Passion Fish

In New York's Turbulent Harbors, the Striped Bass Are Biting Again

"I tell people what I do and their first question is whether the fish have two heads and three eyes," says Captain Lee. "Their next question is whether I keep the fish." The answer, he says, is very, very rarely. It's a good thing, too. Due to lingering PCP contamination, the New York State Department of Environmental Control has set a health limit on stripers caught in harbor waters. Eating more than one per month may be hazardous to your health.

"The people who are out there night and day in every season aren't just there to catch fish," says Rob Maass, a striper devotee and filmmaker. His current project is a documentary about the various fishing cultures on the bay. "It's a seeming contradiction in many ways, but the people fishing in a dense, urban environment do it to get in touch with the natural cycles and rhythms of a marine system."

Urban anglers, of course, have a very different relationship to the water than their more bucolic counterparts. Captain Joe Shastay, for whom Lee works, owns one of two guide services that focus on the East River. If an archetype of the urban angler were needed, it would be Shastay. A full-time fireman and marine biologist as well as a fishing guide, Shastay spent years combing the depths of the harbor, participating in environmental surveys and following the movements of the fish. He emerged as the hands-down authority on fishing the harbor.

Fish out of water: the lure of the East River.
photo: Michael Sofronski
Fish out of water: the lure of the East River.

It is partly to Shastay's credit that the delicate art of fishing with a fly has been applied to gritty spots like the Domino Sugar factory piers instead of more rarefied waters upstate or out on Long Island. A recent day with Shastay found us anchored beside the Manhattan heliport. "There's fish right under that pier," Joe says. "Catch 'em before we get kicked out."

True to his word, the pier holds fish. It's pure urban angling, guerrilla-style. The passing helicopters blow the Mako across the water like a toy boat; we scream to be heard over the roar of the blades; unidentifiable flotsam bobs past and the sun glints piercingly off the Citibank building. Amidst the tumult and chaos, we keep catching fish until the guards yell at us to move on.

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