resulted from companies unwittingly importing infected oyster seed. Farming them in the area was generally frowned upon, even mocked, as Parsons remembers. Regardless, he never abandoned his oyster reef vision. “After years of searching, I finally found a group of people who believed in my vision of oyster reef restoration,” he says.

Parsons partnered with marine biologists from Stockton and Rutgers universities, and in 2016 the first disease-resistant oyster reef was deployed in southern Barnegat Bay. The watershed is now home to multiple oyster farmers and shellfish restoration programs, all of which are contributing to a healthier bay, which has brought back other species. Parsons continues to harvest and sell clams at his retail business as his aquaculture enterprise grows. Each year, his nursery attaches oyster larvae to 8,000 bushels of recycled shells, which are then deployed to reef sites in the bay.

“Things have improved over the last 10 years for the bay, especially in that we are seeing more natural-set oysters around. But there are a lot of factors to consider,” says Steve Evert, a Beach Haven resident and director of the Stockton University Field Station. Evert is also a charter-boat mate and spends much of his time chasing inshore fish and fowl. He sees good signs as an angler, but his scientific tendencies won’t allow him to draw direct conclusions.

As students bring reef samples to the research vessel, their haul includes shells, wild oysters, red bearded sponge and a whole garden of growth. Looking it over on a blue October morning, Evert muses, “I want to see people start fishing this habitat for blowfish and fluke. I have to imagine there would be drum on it in the spring. If we’re going to counter the impact of development, there isn’t one simple fix. But in the long run, the reefs will benefit the fish and wildfowl to a measurable level.”