Put simply, Keith Allonardo loves history, fly fishing and big stripers, and not necessarily in that order.
That’s all highly understandable when one considers that the 46-year-old is a passionate saltwater fly fisherman from Vineland, N.J., a spot not far from the famed Jersey shore where stripers roam the coast each spring, summer, and fall.
It’s also not surprising when you add in the fact that Allonardo is a high-school history teacher, sponsor of a high-school fishing club, and an angler who has enjoyed piscatorial pursuits since his Uncle Albert introduced him to the sport at age 5. That’s when he promptly caught a trout and was – pardon the pun – hooked on fishing for life.
While he’ll chase just about anything from largemouth bass to bluefish to weakfish to salmon with the fly rods he owns, it’s the striped bass that really gets his blood pressure boiling.
“I love the striped bass for its history, for the fact that it’s one of the larger game fish on our coast,” said Allonardo. “But it’s also such a great sport fish, and that can be true whether or not it is 10 inches long or weighs 50 pounds. No matter what size the striper is at the end of a fly line, it’s still amazing.”
A serious fisherman for years, Allonardo says he has been surf fishing for the last couple of decades, using conventional tackle early on and fly-fishing gear in recent years.
“I was catching some bigger fish on conventional gear, but I wanted to do it on fly rod,” he said. “I had a short stint with fly rods in the early 2000s, but it never really stuck back then. But I got really passionate about it (the fly rod) in 2012.”
After catching a 50-pound striper on conventional tackle years ago as he fished with a live bunker, Allonardo’s longtime dream has been to land a truly big striper, one of the big cows that migrate up and down the Eastern Seaboard every year.
“April and May, that is the time to target the pre-spawners that are coming in,” he said. “In the fall, it’s October and November. That’s when I caught my biggest striper on the fly before this, a fish that went just over 20 pounds. I didn’t weigh it officially, but I caught it on Thanksgiving Day two years ago.”
After visiting one spot on Saturday, May 4, 2019, Allonardo eventually relocated to a new location where no fish were biting - and the gnats were – at the first stop along the Atlantic Ocean coastline. Once he relocated, it didn’t take long for Allonardo’s luck to change.
“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.
Video: Keith Allonardo Catches Huge Striper in the Surf
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.
“Basically, I like to throw chartreuse for stripers, pink for weakies, so I used that one thinking I’m fishing for both,” he said.
Influenced by the fly tying patterns and fly fishing strategy of fellow New Jersey saltwater fly rod specialist Bob Popovics – who was recently named to Fly Fisherman’s 50 Most Influential Fly Fishers list in the magazine’s 50th Anniversary issue late last fall – Allonardo had high hopes as he tied the new pattern on.
But even so, nothing could prepare him for what was about to happen next.
“I think it was my third or fourth cast,” said Allonardo, who was using an 8-weight Scott fly rod, a Cabela’s sinking tip line, and a 20-pound Seaguar fluorocarbon leader. “It wasn’t that long of a cast, the distance maybe hit about 30 feet out in a spot where it drops into 10 or 12-feet of water.”
As he worked the fly off the corner of the jetty, Allonardo let the pattern sink for a few seconds in the current before he 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.
“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.
Finally, Allonardo got the massive linesider past the surf line, 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. By his estimate, the fish was near the 50-inch mark and weighed in the 50-pound range.
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.”
What does Allonardo do for an encore now that he’s checked off one of the biggest goals on his angling bucket list? Simple, he’s going to load up and go fishing again, hoping to catch a few more fish on the fly.
“I think I own just over 20 fly rods and I do a little bit of everything with them, chasing everything from trout to bass to saltwater species to even salmon fishing up in New York,” he said.
“I have a van all decked out for fly fishing, and many times, I’m down by the river,” he added with a laugh.
Does he have any parting advice for those who would like their own moment of catch-and-release striper fun?
“Don’t stop casting, next cast could be the one!” said the New Jersey fly angler.
If anyone knows the truth of that statement, Keith Allonardo does.