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 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, 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.