New York Pier Fishing (With A Fly Rod)
PIER FISHING (WITH A FLY ROD)
I didn't become a lawyer or a doctor, as my mother wanted, but I did become a surf fisherman, and soon climbed to the top of the fishing ladder, so to speak, and became the most sophisticated of all anglers: a fly fisher. (When I wear my fly-fishing hat and vest, people tell me I look every bit an angler as Brad Pitt does in "A River Runs Through it.") And so, I've read a countless number of fly-fishing books and articles. So what if I don't catch as many fish as I should.
I didn't become the great American novelist, as I wanted, but I did become an outdoor writer. (When I give people my business cards they are impressed.) So what if I've earned an average of $120 an article and still don't have an agent.
I didn't become a lot of things, good and bad, including a pier fishermen. Piers were magnets for anglers on the lowest fishing rung: bait fishermen. Besides, what self-respecting fly fisher wants to fish, standing on concrete or wood, facing a railing?
One, maybe, who's often too tired to travel up to the beautiful Westchester trout streams, and who is therefore willing to accept the challenge of saltwater, fly fishing. How could I not accept the challenge with my hometown, Manhattan, bordered by two routes of migrating, stripped bass: the East and Hudson Rivers?
But I had a problem: I didn't have a nine-weight fly rod. My solution: spend over $600 for a top-of-the-line one. Wasn't I worth it, in spite of my shortcomings? A psychologist would say so. Unless he suspected I was trying to mask something. What? Grief over the loss of a fishing friendship? Self-blame? But how often did Robert keep me waiting in subway or train stations? Lots. How often did he read my publications? Never.
For whatever the reason, I put $625 down and bought a new rod.
Now where to fish? A short subway ride away was a fishing pier in Long Island City, Queens. The pier was shaped like a gigantic capital T. The bottom of the T was about thirty yards long, six yards wide. Guarding its south side like twelve-foot soldiers, was a row of wood pilings. Casting and retrieving between them would be a chore. The top of the T, a rectangle, was a watering hole for five bait fishermen. The fishermen wore baseball caps, dungarees and old jackets. Angler attire? Well, not exactly. About ten spinning rods leaned on the downstream railing.
The mile-wide East River vaguely resembled a trout stream. Instead of a meadow on the far bank, however, there was a long, low building, the United Nations' Assembly. Instead of trees there were tall and short, wide and thin, stone and glass buildings. From my new Queens perspective, the skyline looked as if it were cut from a giant cookie cutter, and didn't seem intimidating - unlike the bait fishermen.
I decided not to fish near them.
I set up my fly rod, tied on a deceiver and put on my stripping basket. The bait fishermen, I saw, watched me as if I were from Mars, or even Pluto. One laughed - at my hat, I guessed. Another reeled in his line, stuck a chunk of bait on his hook, and cast. He stopped his surf rod way too far forward. It unloaded like a slinky, lobbing the lead sinker, at best, fifty feet.
I thought, bait fishermen don't even know the basics of casting. Why should they? Casting and retrieving are too much work for them. But I didn't come to the pier to fish, or to dwell on other people's casting defects, or on the darn railing in front of me. I false cast, shooting more and more line. Abruptly, I stopped the rod. A tight loop arrowed across the water. My fly turned over and splashed down. I retrieved, faster and faster, but I was no match for the current. It swept my line under the pier, and imbedded my fly in a piling. Four more dollars gone, or so I thought. The fisherman with the blond, hippie-long hair marched down the pier with a long gaff and freed my fly. I retrieved all of my line and yelled, "Thanks!"
Knowing I had to retrieve against the current, I walked past the pilings, to the top of the T. On the downstream railing, the bait fishermen and their spinning rods took up all the room.
The chutzpah! The injustice! After all I'm one angler. I take up one space and play by fair rules. But complain? To whom? The Mayor? The only violations he cares about are parking. Besides, the bait fishermen are not exactly little Frankensteins, even though I heard they take undersized fish, and even though I see they fish with discount-store-quality rods, some with broken tips. I decided not to squeeze between the fishermen and force them to make room. I faced Manhattan and cast as far as I could.
"Wow!" one of the fishermen shouted.
Feeling admired for a change, I watched my line swing downstream and tried to tune out the mostly Spanish chatter. Did the bait fishermen come to the pier to fish or to talk? I wondered. Does solitude mean anything to them? Well, at least no one is shouting into a cell phone.
They named baseball players; and I assumed they argued about the Mets and Yankees. I sided with the Mets, as always.
My line bowed big-time. Would I be able to set the hook? My fly swung directly below me, finally. I moved the rod tip up and down. No strike. I retrieved line, six inches at a time.
Yes, at least I'm trying to fool the stripers. What's the challenge, the skill, of casting bait and then waiting for a strike? It wouldn't it be easier to buy fish in a store. I don't understand bait fishermen. They're like Einstein's theories to me.
Feeling light years away from them, I wondered if I should have called Robert. But risk a long wait? No, not again. Instead, I should lose my loneliness, my self, in the beautiful, beautiful outdoors.
Again I cast. My line floated over seams, riffles, eddies, and over what looked like miniature mountain ridges and desert plains. The shapes held firm, as if they respected each other's turf, and as if the river rolled on wheels.
My line bowed again. In my mind cursed the bait fishermen for taking all the best spots.
"What you fisheen'?" The accent was from the Barrio. It belonged to a fisherman wearing a faded Met cap. He walked toward me. He was about sixty years old and needed a shave.
He stared at my fly rod and seemed to see gold. Somehow he knew a good fly rod when he saw one.
I asked, "How's the fishing here?"
Was he discouraging me from coming back?
"If you wanna to catch fish," he said, "use bait. Wanna worm?"
"I only use flies. Is there a bathroom around here?"
He pointed to a small building on the near bank. "Dhere."
How convenient, especially because I wasn't wearing waders.
"God made our little fishing world so pretty," he said. "I try to come here every day, except Sundays. Dhen I go to church."
Though I had issues with God, the East River, I saw, seemed to turn reflected sunlight into diamonds, and looked as beautiful as any trout stream or Gothic cathedral.
"Good luck," he said. He walked back to his friends. The one wearing the Yankee hat opened a white cooler, took out a can of soda and held it up. He looked at me and smiled.
I said, "No thanks." I took out a cigar and lit it. Two of the bait fishermen nodded. They approved. Would they if they knew I smoked a $1.25 knock-off? Probably. Bless them.
During the next two hours the bait fishermen and I often exchanged glances. None of us caught a fish. The East river slowed and erased the seams and eddies as if they were chalk on a blackboard. Is slack tide the big river's way of bowing and showing humility? Or its way of meditating and coming to terms with itself and the rest of the world, especially with invading anglers? If so, shouldn't real people, like me, have a slack time? I looked at my watch and saw go-to-work time. I reeled in my line.
The fisherman wearing the Met hat walked toward me. "Sunset is dhe best time. Sometimes I fish spoons. I work dhem at different levels"
So he knew something about real fishing, after all.
"Next time I'll show you," he said.
Was he inviting me back?
I walked back to the subway. The bait fishermen were probably born into poverty. Who am I to judge their rods? I never had to fish to eat. When I go back to the pier, maybe I'll wear my Met hat. Even though I didn't catch a striper, I had a good time after all, probably because I began to feel connected to the bait fishermen. I decided, however, that the next time I went fishing, instead of dealing with not having a good fishing spot, I'd go back to being a real fly fisherman.
A week later, I rode the train up to Mamaroneck and walked through the town to Harbor Park. The big harbor was shaped like a tilted, upside-down pear. The top of the giant pear - the part of the harbor closest to me - was full of small sail and fishing boats. Dividing the pear in half were two rows of red buoys. The bottom of the pear, I saw, had a small opening that spilled into Long Island Sound. The pear motif was reflected on the far bank, in the shape of trees with short trunks and big round tops. Ripened by autumn, these trees had long, gold-colored leaves. Breaking the pear motif like riffles on a slow-moving stream were taller, cone-shaped trees that had reddish-orange leaves.
I set up my fly rod, put on my waders, climbed down the bank and waded toward the buoys. A narrow wooden pier slowly came into view. The pier, I soon saw, was about a hundred feet long. Four bait fishermen, each with one rod, fished from the pier, leaving plenty of room for any angler who wanted it.
I didn't. I felt as if I were comforted by a trout stream, a stream I didn't have to read. The buoys read it for me. They mapped a narrow channel that striped bass used like highways. I cast past the buoys and retrieved, cast and retrieved. Often I looked at the pier, and watched the bait fishermen and tried to decipher their distant chatter.
Yes, I'm in a gem of the vast earth. I wish I were with someone to share it with. But fly fishing is supposed to be about solitude and nature. Then why has meeting anglers been more important to me than catching fish? Should I wade back to the shore and fish off the pier?
No! Today I'll enjoy solitude, whether I really want to or not. An hour later I hooked my first striped bass, a schoolie. With my nine-weight rod, I didn't feel much of a fight, but at least I was off the schneid, and could give into my fatigue - not my loneliness, I told myself - and head home.
I promised myself to return to the harbor as soon as I could, but two weeks later the forecast was possible rain. Rain, I told myself, wasn't going to stop me, especially because I couldn't turn over the hourglass of the striped bass run. But maybe the big stripers don't swim all the way into the back of the harbor. Maybe I'll be better off fishing from the pier.
The pier was deserted when I got there. The thick, gray blanket of clouds had scared away the bait fishermen. Hard-core anglers they were. Across the harbor the long, drooping, half-bare branches were now sprinkled with sand-colored leaves, their final shade before being shed by time.
I set up my fly rod, cast just past the channel, then retrieved. Dead leaves floated by in a huge, birdlike formation. Did the leaves fall simultaneously from the same tree? In nature was death timed, like a football game? Or was staying in formation the leaves' way of staying close to those they grew up with, those they lived and died with?
The outgoing ripples, I noticed, flowed faster than the leaves. Were the leaves in no rush to leave the harbor, to drift into the great, big Sound and disintegrate into nothingness? Did they want, as I would, to look back and see, for the last time, the sights they loved?
But leaves knowing they were on a death march? Then why didn't I know I was, in a sense, on one too? Why didn't I let go of my resentments toward Robert, the bait fishermen and the often senseless, violent world?
Some leaves floated well below or behind the formation. Why? Maybe those leaves still resent the others. Maybe I'm going to end up like a resentful, lonely leaf, even though I learned from my mother's death that reconciliation often ran out of time.
An angler walked by, carrying a small bucket, and what I knew was a quality, spinning rod and reel. He wore a white, GORE-TEX jacket. He set up a Carolina rig with what looked like a dead minnow. He cast, stopping the rod abruptly and slinging the minnow way past the channel. He swept the rod tip out to the side, then, reeling in line, moved the rod back to straight ahead. He repeated his Carolina retrieve.
Maybe, I thought, some bait fisherman really knew how to fish.
Again I cast.
"I never saw anyone reach the channel with a fly rod," he said. He leaned his spinning rod against the railing and walked to me. He inspected my fly rod, but didn't seem to see gold.
"Are you a fly-casting instructor?" His accent was slight Castilian, I guessed. I thought of asking if he had read DON QUIXOTE, my favorite book, but wasn't sure if pier fishing and literature mixed.
I said, "Just a person who spent four years mostly practicing long-distance casting instead of fishing."
"Why'd you do that?"
"I'm obsessive. Besides, writing casting articles was my only way of getting published." And erasing my failures, I thought of adding.
He asked if I tied flies. I said I didn't have the time. Winter, he said, was his time to tie, and to invent new patterns.
I asked, "So why are you fishing with bait?"
"After using flies most of the season and giving the stripers a real chance, I deserve some easy strikes."
Unlike Don Quixote, or me, he seemed at peace, at least with his angling world.
I told him about my line bowing on East River and asked, "Will I be able to set the hook?"
"Use the tension between the line and water to help. If the bow, let's say, is moving to the left, move your right foot back. Then if you feel a strike, rotate your hips, sweep the rod all the way around to the right and pull down hard on the line."
I introduced myself. His name was Carlos. For the next hour or so we talked about the waters we fished. We shared a love for the Beaverkill and Croton Rivers. My loneliness burned away, then sunlight warmed my face. The blanket of clouds were splitting in half and, surprisingly, reminded me of Moses parting the Red Sea; and suddenly Carlos coming out of nowhere and answering my biggest fishing question seemed like a small miracle. Was he an angling angel? After all, he wore white. But since when did I believe in angels?
A few hours later, as I sat in the train, I wondered if Carlos and I should have exchanged phone numbers. But will friendship, like the rising sun, reveal his defects? Are we anglers, therefore, are better off meeting and going our own ways?
I still wondered if that were true when I fished piers in Brooklyn and on Roosevelt Island, still wondered when Thanksgiving passed and New York was blessed with a mild weekday. Robert called and insisted he wanted to go fishing. I told him to meet me on the 69th Street Pier. He said he would.
The football-field-long pier wasn't crowded, thankfully. At midfield two bait fishermen leaned four rods on the railing.
I asked, "Que pasa?"
"Nada." He smiled. "Fly Fisheeng? Good luck."
"Gracias." I walked to the end of the pier, and remembered the church-going, bait fisherman saying he fished spoons on different levels. I tied on a weighted clouser, cast straight across, toward New Jersey, and let my clouser sink. My line bowed downstream. Something told me Carlos also fished on this mild day.
An hour later, high tide became slack tide. Robert still hadn't showed, but it didn't matter. The strangers I talked to kept me company.
I walked to the north side of the pier, tied on a popper, and cast upstream. My new strategy didn't pay off. Were two schoolies all I had to show for my $625 fly rod?
The sun looked like the eye of a giant Cyclops peeking over New Jersey. Like the mouth of a fire-spewing dragon, the eye beamed down a burning path across the Hudson River. When the eye set, I knew, it would also set on my fishing year. Slowly the Hudson darkened into gray, but instead of letting go of its light, the river seemed to divide the light and reshape it into flickering columns: reflections of the Riverside Park lights. To me, the reflections looked like the linear-shaped galaxies of a contracted, upside-down world, but soon the reflections looked more like giant, vibrating, subatomic strings - particles supposedly holding the key to understanding the universe and the possibility of even a twelfth dimension. Am I in it?
No. Just in a place where a person's disappointments, like losing a friend, take up an speck of space: in the three dimensions of a pier.
Five miles upstream the lights of the George Washington Bridge formed the shape of a huge, hanging smile. The smile, surrounded by the shapeless, dark-blue sky, didn't have a face. Is the smile the mouth of the Cyclops? If so, it's certainly a happy monster, maybe even a bait fisherman who won't eat the Manhattan skyline. Are the monster's nose, chin and ears also disguised and hidden in the beauty all around me, or perhaps around the Queens and Mamaroneck piers? Beauty, thankfully, doesn't have boundaries like rivers and harbors, and could spread, even to monsters.
A voice inside me said it was time to let go of fishing, to make peace with winter, and to come back to the piers when the stripers began their spring run. I retrieved my popper in a straight line, frequently pausing and creating rings on the water. The movement, I realized, reflected my fishing adventures. They too moved in a line of time, frequently creating fishing rings filled with anglers, including bait fishermen I could speak with to feel less alone.
Yes, it's time to forgive lower-rung anglers for not being sophisticated fly fishermen, the way I learned to forgive myself for not being all I once wanted to be. Isn't this awareness what I really have to show for my $625 fly rod? So even though Robert won't be the friend I want, I will remember that I too could have boundaries, and that I could, therefore, wait for Robert on my terms: not in a train station, but in a stream or on a pier. And I'll still be grateful because even if I travel alone, I'll feel entitled to angling adventures which, like a beautiful river, will flow on and on. Copyright (c) 2005 by Randall Kadish
Randy is the author of the historical novel, The Fly Caster Who Tried to Make Peace with the World