“There comes a time in every man’s life when he is either going to fish
Or do something far worse.” When A Lady Undresses- Havilah Babcock
THE GENTLEMEN OF THE TODT HILL ROD AND REEL FISHING CLUB
The ocean was a little further away now, but that wasn’t going to stop me. Where there is a will (and a bus) there is a way.
I had made a few buddies hanging around the park at the Todt Hill projects on Staten Island who also loved to play sports. We would play stickball for hours behind the park house and basketball games until well after the sun went down. Paddle ball games began at 7 a.m. Everyone played something.
A few of us started talking about fishing. Plans were made and we started doing trips down to local lakes and ponds, then to the beaches on the south shore of SI. We would buy our sandworms the day before at Santo’s on Hylan Boulevard or Scaglione’s on Victory. Cold cuts were procured and sandwiches were made in advance. Big milk jugs filled with Nestea iced tea and a Fig Newton’s sleeve or two.
Packed coolers and all our gear in tow, we would hump it out to Great Kills Park on the 111 Bus, over the hill to the south shore. The bus would leave us a few blocks away, and then there is a road about a mile or so long from the Hylan Boulevard entrance out to the docks we fished on. We either hiked it or hitched a ride out to the marina.
Three of us were Daily News paperboys, used to getting up early to deliver to our routes. After we delivered our Sunday morning papers, we found our way to the water. It kind of kept us out of trouble. If you had to rise at 6 am on Sunday to go fishing, you weren’t staying out late Saturday making trouble. Not too late, at least.
When I was around fourteen, we formed the Todt Hill Rod & Reel Fishing Club. We would seek out fishing spots all over Staten Island and Brooklyn. Bruce Rhodes at the Todt Hill Teen Center helped us get it together. We had bright yellow shirts made up with a crossed rods logo I designed it by hand. I wore that tee shirt every trip until there was more hole than shirt.
There were about ten of us. We fished at least twice a month from March through November. In the winter we would meet and plan future excursions and discuss tackle and technique.
My brother Colin began tagging along with the crew. He was 7 years younger than me. He liked to sleep in and was a huge pain to get out of bed, but he always came. I made ham and bologna sandwiches for lunch and a couple of pbj’s for Colin to eat when we got to the dock. After his hot chocolate and my coffee, of course.
We would sneak onto the docks of the Marina. The fishing was so much better than the public bulkhead. Once in a very blue moon, one of the boat owners would complain and get us kicked off. We would usually sneak back a bit later. It was worth the risk. We’d invariably catch twice as many fish as the people fishing on the bulkheads. We were respectful kids and cleaned up after ourselves, so mostly they just let us be.
The things that we pulled from the water were truly amazing- winter flounder two inches thick, dozens of humpback porgies, doormat fluke, voracious cocktail bluefish, slimy eels that were four feet long and bushels of big Jimmy blue crabs. That was part of the allure to me. You just never knew what the day would bring.
As we fished, we met other people who loved the sea. We were not rich, we did not own boats, but we did have a common connection to the sea. We lived in the nitty, gritty city, but we felt the primitive call of the ocean and all her possibilities. It was like we had been initiated into a brotherhood of people of all different backgrounds and ethnicities who loved to fish and heard the song of the sea, just like us.
Some of those early March mornings were so windy and cold down at Nichol’s Marina. The howling wind would send the rigging of the sailboats whipping against their masts creating a bizarre symphony. I found an odd peace in the wind as it played on the water. Even on those early cold days of spring, someone would land a fish and that would keep the rest of us going. That and waiting for the bells of the familiar brown truck known as the Meal Mobile that just had the best hot dogs for a quarter.
St. Patrick’s Day usually kicked off flounder season. The boys had a four or five year tradition of cutting school (with Mom’s permission) and fishing on the Dorothy B. for flatties. It took two and a half hours to get out to Sheepshead from Staten Island by bus, ferry and subway.
Many seasons these would be the first fish we would catch, but early season flounder fishing is a lot of wishful thinking. Rarely would there be keeper flounder that early. Flounder are among the best of the best to eat. As the harbors and bays warm up and come to life, the flounder get fat and keepers would become more prevalent. The number of fish didn’t really matter. The season had begun once more and we were in it.
We developed an unspoken code as we fished together:
• We did not kill what we didn’t eat.
• No one threw any garbage in the water.
• You had to help even the dorkiest guy catch a fish.
Each summer, we explored and fished nearly every inch of Great Kills Harbor on Staten Island south shore. Great Kills is a relatively deep water harbor that has been the launch point for fishing trips for decades. The harbor is shaped like the inside of a horseshoe with a narrow channel at its mouth. The marina was great for flounder, porgies, sea bass, snapper blues and crabs, but for fluke and a shot at bigger fish like stripers and bluefish, the inlet was where it was at.
In August, blue crabs were everywhere along the docks and we would grab them with scoop nets from the pilings. We let the pregnant females go. A dozen big steamed crabs with melted butter was a great reward after a long day on the water.
Don’t get me wrong; this was not “A River Runs Through It”. Norman McClean’s brilliant novel depicts his nearly religious trout fishing trips in the Montana of his youth. Our water was not always so pretty, but it was all we had.
New York City may not bring to mind quaint nor exotic fishing locales. You might be surprised. If I said the Great Northwest you would picture me landing a mighty salmon. If I said Florida you might see a gorgeous Mahi-Mahi or billfish dancing on the water. Trout, you would picture Montana or western New York State, amid quiet meandering streams and a live line of fat rainbows sparkling in the cool water. But an old bucket with a big fish tails sticking out of it on the deck of a part boat was pretty cool to me.
A few times each summer we would get a lift out to Sheepshead Bay for trips on the party boats for the night trips for bluefish. These were rugged expeditions to foreign seas to catch lots of fish. The boat hawkers would call out at the cars as they passed- “All night blues!” It always reminded me of a New Orleans barker for some naughty nightclub with a great band.
There was always a great mix of characters on board the boats. Every race and nationality that lives in Brooklyn (and that is a lot) has a portion of their population that fishes. Old Brooklyn’s Irish stalwarts from Breezy Point, Jamaican’s from Fort Greene and the Flatbush streets of my boyhood, Hasidim with the curls from Williamsburg, old time Bensonhurst Sicilians who claimed fishing roots back to Palermo, Indian guys with exotic lunches, Koreans who shared their lunches and just plain folk out for a day on the water.
On one particular August night, Bruce, the director of the teen center at the Todt Hill projects, loaded five or six of us in his beat up Dodge Dart and drove across the Verrazano Bridge into Brooklyn with the sun fading in the west.
Most boats still provide free parking in the lots across Emmons Avenue. We parked and unloaded our two big coolers. The big, wide Amberjack pulled out of the bay at 7 p.m. all lit up like a holiday. The trip out is long and many groups begin to play cards. I liked to wait a while and see the city as we pulled out of the bay and into the ocean. It’s big diesels cranked for three hours to a spot off the Jersey Shore. The big anchors are set before we make our first drop.
We were on fish from the start. One after another, Ray and I nailed fish. The whole crew was hitting. When you lock into a school of bluefish it can last for hours. Your arms are good and ripped after pulling up fifteen or twenty ten-pound fish. We caught dozens in the next two hours. Almost everyone had at least 5.
Ray was fishing to my left and this other guy on my right. He was not hitting fish at all. He was getting really aggravated. He was in his mid-thirties. He was cursing the fact that he was not hitting fish. While listening to him I locked into another fish. He huffs and moves ten feet down the rail.
After a couple of minutes of fight I land a nice blue, around 12 pounds. Looking to my right, the guy is laying flat on his back, dead. It was on the news the next day. We sat in stunned silence on the way back. How could this happen?
My old buddy Ray and I always compared observations on these trips. We would pay attention to the old timers they called “sharpies”. They came in all colors and sizes. The sharpies consistently caught more fish than anyone on the boats. It was all in their technique and choice of equipment. We used to watch them and learn.
We spied on them like the CIA. When one of them caught a fish, we would interrogate each other searching for the secrets these guys possessed.“What bait is he using?” “ What kind of rig?” “How far off the bottom was he?” “Was he bouncing?” These were serious matters and we studied like ninjas.
We started having smaller group pools for the “high hook” (most fish rather than biggest). I started to pull away from some of my more casual peers in fish totals. I employed new rigs, baits and techniques and my fish luck grew. Discovery has taken patience and patience has paid off handsomely over the years. We became better fishermen. I still fish with some of those guys.
“Over the rail and in the pail!” is what we would cry when a nice fish came in.
For years now, I have fished with old friends, my brothers, nieces, nephews, relatives and business colleagues. Fishing is a sport that is open to every skill level.
You can never tell what that perfect moment might be, but you know when it happens. It burns a golden memory in your mind. Like a dog-eared page of a well-loved book, this will become an easy port of entry into a world of magic in the sea by the city.
I have had days on the water when fish sacrificed themselves on every cast. Bluefish, when feeding, are as voracious as any shark of your imaginations. Big ones go 17+ pounds and they will rip up your arms if you hook into one.
It could be catching the pool fish with your brother; it might be the cheerful camaraderie of ball-busting with friends old and new; it might be a solid moment of solitude as you stand on the bow of a party boat rocketing home from the fishing grounds as the salt breeze kisses your wind whipped cheeks.
You choose from your own memories. A fisherman remembers them all, even the ones that got away.
Excerpts from “Hungry man. Tiny kitchen. Big city.” by James K. Shaffer. ©2017 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
NEXT- THE ADVENTURES OF THE URBAN ANGLER