Jennifer Prosec is cold. She stomps her feet and draws down into a Goretex-shrouded ball behind the captain’s bridge. It’s spare shelter from the unceasing, icy wind. The Mako—a 19-foot floating platform with low-set gunwales—is built for maximum exposure to the elements. Tonight the elements include a gale-force wind driving the temperature well below freezing, the abandoned docks lining t Brooklyn waterfront, and a restless, agitated East River. “It is unbelievably cold,” Prosec says, again. The rest of us nod and mutter in commiseration . . . again—futile incantations against the cold. But being silly, heedless men with sticks, we remain in position around the boat, leaning out over the water in anticipation.
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 reverse—a bit like turning an ocean liner around—but 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?
“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.
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.