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State parks land a big one with surf fishing tag auction

In Delaware, license plates numbers can confer status. The fewer digits you have, the bigger the bragging rights and, potentially, the fatter your wallet could be should you choose to sell it. Now, as Delaware Public Media’s James Dawson reports, surf fishing enthusiasts get their shot at showing off their state pride with limited edition plates that let them drive on the beach, stake their poles in the sand and wait for a bite.

The scene looks like your typical auction: a small stage with room to see the swag up for bid, eccentric personalities readying their poker faces to juke their competition.

What’s not typical is what bidders are vying for today  - a chance to get their hands on the first numbered surf fishing tags the state’s released since the late 1980s.

They’re similar to their black and white cousins that you can only get if your car is assigned a license plate number below 87,000.

Private sales can fetch tens of thousands and upwards of hundreds of thousands of dollars for those depending on how low the number is according to lowdigittags.com, a middleman for those buying and selling the plates.

Former state Rep. John Atkins (D-Millsboro) sponsored a bill last year allowing the state Division of Parks and Recreation to press the surf fishing tags.

“As a representative, when I was in office, it was one of the biggest constituent requests I had was, ‘John, why don’t they bring it back?’ So I worked on it for three cabinet secretaries in ten years and finally got it done and hopefully, you know, it’s going to raise some money," Atkins said.

And all the money raised will go to the state parks budget.

Rich King, owner of Delaware-Surf-Fishing.com, came early to check out the competition. He has plenty of it, since he’s going for the most coveted plate hitting the auction block, the number two plate. King says he has no bidding ceiling.

"It’s money for the parks, it helps the parks and, in some ways, it’s an investment. Plus, you know, nothing for nothing, but it says Delaware surf fishing on the tag. It kind of seems dumb not to get it,” he said.

Others have more modest aspirations.

Dave Frohnapfel, a network engineer from Wilmington made the two-hour trek south to see if he can drive away with one of the plates on the front of his vehicle for less than $650.

“It very well possibly could go above my, the range I’m willing to pay, but uh hey, if it stays somewhat reasonable, I certainly would love to see one on my truck,” Frohnapfel said.

The first plate on the block – number 100 – started with a bid of $500, and broke Frohnapfel’s budget in a matter of seconds.

After about ten minutes, the hammer fell with a final price of $12,200 with 15 plates left to go.

All but one goes for more than $1,000.

After sitting through several more high-dollar auctions, rolling his hat in between his hands, Frohnapfel decides to leave. He says the plates up for bid are too rich for his blood.

“I could use a car instead of that, but dude, it’s such for a great cause. I’m really happy to see so many people bidding and I think there were 20 people bidding against that plate. So it shows the demand and Delaware really has a nice, rich culture that people are supporting.”

55-year-old Stuart Snyder didn’t bat an eye when he dropped $9,000 for the number 20 plate. He says it’ll be a family heirloom, like the beach house his father left him after he died.

“The tag is more of...a postage stamp versus a beach house, but it’s a neat legacy and it’d be fun to give to my kids and have them say, ‘Gee, thanks, dad,’ when I’m long gone,” Snyder said.

Onlookers warned him to keep a close eye on it if he decides to mount it on the front of his car.

“They said it’s not going to be for long on my car and I figured I’d have to weld it so somebody might not think it’d be a nice addition to their den.”

Eventually, the number two tag is up, with an unknown man ultimately paying $20,500.

He quickly left, refusing interview requests from reporters.

The live auction brought in nearly $114,000.

“That essentially allows us to build a cabin or that’s the equivalent of about 23 lifeguards for us. It’s fabulous that people have been so generous," said state parks director Ray Bivens. "I think it says a lot about how much people love their Delaware state parks and how much they love surf fishing.”

Lots sold online so far have raked in a good bit of cash, too, boosting the current total to about $181,000.

Those who got outbid say they may try their luck at other online auctions, which will run through December.

But those vying for a chance at the number one plate will have to wait until next year, with even fiercer bidding expected when it goes up for auction.