Apr 8, 2010

eat your fish

Easter week, I had the chance to spend six days and nights upstate New Jersey, enjoying (occasional) quite time, daily freshwater fishing, and at least three nice meals of fresh-caught lake fish.

I took John McPhee's advice from the New Yorker a few months back, and tried pickerel for the first time. I know that March is their spawning time, so threw back at least one that seemed to have a lump (eggs?), and, taking the advice written, stuck to only smaller fish, which supposedely.... well, something to do with the bones.

Fileting the first one or two (probably kept about five the whole trip, including one perch, which wasn't worth it), I saw what he meant. Within each filet are tiny, hair-sized white bones that no matter how much you try, you can't really remove. I did this: kept the fish whole, didn't even scale them, took the knife in from the tail forward, working as close to the spine as possible. Sometimes I picked up an amount of bone along the way. No worries, just cut if off later on. One you have the two filets cut off, put them skin-side down, see what your sharp, flexible knife can really do, and remove the skin in (hopefully) one piece. Afterward, go to the bones. The best way is to find the ridge of bones, slice in a V-shape and remove them. For pickerel, there will always be some of the smaller bones left. I removed as many as possible, and got to the point where I went from whole, untouched fish, to boneless, skinless filets in just a few minutes, maybe three.

As a bonus and from prior experiences where the fileting didn't quite go so smoothly, I usually do my filet work outside, with a bowl or pot full of ice to put the filets in, keeping everything icy fresh. Also, a cold beer chillin' right there will do the trick.

In the end, did an egg wash, dipped into salted cornmeal, fried in cannola oil until brown. Salt and pepper on right after frying, and that's it. As for the small bones - they cook away; you'll forget they were ever there.

Another night, I made a bouillabaisse from an Emeril Louisianna cookbook that I received recently as a gift. I heard all this talk, bouillabaisse is hard to make, all those ingredients. I think the Times had something on it. But what I liked about the recipe was that it was simple and called for any kind of freshwater fish - 2 1/2 pounds of it. I threw in one or two measily pickerel filets we caught earlier that day, and also a package of Mahi Mahi I'd had frozen for who knows how long, and got that puppy going. Absolutely. Delicious.

My brother hooked two significant pickerel, I hooked one myself but between us and another lake friend, we probably brought about 15 fish into the boat, despite wind that at times was absurd. Night fishing wasn't there yet, and I'm convinced that will remain classic summer rowboat action. Even in the fall, it's never paid off for me.

Finally, when the wind did die down, I took the new fly pole I picked up and managed to rig, and practiced casting on the open water. Went very well, happy to say. I had picked up all the gear (with the exception of the pole and reel itself) from the local Wal-Mart and in the lake bait shop, got my first taste for some of the wonderful, not cheaply priced, fun stuff you can really go nuts if you delve into this sport entirely. Which I might just have to do.

Mar 21, 2010

Welcome to the Spring 2010 Season

I got out on the beach for a sneak-preview on Rockaway Beach two weeks ago, but this weekend marked the unofficial opening of the 2010 fishing season. 70-degree days (chillier on the peninsula), fresh bait from the Citgo again finally, some new gear - more to come - and, of course, licenses.

OK, so the deal with the licenses, er, permits. $10 bucks. Lasts for 1 year. After some confusion that was never really clarified by the DEC, it turns out that the permits issued last fall actually are good for a full year from their issue date. You didn't need to buy a new one on January 1st of this year (who on earth was fishing Jan. 1 anyway...what with the cold and the hangover). I discovered this recently while on the DEC website, and lo and behold, my green permit card I've had in my wallet since November had said it all along: "Valid 10/01/2009 - 09/30/2010."

The website, when I put in my existing license number, showed my status clear as day, as the holder of a valid permit.

That's right, a full 365-day period of fishing bliss.

But, look. Right below that, on my green card. "License/Privilege. Res Mar Fish 2009 10/01 - 12/31.


Who knows. Anyway, more importantly. After 4 hours of beach fishing yesterday with chief angling cohort George and his brother, and putting in an hour or more today of bay wall fishing with my own brother, it's clear at least right now, it's too early for fish.

Not. A. Single. Bite. Or. Anything.

Either way, it was fun. Beautiful weather, warm sun, beverage or two. The beach was full of dogs and their mostly careless owners who let them roam all over. One licked me while I was taking a rest, another came right up to one pole (we had five out at once), lifted its leg and peed. In the end, it missed by three inches.

I've already accidentally hooked my parents' dog once. I don't want to repeat that with a stranger, and I don't think you want a dog chillin' in your living room smelling like...bunker oil. So, come on. It wasn't a big deal, really. Tons of people out walking, bringing the pooch out, no leashes, trying to be care-free, shaking off the winter.

A bunch of people stopped by, telling fishing stories, asking the inevitable "what do you catch around here?"

They're always so curious, and it's fun for the most part surprising them when they learn you can hook close to a dozen different types of fish with your feet on the sand, right here in New York City.

I even saw my neighbor, Duke, who reports that people down in the Beach 40s have been getting fish in the upper parts of the Bay. That made sense, because I recently read somewhere that shallower bodies of water are the first to come back to life with fish after the winter - the water temps change first there, and, if you're lucky you can actually find some fish. However, I subscribe to Duke's logic when it comes to fishing down there. He's a big-time angler, too, but it's not worth getting all the way down there, and the neighborhood is still tough enough that I'd be worried about leaving my parked car. Or bicycle, these days.

Anyway, this winter I did a bunch of fish-related reading, including "Walden" by Thoreau, and several Hemingway short stories on fishing, put together beautifully in a nice little book lent to me from yet another fishing friend. Oh, also an interesting John McPhee story in The New Yorker about pickerel fishing.

Highlights from my fishing reading coming soon.

Info on the new equipment added to the mix coming soon, too.

In the meanwhile, just to squeeze in one more tidbit of fishing news: Kittatinny Lake was stocked with 800 walleyes last fall. Should be some great game hunting in the distant future - supposedely they won't be of legal size to keep until, I think, next summer. 2011.

Sep 17, 2009

permits are here; what a mess

Starting October 1st, unless the date gets pushed back, fishermen surfcasting - and bay casting, for that matter - will be required to carry fishing licenses under new regulations from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

The system is wildly complicated. After multiple visits to the DEC's website (you know you have it bookmarked at work..) and an email to their public affairs department, I was assured that permits will be needed for my simple strip of beach and others beginning October 1st. The charge is $19 for the year, which is reasonable. What I'm not happy about (and I'm sure others will object to, as well) is that licenses issued for October 1st will only be valid through December 31, 2009. They run on calendar years only, not 12-month periods. So, this year I'm paying $19 to legally fish for three months (cold ones, too) and on January 1st if I plan on getting a nice New Years morning hungover fish session in, I'll need to shell out more cash. Literally. It's $29 for next year, supposedly.

The right thing to do here - don't start the permits until January 1st. Money is tight. Fishermen aren't rich. There's no need for this right now, at October 1st. Why put a bad taste in the mouth of fishermen right off the bat like this? Starting them in October and asking people to pay the full year's fee for only three months is just unfair.

Permits aren't a bad thing, but the DEC had better be prepared for much backlash. Not only is the website that attempts to provide info on the licenses WILDLY complicated (do I need a fishing license or a marine fishing license?) but the D.E.C.A.L.S. website that allows you to purchase your permit is also absurd. I had just about sent a second email to the DEC when I realized that I did not need to already have had some kind of experienced hunter/trapper certificate in order to get a fishing license. I don't have a problem with buying a permit. Serious fly fishermen have gladly purchased permits for a longtime, but they see the immediate results of their money each year or several times a year when their streams are stocked.

According to the DEC website, revenue brought in from permit sales will go into the "Marine Account," part of the Conservation Fund which benefits the care, management, protection and enlargement of fish and shellfish. Other monies from lifetime permits (on sale for between $150-$400, depending on the permit) go into a Fish and Game trust account.

Officials on Long Island are already opposed to the permits, and they say that this whole issue was brought up in a sneaky way, too. The permit decision was a proposal adopted by the state budget, not a separate piece of legislation. New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr is opposing this. The permits are strictly revenue-raising devices, Theile says, and the Conservation Fund "will not specifically benefit any marine fisheries programs or the region of the state most affected by the legislation." Theile goes on to predict that the revnue would "do nothing but cover existing costs in the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation, rather than be used to better the state’s marine and coastal districts."

My opinion? So what if I have to pay a fee each year to fish? I'm the one that enjoys the privilege of fishing, maybe I should be the one that pays for that privilege. Permits will separate the men from the boys, or the women from the girls, if you'd like. They're doing it in other states this year, too, for the first time. I recently purchased (for $11) a temporary South Carolina fishing license online.

Also, I predict heavy DEC checking following October 1st. I'd hope they would only issue warnings first.

DEC: Come on, shape up your website and get your act together with where the funding is going. Keep it simple. What's the deal?

FYI: I haven't made my purchase just yet, but this page shows the permit I'll be getting, not some other $10 permit which I thought I could get away with.

Jul 30, 2009

water quality ratings; DEC response

The New York Daily News published a chart today that illustrated a new [annual?] study done on the quality of New York's waters on area beaches. Parts of Rockaway Beach, particularly the areas where I normally fish (130s), ranked among the worst in this dull chart. We scored just two stars out of five.

What this has to do with the fish that come out of those waters might be difficult to quantify, I suspect. After all, fish born in Jamaica Bay reportedly can swim as far south as North Carolina, as far north as Maine.

In other news, the Department of Environmental Conservation got back to me with an official answer to my question what to do if the [under-sized] fish you catch dies on the hook. Can you keep it then?

It is illegal to keep an undersized fish (smaller than minimum length
for a particular species). When it comes down to it, Law Enforcement
wouldn't know the circumstances as to why a person kept an
undersized fish...ie) whether it was injured or not. Therefore it
should not be possessed and should be returned to the water.

End of transmission. That's all they say. Basically, I can be fined if I'm found keeping fish that are undersized, even if they die on the hook accidentally.

Jul 27, 2009

cuomo challenges fluke rules; my C&R stance short-lived

Maybe it's just Monday morning and I haven't had enough coffee yet, but after reading the City Room blogpost four times, I think I've got it straight. Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo annouced a lawsuit against the federal rules that govern the limits of summer flounder (fluke), arguing that since fluke occur along a long, long stretch of the eastern coast, it's unfair and pointless for the government to have more severe limits in one state (New York) than in a neighboring state (New Jersey).

Supposedely, fluke are doing better than people thought (I caught one on the shore in Rockaway yesterday, which, I'll admit, is rare) and the limits, which are meant to protect the fishery, have been succesful. So now why not ease them up a little?

What I want to know is this: Jersey's limit is up to six fish per person per day at a minimum of 18 inches per fish; New York's limit is only two fish per person per day at a minimum of 21 inches. Is it actually more beneficial to the fishery, to the well-being of our beloved fluke, to let the fish grow an extra three inches? Is New York actually doing these fluke a service? Maybe we're on the progressive end here? How did the disparity come about? If the answer is politics alone, then by all means let's strike down the 21-inch rule. But maybe there's a biological reason why the limit was set at 21, and maybe Jersey just hasn't been on board yet.

I don't know the answer, but the fluke I hooked yesterday was a measily 14 inches. After an email session earlier in the week with a friend and fellow blogger about the benefits of a good de-hooker, this fluke managed to die before I could get the hook out. I didn't waste much time, tried to use pliers to get it out, but when I went to set it back in the surf, it was limp and gone.
At this point, it was the start of another, third, deluge of rain that fell in New York yesterday. My fishing cohort had just kept a skate, after he regretted releasing the first one he had caught. Lightening bolts were hitting the horizon line over the water, and fast-moving clouds had come in.
As the first few drops fell, the skate was killed with a filet knife. The storm was coming in quickly, and reeling in my line I felt the slightest flutter and guessed a fluke, a small one was on the hook. Sure enough, there it was.

I didn't feel good about not being able to return the fish alive. It wasn't immediately clear whether it had swallowed the hook or not, and I was in ankle deep water through the lightening trying to walk this thing back to life in the surf, to no avail. I put it in the basket of my fishing-rig bike and took off. I thought about the possible fine, though we've only been checked for under-sized fish one time in seven or eight years, but the torrential rain and ridiculous lightening kept those thoughts only fleeting ones.

As the rain poured, the three of us out fishing were entirely soaked so it didn't matter much. We cut the skate's wings off in George's backyard and I fileted the fluke with ease in my parent's yard. It didn't yeild much meat, but what I got was pure, clean white flesh - even got the skin off with this sweet knife someone had given me last year.

It was fishing in its true glory. Saturated with rain, covered with sand, two fish on the line at the same time, and here was the result - the food chain in action. I had this fish, it's life ended and now I have the meat. In a bag. In the fridge.

Pollution? Not on my mind. Principle --- even though this thing was under the limit --- not an issue. There was success yesterday, pure, simple success.

I emailed the Department of Environmental Control this morning and even they didn't immediately know the rules about keeping a fish that dies on the hook.

Tonight or tomorrow I'll eat the fluke. My revised stance on pollution, on limits, and on New York waters: I can't pass up a fish. Adhere to the recommended serving amounts, that's all. Once a week, is all. After all, all that hard work, fishing in a thunderstorm, am I going to pass up a fish on the line?

I suppose true catch and releasers do it for the principle alone, laws/limits or no laws/limits. Not for anything to do with pollution. I'm back.

Jul 10, 2009

on why i'm now catch and release

I am willing to now officially declare myself catch and release.

While I haven't put up a video post in a while now, over the past few months fishing in Jamaica Bay I've compiled footage that I saw as part of a post about pollution in the Bay - to be posted soon. Garbage floating by, DEP transport ships moving "sludge." My neighbor claims one on June night all his hooks came up covered with a black, oily substance. Alarming, but a mystery.

I'm officially putting up the white flag. I'll fish. I'll even give away my keepers to a nearby angler if he/she wants them. But I won't eat fish coming out of New York City waters anymore.

This week, several news stories ran on the fact that health warnings about contaminated fish were not posted at many popular fishing spots. In timely fashion, the signs - or lack of signs - were tied to the recession and the people who eat the fish and are presumably forced to do so. After all, it's free food, free protein swimming out there. Not to mention a fun hobby.

The sign issue has been rectified, or is set to be rectified. Don't worry, they didn't even cost that much.

In the past week or two, aside from the media coverage, coincidentally, I've read a decent amount of fish lit.

-"Gone Fishing," Mark Singer's great article on the Manhattan restaurant Esca in Secret Ingredients, a collection of food writing from The New Yorker.
-excerpts from Hemingway on Fishing, a collection of Papa's writing about fish and fishing

and, finally,

-the New York State Department of Health's "Chemicals in Sportfish and Game: 2009-2010 Health Advisories"

The fact that synched it for me - and still trying to hunt down exactly where I first read this: fish, no matter where they are caught in New York City waters contain the same or similar amounts of contaminants because they retain those contaminants for a period of time before they are expelled when the fish hit cleaner water. When they reach clean waters, eventually the fish lose most of their toxins. So, while they are near polluted waters, they most likely will still have the toxins from the polluted waters.

I suppose that doesn't rule out the idea that Jamaica Bay's waters might be cleaner than the Hudson River, but while the Hudson might have a tissue mill releasing thousands of gallons of waste into the water every day, Jamaica Bay has to worry about storm runoff, and seepage from an old landfill - all the while acting as a giant sponge for what washes off of the runways at JFK.

A report by Donald Malins, a researcher at the Pacific Northwest Research Foundation states that fish caught in New York Harbor had close to ten times the amount of PCBs than fish tested in Montauk, Long Island. Similarly, DDT levels in fish in NY Harbor were close to ten times the amount of the fish tested off Montauk.

The official word on striped bass in Jamaica Bay is actually better than I thought. Turns out, the official advisory is that adult males "eat no more than one meal per week of American eel, bluefish, striped bass and smaller [under 25-inch] weakfish," if you can manage to catch one of those suckers.

But, listen, I'm out. I'm officially a catch and release guy. It's just a shame that it's come to this point. Man has been living and eating out of these waters for so long and now we've done so much damage to the fish that were here before us.

Some of the most interesting things from the text of the 2009-2010 Health Advisory:

The expected:
-Women and Children are at particular risk.
-Always wash your hands after handling your three and four-ounce LEAD sinkers; and never bite those little sinkers that fix onto monofilament. They're lead, dude.
-"Do not eat any fish or game if they are found dead or dying."

The alarming:
-Over 130 bodies of water in New York State have specific warnings against eating certain types of fish
-Never, EVER, EVER!!!! eat the lobster tomalley, or hepatopancreas. Don't do it. It will do you in. Fluid from the hepatopancreas spreads to the water you cook your lobster in, too. So throw it out. Maybe put gloves on while throwing it out.
-Aside from the tomalley, contaminants accumulate in the fat of the fish, so trim your catch well!

The bizarre:

-When it comes to eating snapping turtles - first of all, be careful even going NEAR snapping turtles - um, don't eat the fat.
-Maybe think about not using lead bullets anymore.
-In case you were thinking about it, don't eat intestines.
-While dressing game, be aware of any abscesses in the lungs, ribg cage, intestines, liver or stomach. Thank you Dwight Schrute.
-OK. If you insist on taking the skull cap (antlers) of your kill, at least wear gloves. And clean the damn thing.
-"Thorough cooking will inactivate the rabies vidus, but meat from infected game should not be eaten."
-Don't handle any spinal cords, brains, or other nervous tissue. Just don't.
-Finally, if you absolutely insist on eating a wild goose or duck, skin them and remove all the fat first. And - in true "Eat This, Not That" style - Eat Wood ducks and Canada Geese, not diving ducks.

Jul 6, 2009

is it downright unfashionable to keep NY fish anymore...

An article in today's New York Daily News about anglers keeping...and consuming... fish out of New York's waters has caught my attention. While the authors write about people who survive on the fish they've caught, they don't address any causes of the pollution other than to briefly mention PCBs.

Does anyone who hasn't done the research know what PCBs are?

I'm in the process of reading a detailed report on New York's waters and plan to publish my conclusions as early as tonight.

Jun 2, 2009

baltimore fish kill: could it happen in Jamaica Bay?

Over the weekend, I was in Baltimore, Maryland, for a wedding. When I arrived down there on Saturday, several friends who had arrived early for the rehearsal dinner aboard a boat the night before told me that there were dead fish all over the harbor thanks to an algae bloom that presumably caused oxygen levels in the water to drop dramatically. The algae, Prorocentrum minimum, usually is present in the harbor around this time of year. But this time, levels were higher than usual.

If you spent even a little time outside of your car, you'd know it was true. The stench of the harbor water blew through all the nearby streets. Frankly, it didn't smell like dead fish, but rather smelled like stagnant water or maybe even the Gowanus Canal on a bad day. Walking around near the hotel and in the Fells Point neighborhood, I can say that the smell ranged from tolerable and even fishing-boat-esque at times to downright nasty at others. Get anywhere near the water's edge and you'll see them - dead Menhaden floating all over. In just a short walk, I probably saw about a hundred. I took one look and thought that they were all small bluefish, but an article said otherwise and that makes sense because none of the fish was any bigger than about 14 inches. According to the article, thousands upon thousands of the fish littered the harbor, and city cleanup crews would work to skim the water and remove the dead fish.

Could you imagine if that happened in New York? Or if the water even smelled half as bad around Manhattan? Fells Point is surrounded by condos and renters. In New York, some developer would find a way to perfume the air or install emergency air pumps.

Yesterday, I made it out on Jamaica Bay for a prime-time afternoon of fishing. High tide was at 4:45, and I got out about 2 to try my luck with four poles. At various times, large schools of bunker being chased by blues broke through the water's surface, about a hundred and fifty feet from the wall, but too far out of reach for even the strongest of casts. My dad came down and brought the dog, and I tried clams, bunker and even bunker oil for the first time, to no avail.

All I got was a mud crab and a horseshoe crab.

On the way back, it was ironic. I ran into my neighbor, an avid angler, and he said that earlier in the week all of the bait that he'd reel in came back covered in a black, oily sludge as if something had been dumped in the bay. He said he was alarmed, and added that while the substance looked and felt like oil, it had a muddy smell like...well... the bottom of the bay. He blamed the mess for stopping the bass run.

Disturbing. But yesterday, even though most all of my bait was coming back still on the line, at least everything seemed clean.

Next fishing day is Friday, with a high tide just after 7 in the evening.

May 28, 2009

fishing the cycle

Last week, to mark the Memorial Day weekend, I spent four nights up at the lake with friends, which was a rare treat thanks to the holiday weekend and two additonal vacation days that were tacked onto the beginning.

The goal was clear: starting Thursday and continuing through at least Sunday, catch the complete lake cycle - one of each type of fish that swims the waters of Kittatinny. That's right, your old friends. Sunny, pickerel, catfish (either kind), perch, small mouth bass, large mouth bass, crappie. And let's not forget the American eel.

Over the course of four days, seven out of the eight were captured and released. The American eel, ironically enough, was the only one of the eight to elude. Last year, eel were so common it was a sure-fire bet.

Photos and video to come, but highlights included a large pickerel caught on boat, several beautiful perch landed, a catty found live on a hook left out in the water after a late night, and a large mouth hooked in the shade about five feet off water's edge.

Fellow angler (and college roommate) Adam traveled up from his new home in Baltimore, Maryland, but thought ahead - that lake pro...- and purchased a 2-day permit to fly fish Big Flat Brook, just ten minutes down the road.

All seven of us took a Saturday field trip to Flat Brook, the scene of many a childhood summer afternoon for me - quiet days of yonder where we'd ride bikes down the dirt road and get to the big pool to hop into the frigid water from the massive rocks, trout darting through the brown water below.

The cars lumbered down the hole-filled dirt road to park near the pool, where we found three other anglers casting in silence on the other side of the stream. It looked like a perfect day, and the stream had been stocked just two days before.

We stood watching while A.Z. got geared up, and had the chance to see at least one angler reel in a fish. In the water, literally dozens of trout were visible from our rock perch, including rainbows, gorgeous browns and others. They congregated in groups in the deeper parts of the water. The browns shot around near the surface, within a foot or two of the edge, and further down lighter looking rainbows held their ground. In the same area, one or two absolute monsters lurked - trout that had to be 20+ inches almost sitting perfectly still in the water. If this sounds good, don't be naive. Get the fishing permit because game wardens and forest rangers are guaranteed to visit throughout the day.

We spent a good half-hour watching the scene and when we left to take a walk, with the exception of Hemingway back there on the stream, who was now one in seven anglers fishing corners of the same large pool, we all experienced the same thing. Extreme interest in fly fishing. New-found appreciation for the sport...the nuances of the sport...the technique...the gear...the variables. Just from sitting there and quietly watching what was going on (no one wanted to speak at all for fear of disturbing everyone), it was clear that there was quite a scene going down. Quiet sportsmanship rules practiced but unspoken between fishermen.

Did you know that rainbow trout do not thrive in many areas because they need very cold waters? Brown trout, in turn, aren't even native to this country. Yet they do very well and outnumber the rainbows - at least they did on BFB. Some fishermen took great care to de-hook their trout without the fish so much as breaking the surface of the water - they methodically brought the fish in then carefully brought it by their side and removed the hook. Some flies sink, others float. Some lines are held up by aerial floats, so as to make the fly appear more natural. Many flies get caught in trees, some are so tiny that the hooks are hardly bigger than a grain of rice.

My favorite interaction among the fishermen down at the pool (there were many funny interactions) was when this one guy in full gear sort of upstream finished fishing for the day. I hadn't seen him catch a thing while I was down there. At one point earlier on, I had quietly commented how Adam was lucky because all of the other fishermen hadn't even noticed the giant brown and good-size rainbow he had been casting toward downstream. Well, when the guy finished, he said a few words to the other anglers, stepped back and from the ground picked up a gill-line with about four good size trout that had been tied up live near the bank. Then, practicing good etiquette, he walked about 20 feet further downstream before crossing, so as not to disturb anyone. When he walked back upstream past us, he had the fish dangling and flippin on the line in his hand. A fashion show.

"Going after those big ones, eh?" he said. He'd known it was there the whole time, but hadn't even sent over a single cast.

I guess you can't pull the wool on a pro.

We left A.Z. at the stream and went back to the house. When he returned hours later, he came back without a fish, but told us the story of the rest of his day. He ended up hooking a monster brown trout, which several other fishermen helped him land using their nets. It flipped clear out of the water a few times measured 22-inches and weighed 4 pounds. It was his personal lifetime best. He also hooked a great rainbow, but it was foul-hooked, i.e. hooked in the side or the gill rather than the mouth. In fly fishing land, that's bogus and not grounds for an officially counted catch. He had the rainbow on a makeshift gill-line, but the knot came undone at the last minute, during transport.

Even still, A.Z. was satisfied with the day, and he was amazed at the size of the trout he landed and the fight.

May 12, 2009

five hours: no fish, but two captains save lives

I fished the bay beginning on Saturday evening at 8:30, an hour before high tide, and got a ride down to the wall because there would have been no way to carry the cooler, net, bait, tackle box and four poles on my own.

Jon D. was set to come down by 10 p.m., and as I casted the first line two things came to my mind: 1) Three of the poles needed re-rigging after a disastrous triple-tangle last time out. I didn't even have enough equipment to rig them all and 2) If I caught a fish now, I'd have no way to bring it back to the house. No one home, brother out in the city.

Oh well.

I got two out of four poles rigged, baited and thrown in as the sun was just going down, and when Jon arrived at 10, I still had caught nothing. His brother arrived shortly after and we had the extra supplies to get all four poles in. But while Jon was making the supply run, I checked the poles (which had constantly come up empty - without bait - each and every time one was reeled in) and one felt heavy, like dead weight. A crab, I'm thinking.

Sure enough, I got the line in and see what was weighing it down - a spiral shelled snail, like one you'd find on the sands of Jamaica or something like that. It had my bait and hook locked inside and surely had a death grip. I managed to pop the hook out and put the snail on the top of the wall as proof to show that at least something was caught.

By around midnight, the wind was really starting to pick up and there was one point where we remarked that it suddenly seemed to just take off. Shortly after, we saw emergency lights coming from every direction and a police helicopter took off from Floyd Bennett Field, just across the way, heading toward Breezy Point. Trucks from Brooklyn drove over the bridge, pausing for a moment mid-span, and a few police boats flashed blue lights. We saw what looked like a big glowing fire flickering at the horizon and, at the time, thought that a house had gone up.

As it turned out, it wasn't a fire at all that brought all the rescue. A boat had capsized in the bay and four people were in the water at that very moment. Apparently, their boat was slammed into the waves and began taking on water. Two nearby fishing boat captains heard a "Mayday" call and arrived in time to get all four people on board and to shore, where they tried to keep warm after a few minutes in the frigid water.

We had no idea any of this was going on, but, still, nothing bit our lines.

In the end, after five hours of fishing, there was nothing to show for it.

May 8, 2009

reading: cod

I’m not finished reading Cod (Penguin Books, 1997) by Mark Kurlansky yet, but I wanted to post up some of the most interesting things from the book so far, in my esteem:

- No one knows exactly why cod have a small dangling piece of flesh below their lower lip.
- Cod has just about no fat and is more than 18% protein, more than most other fish. When it is tried, the water in its flesh evaporates and the meat contains about 80% protein.
- There are more than 200 species of cod, almost all of which live in cold waters in the Northern Hemisphere.
- Because cod feed on sea life that thrives where warm and cold waters meet, cod are almost exclusively caught in waters where two currents of different temperatures meet.
- While a cod can lay between 3 and 9 million eggs, it is so difficult for eggs to thrive that the cod population would stabilize if even just two of the eggs survive to maturity.
- Traditionally, there had been a much higher demand for dried, salt cod as opposed to fresh cod.

Apr 24, 2009

the first day out: a 34-inch bass

Saturday marked the start of the 2009 Jamaica Bay fishing season, and we were out in heavy ranks. Jon D. drove down from Albany, while George, brother Nick and guest Michael took time away from Orthodox Easter celebrations to put in a few hours at the wall.

I pedaled my way from Bay Ridge over the Marine Parkway Bridge that morning, picking up bait and supplies, making it out by 1:30 that afternoon, well before the 4:05 high tide scheduled for that afternoon. We had two poles down when Nick showed up on a bike with a basket and three other poles - two from past summers, one from... the past. It looked like a Beach Boys pole, but it took on the moniker the Jesus pole, perhaps in honor of the Easter festivities and its age.

It was in shambles, and was the joke of the day. The reel was held on by three or four plastic ties and a length of electrical tape, and the top eyelet was bent opposite the others. When George rigged it up that morning, he ignored the eyelet altogether, and I don't blame him because using it would have twisted or snapped the line for sure. Clearly

And wouldn't you know on only the second cast our there, the Jesus pole, about 20 feet down the wall, falls to the ground, is pulled upright again, and starts to slide down the cement. Nick ran for it, and set the hook only to realize that the reel had no drag and was barely controllable. Still, he managed to get the line to come in and when we hopped up on the ledge of the wall, there it was below: the first catch of the season - a beautiful keeper bass on the end of the line, swimming sideways through the bay water.

Now the debate begins: free it or keep it? As I may have mentioned on these pages, I've been leaning more and more toward freedom rather than food, but the general feeling that instant was to get the fish out of the water no matter what. Judging from the old rod and reel, it felt like it could escape at any moment, so its fate was sealed: it would be kept.

I held the line taught, and the fish was exhausted. George showed up just in time to grab the gaff-on-a-rope, and we were set to not repeat mistakes of the past. Carefully, the hook was lowered down, and when it was in the fish's mouth, pulled upward and hooked into its lip. As opposed to last year, this time we didn't rush, testing the weight before lifting it briefly off of the water to put the net below it. One it was lowered back into the net, the job was easy and within seconds we had it over the wall and onto the ground: a 34-inch bass caught with a rod and reel that you'd laugh at.

Best yet, on opening day! Last year, I think we got maybe four or five keepers the whole summer, and now on the very first day out we get one.

Nearby, a guy in a Verizon truck pulled to the side of the road with his flashers on to watch the commotion, and when we got the fish up, he offered to buy it on the spot, but Nick wanted to keep it, and it was his catch.

How much would you have sold a 17-pound bass for?

In the end, the fish caught a ride back to the house in the basket of a bicycle, if you can believe that, and the next hour or so was spent discussing the success.

For the rest of the day, nothing was caught on any pole, new or old, except a measily skate that I caught later in the afternoon.

We left after about 4:30, having put in a good few hours, and I didn't make it out there the next day.

Next up: Sunday a.m. high tide fishing this weekend. We'll see.

Apr 15, 2009

Striped Bass Season Opens: Same Rules as Last Year

Official confirmation is in, via phone call to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation: striped bass season is open from today (April 15) to December 15, following the same size and quantity limits as the '08 season.

Each angler is permitted to keep one fish, minimum 28 inches, and a second fish, minimum 40 inches, per day.

Today in New York, it's rainy and chilly - certainly not the most comfortable conditions for fishing. As for me, my own plans include two afternoons of high tide fishing this coming weekend on Jamaica Bay. Two other fishing pals have committed to join, and the plan I've hatched is to stake out the bay wall for at least the two hours before and after high tide.

Last year, after a disappointing couple of weeks toward the end of prime time (May 1 - June 15), it wasn't until June 13 that I deliberately set out to fish high tide. The results were shocking. I had five poles out, all fully rigged and landed four bass ranging from 22-36 inches. At two instances that afternoon, two poles were hit at the same time and I ran from one to another, setting the hook and quickly trying to judge which fish was largest.

My strategy this year: focus on high tides, no matter what time of day.
Record each catch, if possible, and document as many catches as possible.
Also, more nighttime fishing.
Finally, listen to more Jackson Browne.

Apr 9, 2009

bunker burglars!

The owner XTL Transportation, in Linden, New Jersey-based trucking company reported that more than 63,000 pounds of Menhaden baitfish (a.k.a. bunker) were stolen early Wednesday morning along with the refrigerated trailer the fish had been stored in.

In an article published in the The Star Ledger, the owner of the trucking company stated that two other storage containers that held furniture and other items were also cut, but the items were not stolen. Only the baitfish were.

He admitted that he suspected an inside job, and police are investigating. Supposedly, the fish are valued at about $130,000, which seems about right if your gold standard is the Citgo baitshop in Rockaway.
I can just see Tony Soprano now, sitting on a pile of bunker near the Jersey shore.

Apr 7, 2009

The Golden Trout

Courtesy of two close friends and fellow anglers.

Mar 18, 2009

The Ghosts of Jamaica Bay

When American Airlines Flight 587 crashed into Belle Harbor on November 12, 2001, I drove back home to my parent’s house and made it there by sundown that evening.

I was a sophomore in college, and that morning as I was getting ready for class, the apartment phone rang and my freshman roommate, a volunteer fireman at the time, said he didn’t want to scare me but I should turn on the television. Barely two months after September 11th, such a call was nothing to take lightly. On the TV screen, I saw a wide shot, presumably taken from Manhattan, which showed smoke billowing from land just beyond a stretch of marshes. Even though the news kept saying it was “Queens,” I knew the marsh was Jamaica Bay, and the land was Rockaway.

I called my Dad, who was working in Manhattan, and he had already phoned home. He said no one really knows what the hell is going on out there, but they were worried about the Bulloch’s gas station being on fire. I was shocked it could be that close to home. Bulloch’s was on 129th, and we lived on 138th. Dad said Mom and my brother were fine, but that they heard and felt the boom when the plane hit, and looked out the window to see plumes of smoke rising from a few blocks down.

I didn’t go back until the Friday after September 11th, but this was too much. I drove home that night, despite classes that day and next, and had never felt such a pull to get back there.

It was the feeling of knowing that something major was going on, but being unable to share it with anyone. It was like having news to tell, but no one to tell it to. I don’t know if it was my first trip back to New York after that initial post-September 11th trip, but it struck me as kind of funny how this event had taken place that very morning, been on news screens around the world all day, and now here I was, in the dark, paying the toll, driving my parents’ minivan over the Marine Parkway Bridge, parking in front of our house and standing seven blocks from the crash.

The smell of jet fuel was the first thing you noticed. It was like being at the airport, but stronger. Down the Avenue, emergency vehicles still flashed, but they were outshined by the bright white mobile flood lights that seemed to emanate as far down as you could see. There was no seeing past 131st, where all the lights came from. There, a pile of airplane parts and debris from three destroyed homes rose high into the street. Telephone poles and trees were charred, and workers in yellow haz-mat suits were scouring the pile, a job that would last for days.

Our main street of stores was closed because a jet engine had landed in the gas station, miraculously making a clean landing on a narrow strip of cement between the pumps and the building. In the schoolyard of St. Francis de Sales school, yellow plastic sheets covered the chain-link fence, rumors of a makeshift morgue.

In Jamaica Bay, NTSB officials had used a crane to lift the tail wing of the Airbus out of the shallow waters near 106th Street.

I wondered who may have seen what happened here. And the only thing I could think of: fishermen.

They line the bay wall at all hours, and man their spots well into the fall and even winter. They’re unnamed, anonymous hoodie-wearing men. They typically aren’t from the neighborhood, and they speak different languages.

What tales did they have to tell, these silent, patient guys?

Fishermen in a boat earlier that day said that they witnessed the crash and had helped police boats recover debris from the water. To this day, many people are uncertain exactly what took place where over the Bay that day, and statements from fishermen who witnessed the crash that day has provided some of the strongest fodder for those that have argued against the NTSB's explanation that the plane's tail fell off following extreme forces exuded by its rudder.

Rockaway was hardly developed a hundred years ago, but I wondered what else passersby might have witnessed from the shores of that bay?

For years Jamaica Bay was more known for the history of aviation than for anything else. Over the same stretch of water where we cast our rods, Howard Hughes took off from nearby Floyd Bennett Field, Charles Lindbergh took off, Wiley Post took off, and Douglas “Wrong Way” Corrigan famously “accidentally” flew over the Atlantic in a record-breaking flight, instead of zipping to California. The nation, in the midst of the Depression at the time, needed a hero, and Corrigan was given a ticker-tape parade through Manhattan.

A wide, cement, often moss-covered, launching ramp still to this day leads from the eastern tip of the field into the water, and it was from that very ramp that three wooden seaplanes - I'm talking Wright-brothers style, but with pontoons - entered the bay on the morning of May 8, 1919 and sped over the water before taking off and vanishing out of sight.

The goal was to cross the Atlantic by plane for the first time. Navy destroyers were positioned along the way to act as guides, but two of the planes that formerly sat atop the Bay’s blue-gray water that May day wouldn’t make it to England. One would go off-track and mistake an ocean liner for one of the destroyers, landing nearby and floundering for a few days before being rescued. Another would take on serious damage on a rough landing and be forced to motor for several days on the ocean’s surface before reaching an island on the coast of the Azores. Only one would successfully make it, taking several stops along the way to gain bearings, but successfully crossing the Atlantic and landing in Plymouth Harbor, off of England.

24 days to cross that ocean in the days of primitive radio transmission, all beginning in Jamaica Bay.

Reeling as we were from the events of that fall – as crazy and surreal as it all seemed – the crash in 2001 wasn’t the first time a plane had plummeted down into the Bay.

In fact, on March 1, 1962, on the very day that the New York was honoring astronaut John Glenn following his successful Mercury 6 mission with a tickertape parade in Manhattan, American Airlines Flight 1 took off from Idlewild Airport (now JFK) with a broken rudder and plunged nose-first into Jamaica Bay, in Pumpkin Patch Channel, a shallow area to the west of Cross Bay Boulevard, before the bridge into Howard Beach, Queens.

From reports issued following the crash, it seems that rudder failure caused the plane to dip into a 90-degree right turn and then slip sideways through the air, hitting the bay almost head-on. The plane exploded on impact, flocks of birds scattered from an otherwise tranquil bird sanctuary nearby, and all 95 people on board were killed, including several high-profile individuals. Louise Eastman, heir to the Lindner Department store fortune and mother of Linda Eastman (who would go on to marry Beatle Paul McCartney) was among them.

In 1962, it was the worst commercial aviation disaster in history. In 2001, the crash nearly took that same inauspicious title. It was the second worst.

Floyd Bennett Field was a mystery to us for most of our lives, and it still is today. All Rockaway residents traveling over the Marine Park Bridge pass by the Field, which runs for about a good mile or more beside Flatbush Avenue right after the bridge. In recent years, it’s more opened to the public than it has ever been since it served as New York’s first and only municipal airport, from 1931-1939. Scores of record-setting flights took place, but many more were failures. LaGuardia Airport began the demise of Floyd Bennett Field, but FBF was used as a Naval Air Base throughout World War II, slowly falling into disuse until being handed over the National Parks Service in 1972. Since then, many argue that it’s fallen into total disrepair.

In 1993, Floyd Bennett field was home to us public school students for about a week while the NYC public school asbestos fiasco extended summer break. We played inside the giant hangars, one giant gym class that lasted five days so our parents wouldn’t have to worry about childcare.

For better or worse, Aviator Sports Complex opened in 2006, after four of the eight hangars were renovated and combined. But there’s still an air of mystery that surrounds the place.

Last summer, I made it into the control tower of the administrative building, led up by a park ranger who brought us past locked glass-paneled doors and dusty rooms with broken floorboards. The office that housed the commanding officer still bears a legible stencil upon its glass pane.

Up in the tower, it was hot as blazes. But for the first time, the scope of the place was clear. Three runways criss-crossing one another in the shape of a giant star. Woods out to the left, beyond the main runway, and out of visibility, to the right, obscured by more trees and the massive hangars - Jamaica Bay.

Mar 2, 2009

Killing Time

We used to fish constantly at the lake, and we used to also constantly watch my grandpa fishing, too.

He’d stand beside the dock, casting in a spot under a tree where the rest of us wouldn’t bother. We’d lost so many hooks and bobbers up in that tree, but he’d stand out there in a dirty shirt with his spinner reel and throw the line out at all hours of the day, and when there was a bite, he’d yank the rod with a quick flick of his arm that said that the fish didn’t mean anything to him. They were rarely anything other than small sunnies that we caught off the back, and I don’t have any memory of him catching anything large back there, but grandpa still quietly fished off to his side, while the other kids and I fished the dock or the other small stretch of water to its left, but never too close to the other trees.

One summer grandpa unveiled a fishing cage he’d constructed himself. No one saw where it had come from, and no one could imagine when he’d spent the time to make it, but the cage was meant to keep fish alive in the water in captivity until it was time. It was made of several pieces of light-weight metal grating, and, tied with a string to the side of the dock, it splashed down into the water and remained there until someone opened the lid to throw another unlucky, small sunny in. The funny thing is that, under all normal circumstances, we’d always throw the sunnies back, no matter how big they were. But, when the cage was in the water, they came out on our hooks and were captured forever; we kept them no matter how small they were.

You could never really see clearly whether there were fish in the cage, or how big the captured fish were. Their dark skin blended in perfectly with the murky rocks on the lake’s bottom, and through the green-brown water, most of the time the fish just looked like moving brown objects below. But when it was killing time, grandpa would lift the cage, the water would drain into the lake and all over the lawn, and the eyes of every kid in the yard were peeled. Fish would flip and flap in the empty cage, and grandpa would throw the latch, releasing them all out onto the lawn.
He’d take a few fish at a time in his hands, never seeming to care about the spines or fins at all, and walk over to the firewood pile, beside the shed, where he’d already set up a worn plank atop the wood bundles. The other sunnies near the cage would bounce all over the grass, and if one or two somehow bounced its way back into the lake, it didn’t matter much. By the shed, one fish would go on the floor, still flipping, while the other was laid on its side on the plank. The setup was simple, and so were the tools: a pair of red-handled shears and a small, serrated kitchen knife, the exact same kind we ate with each evening, but from his shed drawer instead of inside.

My brother and I had seen this spectacle many times before. Grandpa would frequently take fish back to the Chinese living on his block his store was on, in Little Italy. But, our friends at the lake never got tired of watching. And, I admit, I never got tired of watching either.

We would end up being all boys up there in the backyard at killing time, and grandpa was merciless. First, he’d take the shears and snip the fins, spines and tail off, leaving the fish useless. Sometimes it would squirm and flip in his hands, slipping off the board and onto the sticks below, but it didn’t matter much. Then, he’d take the knife and scrape the scales off of both sides of the fish. Usually, at this point, it would be bleeding from somewhere, bright red blood onto grandpa’s hands, the knife, the plank. Then, he’d take the knife and saw into the fishes underside, from its breast to the tail. He’d put the knife down and reach into the cavity with his bare hands and rip out the guts with his fingers. There’d always be a few strings of something or other that wouldn’t come out easily, and he’d pinch it between his finger and snap it out.

Our friends would stare at grandpa with strained jaws, occasionally getting in the way. The best part, however, occurred only on occasion. The cleaned, gutted fish would be piled on one side of the board, and once in a while one would still flip on the board, devoid of any fins and insides, otherwise completely dead. That was the best part, and it always elicited our shouts and laughs.

When killing time was over, grandpa would throw all the cleaned fish into a pale of lake water, and they’d float there on their sides, fish no more. His hands would be covered in now-dark, dried fish blood and scales, and he’d fake smearing it on one of us on his walk inside. The fish would be wrapped in butcher paper and put in the back of the freezer, and that was all we ever saw of them.

Feb 18, 2009

Why fish?

To connect with nature, to revel in the quiet.

To actually have an appreciation for putting in your time, and seldom being rewarded.

To pick and pull at different tactics and see which is best.

To simply pass the time.

For the rush and chaos of a big strike that you can screw up at any number of points.

To make those hours of drinking actually productive.

To spend three or four legitimate hours down the wall from someone who has spent all night out there and fishes for sustenance.

To pass several hours for only the cost of a cup of bait.

To speak to and fish with strangers who aren’t strangers.

For the history, and the opportunity to wonder about the past.

For the chance of breaking your personal best record-catch.

Feb 17, 2009

to fish or not to fish

The date for the fifth annual Jamaica Bay Kayak Fishing Fundraising Tournament, heck of a long name, was announced recently, and it's got me seriously thinking about joining in in the mayhem. That's right. Fishing. From a kayak. May 3rd. See pic above (not me).

The rules: catch and release; rulers are provided; you begin at 6 a.m. and fish until 2 p.m.; anywhere in Jamaica Bay is legal; you must photograph all entry catches coming into your boat; in the event of a tie, the "visibly biggest" fish wins.

Following the event, there is a celebratory meal, "Italian food."

People come from all over the country for this. The website lists hotels in the area.

And it's right in my backyard.

I'm sure there are some champs out there that have been doing this since the 70s, but I've only seen it in the past three years or so. In fact, I've watched my neighbor and fishing cohort, Duke, kayak fish all the time in recent summers. He swears you can get right to the swells of jumping bait fish and birds, cast right in, and hook one of the bigger fish that caused the commotion to begin with.

Of course, these bait swells are always out of reach for lowly surfcasters like myself, so it's seemed appealing.

Also, my brother's kayak hasn't seen the water in about two years, owing to a missing boat plug.

The best: prizes go to the biggest fish caught in any method, the biggest caught with fly-fishing only, or - drumroll - by winning in the "Grand Slam," what I'd like to call the Jamaica Bay hat-trick category: landing the largest combined catch of a striper, a weakfish, and a bluefish.

Maybe this is the next step.

Sep 19, 2008

Mundus is Dead

Now, I had never heard of Frank Mundus, or Donnie Braddick, for that matter, before earlier this year. But go figure. In the past three weeks, I ended up hearing some of their great tale - landing a world-record setting 3,427-pound Great White off of Montauk, in the summer of 1986 - directly from a relative of Braddick. And, now Mundus is dead.

I'm told Mundus was a character. An article I read about him just a few months before his death painted a picture of his salty charismatic ways. This was a guy who, for decades, claimed he was the main inspiration for the 'Quint' character in the film Jaws, while writer Peter Benchley had always denied it. Mundus published books, he sold t-shirts, and, despite his passionate protest against Benchley's denials, Mundus constantly marketed himself as the original Jaws-man out of Montauk. $2,000 was the cost for a day-long 5-person fishing charter with him aboard the Cricket II.

What is confirmed is that Mundus did take Benchley out on several fishing trips while Benchley was researching his book. According to reports, Benchley was impressed by Mundus' seemingly unusual technique of harpooning sharks and attaching them to ropes that dragged large air-filled barrels that, even if pulled underwater, would inevitably float back to the surface when the shark would tire out. This technique is perfectly suited for the silver screen, and, naturally, it was portrayed in Jaws.

Mundus had caught a 4,500 Great White by harpoon in 1964 off of Montauk. The 1986 record-setter was caught by rod and reel. Mundus was the captain, and his boat had come upon a whale that had recently died. It was just after midnight in calm seas, and two large sharks came upon the carcass and began feeding, taking huge chunks of flesh off of the whale. Mundus decided to wait until daylight to even attempt hooking any of the sharks, which he said ranged from about a thousand pounds up to the largest one, which looked at least three times that size.

Before dawn, hooks, lines and wires were rigged up, and when the largest shark was going in for another bite, they slipped a hook in front of it, and the bait was taken. The rod was placed in a holder right away, and, in at least one of Mundus' recollections of that morning, "Donnie [Braddick's] in the chair." It was a battle that would last for an hour and forty-five minutes, supposedly with Mundus calling all the shots, and Braddick doing all the muscle work.

The shark that day measured 16-and-a-half feet, and weighed 3,427 pounds. It was, and still is, the largest fish ever caught on rod and reel.

So why does Mundus get all the limelight, while no one's ever heard of Braddick? Well, Jaws came out in 1975, for one. In the end, really, the only difference between the two was that Mundus would go on to market the heck out of himself; Braddick would not. On virtually every part of Mundus' personal webpage are links to purchase something or other. It's a constant sales pitch that's, at times, blatantly opportunistic.

Braddick, I'm told, went on to have a falling-out with Mundus, but has spent considerable time in the shadow of Mundus, who, while acknowledging Braddick as the angler of the world-record setter, stole the scene. After all, you have to be able to back up charging $2,000 for a day of fishing somehow, right?

Supposedly, Mundus put Montauk on the map. Carl Darenburg, owner of the Montauk Marina, told Newsday that no one fished specifically for sharks off of Montauk before he did. Of late, Mundus spent his time alternating between a home in Hawaii and a residence back out in Montauk. But I'm told that in recent years, he had become a notorious presence up in Montauk. Supposedly, had been blacklisted from the Marina after repeatedly being caught selling his own hooks and merchandise to anglers within the confines of the private marina. Mundus, I'm told, rest his soul, was jaded, bitter and cynical.

However you look at it - a Mundus fan or not - it's clear that the fishing world lost a true character last week. I'd like to think there is a little catharsis in all of this. The New York Times, in its obituary of Mundus, finally seemed to take the liberty to call Mundus what he'd been insisting all along: "Frank Mundus, 82, Dies; Inspired ‘Jaws'."

Jul 9, 2008

kosher or not: a question in the night

Last week, it was midnight on the morning of July 4th, and we were fishing on the shore, five poles (two being used), some bait and tackle, and a cooler. The catch: two sandsharks, one about 15 inches, the other a little larger, probably about 24, and two striped bass a 23 and a 26 incher.

When one sandshark (dogfish) came in, a Jewish guy and presumably his girlfriend happened to be walking by. They seemed to live in the neighborhood and were very excited and surprised to see a fish come out of the water. He asked me four times what kind of fish it was. Then he asked me if it was kosher.

I said yes.

I didn’t get into details. But even non-Jews in New York have a little knowledge of Jewish customs and laws. I figured, if bananas are always kosher because of their protective skin, fish must be, too.

As it turns out, my rationale wasn’t far from the truth. But the real answer lies not in the skin, but in the scales.

According to Rabbi Doy Lerner, whose gracious advice answered an internet reader’s questions some time ago, fish can indeed be considered kosher. It doesn’t matter whether a fish is swimming in the ocean eating non-kosher food. It doesn’t even matter if a fish, or an animal, for that matter, is raised commercially and fed commercial feed full of non-kosher ingredients.

The megalith Kashrut.com reminds readers that all fish with scales are considered kosher. There is also a longstanding policy of accepting all fish with pink-colored flesh as kosher, regardless of whether skin or scales are visible.

However, according to the Chicago Rabbinical Council's extensive list of kosher and non-kosher fish, all sharks, including the dogfish are considered explicitly non-kosher, along with skates and all other rays, eels, catfish, lampreys (if you ever manage to see one in your life!), blowfish and sturgeons. Striped bass are kosher.

Several other sites say that a fish’s scales must be visible to the eye and must be able to be taken off of the fish without tearing or damaging the fish’s skin. Finally, blatantly, kosherkooking.com says, “Sharks are similarly not Kosher, because their skin is covered with tiny teeth-like armor, which are not considered scales at all.”

Indeed, sandsharks do have skin that is covered with very, very tiny scratchy bumps. They feel like sandpaper and could probably scrape you up if you're, so-to-say, rubbed the wrong way.

Still, I am at a loss as to exactly why scales are required for a fish to be considered kosher. Is it just that the types of fish that have scales are the more mainstreamed, omnivorous fish and the types that don't tend to be sort of unusual, maybe bottom-dwellers like rays and sharks? Are bottom-dwellers just considered unclean or unfit for consumption?

I was wrong in suggesting that the sandshark was kosher. We threw it back anyway.

Other things about kosher law I learned today:
-Certain slurpee flavors are considered kosher; others not.
-It’s not enough to take the word of your fish monger when it comes to kosher law. He could be just lying about what kind of fish he’s giving you.
-All Brooklyn Brewery beer except Local 1 are kosher.

May 7, 2008

the tale of the 40-incher

All I caught this past weekend fishing in Jamaica Bay was a seaweed mess. Seriously, it's getting pretty bad. Not even a crab, not even a searobin! Nothing. Alive. At. All.

I had a good feeling about it, too. The bay wall was lined with anglers up and down. The tide seemed high, which I interpret to be a good sign. There wasn't too much wind. All the pieces were there, but didn't come together. I did, however, have just one sign of hope: the first bite of the season. The tip of just one pole did two simple shakes, but to no avail.

Better luck next week. I did manage to take a few pictures to illustrate our most miraculous catch. The 40-incher in '06 was close to being the 40-incher that almost was. Let me explain.

It was getting late into the evening, and we'd been out fishing for a few hours on a warm night in early June. We managed to down about two bottles of wine and had already reached the point where....we weren't fishing while drinking, but....were drinking while fishing. It's the point when it no longer matters if you catch anything. But, like the moment when you're rebaiting one pole and turn your back for just a second or two, somehow the fish know to strike when you're at your weakest.

In the streetlight, drinking red wine out of red plastic Solo cups, one pole took a dive and kept dancing. I grabbed it, made sure there was enough drag in case it ran, and gave a quick pull to set the hook. The fish felt as if it were running half the bay. Line kept flying off the reel, which buzzed with yard after yard. All this would have to be pulled back in, and with any luck we'd land the fish, but crazier things have happened than losing what would have been a great catch.

Over the next five minutes, I walked a stretch of wall about 150 feet in length, going where the fish went, fishing partner, at times, assisting my continuing wine drinking by holding the cup to mouth. It became very clear this was a big fish on the line.

When it finally seemed that almost all of my line was in, and I had sufficiently tired the fish out, George pulled himself up onto the 4 1/2 foot wall and looked over. "It's huge." I held tight to the pole, and we switched spots so I could see, too. I lifted myself up onto the wall and saw the white belly of a long, straight fish pointed head-first to the wall, like a foam buoy. Its gills still moved, and in that moment the wine buzz took the back seat to our only prerogative: getting it out of the water as quick as possible before something could go wrong.

Because of the 10-15 foot drop from the wall to the surface of the water, we'd rigged a large net that dangled from a length of string. It's the only way to get heavy fish up. One person holds the pole, while the other hops up onto the wall and tries to scoop up the fish into the hanging net. We'd done it before, but this time the fish was too big. When we managed to get it into the net head first, it's weighty back and tail would cause it to slip out at the slightest pull. Same when it went in tail first.

We tried this for five or ten minutes. If it came down to it, I vowed I'd walk down to the bridge, climb over the railing and down onto the boulders and pull the fish up myself.

Just then, another fisherman wheeling a shopping basket full of gear and poles strolled by on the sidewalk about twenty feet behind us. He asked if we had caught anything, and when we told him about our problem, he pitched in without hesitation, pulling up a short stepladder and suggesting we try "gaffing" it. I'd never heard of such a thing, but in a second he pulled out a plastic bottle with string wrapped around it. At the end of the string was a large hook. I mean, bigger than something you'd fish with, but not as big as you'd think it would be to pull up a massive fish. He lowered the gaff, and I stood back, George perching atop the wall, watching. All I could think of was that this unknown guy was going to hook this fish the wrong way, the hook would slip, the line would break and we'd have just been a part of the biggest fishing debacle I'd ever heard of.

Before anymore fear, however, the fish came over the wall and dropped down onto the jagged concrete. In another instant, the guy was gone, off to his own fishing spot, laughing himself down the sidewalk, hoping for a similar catch.

We laughed, as well. It would have been entirely impossible to lift the fish out had the stranger not walked along. The fish measured an even 40 inches, and according to the rusty scale in our tackle box, it weighed 19 pounds.

There were scales in my parent's backyard for weeks.

Apr 29, 2008

fishing season opens

April 15th marked the start of the 2008 striped bass fishing season in New York, and for the past six years, I've frequently fished Jamaica Bay, the estuary located between Brooklyn and the Rockaway Peninsula, where I grew up.

By some accounts, stripers are doing better today than they were in previous decades. After extensive overfishing in the New York and the New England area in the 1980s, strict laws were enacted, making it illegal to keep any striped bass below a length of 36 inches from head to tail. In fact, it's said that in some areas of the Massachusettes coast, bass haven't been caught in 50 years. In 1990, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission eased the regulations, in reaction to successful improvements in the striped bass populations along the coast. Today, each angler per day is permitted to keep one striped bass no smaller than 28 inches, and a second bass no smaller than 40 inches.

In six years of fishing with friends, we've caught what I'd estimate to be about 15 fish that were over 28 inches, the largest of which measured 40 inches (2oo6), 36 inches (2003) and 35 inches (2007). In six years, we've only been checked by park police once (2007) to make sure we were not in violation of the law.

Out of all the fish we've hooked in the waters off of New York - searobins, blue fish, fluke, weakfish, skate, sand sharks, sea bass, porgy - striped bass are, by far, the most prized. While they don't have the sharp teeth that blue fish are known for, bass are strong swimmers and good fighters when hooked. Oftentimes, they'll hit a baited hook and run with it, pulling out long lengths of line before they are slowly tired into submission and brought in. Their meat turns tender and white when cooked, and not oily or full of bones like other types of fish. The average 28-inch fish weighs about 10-12 pounds, and a larger bass of about 35 inches usually weighs around 20 pounds and could easily feed around a dozen people.

The real allure to bass fishing in New York is the simplicity of it all. You cast a baited line out and wait for something to happen. No licences or permits are required to surfcast or fish in the bay. All one needs is a single rod ($30), a net ($12), hooks ($3), some light gear ($7), and a cup of bait ($3). All of this, including the fresh bait (clams) could be purchased at any of several gas stations in Rockaway.

On Saturday, the day was overcast at first, and we headed out about 11 a.m. to our usual fishing spot, near Riis Park. This past winter was the first time I've given any serious attempt to getting out and fishing in the off-season, just to see what I might catch. As a Christmas gift, I picked up a pair of chest waders and gave it two or three attempts from January to March before understanding why the bait shop didn't even bother to stock fresh bait until the weather was a little warmer - not even a bite.

Bass fishing has been something we picked up entirely by chance. I'd always seen anglers lining the bay wall in Rockaway, and before the September 11th attacks, dropping their lines off of the nearby Marine Parkway Bridge, where I later learned fish frequented because of the change in water currents near the bridge pillars. I think it was curiousity or boredom that first put a fishing pole in my hand out in Rockaway, but it quickly became an addiction, first because of how impossible it was to catch anything initially, then after realizing that there were, indeed, big fish to be caught in our local waters.

Our tackle box today has grown considerably, today comprising of, among other items, a scale, a bait knife, a folding ruler, a flashlight, and several other items that have either been necessary at one point or picked up for one reason or another - a bottle opener, a few paper towels, a bottle of hand sanitizer, etc.

Bay fishing is the simplest fishing to do, but it's not anything glamorous, and I don't often take guests down to the bay to fish because, while the fish are bigger in the bay, they're less likely to be on your line. Our bay fishing sessions are often waiting games spent leaning against the wall, checking the views of the busy waterway immediately in front of us, JFK airport about five miles to the east, and the Manhattan skyline 11 miles straight ahead.

If you're curious, the World Trade Center stood high above the left part of the Manhattan skyline in the picture above, about twice as high as the rest of the downtown building line seen just behind and to the right of the Doppler radar tower toward the left side of this photo.

The biggest problem - just about the only problem - with fishing on the bay is the high number of snags on the bottom. The bay isn't very deep, and there are several wrecks throughout. On an average day of fishing we'll lose five or 10 rigs on snags alone. While we've taken to bringing down multiple poles, usually two per angler, unhooking the snags or re-rigging the hooks helps stave off the boredom in between catches. When there are no fish, it can't hurt to check the lines and make sure they aren't caught on the bottom on...whatever it is they always get caught on. It's a mystery to me.

However, as simple as the concept of fishing might be, it gets complicated when factoring in any number of variables like tides, hook type, bait type, or even cloud cover, knot usage, underwater terrain. I think I could forever be a student of the bay and not figure it all out, but in a few years we've at least picked up a working knowledge.

Saturday's most frequent catch, however - conglomerates. I missed the first two catches, which were a single mussel and a small mud crab. However, I did document the rest of the day, once we had realized the chances of getting an actual, living fish - at least at this too-early point in the season - were slim to none.

Catch 3: a small, crab of some type.

Catch 4: a nasty conglomerate.

Catch 5: a big, nasty mud crab.

Catch 6: a first here - a crab connected to a nasty conglomerate.
That's about it.

We left concluding that this was one of those days where you have to pay your dues, so-to-speak. If we had given up after our first summer of catching no bass at all, we'd have gotten nowhere.

Until the next fishing day - at the very latest this coming Sunday or next. Gotta love the spring.

Mar 18, 2008

Richard Martin: Spotted Littering on 59th Street.

The recent publicity regarding Bay Ridge's crazy old superindendent Richard Martin brought me to an amazing revelation this morning. For those of you reading this post from out of state, Richard Martin made the new in February when tenants in his building complained about harassing notes Martin admittedly left in the lobby, chastising tenants for their behavior. Martin claimed they left garbage all over the lobby, and he declared war. Aside from the series of notes, he told the NY Daily News he moved all the garbage pails to the fifth floor, to punish the unruly tenants by forcing them to hike five flights just to deposit their trash in a bin.

An example of one note:

"You tenants better stop being so stupid and retarded"

... "the [expletive] who ripped my Christmas decoration down from ceiling and put in front of my door.

"If I catch you I will kill you where you are. You don't want to [mess] with the Irish," he added.

Truly...well, amazing.

What came together for me today was this:

On the morning of February 9th, I woke early to make it to work because I took the over-time opportunity to drive a group of high school students to a drill meet in Queens. I sat on the R train at about 6 a.m. that morning. Sitting directly across from me on the train with hardly another soul in sight on that too-early Saturday morning, was this older guy who stood out to me because he kept shifting around in his seat and kind of chewing his gums as if he had a pair of loose dentures or something like that. I also noticed he was wearing a Korean War vets hat as he sat and read his copy of the morning paper (the Post, I believe) and drinking from a small paper cup of coffee.

Putting his sort of lanky appearance aside, I thought about the other vets I've seen wearing those trucker-style vet hats. They're the living remnants of wars' past, my tired mind postulated. How come I've never seen any younger vets wearing vet-hats? But I couldn't help but to wonder what they hell this guy was doing riding the R train a 6 a.m.

When we got to 59th Street, I stood to transfer to the N express, and so did this guy. On the platform, about 20 feet down, an early morning MTA employee quietly swept debris into a bucket. Within moments of stepping on the platform, the old guy does something that almost made me laugh right out loud. My sleepy reverie on vets and wars and vet hats came to an abrupt end when I see the guy bypass the platform trash can and instead throw his coffee cup and empty paper bag right onto the tracks- RIGHT IN FRONT OF THE MTA GUY SWEEPING UP THE GARBAGE! Seriously, in plain sight.

I thought, what a slob! So funny. So, so funny. It was just a funny New York subway story, I thought.

Until today. I finally see this funny photo of Martin with his dog on a street-side amusement ride posted on a local blog, and I realize that the old guy that morning, the garbage-thrower-right-in-front-of-the-MTA-worker, was Richard Martin! The very same man that's demonstrated such an objection to the supposed poor hallway hygiene in his own building. I guess Mr. Martin thinks it's OK for him to litter and to be a blatant slob, but not for someone else to be, especially when Martin has to clean it up as the super. Seriously, he threw all his trash onto the tracks RIGHT IN FRONT OF THE MTA GUY.

The irony astounds.

Feb 4, 2008

it's your world

I found this photo on my work computer, and have no explanation for it whatsoever.