SOMERS POINT, N.J. -- Backing the 45-foot pontoon boat out of its slip and onto fog-shrouded Great Egg Harbor Bay, Duke O' Fluke skipper Brook Koeneke heads out for another fishing trip. Around him, his passengers have their poles at the ready.
John Weber, 66, brought his grandsons Joe Mirenda, 10, and Steven Mirenda, 12. "We have a summer place at a campground and they're staying with us," he said. "We're doing grandkid things."
John Folz, a regular, is also on board for the four-hour trip, which he prefers to fishing on his own boat. "You can fish. You don't have to worry about drifting or cleaning the boat," said Folz, a 37-year-old contractor from Richboro, Pa.
The Duke O' Fluke is one of a half-dozen Atlantic City-area party boats that offer fishing trips, charters and nature cruises on the back bays. The excursions attract vacationing tourists looking to spice up their week at the shore, serious fishermen who like the laid-back atmosphere of the boat, and landlubbers who need help with everything, from baiting their hooks to reeling in their catch. Similar fishing excursions are offered in many waterfront communities around the country, a big draw for anglers of every variety.
As the trip progresses, Koeneke and first mate Michael "Ponytail Mike" Mulveen dole out helpful hints, gutting services and good-natured gibes. Mulveen, 51, combines the gruff facade of an old sea salt with the patience and intuition of a schoolteacher.
He tends to the fishermen who stand elbow-to-elbow along the rails, untangling lines, baiting hooks, netting fish; Koeneke -- a former accountant and contractor who bought the boat 11 years ago -- pilots it and scopes out the spots where the fish might be biting.
"It's a great opportunity for a family," said Koeneke, standing at the helm, his long gray hair pulled tight under a Duke O' Fluke baseball cap.
On this day, there are 36 aboard, many of them vacationers from nearby Ocean City, some on the Duke for the first time.
As the boat pulls away from the dock just after 8 a.m., Ponytail Mike explains the rules: No illegal drugs, no jumping overboard, $50 charge for lost reels, and when you feel a tug on your line, yell, "Fish on!"
Then comes the important part: "We have a pool on this boat. It's three dollars each. If you catch the heaviest legal fish, you win the pool," he says, walking around the boat collecting tickets and pool money as it accelerates into open water.
It's length, not weight, that decides what gets kept and what gets tossed back. By state regulation, a flounder must be 16 1/2 inches long to be kept.