By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
It is interminable. It is misery. It is fishing.
And as it happens, good fishing. Very good fishing. As the boat dips and lurches over the wind-driven whitecaps, over 40 striped bass are hooked, played, landed, and released. Fortitude is an attribute often associated with fishermen, but that's just a euphemism for greed, or better, fishlust. Tonight requires madness, not courage. At regular intervals the wind upsets an iron gate somewhere in the gloomy industrial distance. "Clang," tolls the gate, a foreboding accompaniment to the obsessive tai chi of fishing: cast, lift, jig, drop-strike!-set, pump, and reel. Prosec, a Connecticut-based publicist, is here with her brother and client, the angling writer and painter James Prosec. We are all the guests of Terry Schultz, president of the Catskill Fly Fishing Center and Museum in Livingston Manor, New York. The anglerati are here because in the arctic cold, under the cover of darkness, and, yes, in that most maligned of rivers, the bite is on.
And that, says Dennis Lee, our captain for the night, is nothing unusual. "The East River's been great, very productive," he says. Lee lives on the Lower East Side and also works as a photographer to supplement his income from charter fishing. "We get guys who've been fishing Montauk and the Catskills, and sure, they've caught a few fish. Then they come out here with a fly rod and knock out 30 to 40 fish in a night."
Of course, that was soon to change. Hotbeds of industry replaced the hotbeds of oysters. Our waterways became little more than a municipal toilet struggling to flush a mind-boggling volume of noxious waste from trades as varied as oil refineries and dead animal disposal, not to mention the untreated fecal matter from the growing, madding crowd (600 million gallons per day in 1910). Unsurprisingly, the stripers responded to this assault by promptly fleeing. The oysters and anything else lacking locomotive capacity simply died. During the late teens and early '20s the harbor acquired the nasty habit of occasionally exploding into flames. Little wonder our little portion of the shining sea earned a reputation for containing corpses, condoms, and very little else.
Finally, in 1972, an increasingly conservation-minded nation passed the Clean Water Act, which required that American waterways be open to fishing and swimming by 1985. "It took some time for the situation to reversea bit like turning an ocean liner aroundbut by the 1990s dissolved-oxygen levels had roughly doubled from their midcentury nadir," writes John Waldman in Heartbeats in the Muck: A Dramatic Look at the History, Sea Life and Environment of New York Harbor, which will be published by Lyons Press in January.
Waldman, a lifelong striper fisherman, marine scientist, and research associate at the Hudson River Foundation, has been studying, catching, and lobbying for the striped bass since the early '80s. "What people don't understand," says Waldman, "is how far the harbor's come, and just how bad it used to be." A path to enlightenment might include extended exposure in inclement conditions. Penetrating the cold, the gloom, and umpteen layers of polypropylene and wool is the epiphany: The tide is timeless; the city is not.
Yet despite some 500-odd miles of coastline in the five boroughs alone, New York is not a true coastal city. New York's waters seem incidental: the unfortunate barrier under and over which we travel to get from the inside (Manhattan) to the outside (anywhere else). "There are once again more rare species and communities of fauna and flora in the metropolitan area than anywhere else in the state," Waldman says. Who knew?