By Joy Bergmann
Stroll the Hudson River pier at 70th Street [Pier I] most any day and you’ll spot fishermen trying their luck. What are they catching? Do they eat the fish? What’s the allure?
To find out, WSR recently spoke with three of the most devoted local anglers:
- James, 62, a retired cleaning service worker who walks over from his place at Amsterdam and 62nd Street.
- George, 71, a retired sous chef who makes his way from 90th and Broadway.
- Robert, 74, a retired truck driver who bikes all the way from East 4th Street.
Should their fish stories inspire you to earn your own, the NYC Parks Department will offer a free Hudson River fishing clinic on June 29th in Harlem.
These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
WSR: You guys all know each other? Rivals or friends?
Robert: We’re all friends.
WSR: What are you after today?
George: Whatever bites.
WSR: How’s it going so far?
James: Lost a big catfish. It happens. But it’s OK. I’m enjoying the day.
WSR: What are you using for bait?
R: Shrimp. Attracts the striped bass.
G: Blood worms. You get more hits with blood worms than anything else. They’re about a dollar apiece. Dozen for $10. I remember when it was $1.25. Going faster than cigarettes.
J: We’re using everything. Shrimp. Sand worms. They’re $7 a dozen. They’ll get you catfish, nice stripers, flounder.
WSR: Where do you get the worms?
J: I go all the way to City Island, place called Island Bait. I buy four, five dozen at a time. Keep ‘em in the fridge. Some places cut their worms in half. How you gonna sell me a half a worm?! So I’m on the 6 train at 7 in the morning, Pelham Bay, get the bus to City Island to get my worms every Friday.
WSR: Do you go fishing every day?
J: Absolutely every day. And I will until I can’t anymore. If I gotta crawl here, I’ll crawl here to fish!
WSR: Have you fished all your life?
R: No. I retired about a year ago and said, let me try fishing. I met James. They know all about it. And they taught me.
The crazy thing about it is, my father had a fishing store and I never liked it. I hated fishing. I threw away all his rods when he passed away. Now if he saw me fishing, he’d kill me!
J: I grew up fishing with my father. Started when I was five years old up in Washington Heights.
G: I grew up in Arizona, fishing every lake they had. When I got here, it was a different game. [The Hudson] is a combination of fresh and saltwater. I learned a lot from these guys. The currents, a lot of things going on, so I had to re-learn.
WSR: What mistakes do newbies make?
G: They come with lures. I tell ‘em, that doesn’t work here. It’s gotta be fresh, live bait. Some people are used to fishing their little ponds with little rods. That doesn’t work here. You get a good-sized bite from a big fish and it will break it open. I tell ‘em, you need bigger tackle.
The only one who can get away with small stuff is James. And it’s more fun to see how big a fish you can get with the smallest tackle. It’s more of a challenge.
J: With a smaller rod, you gotta know how to fight a fish. You let out more line so they don’t break it. You let ‘em run, get tired and then reel him in. You gotta wait until he’s ready. A lot of people get panicky and tire themselves out instead of the fish.
I just stay calm and let the fish run. ‘You wanna go, go. I got all day. Where am I going?‘ You try and bring some of these big fish in before they’re tired, he’s gonna break your line.
WSR: Is it always a “he” when you’re fighting the fish?
J: Yeah, but some of these females we get coming through, they’re fat and they’re mean!
WSR: What was your biggest catch?
R: I caught two striped bass. Big ones. Thirty pounds each. I got lucky. With me, I catch a fish like I catch a woman. When I do catch ‘em, I catch ‘em good. But it’s tough.
G: I got a 34-inch striped bass right here about three years ago. Gave it to one of my buddies. Too big for me. I eat small meals!
J: My biggest was this striped bass [shows picture on phone].
WSR: Holy moly!
J: 25 pounds, 36 inches.
WSR: Do you eat the fish?
R: Yeah. Over here they clean the water with shellfish; they got baskets right over there. It’s not a bad thing to eat them. They haven’t killed me. But if you ate ‘em every day, you might feel bad. I never had a problem.
G: Me? Not so much anymore. If I get something, and it’s legal, I give it to James or one of the other guys to take home.
J: I’m not afraid to eat them. Been eating ‘em all my life. I bake ‘em or fillet and fry ‘em. The tastiest are the striped bass. They’re flaky and delicious!
[NOTE: the NY State Department of Health has very specific guidelines regarding what they consider advisable levels of consumption.]
WSR: What about crabbing?
R: That starts in June when the water warms up. They’ll be here in droves. Guys stick a chicken leg in the trap and an hour later, pull it up and it’s full of crabs.
G: I take blue crabs once in a while. Throw ‘em in a pot with herbs, cook ‘em nice.
WSR: What’s the best part of fishing?
R: I like the solitude. I’ve always been low key. It’s relaxing. You get the sun.
G: The enjoyment of the sport.
J: I don’t stress or worry about nothing! It’s wonderful out here.
WSR: What’s the worst part?
R: Not catching a fish.
WSR: What do you need most to succeed here?
J: You have to have it. A lotta people want to chase fish. They don’t get a bite here, they go over there, then over there. Nah! I sit in one spot. When they come, they come. You just gotta wait it out. Patience.
WSR: I have none. You’ve gotta teach me.
R: Any time.
G: I bring a small radio if I get bored. I read self-help books on my Kindle – nutrition, how to manage my money, acupuncture. At this point in my life, my main concern is my health.
WSR: Do you have to have a license?
R: You have to have a fishing license. A lot of guys don’t have one, but when you get a ticket you’ll know it.
J: Everybody, virtually everybody, down here renews every year.
WSR: Does anybody ever check?
R: Sure. They don’t bother us too often, but they do stop and do their job.
J: Game wardens from New York State come down periodically. Park rangers, too.
WSR: What unites all fishermen? What do you all have in common?
J: Our stories! The stories we tell.
WSR: Fish stories? The one that got away…
J: Yeah, but I’ve got witnesses! That 50-pound sturgeon? I had him on the line for 2 hours and 45 minutes. That was in 2005. People kept telling me, ‘Take it, take it!’ But nah. The American sturgeon is very rare. They’re protected. You get caught with one of them and it’s $1,000 fine.
WSR: Some fish take the whole rod with them into the water, right?
J: Oh yeah. That’s why I’ve got these little bungees attached to mine. One of my buddies one day said, ‘Hey, somebody took my rod.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, a fish stole your rod!’ Last year a bluefish almost took mine; got it just in time.
WSR: Last thing: Is your wife OK with you being down here every day?
J: She knows where I’m at!