"I love fishing. You put that line in the water and you don't know what's on the other end. Your imagination is under there."
~ Robert Altman
New York City's East River is a fast-moving tidal strait that stretches from New York Harbor to the Long Island Sound, separating Manhattan from Queens and Brooklyn. From the 1800s until about thirty years ago, its Brooklyn and Queens banks were occupied by shipbuilders, oil refineries, chemical plants, foundries and other forms of heavy industry. Within my memory it was also a dumping point for raw sewage. I tell you this so you will understand that the poor East River, while cleaner than it once was, is an imperfect body of water that is anything but pure.
In the almost 30 years I've lived near the river in Queens, I've seen many a man with a fishing pole cast his line into its brackish, turbulent water. I always assumed it was just one of those guy things — not about catching fish but about sitting in the sun, telling stories and drinking beer.
When Gantry Plaza State Park opened in 1998, it included a pier just for fishing. From early in the morning until the pier closes at dark, men and boys and the occasional woman gather there to dangle their lines in the water.
Despite the fishing poles, despite the cormorants and egrets who live on the river's islands, the idea that real fish could find a habitat in the East River's murk was something my mind refused to accept. Until last Sunday, that is. That's one of the great things about this city. It always has another surprise.
I was walking along the shoreline on Roosevelt Island when I noticed old hewn stones in the river. I was staring at them, wondering why they were there, when it suddenly occurred to me that I was seeing into the river. It was as briny as an old pickle jar, but still translucent.
Not only that, I was seeing fish. Those tiny white blips at the top left and those inky black squiggles at the lower left were part of a large school of very small water creatures.
They were obviously too small for anyone's fishing line, but might they grow?
Suddenly determined to find out exactly what sort of creatures live in the East River, I fired up Google and quickly found my way to NYCfishing.com. The site's East River page is veritably aswim in photos of men proudly hugging rather large bluefish and striped bass — fish they've caught right there in the East River. The site also includes this video. Note to those with delicate ears: the commentary includes an F-bomb.
NYCfishing.com notes that its anglers release the fish they catch. I'm glad they let them live, but if I were a fish, I would still be annoyed. While some humans like piercings, I'm sure fish don't.
"Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after."
~ Henry David Thoreau