Kissing fish: Take a ride on the Miss Avalon

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In a Miss Avalon tradition, Kelly Levin of Bensalem kisses her first catch of the day, a sea bass. Too small to keep, it went back in the water.

Jack Snyder was having one of those days you don't forget.

Freckle-faced Jack and his crew-cut dad, Andy, were deep-sea fishing a few miles off Wildwood, N.J., on the 78-foot party boat Miss Avalon. Nine-year-old Jack had never dropped a line in the ocean before, and the fish were giving him a big welcome: In all, Jack brought about nine of them to the surface (it was hard to keep track after a while), sometimes with his own rod, sometimes with the rod of a neighboring angler who let Jack reel in a hooked fish. Standing in Miss Avalon's stern, Jack even scored a double-header - two sea bass on the same rig.

For the Snyder family of Phoenixville, history was repeating itself. Nearly 30 years earlier, Andy was a freckle-faced boy of 8, fishing off an earlier version of Miss Avalon with his grandfather. Andy, whose face at 36 still has a few freckles, did so well back then that he won the daily pool for biggest fish. He told an Inquirer reporter who was aboard that day in 1987 that he needed the money to buy a skateboard.

Andy Snyder and his son, Jack, 9, (center) of Phoenixville show off a big trigger fish, the catch of the day and winner of the ship's pool. ( Ed Hille / Staff Photographer )

That kind of generation-to-generation loyalty would be enough to bring a smile to the face of any business owner, but for Capt. Irv Hurd, the pony-tailed skipper of Miss Avalon, it's more than a matter of revenue: It's evidence of karma.

"I don't like to be driven by the dollar," Hurd says as he pilots his boat across gentle swells toward the day's first fishing spot.

Miss Avalon's captain, Irv Hurd, 53, guides the 78-foot party boat to the deep-sea fishing grounds a few miles off Wildwood, N.J., who works a seven-day week from mid-May through September. ( Ed Hille / Staff Photographer )

"I like people," he explains, and that means making sure the folks who go out on Miss Avalon have a good time. "To put up with these kinds of hours, you have to enjoy your work," says Hurd, 53, who works a seven-day week from mid-May through September.

Hurd is the third member of his family to captain a boat called Miss Avalon, which, unsurprisingly, operates out of Avalon. His grandfather, also named Irv Hurd, started the business and skippered the boat until 1972. His uncle, Jerry Hurd, had the helm from 1972 to 2012, when the current Capt. Hurd took over. Four boats have borne the name Miss Avalon over those years.

Miss Avalon is one of more than 20 party boats based along the South Jersey shore, from Barnegat Light to Cape May. Like Miss Avalon, most of them run half-day trips at this time of year, selling an inexpensive slice of saltwater sport and an activity that parents and kids can enjoy together. A few boats do whale and dolphin watching cruises, and Miss Avalon does evening nature cruises twice a week.

There are no leaping marlin or deep-diving tuna on these excursions, but there is a reliable supply of sea bass, triggerfish, flounder, croaker, and the like. Drop your line to the bottom and haul 'em in. Put a few bucks in the pool and maybe win enough to cover your trip.

When the lines go down and cries of "Fish on!" start coming, the deck of Miss Avalon becomes a theater as Hurd and his crew - son, Brandon, 23, the first mate; Nicky McDonagh, 18, off to the University of Tennessee in a few weeks; and Tony Sonner, a longtime Avalon bartender who gave up pouring drinks for fishing - scurry around taking fish off hooks, measuring them, throwing the small ones back, putting the keepers in a well, and urging the anglers to kiss their catch. (Yeah, you read that right.)

On a recent Tuesday morning, Miss Avalon carried 32 passengers through Townsend's Inlet and into the Atlantic Ocean, where the cool breeze was a refreshing change from the heat wave of the preceding few days.

Kelly Levin, 42, a preschool teacher from Bensalem, caught one of the first fish, a sea bass, but only 10 inches - 21/2 inches under the limit.

"I'm very excited," she said. And, yes, she puckered up for her catch before the crew tossed it back in the ocean.

It didn't bother Levin that her first catch wasn't a keeper. "I'm planning on catching something bigger," she said. "That was practice."

Over on the starboard side of the stern sat Jim Tracy, 62, a meat cutter at the Acme in Seaville. Tracy, who lives in nearby Clermont, is a regular on Miss Avalon: He goes out every Tuesday morning.

"It's my release," he explains. "It's a sanctuary; it's beautiful. It doesn't get any better than this. Any man who doesn't like this, there's something wrong."

With noon approaching, the Miss Avalon headed in. It had been a good morning, with the fish biting well on the boat's last drift, which made the skipper happy. That was just the right order - best fishing at the end instead of the beginning.

And as for Andy Snyder, he won the pool again, just as he had 28 years before. History does repeat itself. Or maybe it was karma.

Miss Avalon
Where: Docks at 1400 Ocean Dr., Avalon, N.J.
Hours: June-September: Two trips daily, 8 a.m. to noon and 1 to 5 p.m.
Target species: Sea bass, blackfish
Admission: Adults, $46; children, $32; $4 to rent a fishing rod.
Information: 609-967-7455, missavalon.com.
For more info on other boats in the region: www.mels-place.com or www.njfishandwildlife.com.