When Howard Films released its classic Running the Coast DVD a few years ago, much of the footage shot along the 1,000-plus miles of Atlantic Ocean coastline that the striped bass moves up and down had to do with the species legendary fall migration.
But if there’s an autumn journey where the fish run southward from Maine on to Montauk and down to the middle Carolinas, there’s also a springtime passage too, a trek where the linesiders push northward to perpetuate the species again, as well as haunt the thoughts of anglers who probe the tidal flats, estuaries, surf filled beaches, and rips and cuts along saltwater jetties each breeding season.
Keith Allonardo, a 46-year old high school teacher from Vineland, N.J., is one of those anglers, a fisherman who was first introduced to the sport by his Uncle Albert.
“I caught my first fish in 1979 when I was five-years old,” said Allonardo. “It was just a stocked trout, but I brought it to my afternoon kindergarten class in a bucket (for show-and-tell).
“I still have that fish hanging on the wall and I still have the rod too,” added the Jersey shore angler who leads a fishing club these day at the school he teaches at. “It was a Zebco 33 rod-and-reel combo that I had won at a school function.”
While Allonardo has dabbled in many piscatorial pursuits over the years – from chasing freshwater largemouth bass to weakfish and bluefish in the Jersey salt – it’s the continual quest for big stripers along the Jersey shoreline that excites him most. After several years of tackling the grand saltwater game with conventional gear, the angler made the switch to the fly rod in 2012, hoping to one day tempt one of the big cow stripers that the Eastern Seaboard is famous for.
With that in mind, it was no surprise that on May 4, 2019, Allonardo found himself prowling a jetty with his Scott A4 8-weight in hand, hoping to tempt a few fish into biting.
“I was fishing for weakies there, but when I didn’t catch any, I changed flies, and after seeing some bait, I thought there might be some schoolie (stripers) around,” he said.
With a 2/0 pink-and-chartreuse fly fresh from his Renzetti Traveler vise, Allonardo’s hickory shad imitation was something of an Electric Chicken hued half-Clouser, half-Deceiver fly, one complete with a rabbit strip tail.
With a handful of birds working in the distance, an overcast sky, a bit of a southeast breeze, an air temp in the mid-60s, and a water temp of about 55-degrees, Allonardo made a few fruitless casts into the 12-foot deep water with the fly tied to the end of his Cabela’s sinking tip fly line and 20-pound Seaguar fluorocarbon leader.
But on the fourth cast off the corner of the jetty, he let the fly sweep a little bit more in the current, sinking for a few seconds before the angler started to slowly strip it back in. Suddenly, the fly stopped dead in the water and the fly angler strip set the hook hard.
“The fish rolled on top (almost immediately) and I saw that it was a good fish,” said Allonardo. “But I didn’t get a great look at it and I thought ‘Maybe it’s a 25-pounder.’ I didn’t realize then just how big it truly was.”
But when the fish reacted to the sting of the Mustad 3407 hook and realized it was hooked, the huge gashes of line coming off of Allonardo’s Nautilus CCF-X2 reel let him know this wasn’t a typical Jersey shore striper.
“As I scrambled down the rocks and got onto the beach, I threw my stripping basket onto the sand and concentrated on making sure the line cleared,” he said. “I got very lucky, had no trouble getting the line onto the reel, and somehow kept tension on the fish as I got down to the beach.”
With Amy, his wife of 10-years filming the fight, Allonardo put some heat on the fish as it peeled line away and exposed the backing on his reel. With an eight-weight fly rod, he was worried about landing the fish quickly enough to protect its health.
“I wasn’t worried about getting spooled, since I was between two jetties and tried to fight it there on the beach,” he said. “The fight lasted about six and a half minutes and the whole time, I didn’t think I was going to be able to land it, especially since I was putting some really good pressure on it.
“I didn’t want to take too long to land the fish and end up killing it, so I just kept the pressure up, although I was certainly thinking about my knots during the fight.”
Fortunately, the knots held firm and true, helping the high school teacher finally get the upper hand in the fly rod fight.
“There were plenty of times I thought I wouldn’t get it in because I couldn’t get it past the surf line,” said Allonardo. “I would try to land it by bringing it up on a wave and let the wave ride it in as I walked backwards, but this one would never really let me do that. It just kept digging back in (to the surf).”
Finally, Allonardo got the massive linesider past the surf, wading out so that he could remove the hook, take a few photos, and let the big cow striper go.
“When I walked up to it to grab it out of the surf line, I thought ‘This is the one, the one I’ve always dreamed about catching sometime in my lifetime,’” he said.
Knowing that the half-way mark on his fly rod was 54-inches, Allonardo quickly did some computations in his mind about how big this striper in his grip truly was.
“I know it was around the 50-inch mark in length, although I’m just guessing on the weight,” he said. “But in my heart, I know it was north of 50-pounds. The tail was bigger than my head, just massive in size. Some have said it was 45-pounds, others say it’s 55, but I don’t really care because I just know it was such a big, beautiful fish.”
Looking at the photos and video of the fly angler’s catch, it’s easy to see how exceptional this Jersey shore giant striper really was, especially when you see how massive the fish is next to the 5-06, 260-pound Allonardo.
After getting some quick video and photos, the fly angler turned his attention to making sure that the fish was revived quickly, swam away strongly, and was successfully released to complete its springtime breeding chores and live to fight another day.
“It clamped down on me in the water immediately, which is a good sign, and tried to thrash away almost immediately (too),” he said. “I only put water through its gills for about 20 seconds, but since it kept trying to swim away, I finally just let it go and do its thing. It didn’t splash really, but it quickly ducked down into the waves and was gone.”
While there’s no way to ever know for sure, the fish that Allonardo fought and released off the Jersey shore a few days ago could have been in potential International Game Fish Association world record territory. A glance at the IGFA’s 2018 record book – specifically the 20-pound tippet class for men - shows a current world record mark of 51-pounds, 5-ounces, a big striper caught in Dec. 2009 in Chesapeake Bay, Va. by Richard C. Keatley.
It’s certainly possible that Allonardo’s big striper was in that vicinity, especially since it spit up an adult sized bunker as he was landing it. But for the enthusiastic fly angler, while such thoughts are nice to think about, he’s satisfied in hooking, landing, and releasing a fish he has spent a lifetime dreaming about.
“When I saw it disappear in the water, I thought ‘I can’t believe that just happened,’” he said. “I’m not embarrassed to say that I sank to my knees and started crying. Everybody has their thing they want to do in life, and this is mine.”
As word spread through social media and Internet fishing forums, Allonardo has become something of an instant fishing celebrity, even hearing from one of the Jersey shore’s most legendary anglers. That angler is Bob Popovics, a restaurant owner and one of the sport’s most innovative fly tiers, as well as a fly angler recently named to Fly Fisherman’s 50 Most Influential Fly Fishers list in the magazine’s 50th Anniversary issue late last fall.
Popovic’s congratulations and message to Allonardo means almost as much to him as catching the striper of a lifetime does.
“He’s such an innovator (in saltwater fly fishing) and he’s had a hand in most of the fly patterns and techniques that I use,” said Allonardo.
“He’s the guy on the East Coast,” he said, before adding “I’m just a nobody in the world of fly fishing.”
For a few days in May 2019, that certainly wasn’t true as Allonardo has become the talk of the Jersey shore, thanks to a striped bass he still has trouble believing he actually caught, photographed, and released.
“Big cow stripers, they are kind of the pinnacle of the sport,” he said. “Just about anyone has a chance to eventually do it with bait, some guys do it with plugs in the surf, but not many ever do something like this with a fly rod,” said Allonardo, noting how humbled he is that fishing’s spotlight and moment of angling accomplishment finally swam his way.
“I honestly thought if I ever did it, it would be from a boat,” he added. “But being able to do it from land - and on a jetty - makes me even more proud.”
Fly anglers around the country understand fully, many dreaming of their own day of kneeling in the water, watching the catch of a fly rodder’s lifetime quickly swim away.