A hard day's night Published in the Asbury Park Press 8/23/02 From rigging bait to washing the boat, Manalapan's Nick Mills loves the long hours and happy times of being a mate on a charter fishing boat

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A hard day's night
Published in the Asbury Park Press 8/23/02

From rigging bait to washing the boat,

Manalapan's Nick Mills loves the long hours and happy times of being a mate on a charter fishing boat.


CAPE MAY -- It's still dark when Nick Mills climbs out of his bed in the small stateroom aboard the Jenny Lee. At 3:30 a.m., the only light is the yellow glow from the power supply box at the end of the slip.

But in an hour, Mills and the crew of the Jenny Lee will be pushing away from the dock for the first day of fishing in the Mid-Atlantic $500,000 marlin tournament, and there's some last-minute preparations to be made.

The day before had been extremely hot and humid, and the night air isn't much cooler. A slight breeze plays across the docks, but the humidity is so thick that everything is coated with a layer of condensation.

Mills dries off the fighting chair and the storage chests with a chamois, then he and Rick Petschauer, the other mate on the Jenny Lee, check the drag on the rods. They set the 80s at 25.

Mills, 20, is a senior at the University of Delaware, studying political science. He's planning to go to law school, but hasn't decided what he might do beyond that.

He's considering entering the Coast Guard.

"Sixteen years of school is brutal, though," he says, referring to the years of college and law school he'd have completed leading up to that.

Mills' workday actually begins the day before a trip, as he rigs baits for it. He stands in the cockpit of the Jenny Lee, poking a metal tube through the eye sockets of frozen ballyhoo, one fish at a time, stringing them on the tube like beads. With about a dozen completed, he takes the fish off the tube, and begins putting them on hooks, threading the hook carefully through its underside so that just a third of the hook, from the barb to the turn, is protruding. Then he slides a blue plastic skirt down the leader to cover the head of the fish. He's meticulous about each task, because the goal is to have the ballyhoo appear to swim through the water when the boat is trolling them.

Mills, of Manasquan, has been working as a mate since his early teens, going on two to three trips per week. He's been fishing for about 12 years, he says. So the appeal of the Coast Guard is easy to understand.

"I enjoy being on the sea every day," he says. He's been working for Dave Bender, the Jenny Lee's captain, for about five years, and worked on another boat at Robinson's Marina in Manasquan before that.

"I enjoy every aspect of this," he says as he feeds another hook into a ballyhoo, "from rigging bait to washing the boat." But if he doesn't go into the Coast Guard, he says he's not sure what he'll do with his law degree.

"Maybe environmental law," he says.

On the three-plus-hour trip to the canyons, there's not much work to do. Mills, who got his captain's license on Super Bowl Sunday, Petschauer and Bender take turns getting some rest. A long day awaits, and you can never be too rested for the physical labor of landing a fish, particularly a white marlin or a blue marlin.

With 15 minutes until the start of the day's fishing, Mills is busy attaching baited leaders to the rods he's set in holders all along the boat's stern. The call comes from the bridge to drop lines, but Mills doesn't simply throw them in the water. Each one is set at a particular distance from the boat, each outrigger set just so.

"How's the starboard shortrigger look?" he asks Bender, who gives his approval.

The lines in the water, the boat trolling, the waiting begins. Mills scans the water, looking for any sign of a white marlin. It's a long wait.

About 10:30, he's up on the bridge with Bender when the head of a white marlin breaks the surface. He dashes down the ladder to the rod the fish is nearest to set the hook. He's met by Shawn Melnar, one of the two men who've chartered the Jenny Lee for this tournament. Melnar takes the rod, and with Mills coaching him, holds on for a moment. But the fish slips the hook and disappears.

Mills checks the baits and drops them back into the water.

"They're holding up well, considering it's 80 degrees," he says.

The wait begins anew.

It's shortly after noon, and with no action since the white marlin hit around 10:30, Mills changes a couple of lures in hopes of teasing another white to the surface. He and Bender talk strategy and begin planning for the next day's fishing, since this day seems to be a loss.

Then Mills explodes into action -- as does everyone on the boat -- as a marlin's head breaks the surface. Mills grabs a rod with a Green Machine lure on it, and drops the lure right in front of the fish. The fish takes it, and Mills sets the hook, and hands the rod to Melnar to begin the fight.

Mills stays by his side, coaching him through it, turning the fighting chair as the fish moves from one side of the boat to the other. While everyone is joking, Mills is still very intent on the fight at hand, watching the fish and giving Bender estimates on how much line it's pulled off the reel. He and Bender work in tandem, agreeing on when Bender should turn the boat to match the movement of the fish. It's a smooth process.

But after an hour, the fish shakes the hook and swims away, leaving everyone heartbroken.

Bender and Mills rehash what happened, and Mills is philosophic. "It's part of the game," he says. As the boat continues to troll, Mills grabs some lunch, finishing with a container of plain yogurt. It's 2 p.m., and other than a couple of peaches and some pretzels, he hasn't eaten much. But even as he eats, he maintains watch on the water for signs of a white marlin.

There's a lot of seaweed floating atop the water, and periodically Mills has to reel in one of the baits to pull weed off it. But there's little else to do but watch and wait.

With the day's fishing over, Mills begins the preparations for the next day. The boat is zipping across the water at 28 knots, and Mills is seated on a bucket near the stern, leaders hung in a row waiting to be baited with the ballyhoo he's stringing onto the metal tube. Petschauer is washing down the rods with soap and water, then drying them, and tugging covers onto the reels to protect them from the salt spray the Jenny Lee is kicking up.

Bender has a rap-dance station blaring from the satellite radio, and he's looking for a reaction from Mills. But Mills is intent on his baits and is either ignoring it or simply oblivious to it. He rigs 30 leaders with ballyhoo, then prepares 10 more ballyhoo for quick replacements if they're needed the next day.

He covers them with kosher salt, adds ice to the cooler and packs them for the next day.

Back at the dock, Mills busys himself washing down the bow of the boat while Petschauer works at the stern. All the salt spray is washed away with soap and water, to prevent corrosion and keep the boat looking nice.

As he uses a chamois mop to dry the water off the windows, he talks about the blue marlin that got away.

"I was biting my lip until I saw the Green Machine," he says. "You don't want it to be your knot that gave way" and let the fish escape.

But he loves the intensity of the tournament.

"Just being able to fish, being in a sportfishing environment, is great," he says. Mills finishes drying the cockpit, then ducks inside to shower and change before going to the tent to grab some of the night's dinner of barbecued chicken and ribs.

"What can you do? he says before departing. "We've got two more days to fish."

By 10 p.m. the Jenny Lee is dark again. Mills, Petschauer and Bender getting some rest before the next day's work begins.

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