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The Incongruous Urban Angler

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from the magazine

The Incongruous Urban Angler

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 thei Autumn 1994

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

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

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
, 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.

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