ADVENTURES OF AN URBAN ANGLER

verraz 73
Verrazano 1973 by courtesy of nycedges

There’s a fine line between fishing and standing on the shore looking like an idiot.”     Steven Wright

“Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.” Henry David Thoreau

As a kid growing up in New York City, it was difficult to find clean, safe places to fish in the ocean. There were many dilapidated piers and polluted beaches. The only news I read about our local waters was either reports of medical waste washing up and closing beaches or an oil spill clogging the water with big black globs of tar.

By the early eighties things began to slowly change for the better.

Staten Island does have some hidden gems. There are mornings when you are fishing the inlet at Great Kills that you may as well be in Maine or Oregon. The fishing pier in Midland beach is like the ones you see on Florida’s white beaches.

IMG_3529
March Great Kills Harbor inlet at low tide.

When I was old enough to use the NYC transit system, I made my way to the water to fish as much as I could.  Staten Island the 111 or 103 buses out to Great Kills Park. In Brooklyn I would take the D train to Sheepshead Bay.

There were also a number of freshwater ponds (Shore Acres and Brady’s Pond) on Staten Island where I would take my tag along brother Colin for blue gills and catfish when we could not get to the ocean. There was a will and we found the ways. We would spend days long in the sun and spent lots of time talking, mostly about fishing, but really about life.

When we formed the Todt Hill Rod & Reel Fishing Club in 1977, we were dedicated to find good fishing spots on Staten Island. As the 80’s came, some of the guys from the fishing club stuck with it. Our adventures started taking us to different spots around Staten Island and Brooklyn. We spoke of making a trip out to Montauk like it was far away Valhalla.

Local anglers say that Raritan Bay has some of the best fishing in the Northeast, superior to anything found in New Jersey or Long Island, except for Montauk. Baitfish swim into the bay in April and May and stay for two or three months, the bigger fish follow. It is a habitat that lends itself to supporting a fishery, as long as the water was clean enough, and by the end of the 70’s the water was getting cleaner. You could see it.

By early May, bigger winter flounder were all over Raritan Bay. We took different buses (103) out to places like Prince’s Bay and Lemon Creek and caught some nice fish out that way. The storm drains in South and Midland beaches were great spots for when the bluefish were chasing bait into shallow water.

bus 103
S103 Bus, Staten Island courtesy of oldstatenisland.org

Oakwood Beach was a great spot for fluke in early summer. I remember standing knee deep in water bouncing my bait along the bottom while Christopher Cross’ “Sailing” played low on my small radio on the beach thinking “Yeah, this is pretty good stuff.”

In the autumn, several spots under the Verrazano Bridge were known hotspots for cow sized striped bass and the decaying piers of the harbor facing North Shore were just the right environment for fat blackfish in October and November. My buddy Chris and I used to get down to Pier 8 at 7:30 on Sunday mornings and fish for blackfish and sea bass until we couldn’t take the cold anymore and the lure of hot chocolate and a 1 p.m. Jet game beckoned.

pier 8
Remnants of Pier 8 courtesy of Mapcarta.com

Still, as we tried different spots, over the next couple of years, we must have made that trip out to Great Kills on the 111 (one eleven) bus a hundred times. It was easy to get to and the park that contained our side of the harbor, Gateway, is federally protected. It was a nicer beach than South or Midland beaches. On hot summer days, some of the neighborhood girls would come along and sun on the beach while we fished. It started to feel like the big neighborhood trips out to Manhattan Beach in early 1970’s Brooklyn with coolers and chairs, plus all our fishing and crabbing gear. The bus driver smiled as we loaded onto the bus.

Very often, those coolers returned home with fish fillets and live blue crabs with new ice layered in to the bottom to keep fresh our bounty. That Sunday bus driver just smiled as we loaded on the gear. We laughed as we told stories of our day as the 111 bus chugged up and over the hill. We were sun-kissed from being outside all day and giddy from being young and alive. We’d sing “Come Sail Away” by Styx or “Baker Street” changing the songs lyrics to fishing lyrics, like some goofball rappers before rap really arrived.

 

I got my first car at 17 and that opened the door to wider adventures by the sea. The guys chipped in on gas and tolls (Verrazano Bridge toll at the time was $1 each way) and we made offshore trips on the party boats for cod and ling in the cooler weather. Striper boats used eels at night to entice the big fish that fed out in the channel in late May and again in the fall. If you get lucky on a midsummer trip for fluke or blues, the unicorn of our local waters, the weakfish, could make an appearance in rolling, flashing schools of finicky fish. Big sandworms will do the trick if they are biting, nothing entices them if they are not.

blackfish
Blackfish caught under bridge, Jamaica Bay, Brooklyn.

Blackfishing was another game altogether. Blackfish are smart and strong wreck dwelling fish with big calcified teeth for eating crabs and barnacles of all kinds. Hook one and pull him up quick, otherwise he will wrap around structure and break your heart. Real hardcore sharpies are on these boats midweek, stocking their freezers with amazing fillets.

We did trips for blue crabs down on the Jersey Shore in high summer, spending all day chucking chicken backs and bunker heads out in pull traps and on drop lines. My pulse still quickens when I recall slowly retrieving the taut drop line, certain a big Jimmy crab was ravenously tearing away at the bait. Timing the perfect moment to position the scoop net under him and up, trapping his bright blue fury in the bottom of the net.

blue crab fighter
Blue crab.

Every summer, the guys from the fishing club stayed in touch and still got together for trips, but there were girls now and you did what you could. Beers were introduced to the mix and added some fun as long as you kept it in check. To see a man hungover and seasick is a hard thing to watch, until the jokes started. “How about a warm egg salad sandwich with pickles and butter?”

Times were changing. Some of us went off to college, others started their own businesses and some became firemen or brokers. No Facebook, no cell phones, no answering machines and no worries. I’ll see you around the Holidays.

 

I went to Brooklyn College and stayed at home. I liked going back to the old Brooklyn neighborhood. We’d lived only blocks away from the campus nearly a decade earlier. I worked at Goodhue Camp in the summer and got a job bartending a few nights a week at a bar on Bay Street called The Thunderbird Lounge.

Bay Street in the early Eighties was at the beginning of a rebirth of the north shore of Staten Island. At first, The Paramount and The Choir Loft were the destination night spots to go to. Soon, a dozen or so new places sprouted up and young people from all over the Island headed to Bay Street. The Paramount hosted punk and new wave bands like The Ramones, A Flock of Seagulls, The Dead Kennedy’s and the B-52’s.

Soon places like Dock of the Bay, Haunted Café, Harbor Light’s, Waterside 519, Red Spot and Wave Street. We drank, we danced and saw some great music. I’m still friends with many of the people I shared that golden era with. We were good kids having a blast with life.

Vintage Bay Street Matchbooks
Vintage Bay Street Matchbooks courtesy of SILive.com

Between college, working and having fun, we still fished. We sailed on party boats out of Point Pleasant and Belmar down the shore for ocean fluke and bluefish. “Magic Hour” trips (6-10 pm or so) on days where we made time for fishing became the new thing.

Since moving to Manhattan in 1986, I have had to become even more creative in my attempts to satisfy my fishing craving. You may have seen me on the D or Q train headed to Sheepshead Bay with my rod. Or maybe you saw me down at the Battery, chunking bunker for blues and stripers. When I am on the subway carrying a fishing rod, many people smile, either out of sympathy or memories of their own fishing days. Old Chinese men nod and smile knowingly and the Caribbean guys always want to know what is running and what bait I am using.

On Manhattan’s eastern shore, the fast moving East River has rebounded to become a fishing hot spot for New York City anglers. Kids have been cutting school to wet a line in the Hudson and even guys working on Wall Street are getting in on the action with saltwater flies flicking off the piers early on summer mornings.

 

One a golden Saturday last fall I saw more than a dozen private boats, a party boat from Jersey City, a six-pack striper charter, and fifteen shore anglers working the East River cove by 20th Street and the F.D.R. Drive. Stripers love this area.

There were dozens more people fishing on the Brooklyn-Queens side, too. The East River is a tidal strait that funnels fish between Long Island Sound and the Atlantic. Improved sewage treatment and the rehabilitation of waterfront access areas have created better fishing opportunities for today’s urban fisherman. You can see the water alive with a school of small stripers or a pod of snapper blues, just a few blocks from the subway.

The last few years have shown a dramatic and positive change in the water around New York. Encouraging signs include new clam, oyster and mussel beds, barnacle growth, sea worms, crustaceans, and a solid body of juvenile fish. The varied structure provides good fishing as conditions change.

I’ve seen fishermen use jigs or fresh bait lowered near the pilings at the north end of South Street Seaport Pier with great effect. It’s a great postcard setting as anglers catch stripers with the Brooklyn Bridge as a backdrop and the tourists look on in amazement.

Directly across from the South Street Seaport Pier is the Fulton Street Pier on the Brooklyn side. People fish the pier and along the bulkhead extending north into Brooklyn Bridge Park. Observe how the local eddy currents swirl and change direction. Learn where you can hold bottom best as the tidal conditions change. High early morning tides are very productive.

Frozen clam, bunker, sandworms and squid make great East River baits. Plugs and spoons also work in areas where you can throw them.

With the FDR above or behind you, the river walkway is lined with wooden pilings that hold a surprising variety of fish throughout the season. Simply lower your rig, and fish from piling to piling. Give a few minutes to each, and then move on. Drop once on the piling and also make a cast outward. Once you locate the more productive areas, your catch will increase. Mark the spot.

In this water, a nice trailing piece of clam or a fresh bergall fillet does the trick. Simply hit the bottom and walk it with the current. Use just enough lead so you can bounce it along the bottom.

My outfit for this type of fishing is a seven foot, one-piece, graphite Shimano rod with a sensitive tip. The reel is a Penn spooled with 30-pound-test monofilament line. It is sensitive enough to make smaller fish fun and heavy enough to handle a bluefish or striper.

During the summer months, an ultra light-spinning outfit is perfect for tossing jigs and small lures at snappers. The standard surf spinning tackle comes out when the big blues are around as the summer progresses.

Since a fishing trip is only a fifteen minute walk from my home, my fishing season never ends. If the wind is down and the sun is bright and the fish itch strikes, I can go and kid myself.

I still love my Sheepshead Bay party boat trips on the Jet and the Dorothy B VIII, but access to the East River definitely extends my fishing season on days when I can’t fish all day.

The thermal outflow from the Con Edison plant seems to hold fish well into the cold months. Spring fishing begins early, before the party boats have even started going out, and the summer brings a wealth of activity along the whole river.

 

There are many opportunities for both the wading and boating angler throughout New York City, Long Island and New Jersey. You can fill in your favorite colors and tones. You’ll have your own memories with lines attached to them.

One of my favorite times every year is taking my niece, Annie, crabbing and snapper fishing down on the Keyport docks. The torch has been passed, in a way.

I’ll be out there all summer. I will see you on the Q train on the way to Sheepshead Bay or the LIRR out to Montauk.

You look towards me and greet my position near the door on the train with a wink, a nod and a smile. You will have your own sunshine days on the. We share that for a moment.

Whether it was sunnies in a distant lake or catfish on some lazy river or fluking on the Jersey Shore with you old best friends, you remember. I do, too.

Some of the best memories of your life may be at the end of the line. On long fishless days on party boats old timers would tell me about the good old days. The stream that leads me to the past can be found on a Sunday afternoon in Sheepshead Bay.

The old green Breyer’s Ice Cream signs on the luncheonette storefronts are mostly gone.
They have been replaced with new signs written in Russian nail shops and boutiques.

Still, when the wind is just right, I can imagine the scent of coconut suntan lotion, taste the clams with a cold beer and hear Ron Lundy on 77 WABC playing “Hot Fun In The Summertime” by Sly and The Family Stone, I can remember the best times of my life. These are my good old days.

JKS

July 28, 2017

Excerpts from “Hungry man. Tiny kitchen. Big city.” by James K. Shaffer. ©2017 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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