Cast Party

Fishing in Prospect Park Lake

The lake was stocked on and off between 1909 and 1979. Many of those species—bass, black crappie, pumpkinseed, brown bullheads, suckers, golden shiners—remain. Others arrived by less official means. The goldfish—some up to seven pounds—were probably once the inhabitants of a kid's aquarium. So, most likely, was the piranha one fisherman claims he caught. (Even if this fish story is true, a piranha wouldn't survive the winter.) The DEC study remarked on a white sucker, guessing that it had probably been liberated by a Buddhist sect that "commonly releases animals, including fish, in the park."

There are other oddities. Miranda says one day he and a buddy were fishing near a spot called the mudhole when suddenly his friend felt something bite. He wrestled with the fish, pulling it mightily to one side. But as he drew his catch to the surface, an arm suddenly emerged from the water. A spinner bait—which sports jaunty feathering and a twirling metal plate, plus several hooks—had snagged the shirt of a corpse. (Miranda learned later the body was that of a despondent woman who'd been missing for months.)

Except when it comes to floaters, the Parks Department's fishing policy is catch and release. The only person enforcing that rule is Michael Jordan, the DEC's sole environmental conservation officer for Kings County. Jordan is loath to fine the few people he thinks are starving, but he has ticketed some recreational gluttons, like the man he discovered making off with 70 sunfish on a string.

"A lot of the people are Russian-speaking or Asian-speaking, and then I have a communication barrier," Jordan says. He tries sign language, scooping the captive fish from their buckets and sliding a finger across his throat. Or he says: "Nyet! Nyet!" "I know nyet," he laughs.

When Jordan was growing up in Flatbush in the '60s and '70s, his friends actually swam in the park. But the Albany-based DEC historically pays scant attention to New York City. The Prospect Park Alliance is considering selling state fishing licenses, which Jordan hopes will encourage the DEC to send down biologists and maybe someday even stock the lake. (Though at this point, park officials say, there are enough fish.) Next week, Jordan will watch some of the urban kids in the Macy's contest get their first lessons. "Fishing is fun," he says.

Aquatic biologist Brandon Muffley is all for fishing. But bass notwithstanding, he says, the lake has a host of problems: plumed phragmites sprout everywhere; the orthophosphates the city pumps into its water supply to prevent mineral buildup in pipes make the floating weeds grow wild; summer temperatures in the shallow waters can rise so high they practically cook the fish; oxygen levels get frighteningly low. "Is this really what an ideal healthy lake looks like, just because we have these big game fish?" Muffley asks.

Whatever bureaucratic struggles may ensue, the life of the lake goes on. One day soon, Charles Barnes plans to bring his fiancée's two daughters to the park. "I'll get them two little poles and teach them fishing just like my father taught me," he says. "I'm keeping the faith."

The fishing contest is open to kids aged 15 and under. For information, call 718-965-8954.

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