Fish America Fireworks

New Jersey's like your best friend who busts your nose fooling around, then tells you to suck it up while buying you a beer that he needs to borrow money for. You're laughing while you're eyes are watering, and somehow you like him more, and you don't know why.

New Jersey is a weird sort of dirty-beautiful place that you always come back to, without ever being able to explain it. I've been fortunate enough to travel to Dublin, Paris and Spain, and from Key West to Canada. But in the end, I'll take Jersey. It has a stubborn pride that is endearing. No one is ambivalent toward New Jersey. Emotions polarize around the Garden State. I don't even really think people love it or hate it, although they'll claim to. You can just relate to it, or you can't.

So I was disappointed, albeit not surprised, when for six of the seven days I spent in my favorite state, I got shut out. That's putting it mildly. I felt like I'd spent 10 rounds with a heavyweight. In New Jersey alone, I was hindered by a seasick passenger that needed dry land (no names), an impenetrable wall of fog that refused to lift and turned a trip around, a faulty fuel line, a broken leader that resulted in a lost Delaware River striper and the always-frustrating beautiful, perfect, absolutely fishless day on the bluefin grounds. In fact, the only way I found to catch fish in Jersey for the first six days was to go to Connecticut.

But if New Jersey just kicked you in the head and held the door open while you crawled out, you'd never come back to the boardwalk. On the seventh day, I managed to steal one last space on a boat with Jersey legend Al Ristori. When the outboard wouldn't cooperate right outside the marina, I thought it was a fitting end to a frustrating week. But somehow, we borrowed a boat and got back on the water.

By July 4 the striper migration is all but dried up along the Jersey coast. The fish have moved northward to summering grounds from Cape Cod to Maine, and the daytime fishing is slow at best. But Al, his son Mike, their friend Dominick and Captain Hans and I bailed striped bass from 10 to 40 pounds off Sandy Hook all day on the 4th. There were double- and triple hook-ups. A drag was almost always sizzling. The cooler was full of fish, and we actually had to leave them biting.

Why? It's Jersey. I'll be back.