Charles Barnes stares across the wide waters of Prospect Park Lake, gazing back in time. Over by the broken tree, his father once hooked a bass that jumped gloriously above the water, and then got away. Nothing could top that, except maybe the 30-pound carp—”so big it filled up my bathtub.” In the 1970s, when his family was on public assistance, “fishing was a lot of how we survived.” For the price of a 35-cent token and a 50-cent loaf of Italian bread, they could catch enough bass to eat for a week.
Back then, fishing in Brooklyn was hardly a secret. The wildly popular Abraham & Strauss Junior Angler’s contest, which attracted as many as 5000 boys and girls every summer, awarded prizes like English bicycles and tackle boxes, and wrapped up with a giant fish fry. “I won a nice little trophy,” Barnes, 34, recalls. Now Macy’s, which took over the contest in 1995, runs it as a scaled-back, seven-day event. It begins July 10 this year.
The contest will no doubt bring a new crop of anglers, though many have come and gone over the years, and a small group of old-time winners never left. Today, the lake and its piscine inhabitants are on the verge of rediscovery.
Having already embarked on a major restoration of Prospect Park’s woodlands—Brooklyn’s only forest—park workers are slowly turning their attention to the murky waters of Brooklyn’s only freshwater lake. Its 55 acres were dug by hand, to a depth of about seven feet, in the 1860s. The lake is like a big sink, fed by tap water that pours out of a pipe hidden in some rocks near the ballfields and ultimately spills into a sewer not far from the parade grounds on the park’s south end.
“It’s completely human-controlled,” says Prospect Park aquatic biologist Brandon Muffley. “We can turn it on, or we can shut it off and choke this whole system.”
Within those parameters, nature asserts itself. In October 1997, the Parks Department and the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) decided to inventory the lake’s marine life. They went electrofishing one night, zapping the waters along the shoreline with a 200-volt device (which stuns but doesn’t kill), then weighed and measured whatever floated up. They found 942 fish of nine species in four hours and 25 minutes.
The overwhelming majority—697 fish—were bluegill sunnies less than six inches long, but largemouth bass—a thrilling, explosive sport fish—came on strong. With 170 specimens, many of them over 18 inches long, the DEC proclaimed the lake the second-best spot for bass on all of Long Island, after Queens’s Oakland Lake. “The fish community in Prospect Park Lake is thriving,” the report declared.
The fisherfolk could have told them that. There are perhaps several dozen regulars, unremarkable in their jeans and T-shirts and baseball caps. Most fish for bass or sunfish, but a few prefer catfish and carp. They are black and white, Asian and Hispanic. Almost everyone has a bag or a secret pocket crammed with the tools of the trade: scales for weighing, folding nets, small boxes packed with gaudy lures.
“It always seems to be a place where immigrants come,” says Charlie Gili, who learned to love nature in the park as a boy and grew up to be the Parks Department’s deputy chief of operations in Brooklyn. “When I was a kid it was a lot of Irish and Italian and Jewish. When you’re out in the park fishing, you don’t see differences in people.”
Every weekend morning just after dawn, Wayne Connors comes to the park with his mother, Iris, who first brought him there when he was six, in 1956. “I’m fanatical about carp,” he says, but few other anglers share his passion for the bottom feeders. Wayne cooks up his own bait, called “boilies”—marble-sized dough balls flavored with vanilla, maple syrup, or cherry Kool-Aid. The biggest fish it’s brought him—so far—is 17 pounds. He casts his line, props the rod on a stick, and waits, sometimes hours, for a strike.
He and his mother used to play cards while they waited for the carp to bite, but now Iris is learning to trawl for bass, casting and reeling in a line baited with a large, scented plastic worm. Iris keeps a scrapbook that includes color photos of their most memorable fish, a 1962 telegram from Western Union announcing one of Wayne’s A&S victories, a faded Brooklyn Eagle clipping showing Wayne at 13, accepting a $250 savings bond from Parks Commissioner Hoving. The contest hoopla over the years included celebrity guests like Carl Furillo of the Brooklyn Dodgers, tennis star Althea Gibson, and Fred J. Muggs, the show-biz chimpanzee.
But fishing isn’t just about glamour. The regulars love the solitude, the stillness, the sense that they aren’t in the city at all. Many are as besieged as the fish. They have tough, noisy jobs—Wayne is a union plumber—but out by the lake everyone leaves them alone. It’s incredibly peaceful to be out in the early morning surrounded by water and trees. They soak up all the natural minutiae that most visitors overlook. They know where the fish are hiding, if the green herons have hatched, whether the four-inch crayfish are crawling around today. Luis Miranda, a wiry, Marlboro-smoking bass fancier, has been fishing here for 36 years, since he was 10. “There ain’t nothing they can tell me about this lake I don’t know,” he says.
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.