Published in the Asbury Park Press 8/22/02
By KAREN E. WALL
CAPE MAY -- You only have to listen to Dave Bender for a couple of minutes to know
he's a coach.
CAPE MAY … ""C'mon, Shawn: You rest, he rests,'' Bender yells down from the bridge
of the Jenny Lee, which is competing in the Mid-Atlantic $500,000 marlin tournament
this week. ""There you go. Get your back into it.""
It's 4 a.m. and there's very little on as the crews prepare for the day's fishing.
The cockpit lights of the Jenny Lee are jarring in the darkness. Mates Nick Mills of
Manasquan and Rick Petschauer of Belmar are testing the drag on one rod, checking
to be sure everything is set. Captain Dave Bender, who lives in Flemington most of
the year but has a home in Brielle, steps out from the salon (cabin) and welcomes
Photographer Dave May and I hand over our belongings … computers, cameras and
food for the day's trip … and Petschauer stows it in the salon. As we await the arrival
of Shawn Melnar and Jim Freemyer, who chartered the Jenny Lee for the
tournament, Petschauer asks where we're going to fish. ""That's his call,"" Bender
As the time approaches 4:30 a.m. with no sign of Melnar and Freemyer, Bender asks
Petschauer, ""Do they know we're fishing today?''
""I haven't talked to them since last night,"" Petschauer replies.
It's warm and humid already at this hour, but it's hard to decide which is thicker …
the humidity or the tension Bender is feeling.
""I feel enough pressure already,"" he says as he checks his watch again.
Finally, Melnar and Freemyer arrive, and after a short discussion to decide where
we're headed, Bender fires up the engine, and we pull away from the dock.
As we motor out of Cape May Inlet, Freemyer and Melnar begin discussing who'll
take the first turn trying to land a fish. ""I hate going first,"" Melnar says after it's
decided he will be the one. ""It's too much pressure.""
We're still more than an hour from sunrise, and all you can see is a steady string of
green and red running lights of boats ahead of us and behind us, streaming out of
the inlet for locations from the Lindenkohl Canyon to the Washington Canyon.
Everyone is nervous. The offshore reports aren't very promising. While the weather
is supposed to be nice, the flow of the Gulf Stream has changed dramatically in the
days leading up to the tournament, and as a result, fishing has been horrible.
""We heard a bunch of guys went to the Hudson Canyon over the weekend and came
back with barely any fish,"" Bender says in a discouraged tone.
With a three-hour ride to the area called Poorman's Canyon ahead of us, everyone
settles in … some for naps, some reading books.
Melnar, 35, of Park Ridge, and Freemyer, 48, of Mendham, chartered the Jenny Lee
with the support of the computer company they work for, Sirius Computer Solutions.
Melnar, who's originally from the Houston area and grew up fishing in the Gulf of
Mexico, has been wanting to fish in this tournament for a few years. Freemyer has
made a couple of offshore trips previously. This trip is also a customer rewards trip,
as two of their best customers will be aboard the boat later in the week.
""It's the marquee tournament of the summer,"" Melnar says, ""because of the level
of competition and the kind of fish you go after.""
""The Super Bowl,"" Freemyer says.
""Yeah, the Super Bowl,"" Melnar echoes.
It's almost 8:30 a.m., and we're now 80 miles out at sea, but the humidity levels are
just as high as if we were on land. The tension is high as well, as Mills and
Petschauer attach hooks they'd baited the night before to the rods filling the rod
holders around the boat, looking like the needles of a porcupine sticking up in the
air. Bender lowers the outriggers in preparation for putting the baits and lures in the
""It's 8:30 on this watch,'' Mills says, as Bender awaits the official call over the radio
to put the lines in the water.
As the radio crackles with the announcement, Bender hollers, ""Put 'em in!'' and Mills
and Petschauer begin dropping the lines in the water. Some have ballyhoo, a baitfish
that is one of the white marlin's mainstay foods, on them. Others have artificial
We're still moving through the water, at 6 or 7 knots. This is a trolling tournament,
meaning the way you catch the fish is by dragging the baits through the water.
You're not allowed to anchor and use chum … chunks of bait … to attract the fish.
There's no conversation … the only sounds on the boat are from the New York radio
station Bender has tuned in via satellite and the rumble of the engine as we slowly
cruise through the area Melnar and Bender settled on.
At 9:05, there's a report by a boat of releasing a white marlin too small to qualify for
the biggest-fish prize, the first report of the morning. We make a sharp turn, and
Bender says to Mills, ""I read (on fish-finding gear) one down about a buck and a
quarter (125 fathoms below the surface); that's why I spun on it.''
On the radio, more reports of releases filter in. But there's also chatter from other
boats about how there's nothing to be found. The water where we are is a deep blue
… the color of the Hope Diamond. But not everyone has found such clean water.
""It looks like I'm in Barnegat Bay,'' one captain says of the dirty green water he's
in. Marlin tend to prefer the clear blue water. But we're having a hard time finding
any. Mills and Petschauer check the hooks baited with ballyhoo to see how they're
holding up. ""They're looking great,'' Mills says. ""I'm about ready to jump in and
grab one myself.''
Finally, at 10:30 a.m., we get a break. ""Something's up,'' Bender hollers as Mills
and Melnar dash for the rod bending toward the water. But the relief at seeing a
white marlin at last melts away as the fish pulls free of the hook.
""This is an anaerobic sport,'' Bender says. ""It's like baseball: You stand there in
right field daydreaming and then someone hits you the ball.''
Bender coaches two sports at Hunterdon Central High School … wrestling in the
winter and softball in the spring, perennially two of the best teams in the state in
their sports. True to his coaching roots, Bender begins dissecting what went wrong
on that hookup and correcting problems for the next time. ""Tell him to keep
cranking (the reel),'' Bender tells Mills. ""Tell him how before we lose a good fish.''
But he also blames himself. ""I shouldn't have put it in neutral so soon.''
We go back to watching the water for signs of marlin. The waiting is hard on
everyone, but on Bender most of all, who asks Petschauer to bring him some Advil
and his open Gatorade.
""I really need them,'' Bender says.
""I heard a guy say he went to the Wilmington (Canyon) and is now in the Baltimore,
and hasn't had a bite all day,'' Bender tells Melnar as we sit on the bridge. ""It's a
shame, really. This is the premier tournament every year and to have the water
disappear is unbelievable.''
It's almost noon, and though there've been a couple of dozen reports of white marlin
released, just two have been boated all day. The frustration is growing on all the
boats, evidenced by the chatter on the radio.
We've been trolling other areas, and Bender turns the Jenny Lee back to the area
where the white marlin bit before. At the same time, he's already discussing with
Mills the next day's strategy, which lures they'll use and what baits.
Everyone jumps to attention as another white marlin surfaces, but this one doesn't
take any of the bait.
""He didn't bite one thing, but he had his mouth open,'' Mills says.
A few minutes later, we get the bite we've been waiting for all day.
The head of a marlin breaks the surface, and everyone springs to action. Mills grabs
a rod and puts the lure right in front of the fish, which chomps on it and disappears
beneath the surface.
""Is he hooked?'' Bender hollers. ""He's hooked, he's on,'' Mills says.
The fish dives deep, taking dozens of yards of line off the reel.
""He's (peeved), he's still screaming line,'' Bender says, then hollers to Melnar,
""keep a bend in the rod.''
Melnar is in the fighting chair, straining against the rod, holding on tightly as the fish
pulls away from the boat.
The tension is gone now, and everyone is cracking jokes. The coach in Bender comes
through as he alternately teases and encourages Melnar.
""Maybe we'll bore him to death,'' Bender yells as Melnar pulls back on the rod.
As the minutes begin to add up, Freemyer offers Melnar Gatorade and Mills towels
him off. The heat and humidity are oppressive, and they're taking their toll on Melnar
as much as the fish is.
""There's blood on the chair, who's bleeding?'' Bender yells, seeing a few drops on
the arm of the chair. ""The ballyhoo,'' Mills responds. Baits, still on their leaders,
have been pulled inside the boat. A few of the ballyhoo have chunks bitten out of
""He bit all three? What a pig,'' Bender says, then goes back to encouraging Melnar.
""Don't pull it over your head, short-stroke him,'' he says.
Bender has been coaching at Hunterdon Central for 15 years, nine years on the
varsity level. To the uneducated listener, he sounds like he's really being rough on
his angler, but between comments that many would consider cutting are the
encouragements and instructions that bring out the best in athletes.
""C'mon Shawn,'' he says. ""Crank even if you only get an inch at a time.''
Mills reports there's about 75 feet left to the leader. If Melnar can reel the fish in
close enough for Mills to touch the leader, that counts as a catch … even if they are
unable to get the fish in the boat.
Melnar reels hard, pulling the fish closer to the boat.
""You're getting him now,'' Bender says. Melnar's been at it for 45 minutes and he's
looking fatigued. ""This guy's not going to fade,'' Bender says. ""He's been waiting
six months for this.''
Fifteen minutes later, it's over. The fish … a blue marlin … suddenly turns toward the
boat, shakes the hook out and disappears. We never got a good look at it.
The disappointment is heavier than the air, and no one quite knows what to say.
We fish for a couple more hours, but everyone is pretty downhearted about the blue
Bender keeps going over what happened, trying to figure out what went wrong, what
they could have done differently.
""I gotta use more glue on those hooks,'' he tells a friend who's called to give him
some tips on where fish are biting. The disappointment is heavy in his voice as he
tells the tale of the blue marlin.
""It's part of the game,'' says Mills, 20.
""I had us backing into the scale, figuring out what (other boats) I was gonna hit on
the way in,'' Bender says, joking with Mills and Melnar.
""There's going to be probably 30 guys at the dock who didn't even get a bite,'' Mills
reminds him. The chatter on the radio bears this out, as much of the discussion
centers on how bad the fishing has been.
The time nears the end of fishing for the day … 3:30 p.m. … with Bender still trolling,
""My softball team lost by a run to East Brunswick in the state semifinals,'' says
Bender, who turns 47 in two weeks. ""It took me eight months to get over that. This
doesn't even compare.
""It was very hard, especially because we were leading 2-0 going into the seventh
inning. It was one of the best teams I've ever had. I was very close to that team.
""That one hurt.''
""Is it over?'' comes the sound of a disheartened captain over the radio.
Less than 10 minutes remains, and there's a spurt of activity as boats report
hookups before time expires.
""Committee boat, committee boat, this is Boat 57, we're hooked up,'' comes a
report. ""Boat 57, hooked up at 3:29,'' responds the committee boat. A minute later,
the call comes to pull lines. For everyone but boat 57, the day's fishing is done.
Bender opens up the throttle toward the inlet. We're 80 miles away. It's going to be
a long ride home.
Bender's trying to maintain a sense of humor. He cranks up the radio, searching the
stations for something to listen to. He pauses on a rap-dance station and turns it up
really loud, dancing to the beat and looking at Mills, who's rigging baits below, to see
if he's reacting to the music.
No reaction, so he switches to a Latin music station. Still no reaction from Mills,
though others of us are chuckling.
But Bender looks as though the day's taken a lot out of him, and with plans to fish
the next day, he's gearing up for a short evening.
As we arrive at the dock, sons of a friend of Bender's are waiting at the end of the
""Did you catch anything?'' one of the boys asks Freemyer, who tells him about the
blue marlin that slipped away.
""It's part of the game,'' Mills says again.
""It's like missing a putt on the 18th green,'' Bender says. ""It's enough to make you
go back the next day.
""(Melnar) will never forget this as long as he lives.''