ATLANTIC CITY — Heck no, Noel Feliciano is not walking the plank to get to the jetties.
The plank is not even a foot wide. It has been balanced on a steep diagonal from the Absecon Inlet seawall down to the rocks, because in true Atlantic City fashion, the magnificent jetty system that has created this unheralded paradise of urban saltwater fishing is, shall we say, a little hard to get to.
“The plank,” Feliciano says with a self-deprecating laugh. “I don’t walk that plank. All of this can’t get on all of that."
It’s a few minutes before sunrise. Having just unlocked his tiny bait shop, One Stop Bait & Tackle, a few blocks away at 416 Atlantic Ave., he has triaged a few minor fishing emergencies, like restringing the rod of Manny Serrano, who drove down from North Philly, rod in his trunk. Feliciano is now in his Boardwalk pulpit, ready to let the world, or at least his Facebook followers, in on a little secret: Atlantic City.
Or at least the Atlantic City he knows, and soaks in, every morning, at sunrise. It’s glorious.
“This is the epicenter of what people come down for," Feliciano says, using one his favorite words. "It’s not just the casinos. How long can you stay inside? You only can lose so much money.”
In its own understated way, he says, Atlantic City is a true fishing mecca, no boats needed. “Bangin',” as Feliciano likes to write on Facebook, and some days even “Triple Bangin'.” He’s trying to get the word out, from a store, he notes, that is about the size of the bathroom at the enormous Bass Pro Shops in the middle of town.
Bass Pro got $11 million in tax breaks, but somehow didn’t put One Stop Bait & Tackle under water.
“He’s the man,” says Serrano, headed for two jetties at Melrose and Oriental Avenues. “He tells you where to go.”
A phone call from his 20-year-old assistant, Jaden “Junior” Hernandez, brings Feliciano back to reality and back to the shop. People are lining up. Feliciano is settling in behind the counter.
An Atlantic City fishing evangelist, Feliciano, 49, presides over the nonstop fishing chatter from a place down where the city stretches its limbs on its way to the inlet, where shards of Boardwalk famously floated during Hurricane Sandy, a lot surrounded by a landscape as iconic to this town as the ocean: vacant lots.
The original shop was across the street, started 20 years ago when he still worked in the casinos, and later destroyed by fire. An Atlantic City native, Feliciano moved across the street, replacing a KOSHER MEATS sign with Bait & Tackle. He started his Facebook Live four years ago, organizing his flock. ("TOG/BLACKFISH fishing is on 🔥FIRE 🐟here today On live Lucky ￼green crabs￼!!!)
But about those jetties.
There are 13 jutting out into the Inlet and from where the Boardwalk makes the turn along the ocean. Built to prevent storm damage, the jetties become “fish traps,” depending on the season, luring flounder, tautog, and the mania beginning this time of year: striped bass.
“The equation is literally up under you," Feliciano says.
Nearby bridges are another fishing wonder, Route 30 being a recent hotbed for wild jumbo shrimp. Who needs a boat with these riches?
Taken together, there is about a mile of jetty space, Feliciano says, some days “elbow to elbow” with fishermen. They just require a little ingenuity to get to.
“Everybody’s climbing over,” says Feliciano. “You gotta climb this railing, go over the plank, go down on the rocks."
The fishing is in some ways accessible — the Boardwalk that now runs right up over the Inlet allows someone using a wheelchair to get in on the action.
But maddeningly, the $50 million U.S. Army Corps of Engineer project that beautifully rebuilt this section of the Boardwalk, complete with Adirondack chairs, and is continuing with a section that will connect on to Gardner’s Basin, neglected to build steps down to the jetties.
Feliciano has gotten the attention of officials, including his congressman, Jeff Van Drew, who say two new stairways will be built. Feliciano thinks every jetty should be paved over into a fishing pier.
For that matter, he thinks his sparsely populated Inlet neighborhood should look like Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.
Ah. For now, the vacant lots are useful for teaching newbies to cast, or for people to pull up in the back of a pickup truck, fish in the back.
On this day, Feliciano had his own fish story nagging at his sleep, having hooked, but then lost, a striper the day before. He went out early at 5 a.m. for another shot, but came up empty.
Not so for one of his main fishing gurus, a Pirate-y sort who prefers to be known only as “Irish Nile.” From Brigantine.
Irish Nile has caught so many fish in his lifetime, he now releases all of them. He caught six stripers this morning — just one jetty over from Feliciano.
“They were pinned against the rocks,” Nile says. “It was like you could hear them.”
Feliciano can take it. He knows he’ll be back out. (A few days later, he posted triumphant video of himself and a striper, Atlantic City skyline lit up behind him.) It’s not the point.
“If this boggles your mind, we’re doing something wrong,” Feliciano said. "You go over there, you catch some peace of mind. You catch some sun, that’s vitamin D. Hopefully some dinner. Everything else is secondary.”
By his first cup of coffee, Feliciano has covered a lot of territory: the legend of Albert McReynolds, who in 1982 caught a 78.8 pound striped bass not two blocks away off Vermont Avenue, a fish that stood as a world record until 2011 (and still is a record for land), and McReynold’s son, Tommy, who still comes to fish.
He can’t wait for the glow-in-the-dark fishing line to come in for the dark hours that Tommy McReynolds told him about.
“You come to gamble, you wouldn’t know there’s a thousand guys out there fishing,” Feliciano says.