Reflections on the life and legacy of Phil Sciortino, Sr. from the Tackle Box.
When John Sciortino opened Johnny’s Landing in Highlands, NJ in 1945, there was no charter or head boat fleet. In those days when visitors arrived in town looking to go fishing on Raritan Bay, Roxy Rocigliano would rent them a rowboat from her livery service known as Roxy’s.
“The rowboat fishermen fished the Shrewsbury River, or the boats were tied, bow to stern, and towed in long strings out to the point of Sandy Hook,” Henry Shaeffer would describe in his popular Newark Star Ledger column many years later. The rowboat anglers were left at the location; when they were ready to get towed back to port, an oar held vertically from the boat would tell the tow boat that they were done for the day.
“It was Sciortino, at Johnny’s Landing, who developed the Highlands area charter boat fishing business,” Shaeffer would write about this first-generation Sicilian American – the first in what would become a long line of Sciortino’s in the fishing business at the Jersey Shore. Johnny would go on to build a rather sizable business in Highlands, where head boats like the Sea Horse II, King Neptune II and Fishermen would run daily trips in the summer for bluefish, porgies or fluke.
The patriarch himself would eventually get some family assistance when sons John, Jr. and Phillip entered the fishing industry fray.
Johnny’s Landing would later become the Highlands Marina, or Hi-Mar which would give birth to the name of the Hi-Mar Striper Club. “Johny’s Landing is now where the Proving Ground is,” said Phil Sciortino, Jr., adding “Highlands Marina is now where Bakers Marina, Marina on the Bay is.” Phil, Jr. is the third generation of Sciortino in the family business. A fourth now helps run the Tackle Box on Route 36 in Hazlet with Phil, Jr. and his four sisters, with the fifth generation already being groomed for the future.
“It means everything to me, it’s my whole family,” Phil, Jr. would say of the Tackle Box, opened by his father Phil, Sr. on Halloween of 1976. “It’s like the history of my grandfather coming here from Sicily and starting the American dream really – he had nothing, came to Newark, on a ship that landed in Boston, and started what this is,” Phil, Jr. said while looking over the rod racks, bait tanks and pegboard lined with tackle at the old Esso gas station since turned into one of the oldest family-run recreational fishing businesses in the Garden State.
“This is pretty much a landmark in fishing, it’s a New Jersey staple,” he said of the business his father started 46 years ago on Route 36. “People say that when they get off the Parkway at Exit 117 they know they’re here when they hit the Tackle Box,” he added.
On July 13, Phil Sciortino, Sr. died after a hard-fought battle with pancreatic cancer, his wife Joan at his side. Born in Irvington, NJ, the son of John and Margaret Sciortino graduated from Red Bank Catholic High School before going off to serve in the United States Navy, returning home to work beside his father and brother at Johhny’s Landing, before opening the Tackle Box.
“That was my dad’s dream, he knew it,” Phil, Jr. said of the tackle shop that his dad opened in 76. “There was nothing on this highway, coming here was literally like coming to the country, there was nothing on 36.”
A Quiet Legend
The word “legend” gets thrown around a lot; but when it comes to Phil Sciortino, Sr. and the legacy he has left behind, it’s hard to think of a better word. “My dad was actually like a quiet legend, he started these things that people are on TV doing now,” Phil, Jr. said, explaining “he went out on 20-foot center consoles and got towed around by giant bluefin tuna 6 miles, and then brought it in.”
As a kid the third generation Sciortino remembers running down to the Highlands Marina to watch as his father arrived home with an 800-pound bluefin hung over the side of a 20-foot Bertram Moppie. “He was the first one to put a chair in the front with a plank of wood, and they would let the fish tow them,” Phil, Jr. said, adding “then a couple of other guys started doing it, Nick Cicero, Ritchie Sachs.” In fact, Wicked Tuna’s Dave Carraro of FV-Tuna.com caught his first giant while fishing with the senior Sciortino and also worked in the shop.
While hanging around the Tackle Box one Friday afternoon in August – not long after his father’s passing – Phil, Jr. retold the story of how his dad had mated aboard the boat First Timer run by Capt. Otto Reut out of the Highlands Marina. “One morning he showed up to the boat and Otto had two 16/0 combos, like the combo out of JAWS, the big Fenwick with the big 16/0 PENN reels, one was lined up and had a hook on the end of it and one was just a snap at the end,” Phil, Sr. said.
“They went to the Shrewsbury Rocks for giants (bluefin), they hooked a giant which started to spool the first 16/0, and Otto said to my dad, ‘Phil, throw that’,” at which point Phil, Jr. starts to laugh. Capt. Otto instructed Phil, Sr. “Snap the snap from the one rod to the other rod and throw that whole rod and reel into the water.”
“What?” came the reply from an incredulous young mate.
“You heard me,” the skipper replied, “put the snap on that reel and throw it in.”
Phil, Sr. complied. “Threw it in the water,” Phil, Jr. said, explaining how the legendary Highlands charter boat captain, and his protégé – who would himself achieve his own “quiet legend” status – would go on to land the immense bluefin. “They fought the fish on the second rod until they got to the first rod, they pulled the first rod out of the water, continued to fight the fish and landed the giant,” Phil, Jr. said.
Five Up, Four Down
When the Rockaway Reef bluefin tuna bite exploded in 2021, a lot of younger fishermen used words like “unprecedented” or “unheard-of” to describe the incredible inshore bite. Yet in many ways, fishing for giant bluefin tuna – the gear and the tactics – was developed long ago here at the Jersey Shore, from the Mud Hole to Shrewsbury Rocks and all points in between. “He really pioneered that fishing in a small boat for big fish,” Phil, Jr. said of his father, explaining how a lot of big game hunters at that time grew frustrated in the early days, just a few miles from shore, when breaking fish off at the knot.
Explaining the issues with tying solid knots with heavier lines, Phil, Jr. explained how his father and friends sat around the shop, experimenting with the Bimini Twist and other big game knots until he settled into one called the Five Up, Four Down. “So he did a five up, and all you do is turn around and come back down four times, slip it through, moisten it and slide it down, and it never tightens on the hook, so it wouldn’t break,” he said, adding “There are guys right now up there in Wicked Tuna land, and all these guys here.”
“Rob Radloff says ‘I still use that knot your dad taught me’ for giant tuna fishing,” Phil, Jr. noted, which itself is a rather profound statement really; the tips and tactics shared across the first few generations, carried over to a new wave of anglers. In the days of social media, the best “viral” content is still the information that you gather, practice and share, spreading the genetics of learning across many branches. With five children, 13 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, the Sciortino tree spreads far and wide.
“It’s my whole life,” said Dawn Sciortino, who together with brother Phil, Jr. and her son Billy – along with Phil’s son Paddy – now help carry out that tradition of information sharing. “This kid loves it,” Dawn said, pointing at son Billy, the fourth generation now helping man the counter at the Tackle Box. “The last time daddy was here he said to Billy ‘I’m coming back up and I’m going to teach you how to build a rod’,” Dawn said.
Regrettably, Phil, Sr. wasn’t able to make that trip back to the shop.
A Labor Of Love
While you can expect to find a Sciortino at the Tackle Box just about any time you stop in (except Christmas and New Year’s, the only days the shop is closed), you won’t find Phil, Jr. there most Wednesdays this season. That’s the day dedicated to taking his nephew Billy and son Paddy fishing, each week a different style in a varied Bayshore location, from eeling stripers with Chuck Many, party boat fishing on the Fishermen, or renting small livery boats out of Highlands, much as it was before his grandfather arrived.
“One of the greatest things ever, the grandsons, the fourth generation here, working and with the energy they brought and the love, the passion, to carry on the history and lineage,” Phil, Jr. said while looking out over the register to where customers were picking up tackle and advice for another day of Bayshore fishing. “It made his life,” he said of his late father, “I saw it in his eyes, he succeeded in his dream.”
“To grow up in this, it’s just something special,” Phil, Jr. said, adding “this was my dad’s passion, and to see how many people he helped, and to see all that outpouring of love, like ‘my god your dad was so good to us and our kids and our family came every weekend’ – it’s hard to explain, I don’t think you can feel this way at any other kind of job, unless it’s your life, it’s your family, this is it. This is my home.”
In the last year or two of the life of Phil Sciortino, Sr., there was talk about getting another family boat, perhaps even getting back into a few chartering days with the sons and grandsons. “Since I sold the True World and we kind of got out of it, my dad wanted to get another boat,” Phil, Jr. said. “We ordered a 20-foot Jones Brothers, that’s coming at the end of September.”
“My dad died on a Wednesday, and the Monday prior to that we hadn’t talked for a few days and my sisters are like ‘go upstairs and talk to your dad’,” he said. “His eyes were shut, and I was like ‘hey dad it’s Philip,’ and I can see his eyes were struggling to open, and he opened them and said ‘when’s the boat coming’?”
“I said it’s coming in September dad, and he was like ‘oh good, they moved it up’,” Phil, Jr. said, remembering the final words he said to his father on July 11, 2022, “I’ll get you out on that boat one way or another.”
Nick Cicero, who himself sits upon one of the many branches of New Jersey’s sportfishing learning tree, summarized it best in words shared with Phil, Jr. at his father’s funeral service – “when I think of your dad I will remember the good times, the laughs we shared, and I’m left with a single sentiment that sums up his life….bravo Phil, you did it right, and you inspired us all to be better, to be kinder!”
No matter the business, that’s the legacy we all strive to leave behind for our future generations, family and friends.