March 1, 2024

Hardcore Game Fishing

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Live-Lining for Striped Bass with Lady Liberty

Rockfish Charters gets up close and personal with the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor.

When I worked on Governor’s Island, the small island just south of Manhattan, I regularly watched fishing vessels cruise by the Statue of Liberty heading to or from the Gateway. I always thought there must be something magical about hoisting a striped bass in front of the statue and the city skyline. The contrast of nature and marine life meeting urbanization and technology was exciting to me; New York is a place where worlds collide.

During each ferry trip to Governor’s Island, I grew to admire my view of New York Harbor even more, but my fish remained a daydream until almost two years later. I joined a trip organized by the Brooklyn Fishing Club to catch striped bass at night under the artificial glow of the city that never sleeps.

The Harbor and History

Upon entering New York Harbor from the south, as many explorers, merchants, immigrants, and anglers have done throughout history, the boroughs of Brooklyn and Staten Island are situated on the right and left sides. To the left, the mighty Hudson divides New York from New Jersey and flows south into the Atlantic Ocean. Along the right side of the bay, the East River separates Brooklyn and Queens from Manhattan, connecting New York Bay to the Long Island Sound. The two churning rivers collide around Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan, a short distance from the trading hub of Wall Street. The history of this city is rooted in trade—much of it initially for furs and food—and the location played a massive role in New York becoming the respected metropolis it is today.

Looking north toward downtown Manhattan, the mouth of the Hudson River separates New York’s and New Jersey’s skylines.

At the mouth of the East River sits the 172-acre Governor’s Island, though the natural island was originally only 70 acres. Because of its geographic location, the island and its cultural roots are engrained in fishing. It was first used as a seasonal fishing camp in the early 1500s by the Lenape tribe of today’s Manhattan. Later, the island served as a U.S. Navy and Coast Guard base; today, it hosts the New York City Harbor School and the Billion Oyster Project, groups working to improve water quality in New York Harbor through education and oyster restoration.

Across the bay to the west, Ellis Island and Liberty Island (formerly Bedloe’s Island) are situated in the tidal flats of Upper New York Bay along New Jersey. The two were originally just a couple of large, rocky mudbanks that became exposed during low tide. Eventually, they were filled in and developed for usage by the United States government. Then, in 1886, one hundred years after the Declaration of Independence, the Statue of Liberty was raised to her platform on Liberty Island in New York Bay.

The East River
The East River acts as a striper highway between Brooklyn and Manhattan, connecting New York Harbor to the Long Island Sound.

Among fishermen, New York Bay is famous for big striped bass during certain months of the year. The population of stripers that spawn in the Hudson River is a major contributor to their coastal migratory stock. Surrounding bays and estuaries provide prime striper habitat and some of the best fishing grounds the Northeast can offer. In New Jersey, the Raritan and Navesink rivers provide warm-water discharges and a variety of food sources for holdover bass during long, Northeast winters. Between December and March, localized populations of bass hunker down around small rivers like these.

Around late June, though, when most bass have moved into their summer dwellings, big spawned-out bass feed in lower New York Bay. However, the conditions within New York Harbor can be unforgiving, even treacherous, without local knowledge. Excessive boat traffic, fast-moving current, and a slew of distractions make this region hazardous; as a result, there’s relatively little pressure on bass in the harbor.

It was only a few months into the COVID-19 pandemic when my city faced its greatest struggles in nearly 20 years: a mass exodus, businesses closing left and right, and emptying streets. At 3 p.m. on a sweltering day in mid-June, I pulled into an empty parking lot at a small marina in Brooklyn and hoped I was in the right spot. We were sailing on Rockfish Charters, a 1998 H&H Marine Downeast style designed to be fished by six anglers.

cast net
Brendan wrangled a cast net and chucked it as Captain Rich Colombo made a wide semi-circle.

We left the slip around 4:30 p.m. As we cruised out of the marina, we noticed the channel was teeming with bunker finning on the surface. Brendan wrangled a cast net and chucked it as Captain Rich Colombo made a wide semi-circle. That cast yielded nearly 100 menhaden, at which point the first mate, Kyle, who was watching from the helm, said, “That’s what we call a one-and-done!” Amazed to have found sufficient bait for our trip within a hundred yards of the slip, we assisted the mates in scooping the dozens of fish off the deck with our hands while Captain Rich headed for the Verrazano Bridge.

Terminal Tackle

Conventional setups are spooled with 25-pound monofilament mainline and 30- to 40-pound fluorocarbon leader. The mates rigged live bunker on 8/0 or 9/0 Gamakatsu inline circle hooks. To maintain lively bait and get the best hookset, the menhaden are hooked through the nose before they’re dropped to the bottom. Doing so allows them to swim around while tethered to the leader; the panicked, distressed baitfish draw bass out from bottom structure to feed, but this tactic works only if the sinker is holding bottom.

rigged menhaden
A rigged menhaden awaits its fate as Captain Rich Colombo re-situates the boat in New York Bay.

Depending on the current and tide, Captain Rich and the Rockfish crew set up rods with sinkers from 10 to 20 ounces in order to hold bottom. Rich keeps electrical tape on board so he can tape together two 12-ounce sinkers, which is sometimes necessary around a full moon or new moon tide.

Bass take the bunker headfirst, and as the angler applies pressure, the circle hook turns and punctures the bass’ lip. A heavy hookset is not necessary with circle hooks, but once tight to a fish, several quick pumps of the rod gets the sinker and the bass off the bottom and away from snags.

“Drop ‘em!”

By the time we reached our first drop zone, the sun was falling behind clouds to our west, blanketing the harbor in blood-orange summer smog. The mates rigged the bunker, and upon the Captain’s signal, we dropped our lines to the bottom of New York Harbor.

It wasn’t until I was standing with a rod in hand, looking up at the twinkling lights of the Manhattan skyline against a summer sunset, that I came to appreciate where I was fishing. New York always vibrates with life, which is what so many love about it. The sound of blaring car horns and subways roaring beneath the city streets is a constant soundtrack to city life, but from the water, the ruckus was muted and the city appeared tranquil.

rigged bunker on New York Harbor
The mates rigged the bunker, and upon the Captain’s signal, we dropped our lines to the bottom of New York Harbor.

I felt the gentle rocking of the boat as the Staten Island Ferry chugged by and thought about the first vessels to travel through this region. How remarkable the scenery must have been when the surrounding land was untouched and undeveloped. I wanted nothing more than to hoist a bass in front of Lady Liberty, but the thought of catching a striper in front of a lush, green Manhattan Island would also be quite a spectacle. I wondered if my ancestral family, who settled on Long Island in the mid-1600s, had traveled through—or better yet, caught striped bass from—New York Bay. We hadn’t even caught a fish yet, but I felt more connected to my home waters than ever before.

I fished alongside a few other club members and my friend, Victor, founder of the Brooklyn Fishing Club. His rod keeled over, and a moment later, the guys on either side of me were hooked up. Lines darted every which way, and slight chaos ensued as four anglers dipped beneath one another’s rods, trying to keep their fish hooked. I couldn’t help but laugh because a reflective and introspective moment for me had turned into madness and mayhem within seconds.

I felt a thud, and after a split-second pause, I pulled the rod upward to engage my challenger. As the mates scooped fish, I dodged nets and ducked under lines to watch my over-slot bass surface before it noticed the boat and took a dive. With a kick of its broom tail, the hook popped free. It was the first push of larger fish that evening, and although our group caught and released several more fish, the bite had slowed dramatically. Despite my persistence, we were reaching slack tide and I needed a break. Once night fell, the live bunker would not produce as well, so it was time to change our approach. Instead of using live bunker, we cast large, bloody chunks of menhaden in shallow water.

Atlantic menhaden
The cleaner waters of New York Harbor have drawn in large schools of Atlantic menhaden, which are the primary forage of the striped bass migrating through the region.

Time was winding down, but after two casts in one of our final spots, I felt the unmistakable thud of a big bass. The fish took off and tried to wrap me up around a battered piling, but I stuck with her and kept the line taut, using any available deck space to my advantage. After a minute or so spent fighting her away from structure, she tired, and Kyle was able to net her for a quick picture before release. It was a beautiful fish.

I leaned over the boat to rehabilitate her, then she kicked off with the attitude of a New Yorker, giving a loud whack of her tail to my forearm as if to say, “Yeah, you’d better put me down!”

healthy New York striper
The author admires a healthy New York striper before release. This fish was caught on a bunker chunk with Rockfish Charters.

I took a deep breath of the now cool, summer night air. I felt as if I had checked off a lifelong goal. Going into the trip, I’d been full of uncertainty and angst because we were in a new area (to me), targeting bigger fish in strong, deep current with live bait. I was out of my element since I usually fished back bays or the surf with artificial lures. But after successfully catching and releasing a striped bass in front of the Statue of Liberty under these circumstances, I felt more than accomplished.

As we retreated to the Gateway, I looked back at downtown Manhattan. The skyscrapers stood half-cloaked in the darkness of an emptying city, but the Statue shined brightly.

Round Two

I was still reminiscing about Rockfish Charters a year later when my friend, Jamaal, from the Brooklyn Fishing Club invited my girlfriend, Micaela, and me on his birthday trip aboard Gypsea Charters. Micaela is from Massachusetts, but she had never caught a striped bass before, so I was eager to see her hook her first. After a 3:30 a.m. wakeup, we drove to Howard Beach, Queens, for our 5 a.m. departure.

The weather was cold, foggy, and rainy for July 3, which created an eerie contrast against the typically lively Coney Island amusement park rides. I could tell Micaela wasn’t loving the conditions, but as a seasoned striper fisherman, I knew that these were ideal conditions for bass fishing in July.

Verrazano-Narrows bridge
Passing beneath the Verrazano-Narrows bridge, which connects New York City’s boroughs of Brooklyn and Staten Island, and acts as the gateway into New York Harbor.

Captain Josh Rogers and his wife, Jess, own and operate the Gypsea fishing vessels out of Howard Beach, and on this day, Micaela and I joined 16 other passengers aboard the 50-foot Gypsea Star. On the way out, the mates, including Jamaal’s son, “Lil’ J,” readied the rods and rigs. With greater distance between the anglers and the water due to the boat’s size, strong line (and long nets) were needed to successfully land bass.

In this environment, there were several benefits to fishing with eels rather than cast-netted bunker. The crowded rails left us standing shoulder to shoulder, so if we’d used live bunker, there would have been more tangles between anglers as the panicked baitfish darted around with our lines below the surface. In order to successfully put a boat full of 18 anglers onto strong, highly pressured fish in New York Harbor, each minute detail was calculated.

Terminal Tackle

On the Gypsea Star, Captain Josh and crew proudly support local brands whenever they can. They use 6/0 Peace Token PBL 4x strong inline circle hooks for their rigged eels. The eels are stunned, then they are hooked through the jaw. Captain Josh described that when eels are properly hooked this way, there is no need for zip-ties; the eel can be reused because it can easily slide up and down on the line to avoid becoming a meal or a mangled mess in the zip-ties.

Lining the port and starboard rails on the Gypsea Star were custom-built conventional blanks with custom Gypsea-themed wraps. The 25-rod arsenal was built by Mark Goldstein of Pimpstix Custom Rods in Rye, New York, specifically for Gypsea Charters’ fishing needs. The soft blanks used on the rods were designed for versatility in rigging an array of sinker styles without sacrificing sensitivity; the soft blank made for a mean bend in the rod when pulling a big bass out of deep water.

The conventional reels were each spooled with 40- to 50-pound fluorocarbon or monofilament mainline. Captain Josh explained that in some places, the leader choice matters, but the water clarity in New York Harbor at 50 feet isn’t quite crystal-clear so monofilament or fluorocarbon worked equally well. The mainline was then tied to a 3-way swivel on one end, leaving two open line-ties; one tie had an 18-inch segment of 40- to 50-pound leader with a dropper loop for a sinker, and the other held a three-foot leader for the 6/0 circle hook and eel. Much like Captain Rich and the Rockfish crew, Josh and Jess were equipped with lead up to 20 ounces in order to hold bottom when the current was moving full speed.

The reason that the Gypsea team fished with eels is simply because on the Gypsea Star, the number of anglers alone would have led to tangles with live bunker. On a smaller boat like Rockfish Charters, six anglers with live baits was a bit more manageable. In this area of the Hudson River, the next best live bait to bunker is American eels. Despite the eels being stunned, they maintain enough liveliness to attract a striper. The subtle undulation of their bodies naturally moving with current is what triggers the strike. Sometimes, the strike was violent enough for the eel to come off, but more often than not, the hook was set naturally and the bait saved (when properly rigged). The circle hook scrapes the inside of the bass’ mouth, punctures the papery cheek flesh, and allows the eel to slide freely up and down the line, keeping your it intact for the next drop.

We pulled up to the first drop zone and no one’s eels got touched. With the outgoing tide, we drifted slowly towards the vicinity of the statue, and on the second drop, Micaela seemed to snag bottom. One of the mates, Jared, came to lend a hand. He swung the rod up and down once or twice to free the snag, when it unexpectedly took off beneath the boat. Micaela grabbed hold of the rod and reeled in the first striper of the day, and first one of her lifetime, a 34-incher.

The day could have ended there and it would have been memorable enough, but the smile Micaela gave when she saw the size of her bass was contagious. Everyone hooked into their own bass with ease once she broke the ice, and we dropped eels for hours until the bite slowed around slack tide. The conditions continued in our favor, even though a gentle rain enveloped New York Harbor for the remainder of the morning.

Captain Josh and Captain Rich made sure that nothing slipped through the cracks in order to provide some of the most exciting and rewarding striper fishing available.

I can’t say I’ve fished anywhere else where captains tape sinkers together, but that’s because there’s no fishery quite like New York Harbor. The often-overlooked details—something as small as perfecting a knot—can be the difference between landing or losing the fish of a lifetime. Much like the city itself, these waters force people to be creative to succeed in their pursuits. Despite the obstacles, Captain Josh and Captain Rich have found a way to make striper fishing accessible in one of the world’s busiest ports, resulting in a short-lived window for some of the most exciting, hectic, and memorable fishing the Northeast can offer.

Perhaps I found these outings special because of New York Harbor’s historical significance, or maybe it’s made special by how small I feel floating in a tiny boat, surrounded by ferries and tankers beside the “concrete jungle.” But more so than anything else, the friends I’ve made and shared these experiences with are what made the fishing exponentially more special. On these trips, we were unified by passion for catching a fish in an area essential to the striped bass fishery’s future.

During a time when so many people fled New York City, striped bass remained right where they have been for hundreds of years as a dependable resource for local inhabitants. Upon returning to the dock after each trip, I gained an even greater appreciation for these delicate yet unbelievably resilient fish and for my city. In many ways, striped bass encompass the spirit of the true New Yorker—but maybe it’s the New Yorkers who have adopted the spirit of the striper … an intelligent, tough, but sensitive species that, over years of excessive hardship, has always returned to call New York “home.”

The post Live-Lining for Striped Bass with Lady Liberty appeared first on On The Water.

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