An unrestricted glimpse at New Jersey’s most restricted fishing area.
A beautiful sunset, sunrise or waves crashing at your feet. That’s how many saltwater fishing stories begin.
Not this one. Fishing on Naval Weapons Station Earle is different. Let me explain.
Earle Pier, as it is often called, extends close to 3 miles into the Raritan Bay. United States Navy weapons ships move up on the northern tip, far away from surrounding communities because weapons are loaded and unloaded. While the U.S. Navy routinely moves weapons in a highly skilled, extremely safe manner, this distance is designated as a safe point, should an accident ever occur. At the end of the Navy’s workday, usually around 1630 (that’s 4:30 p.m. for you civilians), the Bravo flag is lowered and the pier is open for fishing to all that qualify.
A lucky few, myself included, are vetted and re-vetted for access to fish on Earle. These select few are as follows: active duty military, military retirees, base employees and disabled veterans with a Department of Veterans Affairs rating of being 100% disabled. All must have their saltwater registry and must apply for a fishing permit for a nominal fee at the Navy Rec Department on Route 34 in Colts Neck. Permits are usually issued on March 1 and the seasons extends until the first Friday of December at 0630.
Beautiful sunset? Crashing waves? This isn’t how the fishing day starts. At 1630, pick-up trucks and some cars are lined up at the Route 36 gate in Leonardo ready for battle. Vehicles with multiple rods and reels, tackle, bait, foul weather gear, gaffs and pier nets line up jockeying for entry and their favorite fishing spots. The fishermen enter through several armed gates. Base security, armed with Glocks, M-16s and other weapons will carefully scrutinize all that enter.
This is something you need to understand. Fishing on Earl is a privilege granted to us by base command. There are restrictions and rules that we all must follow. A complete list of rules and regulations are issued once your annual fee is paid and FBI vetting is cleared. This seems like a lot of work just to fish so why bother? Most feel it’s well worth it.
A Three Mile Line
Once you make it passed the last gate, anglers are given over 3 miles of area to fish on this trident shaped pier. King Neptune would find Earle a perfect home. Unfortunately, he hasn’t paid his dues, literally or figuratively. Within a one mile plus radius of the pier, commercial and recreational fishing is strictly prohibited. Occasionally, a boat will, either intentionally or unintentionally enter this prohibited area. When this happens, a warning will be broadcasted over a bullhorn that warns that they are in restricted waters and deadly force is warranted. A navy gunboat will move out faster than a fly on bunker and handle the violator as seen fit. This restricted space has made Earle Pier its own ecosystem and fishing on Earle is a fisherman’s dream.
The days of lugging all your gear through sand, marshes and even on piers are over. For the most part, you are able to drive, stop and fish. Anyone new to the pier usually starts at the end, 3 miles out, probably because they can. You are in the middle of the Raritan Bay. Waves may not be crashing at your feet, but you can surely see them. There’s my hometown of Staten Island to the left, beside the view of the Narrows and the Manhattan skyline, along with the parachute ride in Coney Island. Vanishing to the east is the remainder of Long Island. You know you’re in deep waters when a pod of dolphins or whales break water in front of you. There’s great fishing on the furthest reach of the pier, but you’ll soon learn the “ins and out” of what’s considered “best” depending on the season and the type of fish you’re looking for. Your learning curve will quickly flatten out if you make friends and ask questions.
I’d like to think that I made many friends on Earle. In particular, Peter Lock, a U.S. Navy veteran and knowledgeable fisherman. Pete hails from Brooklyn, NY and spent his youth fishing from the direct opposite of the pier. Pete showed me the ins and outs and shared his 12 years of Earle Pier knowledge over the course of one season. Pete asks “where else can you catch six to eight targeted in-season species and do well?”
Another veteran by the name of Bill Brown, a Vietnam vet, was the first to give me advice by pointing out that I could be better rigged than I was. He weighed my pockets down with sinkers and pointed me in the right direction. On occasion, he would give me an earful, mainly because I deserved it. It’s Uncle Bill, he has 20 years on me and is only looking out. I’d be foolish not to at least listen to his advice. If you make it onto the pier, ask questions, make friends and definitely help each other out.
I have a tight crew of four friends. Ron Vanone, a Vietnam vet with several Purple Hearts, Bob Reingle another Vietnam Vet, also wounded, and nice guy. Then there’s Peter, as previously mentioned, but I can’t stress enough about his fishing prowess and myself, a U.S. Coast Guard veteran. We fish and work as a team. On occasion, we argue, but at the end of the day, we’re all friends. We’re United States Disabled Veterans.
Better Than Advertised
Recently, while re-loading my ammo at a local tackle shop, another fisherman started making small talk, asking me where I fish and what I’ve been catching. When I mentioned Earle Pier, he asked if it’s as good as they say it is. Without hesitation, I responded, “It’s better!” He said “I’m jealous of y ’all.” After fishing on Weapons Station Earle Pier, I would have to agree. I’m not sure what I enjoy more, the fishing or the comradery. Fortunately, I have both.
Earle fishermen are forced to wrap it up the first week of December. It wasn’t easy to walk away from stripers piling up on the pier. It took a good month for my shoulder to heal. Fishing with tears and spurs may not be noticeable when you are fishing and the adrenaline is flowing. It’ll be a long, painful winter.
Like every fisherman, cold days of YouTube videos and fishing expos carry us through the dark days until March rolls in and it’s time to get our fishing passes. I almost feel like I’m missing out due to a doctor’s appointment. Photo IDs start at 9 a.m. and I arrive at 10. It’s great to see familiar faces. It feels good to be back.
As the season got underway, we debated over water temperatures, reports of stripers in the back bays and estuaries. It’s late March and the bay seals are eating bunker. Any day now, the stripers will roll in. It’s the only time of the year that boaters, kayakers and those that venture out have an advantage. We have no choice but to wait for the fish to come to us. Once it starts, it truly is full steam ahead. It’s a full year of unbelievable fishing until we are again politely, but painfully, asked to leave.
The author is retired from the United States Coast Guard and alumnus of the Culinary Institute of America.