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Awaiting the striper
Longtime participant takes another cast at 50-year-old LBI Surf Fishing Tournament

By JARRETT RENSHAW Staff Writer, (609) 978-2015
Press of Atlantic City

LONG BEACH TOWNSHIP - As the darkness of the night receded Tuesday, the sun's early morning rays revealed a familiar silhouette on the coastline here.

Al Dunkelberger, a soft-spoken, lanky man with a powder-colored mustache, stood patiently on the shore, hoping to add another chapter to the narrative of a life spent fishing.

He soon offered a sentence, call it a philosophy, that sums up why he comes to the beach in the wee hours of the morning, sometimes staying for hours on end.

"In order to catch striped bass, you got to put the time in," Dunkelberger said.

Dunkelberger, 84, is no stranger to putting his time in, proving that he practices what he preaches. As the popular Long Beach Island Surf Fishing Tournament enters its 50th year this week, Dunkelberger has become as much as a fixture for the event as the fish themselves.

He has competed in the annual event more than 40 times. And the Surf City resident might have competed in each year if he had decided not to boycott the event during the first years of the tournament.

"When they first started the event, residents could not win first prize. I didn't think that was too fair, so I didn't join," Dunkelberger said.

The grand prize has eluded the lifelong fisherman. But that doesn't seem to bother the laid-back Dunkelberger.

"They don't owe me anything. I have received a lot of prizes," Dunkelberger said.

Dunkelberger has witnessed many changes in the art of fishing.

"In my first tournament, I used a fishing pole I made myself," Dunkelberger said.

The changes were not exclusive to the equipment, he said. Often, the tournament's rules changed with the political climate in New Jersey.

This year, for example, organizers imposed a 34-inch minimum on stripers eligible for the grand prize.

In some ways, devoted fishermen like Dunkelberger can be compared to artists: their pursuit becomes more than just a hobby; it sheds light on other aspects of their lives.

In the case of Dunkelberger, the slow and meditative pace that fishing offers fits him like worn-in waders.

"My dad's never been in a hurry. I was born in the back seat of a car because my dad was not in a hurry to get to the hospital," said Doug Dunkelberger.

Following a series of health problems three years ago, leading to the loss of feeling in his hands and feet, Al Dunkelberger was faced with the scary possibility of never fishing again.

"For a man that worked with his hands all of his life, in construction, in the garden and fishing, the whole thing was upsetting," Al Dunkelberger said.

Although he missed one event due to the illness, the following year he was able to compete with the aid of his son.

Today, although he still cannot button his own shirt, Dunkelberger can bait a hook, cast a line and best yet, fight a fish.

Dunkelberger thanks fishing and gardening, among other things, for his recovery.

"Getting out there and doing it helped me a lot. It is hard work to stand out there for hours," Dunkelberger said with an air of authority. "Sometimes you fish until you physically can't do it anymore."

It is safe to say that Dunkelberger's story is unique nowadays on the island. In 1941, he and his father moved to the island in a house the pair built themselves in Surf City. Although they intended to rent the home to vacationers, they quickly grew fond of the home, and the quick access to fishing, and decided to use it as a year-round residence.

"I loved it here. I spent my honeymoon here," Dunkelberger said.

When work and family obligations consumed much of his free time, the devoted fisherman used the early-morning and late-evening hours to get in his tournament fishing.

Even during those days, he would get out daily during the six-weeks of the tournament.

Again, this year, the veteran fisherman hopes to get in six weeks of solid striped bass fishing.

"Maybe this year, I'll win," he said jokingly.
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