Ben Sargent Searches for Brooklyn’s Biggest Hooker

Adventures in catching, and safely eating, fish from the East River.

It is a strange thing to cast toward the soaring Manhattan skyline. In the popular imagination, the East River is synonymous with toxicity, a reputation that, for most of modern history, has been warranted. “MENACE TO PUBLIC HEALTH” warned the New York Times, describing a city inspection of the river—in 1911.

The stigma hasn’t faded despite the fact that, according to the Department of Environmental Protection’s latest report, New York Harbor and the rivers that feed into it are at their cleanest levels since that damning inspection was conducted 99 years ago. Walking down to the riverfront with a fishing rod in hand, I was constantly given looks that ranged from bemused to horrified, occasionally followed by the question, “People fish in the East River?”

Yes, they do, and all year-round. You can also safely eat some of what you catch, but one way to avoid toxins completely is to just practice catch and release, like lifelong fisherman and Williamsburg-born vegan Thomas Genoski, who explains his seemingly unlikely hobby like this: “If people actually had to kill what they eat, they would eat a lot differently.”

Although a literal local, Genoski used to travel outside of the city limits to fish but was tempted to try his luck in the East River when he found out about the first-ever Brooklyn Fishing Derby last fall. He’s now a convert. “The whole time you’re fishing, you have this to look at,” he says, smiling and gesturing toward that magnificent skyline.

That’s exactly the point of the Derby, an amateur fishing competition launched by Greenpoint resident and fanatical waterman Ben Sargent to encourage newbies to hit our city coasts with rods and reels. Or, as he likes to say, “become the next biggest hooker in Brooklyn.”

Genoski may have been a lifer when he took part in Sargent’s Derby, but you don’t need to be, as the rules are pretty simple: The biggest fish wins. No boats allowed. Catch a striped bass, bluefish or false albacore (also called little tunny or bonito) anywhere off the Brooklyn shore between October 1 and mid-November, somewhere between Long Island City and Red Hook, then send in a photo of your catch measured against a Derby-provided measuring tape with some kind of timestamp and a view of your fishing spot. To sign up, become a Brooklyn Urban Angler (lifetime membership: $48), which you can do at Sargent’s Web site, brooklynchowdersurfer.com; Sargent’s bait shop, Dream Fishing Tackle in Greenpoint; or the Brooklyn Urban Anglers Association‘s modest headquarters, 999 Lorimer Street, Apartment 1.

You might recognize the 32-year-old Sargent as Dr. Claw, the dude who, until the city health department shut him down, would hand-deliver you an excellent homemade lobster roll while dressed like a drug dealer. Or maybe you’ve heard his Heritage Radio Network Internet radio show on fishing, or saw his appearances on Throwdown with Bobby Flay and The Martha Stewart Show, where he showed off the chowder he developed at Hurricane Hopeful, the tiny chowder joint he ran in Williamsburg until it closed in 2003.

At that time he was too poor to afford rent for both an apartment and the restaurant, so he simply slept in a tiny space above the kitchen, subsisting on chowder at night and, come morning, bathing by rolling the refrigerator out of the shower stall, where, unbeknownst to customers, it rested during the day. He opened Hurricane Hopeful to cater to Williamsburg’s tiny surfer community, those who regularly rode the L train to Broadway Junction and then switched to the A to reach the Rockaways waves. In the end, they weren’t enough to sustain his business, but he did notice that a lot of them were fishing when they weren’t surfing, an observation that eventually led him to found the Derby last year.

But at the opening night party, Sargent began to worry as experienced East River fishermen appeared among the casual crowd he’d expected: “Guys who would care what the cash prizes are,” says Sargent of the accomplished interlopers. “Guys who don’t want their fish to not be measured and seen and recorded.” (Trophies and prizes for winners are, in theory, provided by sponsors Sargent woos throughout the fall.) But the seriousness of the competitors turned out to be a boon, resulting in more than 80 anglers catching everything from delectable striped bass and bluefish to the officially inedible (at least from the East River anyway) bottom feeders, like monkfish and eel.

You can get a complete list of Derby do’s and don’ts online, but there are probably fewer of the latter than you expect. “People who live and fish here know,” says the Brooklyn-born Manhattan chef and dedicated urban fisherman Dave Pasternack, referring to the fact that a lot of seafood caught right off our city coastline is safe. “I think it’s the people who come from somewhere else. They say, ‘Look at all those buildings, look at all of the people, this water has got to be dirty.’ The guys who are out on the water, we know.” Pasternack is the celebrated cook behind Esca, the widely acclaimed seafood restaurant he runs with the backing of industry titans Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich. He’s been reeling in meals from city waters since his Coney Island childhood, and still fishes every week, both out on his boat and off the shore at East River spots like 90th Street just north of Manhattan’s Gracie Mansion.

For the ichthyologically ignorant, Sargent stages plenty of angling how-tos upon the Derby kickoff at Williamsburg’s East River State Park, schooling fishers on everything from where to find a pole to how to cast and what to do when you get lucky. Officially it’s fine to eat fish from the East River—technically not a river at all but a tidal strait connecting Upper New York Bay with the Long Island Sound—although in strict moderation. The New York State Department of Health recommends eating no more than a half-pound of bluefish or striped bass per month from the East River, plus filleting the fish in a way to avoid the skin, dark meat and fat, where toxins like PCBs, DDT and cadmium accumulate.

Sargent fished as a kid near Boston, but jettisoned that part of his identity when he settled in New York. “Oh, no more surfing, no more fishing. It’s just going to be cigarettes and art from here on out,” he recalls thinking when he moved to Brooklyn. Eventually he found comfort in old hobbies, right here. Many Derby competitors share similar trajectories, rediscovering a long-lost love of fishing once they realized life in New York and outdoor experiences are not mutually exclusive. Take Maria Haddad, 22, who fished as a kid in New Jersey and saw the competition as a chance to spend more time outside, and Michael Louie, 32, who used to catch bluegills in Maryland and who started up again with a vengeance once the Derby began, going out three or four times a week. “Catching stuff is just kind of a bonus,” he says, not seeming to mind that he hadn’t hooked a striper yet.

Where there is good fishing, there are fishermen, legality be damned. Brooklyn fishermen have a handful of legal fishing spots available to them along the East River, mostly in Red Hook, including the Louis Valentino Pier, the Beard Street Warehouse and the Columbia Street bulkhead. Outside of Red Hook, there is the Empire-Fulton Ferry Street Park in Dumbo (right next to the Brooklyn Bridge Park, which is off-limits to fishermen) and Williamsburg’s East River State Park, the Derby’s casting spot of choice. There’s also Gantry Piers, which is technically in Queens, but since it’s only one G stop from Greenpoint is allowed into the Derby.

Sargent also tells me about a spot he and a group of fishermen he affectionately calls “the Night Crawlers” regularly visit under the cover of darkness. Later I discover that reaching the latenight locale is no cakewalk: After traversing through a long alley between warehouses, I reach a scene not unlike the set of a Roland Emmerich film, with twisted steel beams and hulking industrial detritus rising out of the murky river water. Past that is a pier accessible only by a makeshift walkway of beams and protruding rocks. It’s a slippery path; in fact, Michael Louie sheepishly admits that one night he fell off into the river.

A rebellious nature seems a common thread among those who fish: Almost all have a secret spot they don’t want to disclose, and not one I spoke to has the newly required $10 New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Recreational Marine

Fishing License, which they view as an unnecessary barrier to recreational fishing. (Kate McLaughlin, seafood program director at the Blue Ocean Institute, assures me that the state and federally mandated license—which means you can get a ticket if you don’t have one—is simply meant to track the number of recreational fishermen and their impact on the fish populations.)

Long-established locals don’t seem too bothered by licenses— or by the influx of fresh-faced youngsters on the piers. Robert Piskorski is the man who supplies many of the Derby’s contestants with equipment. (There are also other fishing supply shops in other waterfront neighborhoods, like Bernie’s in Sheepshead Bay.) Piskorski’s Greenpoint shop, Dream Fishing Tackle, has the charming, worn-in feel of a neighborhood hangout, complete with a regular cast of characters drinking coffee and arguing in Polish, this being Greenpoint. Piskorski, who immigrated here in 1987, opened his store 10 years ago and has seen the neighborhood change dramatically. He reminisces, half-seriously, that back when Brooklyn was mobbed up, there were plenty of bodies in the water—and thus plenty of chum for bluefish. “Now there are no bodies,” he laughs, “but there are no bluefish either!” His clientele is still about half Eastern European, but he has seen an uptick in Greenpoint’s new wave of young fishermen. “At first I was skeptical of these new people, but I was surprised. They aren’t giving up; they come back again and again and ask advice and we give it to them.”

Ultimately, in last year’s Derby, experience won the day. It was a raucous night at the Brooklyn Ale House in Williamsburg last fall as fishermen and their hangers-on gathered around John Ruffino, who fishes almost every day in the East River, to see a picture of the first-place-winning fish on his cell phone. It was a monster, a 40-pound, 40-inch striped bass he caught off of Gantry Piers. (The average striped bass measures 18 to 36 inches). As he tells it, his rod suddenly began to bend dramatically, so much that his friend Joe Cutrera thought he was pretending as he struggled with the line in what Cutrera described as a “samurai stance.”

(It’s easy to see why Cutrera would think this: Ruffino is a ham. Once during an unsuccessful day of fishing in Long Island, I saw him hold up a crab that, perhaps in an attempt to escape the indignity of death by boiling, had managed to grab a small knife and was comically waving it toward its own carapace while Ruffino mimicked the creature’s cries of anguish to a passerby doubled over in laughter.)

But Ruffino wasn’t playing. It took 20 minutes to reel in the bass before Cutrera could come over with the gaff—the fancy name for a small pole equipped with hooks to help land fish—and finally bring the thing up on the pier, where the animal ripped into Ruffino’s wrist as he retrieved his hook from its smacking maw. Ruffino, in his particular brand of enthusiastic magnanimity, gave the fish to a friend in Long Island City, who promptly cooked and ate it with his wife. (Striped bass make for great eating, full and firm with a mild flavor. Chef Pasternack serves it regularly, calling it versatile and easy-to-cook, usually baking it with capers, olives and tomato when cooking it for himself.)

The striped bass might have more reason to worry when anglers hit the shore for the Second Annual Brooklyn Fishing Derby in 2010, considering that the Brooklyn Urban Anglers Association’s Facebook page has grown from 200 fans in 2009 to more than 1,800. Sargent is also getting advice from the organizers of the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby, which has run for more than 50 years and boasts 2,000 anglers.

“This year,” says Sargent, “I’m just hoping for a lot more people to enjoy the water and for a lot more fish to be caught.” For him, it’s less about convincing you to pan-sear a fresh striped bass than it is about getting more people out on the water, to reconnect with the natural world hidden within the city. On the final day of last year’s Derby, 20 or so anglers joined Sargent at East River State Park. The fisherfolk nabbed bait from a tub of thawing clams (chosen for their ease of use over the more commonly used bunker, an unappetizing—at least to humans—member of the 180-strong herring family) and, as hundreds of people looked on, cast off the rocks toward the skyscrapers, perhaps in hopes of catching the big one or, maybe, just glad to be outside.

Since this year’s Brooklyn Fishing Derby takes place right in the middle of our Eat Drink Local week, a celebration of our local foodshed, the winner will reel in a free subscription to Edible Brooklyn. Meanwhile, for two ways to cook your own bluefish from Ben Sargent, visit ediblebrooklyn.com.

Good Things Come to Those Who Bait: At East River State Park in Williamsburg, Ben Sargent hopes to inspire Brooklynites to go fish.

The amateur fishing competition launched by Greenpoint resident and fanatical waterman Ben Sargent encourages newbies to hit city coasts with rods and reels.

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Keith Wagstaff writes for the Village Voice, Time Out New York and the L Magazine, among other publications. He lives in Williamsburg and once caught a fish thiiis big.