A History of Fishing in the Wildwoods

The enemy ship cruised silently off the coast, but residents of Holly Beach were ready. More than once they had watched Menhaden steamers troll beyond the shoreline. The ships dipped their nets into the water, and pirated away with thousands of tiny menhaden, or pogy, fish. This time, however, the islanders had a plan.

It was 1885, the year that Holly Beach incorporated into a town. The island was still a wild place, where wild cattle and hogs roamed freely in the woods. There were fewer than 500 residents, but like the Scandinavian fisherman who populated the shores of Anglesea, Holly Beach residents depended on fishing for survival. Islanders had little tolerance for the trespassers who fished pogy from local waters. The law might not have been on their side, but it didn’t dissuade these early pioneers from taking the matter into their own hands.

When the steamer Samuel Allen set out to sea that summer morning, hoping to harvest ugly bait fish from the waters offshore from Holly Beach, they had no idea just how seriously “Holly Beachers” took their fish.

According to an article that appeared in the Cape May County Gazette on July 25, 1885, the ship “came within gunshot of shore, (and) the fisherman were received with a volley of rifle balls from Holly Beachers.” The ships inhabitants scrambled for cover, and soon took off for distant waters.

When questioned about the incident, the local assailants promised, “A cannon has been procured for the next time the steamers trespass.”

The steamers did return, and though they were never warmly welcomed, they were also never met with cannon fire. Instead, they became part of the booming and diverse fishing industry.

The waters around Five Mile Beach had always been fertile fishing ground. The Lenni Lenapi tribes fished here frequently. They feasted on striped bass while vacationing along its shores in the summer, and they used the menhaden fish as fertilizer to grow corn.

Early settlers to Cape May County learned from the Native Americans and fished these waters, too. Mainland residents established oyster beds in the island’s marshes. As early as 1632, whalers from present-day Town Bank landed their catches on the shores of Five Mile Beach, and by 1848, a Life Saving Station was established and manned in Anglesea to rescue fisherman in distress.

By the 1870’s, fishing shacks were erected along the coast in Anglesea. Their occupants - many from Sweden, Norway and Denmark – were the island’s first settlers, and the area soon became a major fishing hub. Commercial vessels from the Hereford Fish Company operated from Mace’s Boat Landing in the vicinity of Moore’s Inlet. During the week of July 25, 1894, 140,000 pounds of fish were packed and shipped from the harbor in Anglesea.

Sport fishing charters and party boats were also available from the inlet. One local captain, Joshua Shivers, advertised his expertise in Philadelphia, promising to help recreational fishermen plan a successful outing from Mace’s Landing.

Further south, Holly Beach founder, Phillip Baker, improved Holly Beach by arranging for a harbor to be carved out near Burk Ave (and what is now Park Blvd.). Tourism brochures boasted “a splendid inland waterway, three thousand feet long and a thousand feet wide” in Holly Beach Harbor. 44,560 pounds of fish were shipped from Holly Beach in October of 1895.

Early fishing methods were not very efficient by today’s standards. Two men would typically row out to sea sixteen miles from the beach in a sixteen-foot dory. After twelve to fourteen hours of fishing with hooks and line, they could expect to bring in one half to three barrels of fish. From there, the fish were iced and transported by wagon to the freight station. Fisherman organized in 1899, and formed the Hook and Line Fisherman’s Association, but this type of fishing was short-lived. The dories were soon replaced by gas-powered boats; ships grew in size and fishing methods improved. Trawl nets and “purse-seines” were eventually the preferred method of procuring fish commercially.In 1906, North Wildwood real estate developer Henry H. Ottens turned his attention to expanding the Holly Beach Harbor. Ottens brought a marine railway to the harbor, and an onsite ice house to simplify the shipping process.

By the 1920’s, Anglesea boats preferred pulling into Ottens’ harbor, at least in part, because deeper water was found there. The area quickly became the hub of Wildwood’s commercial fishing industry. Records from the first six months of 1928, indicate that 100,000 barrels of fish, each weighing 200 pounds were packed and shipped from Wildwood to New York and Philadelphia.

Early settlers to the island brought with them a keen sense of adventure and ambition. Unwilling to allow the major commercial fishing companies to make all the profits, several began to undertake the private enterprise of Pound Fishing.

These fisherman set traps, or pounds, for fish by staking huge semi-permanent nets in the sea. The fish would be forced into the nets and impounded there until the seaman harvested their catch. This method was dangerous, but it allowed entrepreneurial individuals to compete with bigger companies. Pound fishermen reaped huge benefits for their effort. The beach at Burk Avenue was a popular spot for pound fishing because the fish could be brought quickly to the freight station, which once operated from Davis Avenue near the current location of Wildwood’s City Hall.

Wildwood was well-known as a major commercial fishing center for much of its early history. Menhaden fishermen continued to sink their nets into the Atlantic near Wildwood’s shore. Menhaden fishing accounted for more than 30% of landings in Cape May County in 1957, according to New Jersey Department of Agriculture statistics. The Menhaden Plant on Rio Grande Avenue just off-shore from Wildwood provided work for nearly 200 county residents for several decades.

Fishing for menhaden continued to be controversial. No one who drove by the processing plant was indifferent to the smell, and opponents claimed the steamers polluted the water and removed valuable baitfish from the local population. Critics also claimed the steamers attracted sharks to the bathing beaches. Advocates of the menhaden plant fought the claim, but the menhaden population eventually dwindled and the plant closed in the 1980’s. Ironically, the foul-smelling fish plant was replaced by a wastewater treatment plant.

Visitors to Ottens’ Harbor today would see only a few commercial vessels. Declining fish populations, government regulation and the boom of real estate development on Wildwood’s coast have drastically changed the landscape.

Ottens’ Harbor Ice House has been replaced by luxury condominiums, and most commercial fishermen now dock in other ports in Cape May, Lower Township, or Atlantic City.

A few hardy seamen still pull in at Ottens’ Harbor, and as the weathered boats enter the harbor, past fleets of jet skis and personal watercraft, the lucky residents of Montgomery Avenue can still catch a glimpse of the island the way it used to be.

Tourism has slowly replaced commercial fishing in Wildwood, but that is not to say that all of Wildwood’s fishermen are gone. Thousands of sportsmen and women visit every year to troll the waters beyond Wildwood’s coast. Some use a “hook and line” from shore. Others charter boats, or set sail on party boats. Children dip crab pots into the bay at Grassy Sound.

Wildwood began as a fishing village, and its history is bound to the sea. Even those of us who have never dropped anchor or baited a hook are moved by its familiar images: fishing shacks along the coast, boats sailing out on the horizon, and hearty adventurers returning home to share their catch. Wildwood has always been passionate about fishing. It’s why the first visitors settled on its shores, and it’s why others keep coming back.

(Originally publlished in Wildwood Properties)

Articles by Maureen Cawley