Fish And The City
At 6:30 a.m. on a late November day, Captain Frank Crescitelli, owner of Fin Chaser Charters, navigates his 32-foot Regulator through the harbor of New York City. In the stern, fiddling with the flyrods and light spinning gear, is the first mate, Tony “Dawg” D’Andrea, a retired city sanitation worker. We’re making the run from Staten Island to the plum fishing grounds that lay off the beach at Coney Island.
Captain Frank, a mustachioed 47-year-old Staten Islander with a thick mane of black hair, cuts the engine and drifts off the Coney Island beach. All around us, gulls and terns squawk as they skim the water, occasionally diving in to pluck out and devour a tiny wriggling baitfish known as a sand eel.
Captain Frank suspects that the baitfish have been forced to the surface by feeding stripers lurking below. He consults his high-tech Raymarine fishfinder, which provides a graphical outlay of what lies beneath. The dozens of dark red blobs, each representing an individual striper, confirm his hunch. “They’re stacked in here, baby!” he yells, simultaneously plucking a thick robusto cigar from his mouth.
I race to the bow with a flyrod, outfitted with a fast-sinking line and a four-inch fly designed to mimic a sand eel. Dawg casts a spinning reel from the stern. Within 10 minutes, we land three stripers, all in the 10-pound range. The city’s stripers can be eaten in certain circumstances, but Captain Frank is a committed catch-and-release guide, so we let them all go.
Fishing the New York harbor is a bit surreal. A glance in any direction serves as a reminder: This harbor is in the very heart of America’s capital of commerce.
To the north of us, dawn is lifting the veil of darkness from the Manhattan skyline, and the tall dark skyscrapers are backlit by a muted orange horizon. A few hundred yards away, an enormous container ship heads out to sea. Every few minutes an airplane screeches overhead, making its final descent into nearby JFK Airport. Directly in front of us, Coney Island’s Ferris Wheel and 262-foot-tall Parachute Jump, both dormant, stand like sentinels of the harbor.
Yet this one of the best inshore saltwater fisheries in the country. And right now, late fall and early winter, is prime time. The stripers are on their annual fall run, a movable feast that begins in New England and ends in Virginia–the stripers pillaging local populations of baitfish like marauding Vikings all along the way. With New York as one of the stripers’ favorite stopover points, the result is unbridled nature in one of the least natural places on earth.
It was not by accident that New York City became one of the most densely populated places on earth. The area was once about as ecologically bountiful as a place can get. Bears, wolves, songbirds and turkeys once roamed the patchwork of forests, meadows, spring creeks and marshes that are now Manhattan. (To see what Manhattan looked like before Europeans arrived in 1609, check out the Mannahatta Project.) And the surrounding waters, the Hudson River and the East River–the latter of which is, in fact, a tidal strait–teemed with bivalves, shad, sturgeon, Atlantic salmon and, of course, striped bass.
That New York is long gone. The area was almost completely deforested by the time of the Revolutionary War, and those meadows and spring creeks are now paved city blocks. Even Central Park, the city’s magisterial green space, is entirely man-made, as natural as a golf course. About the only remaining display of the natural world in New York City can be found fishing the New York harbor.
From Wasteland to Sanctuary
But the stripers’ annual ritual hasn’t persevered without interruption or threat. When Captain Frank was a child, fishing the waters around his boyhood home of Brooklyn, the harbor was as defiled as any waters in the nation, a dumping ground for household and industrial waste and raw sewage. By the late 1970s, the striped bass was caught in the double-whammy of destroyed habitat and commercial overharvest.
“When I was a kid, if I caught one or two stripers a season, it was considered a good year,” says Captain Frank.
The stripers survived and began to thrive again thanks to the landmark 1972 Clean Water Act, which brought toxic releases under control; a decade later, the harbor started to recover. In the 1980s, a moratorium on East Coast commercial striper fishing brought the fish back from the brink and, by the 1990s, both harbor and fish were restored to their natural glory.
That’s when Captain Frank started his fruitful guiding service. (He also founded and runs the Fishermen’s Conservation Association, a harbor and striper watchdog, and owns Guide’s Choice, a lure company.) He fishes the entire harbor, from the gigantic pylons of the Verrazano Bridge to the Statue of Liberty–“the skirt,” in guide’s parlance–to Jamaica Bay, the saltwater refuge area that abuts the runways of JFK Airport. (Next time you take off or land at JFK, look out the window. Chances are you will see a fishing boat. If there’s a billowing of cigar smoke coming from one of them, it just might be Captain Frank.)
Hooked on a Feeling
Captain Frank knows the harbor’s moods and movements. Which is why, at 8 a.m., with the Coney Island bite slowing, he shouts “Reel ‘em up, boys,” and we shove off for the sandbars a few miles from “the skirt,” where baitfish and stripers frequently congregate.
After a 10-minute run, Captain Frank shuts off the motor. He changes my fly to a big chartreuse Clouser Minnow. On my first cast, my line stops suddenly then begins violently exiting my reel. As I try to regain a little control over the fish, Captain Frank stands by my side, hooting and hollering.
I land the fish, a fat 12-pounder. Captain Frank releases it carefully, treating it like one of the prized few he caught as a kid.
It’s time to go in. In just a few hours on the water, we’ve landed eight fish, which Captain Frank apologetically declares a slow morning. In any other inland saltwater fishery in the country, it would have been considered a banner day. “Whenever I go fish some other place, Florida or Texas or wherever, I realize that I am a spoiled dude,” he says.
It might not stay this way, as the stripers are still threatened by the vicissitudes of man. The latest is the overharvesting of menhaden, a small bony fish that’s used in chicken feed and also happens to be the stripers’ main meal.
Captain Frank is fighting this battle as well and, as we head back to the docks, it’s clear that paying $550 to fish with him for a half day in this harbor reborn–yet still under siege–is not a luxury item. It’s a gift. And so is Captain Frank to the Harbor.
Entry filed under: Get Wet, Manhattan, Natural Waterfront, Staten Island. Tags: ANGLING, charter boat, Fin Chaser, fishing, New York Harbor, saltwater flyfishing, Staten Island, striped bass, stripers.