My father, who owned and ran a barge company in New York, told me more than once that New York harbor waters were so full of life-destroying chemicals and noxious germs that his wooden vessels were safe from the worms that in cleaner rivers would eat their exposed timbers. Perhaps the memory of this description made me scoff at recent reports that, over the years, the construction of new sewage treatment plants, the decline in local and trans-ocean shipping, and the closing of a copper refinery in Brooklyn had so purged the waters that sportfishing in the harbor’s center was becoming a popular pastime.
Not necessarily that successful anglers bring their catch home to eat or to feed to their cats. The thrill is sporting rather than culinary. Although some fishermen lose interest in their sport if they are unable to eat what they land, my son Adam and I do not share this disposition, and so I suggested to him that he accompany me in an effort to test New York City’s waters.
We communicated with Captain Joseph Shastay of Jersey City—said by a knowledgeable acquaintance of ours to be the sole fulltime sportfishing guide in New York City waters—who agreed to meet us at the dock at Twenty-third Street and the East River at 8 AM. When the day came, I was on time, but, perhaps disoriented by the promise of catching healthy sport fish in waters I had known as too sordid even for worms, I took two circuits of the parking lot between Twenty-third and Twenty-fourth streets before I recognized that the khaki-clad man who had been sitting on the dock reading the Wall Street Journal was my son. We stood amongst the parked cars, looked at the slips filled with pleasure boats and rental yachts of varied sizes and conditions of cleanliness, and saw no one who resembled a fishing guide.
The possibility of a hoax was beginning to grow in my mind when a 19-foot Mako—a center-console fishing boat powered by a substantial outboard motor—turned the corner of the Twenty-third Street pier. It bristled with fishing rods held in perpendicular holders—all presided over by the very model of a sportfishing guide: a man in his thirties, concealing his face behind the early stages of a reddish-brown beard and a fisherman’s billed cap. Following hasty introductions, we boarded the Mako and headed downstream, pushed along by the East River’s hearty current.
At some time in their careers, addicted anglers will permit themselves to acknowledge, often with a touch of embarrassment, that they do indeed notice the scenery. As the vista of the harbor opened up, I marveled at the view—and at how much had changed. The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island were, of course, permanent landmarks. So were the distant green slopes of Staten Island, the towers of Lower Manhattan, and Governor’s Island. But the whole of Battery Park City was something new and spectacular, as was the New Jersey waterfront, once a dismal collection of warehouses and broken-down piers, now replaced by new housing complexes and a surprisingly handsome railroad terminal.
The biggest change, of course, is on the surface of the harbor, which I can remember as once so crowded with work boats—ferries, coal barges, cargo lighters, railroad car floats, deck scows and ocean-going vessels—that there was little room for pleasure craft. In those days, tugboat captains were expert at cursing misplaced yachtsmen out of the way. Now that same water was all but empty.
After Captain Shastay had approached two anchored fishing boats and consulted with his electronic advisory appliances on the presence of fish in the 35 feet of water beneath his keel, he dropped anchor, handed Adam and me rods, and baited our hooks with slices of mossbunker. This relative of the herring has a very oily body and is netted in great numbers off the East Coast—especially New Jersey. Mossbunker is not eaten: its oil is extracted and used in paint or, dried, as fertilizer. No one who has ever approached a docked purse seiner which has captured large shoals of such fish by encircling them in its enormous net needs to be warned about the pungency of mossbunker flesh.
We used a six- or eight-ounce sinker to hold our bait on or near the bottom against the strong ebbing tide. The captain told us to keep a heavy reel drag on the lines and to raise our rods sharply at the faintest sensation of something moving or snatching at the bait.
As we sat and waited for a bite, I recollected from the days when I worked with my father’s barges that many so-called “captains” who lived in the small, bare cabin at the stern of each wooden vessel actually did fish way back then. They trailed a fishing line behind the barge when it was under tow, fastening the near end to a nail with a bell-like warning device, which they expected to rouse them in time to pull in their dinner. They hoped to catch tomcod, small relatives of the fish that Kipling made famous in Captains Courageous, and which spawned in the winter under the Hudson River ice.
But that this unhygienic system for feeding oneself—so repugnant to my father—had turned into fishing for sport seemed preposterous to me. The substantial cost of hiring captain and boat, and the intense seriousness with which our captain went about his business, struck me as slightly fantastic. To make matters even less congruent with the New York of my younger days, Adam had brought a cellular phone with him, and once his bait settled on the bottom, he began conversing with one of his financial colleagues, high in a nearby office building.
My skepticism melted entirely within minutes, when my son pulled in our first fish. It was a bluefish, as fresh and shiny as though from the purest ocean. And that was only the beginning—at least for Adam. He had developed the requisite sensibility to the light “tap” to which Captain Shastay had alerted us, and by the time I had developed a barely comparable level of skill, we had lost count of the bluefish and striped bass that we’d pulled into the boat.
The largest bass—caught, naturally, by my son, now in his forties, who has been instructing me on the finer points of angling since his twelfth birthday—measured 27 inches in length: impressive, but not a “keeper.” Keepers in New York waters downstream of the Tappan Zee Bridge must be 36 inches long. We would not, I hasten to add, keep any fish anyway: according to the State Department of Conservation, one should eat no more than one portion per month of bluefish or striped bass caught in New York Harbor—which, to me, is a polite way of suggesting that it is better not to eat New York harbor fish at all.
By the time the tidal current went slack and the rapacity of the fish was satisfied, I had caught and released what seemed to me a fair share. They included a big striped bass, though not so large as Adam’s, and a bluefish that fought like a tarpon. The captain generously estimated its weight at ten pounds when I finally brought it aboard.
After raising anchor, the captain turned a full 180 degrees, and we set off past the excursion boats and the Statue of Liberty, heading for the bonny green hills of Staten Island. Part way there, we stopped within twenty feet of a steel deck scow that brought back to me an almost forgotten local custom. Belonging to the New York Trap Rock Company, the scow bore what I took to be the name of a longtime company employee. In my barge days, we had built 12 such vessels of wood for that very company—quite possibly the last wood scows ever built in New York Harbor. Our contract stipulated that on the completion of each vessel, there would be a reception at our shipyard. A recorded version of the “Star-Spangled Banner” would be played, and the wife of the employee-honoree would endeavor to break a bottle of champagne, supplied by us, against the bow of the vessel.
While I was lost in this recollection, Captain Shastay instructed Adam, who firmly believes that no fish is really caught until it has been hooked by means of a fly rod, to place a streamer fly just at the point where the angled front plates of the scow reached the water. He was to let tidal currents take the fly under the scow itself, where Captain Shastay believed the nocturnal striped bass were hiding from the sun. Sure enough, a small striper responded to the fly. Further casts, though, however impeccably placed, failed to produce any action.
At length we moved on, passing a tugboat that was making up a tow of six or eight “light” scows, and headed toward Brooklyn and the Narrows. As we crossed the open space between Brooklyn and Staten Island, the breeze freshened noticeably, the boat slapped the waves, and my companions sighted, at a great distance, flocks of sea birds diving into the water between two old piers at what had been the Brooklyn Army Base. During World War II, it had been one of the harbor’s busy spots; Liberty and Victory ships were loaded there, while their crews tried not to think about the Atlantic crossing that lay ahead.
The wheeling and diving of seabirds, terns especially, suggest the presence of baitfish near the surface—in turn suggesting the presence of sharp-toothed bluefish chasing them from below. But we soon recognized that the terns were not funnelling (the formation in which they fly when truly on the hunt); the splash of feeding fish was nowhere to be seen; and the gulls, who like to comment hoarsely on a real confrontation, were silent. The bluefish, in short, were elsewhere. We ghosted past the decaying concrete and steel docks of the abandoned army base, mementos of courage, death, and destruction as troubling as the overgrown battlefields on the other side of the ocean to which they had dispatched their cargoes, calculated in quantity to make up for the probable losses they would suffer—in ships, tanks, munitions, and human bodies—on the way.
We picked up speed and turned back toward the heart of the harbor. Now that we were out of the wind, the sun felt hotter. With the incoming tide running even more sharply, we dropped anchor on the Manhattan side of the East River, just below the square prow of one of the city’s two unused prison barges, gray monstrosities of steel with small barred portholes. Captain Shastay once again suggested casting to the line where steel hull met river water, to allow the current to take Adam’s fly and my spinning lure under the prison barge where the striped bass were thought to be lurking. But fortune turned against us. Though Adam had a good hit, he did not hook the fish, which continued to irritate him for the remainder of the afternoon. For my part, instead of releasing my line at the end of the casting stroke, I managed to release the spinning rod altogether. Somehow one of my two companions got a grip on the line and laboriously retrieved it from the river, while our captain tried to make me feel less clumsy by claiming that he loses a dozen rods a summer that way.
Discouraged by my ineptitude, I reminded myself that Twenty-third Street was only a short haul away, made even shorter by what was now the rising tide. Adam, however, still humiliated by his failure to hook his fish under the prison barge, wanted another shot, off a rockpile surmounted by a beacon in the East River. I had high hopes that Adam would catch a fish immediately, freeing us to turn back to Twenty-third Street and to give my skin a much-needed respite from the sun.
No such luck. Instead, I hooked a splendid bluefish that fought vigorously, with the tide in his favor. Remarkably, this exercise (it was, after all, a ten-pound fish, according to Captain Shastay) dissipated my weariness. I dropped my line again, hoping, nonetheless, that Adam would catch the next fish, and almost instantly I was engaged with another fish, also ten pounds. I recognized then that if we were ever to get home that evening, I would have to take a stand: I announced that I’d had enough excitement for the day and would fish no more. By the grace of God, the next fish was Adam’s, and a very good one too. Because it was caught on bait rather than a fly, it did not fully compensate him for the lost fish under the prison barge; however, it did enable us to end the day on a note of triumph. So we headed home.