In Message in a Bottle (Tale End, January 2021 edition) I remarked about hunting, fishing, clamming and surfing at the Jersey Shore, fondly thinking back upon my own experiences with my father, growing up along the coast, while waxing on about the missing MiniPSAT device from the 2020 Northeast Striped Bass Study.
On or about November 13, 2020 when we lost the signal from that satellite tracking device somewhere in the marshes along the New Jersey side of the Delaware Bay, it was hard to imagine that high-tech message in a bottle ever being found again. Yet as noted in the final paragraph of that Tale End feature, I remained the eternal optimist heading into the holiday season of a tag recovery.
“I’m still holding out hope that sometime this month, a father and son enjoying some of those finer winter moments together along the Egg Island marshes might just stumble upon that message in a bottle and return to sender.”
On the very day the January edition of The Fisherman was printed and delivered to readers, we received yet another phone call from Gray FishTag Research. “Hold on to your hat,” came Bill Dobbelaer’s voice from the other end, announcing that the MiniPSAT had in fact been found. On Monday, December 21, 38 days since last we’d heard from the tag – and just four days after a raging December nor’easter ravaged the coast – a father and son out for a walk on the beach with a friend and their dogs made a rather remarkable discovery.
“Dave and I walk our dogs a lot, and both of our sons are home from school,” said local high school teacher and barista Drew Johnson, explaining how he and his buddy and Lewes, DE business owner Dave Vitella often take their dogs – Dave has a retriever and a terrier, Drew a vizsla – for walks along the woods and waters of Delaware.
Drew said it’s not often their sons join in on their winter walks, but on this morning four days before Christmas Drew’s son Luke opted to join. “There’s a pilot station in Henlopen State Park where you can walk out the drive on and walk around onto the bayside,” Drew said later of their winter beachcombing mission.
The two buddies, Drew and Dave, often scour the beaches for flotsam and jetsam washing up after a storm, and often visit the lower Delmarva Peninsula in the search for colored glass. “We’ve found whale jaws and a turtle shell, but nothing like this,” said Drew.
Luke – “Lucky Luke” as his father described him – had found something unusual along the tide line; they’d later remark it looked like some strange tracking device, as if some Russian spy equipment had washed up. “Luke finds this thing and says it has a dollar reward on it,” Drew said, laughing as he recalled his reply back to his son. “That means ‘A’ dollar Luke,” he chuckled, the emphasis on the word A.
Actually, it was $500. The MiniPSAT device which had come free from a 46-inch striped bass named Independence in the Northeast Striped Bass Study was shipped to Gray FishTag Research in Florida for analysis. It arrived on December 23. Like ships passing in the night, a $500 check was sent back to the Johnsons, a nice Christmas week bonus for Luke who is a freshman at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC).
When not studying, pitching or playing infield for the UMBC retrievers, Luke can often be found surfing the local beaches in Delaware, or spearfishing with the Vitella boys who themselves are looking at future careers captaining ships like those that make their way along the deep channels of the Delaware River, to and from the port of Philadelphia.
“We’re full on living the lifestyle,” Drew told me, saying that the Johnson family enjoys their time summer flounder fishing in the Delaware or hitting the Outer Wall for tautog and sheepshead from a smaller family skiff. “Luke has been working me so hard to bump up my boat,” he said. I had to laugh thinking back to my original Tale End piece in the January edition. While it’s true I grew up on those shallow draft garveys behind the barrier islands, my dad and I both would eventually grow out of the workboat style as we now spend more time fishing the bay and less time working it.
But for the Johnsons and Vitellas, it was back to the grind so to speak; in between the whirring of the coffee grinder at his shop, Swell Joe Coffee on Coastal Highway in Lewes, Drew told me more about finding that message in a bottle as we enjoyed a kindred appreciation for living along coast, and of fathers and sons.
“Lucky” Luke it seems, according to his father, is a young man of many blessings, interests and talents. “My pal Dave put it well when he said Luke lives in the moment and that’s where luck is made,” he said of finding that needle in a haystack as was the case with the MiniPSAT device along the Delaware shores. Drew said it was bound to be Luke.
“At least it wasn’t Dave’s retriever,” he told me just before prepping another round of fresh beans in the grinder. “That dog literally eats everything.”
You couldn’t have scripted this incredible find any better; though truth be told, sifting through dog poop in search of a $5,000 satellite tag would’ve added a rather humorous touch to this Tale End.
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