The Fish's Eye: Essays About Angling and the Outdoorsby Ian Frazier
In The Fish's Eye: Essays about Angling and the Outdoors, Ian Frazier explores his lifelong passion for fishing, fish, and the aquatic world. He sees the angler's environment all around him-in New York's Grand Central Station, in the cement-lined pond of a city park, in a shimmering bonefish flat in the Flordia keys, in the trout streams of the Rocky/i>… See more details below
In The Fish's Eye: Essays about Angling and the Outdoors, Ian Frazier explores his lifelong passion for fishing, fish, and the aquatic world. He sees the angler's environment all around him-in New York's Grand Central Station, in the cement-lined pond of a city park, in a shimmering bonefish flat in the Flordia keys, in the trout streams of the Rocky Mountains. He marvels at the fishing in the turbid Ohio River by downtown Cincinatti, where a good bait for catfsh is half a White Castle french fry. The incidentals of the angling experience, the who and the where of it, interest him as much as what he catches and how. The essays (including the famous profile of master angler Jim Deren, late proprietor of New York's tackle store, the Angler's Roost) contain sharply focused observations of the American outdoors, a place filled with human alterations and detritus that somehow remains defiantly unruined. Frazier's simple love of the sport lifts him to straight -ahead angling description that are among the best contemporary writing on the subject. The Fish's Eye brings together twenty years of heartfelt, funny, and vivid essays on a timeless pursuit where so many mysteries, both human and natural, coincide.
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The Fish's Eye
Essays About Angling and the Outdoors
By Ian Frazier
PicadorCopyright © 2002 Ian Frazier
All rights reserved.
On the paved shores of the Harlem Meer (one of six ponds in the city's park system which the State Department of Environmental Conservation—in cooperation with the New York City Parks Department, the New York City Department of the Aging, and the New York State Sea Grant—stocked with bullhead catfish on June 27 as part of an urban fishing program designed to stimulate city dwellers' interest in fishing and the outdoors), on a weekday afternoon in July:
"Gregory, how much worm should I use?"
"What you got there is enough, Andrew. Bet with your head, not over it."
Across the pond, a man standing under the trees started playing a three-note progression on the trumpet over and over again, holding each note a long time.
A boy pulled up a white tube sock with a yellow stripe and a blue stripe which had been dangling in the water, and something scuttled off it.
"Look, Gregory! Look at the lobster!"
"That ain't no lobster, fool, that's a crayfish. Throw him back. Throw him back to his mama."
An empty can of Sunkist orange (the new soft drink introduced a couple of months ago) came drifting by
"Did you pass this year?"
"Yeah, man, 'course I passed."
Across the pond, the man with the trumpet started playing each note in the three-note progression four times and in such a way as to hit it differently each time.
A plastic terrestrial globe came floating by, with just Antarctica above the waterline.
"We had a nice fish, but some people took it."
The arm of a Negro doll came floating by.
"Oh, man, my line's stuck. I have got to get it off. I have got to get it off."
"Pull on it, Derek."
"I don't get my line off, I can't get back in my house. I got my keys on there for a sinker."
The line came free, revealing a set of keys on an "I [??] NY" key ring from a savings bank.
The man with the trumpet started playing "I Get a Kick Out of You."
An empty bag of Wise onion-garlic potato chips came floating by.
Two girls with their hair in cornrows took a look at four catfish in a yellow plastic bucket. "These boys should let the fish go," one girl said.
"Are you kidding? Those fish could die out in that water," the other girl said.
HARLEM AND HUDSON
At the Seventy-ninth Street Boat Basin in New York City, on Labor Day, about fifty people are fishing in the Hudson River. There is no shore, no beach—there is a walkway paved with asphalt, a railing, and a concrete drop into the dark-olive water.
A little boy sitting on a plastic tricycle in the tunnel leading to the Boat Basin—the tunnel under the West Side Highway—sees a motorboat go by in the part of the river framed by the tunnel mouth. "Look at that fas'-movin' object!" he says.
One of the fishermen starts to reel in quickly. His rod is bent. When he pulls his line over the railing, it looks as if he has a giant hook on the end of his line. It is an eel that has kind of seized in that position for a moment. The eel starts to wiggle and flop so wildly that its body describes a blurry sphere. The fisherman yells in Spanish, and then slaps the eel down on the pavement with a full overhead motion of his fishing rod. He starts to kick the still-squirming eel along the pavement. He kicks it quite a distance.
A man who lives off the very rich garbage containers outside the fenced-off dock for the biggest yachts decides to throw away his belongings, which he carries in two black Hefty bags. He throws the bags into the river, but they don't float very far away. Then he holds up his hand to stop some people who are walking by, and taking a lightbulb from an inner coat pocket, he also throws that into the river, much farther than the bags. He looks at the people, winks, and puts his finger to his lips.
Another of the fishermen finishes a Kool cigarette and tosses it into a yellow bucket at his feet. In the bucket, along with a few other Kool butts turning brown in auras of brown stain, are two striped bass, both over twenty inches.
Farther upriver, but still within New York City limits, a hundred and fifty or two hundred people are fishing along the shore from Spuyten Duyvil, where the Harlem River empties into the Hudson, up to the Refined Sugars and Syrups Company plant, at the boundary of Riverdale. Along this section of river there are neighborhoods of fishermen: from the point where the Harlem and the Hudson meet to about a quarter mile upstream are black fishermen and fisherwomen and their families; beyond that, farther upstream, the fishermen and fisherwomen are mostly Spanish-speaking; and beyond that, they are mostly Japanese. The Harlem River for the few hundred yards downstream from the Spuyten Duyvil railroad station to the Hudson is a mixed neighborhood, with some whites, some Puerto Ricans, and some blacks. Amtrak passenger and freight trains, to and from New York, and Conrail commuter trains run on tracks within forty feet of the water's edge. Along the tracks are third rails with the warning "Danger 700 Volts" on them. Between the tracks are white pieces of paper with the heading "Message to Our Commuters" blowing around, and a copy of Tennis USA magazine with Björn Borg on the cover and ads about how to work your way through college by playing tennis on the inside.
Big rocks put there by the railroad are along the shore. In the Spanish-speaking section of riverfront, two men and a woman are sitting on the rocks. One of the men has no shirt on, and the other man is wearing a gray shirt with flowers so pink that they attract bees. Bees are actually buzzing around him, but he does not notice. The woman is reading an article in a magazine. The title of the article is "Billy Martin en la Despedida: 'Soy un Yankee Ahora y Siempre.'" The two men are fishing with eight-foot surf-casting rods, using sandworms for bait. One of the men snags a sandworm out of the bait carton with a plastic comb, and then he uses the comb to cut the sandworm in half on the rock. There are flashes of white in the river some distance out, and the other man jumps up and shouts, "Una mancha! Una mancha!" The man who was baiting up quickly casts to where the other man pointed. The English translation of una mancha is "a spot or a stain," but it can also mean a birthmark, a rash, or any kind of surface disturbance. People shout it along this section of river when they see striped bass chasing baitfish.
A Puerto Rican family crosses the railroad tracks: a man, his wife, his brother, his sister-in-law, her nephew, and two babies in strollers. The men are carrying rods, bait, tackle boxes, folding chairs, a cooler, and a plastic bucket with ice and eight-ounce party bottles of Miller beer. The women are pushing the strollers, lifting each carefully over the live rail. The older man is the premier fisherman of his family. He wears a floppy hat that's L.L. Bean—style, only flashier. He baits up, has a couple of beers, catches a fifteen- inch striper, and says, "I should throw him back. It's not legal to keep stripers under sixteen inches, but he was hooked so deep, he'd die. I won't throw him in the bucket—just leave him on the ground next to it. That way, if the game warden comes, I'll just say, 'Don't ask me—it's not my fish. Somebody leave the fish laying there.' The game warden comes down here sometimes. Man in khaki pants and shirt. Sometimes he waits up in the parking lot on the other side of the tracks to catch people leaving with fish. Fifty-dollar fine if he catch you.
"Best bait for stripers is bloodworms. They cost two-fifty a dozen, and you have to use the whole worm. Catching big fish is too expensive. Best place to fish for stripers is up from here, by the sugar plant. Stripers love sugar. All of those tanks up at the sugar plant are full of syrup. It's really thick—you can't drink it. But if you can sneak in there at night and get some syrup out of those tanks, it makes a good medicine mixed with tea when you get a cold.
"Biggest striper I ever caught here was eight pounds. Biggest striper I ever saw caught here was twelve pounds. Once, I caught a five-pound striper with a tag on it. The tag said to mail the size of the striper, the weight, the place caught, and the day caught to this address in Albany and they'd send me five dollars. I wrote them last week and said, 'I got the striper. You send me the five dollars and I'll tell you anything else you want.'
"I catch stripers, perch, snappers here. Over by City Island, in Long Island Sound, I catch porgies, flounders, and big bluefish. Once I was fishing for bluefish with a friend of mine on Randalls Island across from the state prison hospital, and we were using big hooks and sixty-pound-test line, and my friend hooked something and it was really big but we could pull it in because the current was with us, and when we got it up, it was a dead guy. He had tried to swim away from the prison and escape two days before. He was dressed—didn't have any shoes on. We called the police."
AN ANGLER AT HEART
Often during the past seven years, I have taken a walk from the offices of The New Yorker along Forty-third Street—across Fifth Avenue, across Madison Avenue, across Vanderbilt Avenue—then through Grand Central Terminal, across Lexington Avenue, up to Forty-fourth Street, into the elevator at 141 East Forty-fourth Street, up to the third floor, and through the belled door of a small fishing-tackle shop called the Angler's Roost, whose sole proprietor is a man named Jim Deren. Since I've been taking this walk, the Biltmore Men's Bar, which I used to pass at the corner of Madison and Forty-third, changed to the Biltmore Bar, which then became a different bar, named the Café Fanny, which was replaced by a computer store called Digital's, which moved (along with a lot of other stores on the block) after the Biltmore Hotel closed and disappeared under renovators' scaffolding. Once, on this walk, I had to detour around some barricades inside Grand Central, because a film crew was working on the movie Superman. Valerie Perrine and Gene Hackman were supposedly there, but I did not see them. Since then, I have seen the movie in a theater and have noted the part that the crew must have been working on when I passed by. During these seven years, the huge Kodak display in the station near the Lexington Avenue wall, which people say ruins the station's interior light and makes it difficult to distinguish the beautiful Venetian-summer-night starscape on the ceiling, has featured photographs of water-skiers behind motorboats, a Bicentennial celebration with men dressed as Continental soldiers, the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacán (by night, lighted), the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics at Lake Placid, the Great Wall of China, and, one spring, a close-up shot of a robin, which looked frightening at that size. One time, I came in through the door at Forty-third Street and there before me, across the echoing well of the concourse, was a view of a rock-cluttered desert, barn red under a pink sky, with a little piece of the foot of a space probe visible in the foreground—Mars, photographed by Viking 2.
A fisherman can look at some sections of any trout stream clean enough for fish to live in and say with confidence, A large fish lives there. The water should be deep, and it should be well aerated; that is, it should be free-flowing, rich in oxygen, and not stagnant. There should be a source of food: a grassy bank with beetles, grasshoppers, field mice, and frogs; or a little tributary creek with minnows, chubs, dace, and sculpins; or an upstream section with a silt bottom for large, burrowing mayfly nymphs. There should be cover—downed logs, overhanging tree branches, undercut banks. Where these conditions are found, the chances are very good that at least one large fish will be found as well. Such sections of a river are called good lies. A good lie will usually have a good fish lying in wait, gently finning, looking upstream for whatever the current may bring him.
I have always thought that, as lies go, it would be hard to find a better one than Grand Central Terminal. It is deep—water that deep would be a dark blue. Aerated streams of humanity cascade down the escalators from the Pan Am Building, and flow from the rest of midtown, the rest of the city, the rest of the world, through trains and subways and airport buses and taxis, into its deep pool and out again, and the volume of this flow makes it rich in the important nutrient called capital. Well, in this good lie, the big fish of the fishing-tackle business is Jim Deren, of the Angler's Roost. For over forty years he has had a shop in the area—a shop that has outlasted changes in fishing fashions, changes in the economy, competitors who gave their shops names intentionally similar to his, and finally even Abercrombie & Fitch, his biggest local competitor, which closed its midtown store in 1977. All this time, Deren has remained in his good lie, gently finning behind the counter in his shop, consulting with fishermen from just about every place where there's water, selling every kind of angling supply imaginable, taking in cash and checks as gracefully as a big brown trout sips mayflies from the surface of a Catskill stream.
The first time I met Jim Deren, I was looking for a particular dry fly (a pattern called the Gold-Ribbed Hare's Ear, with a body that goes all the way back over the bend of the hook), which had worked well for me in Wyoming and which I could not find anywhere. I came across the entry for the Angler's Roost in the Yellow Pages:
ANGLER'S ROOST FISHING TECHNICIANS
Tackle, Salt & Fresh, Lures, Flies
Fly Materials, Waders & Clothing
Repairs, Books & Advertising Props
JIM DEREN ADVISOR
That impressed me. I called the shop one Saturday afternoon around six o'clock and was surprised to find Deren there. In later years, I have learned that he is in his shop at all hours: I have found him in at seven- fifteen on a beautiful Sunday evening in June; I have found him in on all sorts of holidays, when midtown is nothing but blowing papers. On that first Saturday Deren told me that he was about to go home but that if I came in soon he would wait for me. I arrived at the shop half an hour later. He did not happen to have the exact fly I wanted, but he told me where to get it. We talked for a while, and I left without buying anything—the only time that has ever happened.
A few months later, during a really warm April, I decided I had to go fishing, even though I had never been fishing in the East and knew nothing about it. I bought a fishing license at the Department of Environmental Conservation office on the sixty-first floor of the World Trade Center, and then I went to see Deren. He told me the book to buy—New Streamside Guide to Naturals and Their Imitations, by Art Flick. He said that, because it had been so warm, certain mayflies that would usually be on the stream later in the season might have already appeared. He sold me flies imitating those insects. He told me where to fish—in the Beaverkill, the Little Beaverkill, and Willowemoc Creek, near Roscoe, New York. He told me what bus to take. I left his shop, went back to my apartment, got my fly rod and sleeping bag, went to the Port Authority Bus Terminal, boarded a Short Line bus, and rode for two and a half hours with Hasidic Jews going to Catskill resorts and women going to upstate ashrams. On the bus I read the Streamside Guide, which says that mayflies live for several years underwater as swimming nymphs, hatch into winged insects, mate while hovering over the water, lay their eggs in the water, and die; that recently hatched mayflies, called duns, float along the surface and are easy for trout to catch, and so are the stage of the mayfly's life cycle most sensible for the angler to imitate with artificials; that different species of mayflies hatch at different times of the year, according to water temperature; and that the different species emerge every year in an order so invariable as to be the only completely predictable aspect of trout fishing. I got off the bus in Roscoe about four in the afternoon, walked to the Beaverkill, hid my sleeping bag in some willows, set up my fly rod, and walked up the river until I reached a spot with no fishermen. I noticed mayflies in the air, noticed dragonflies zipping back and forth eating the mayflies. I saw a dragonfly pick a mayfly out of the air so neatly that he took only the body, leaving the two wings to flutter down to the surface of the stream and float away. I caught a mayfly myself after a lot of effort, compared it with the pictures in my Streamside Guide, decided that it was the male of the Ephemerella subvaria (Deren had been right; according to the book, that insect wasn't due for about two weeks more), tied on its imitation (a pattern called the Red Quill, in size 14), made a short cast, caught a little trout, made a few more short casts, caught another little trout, and waited while a fat guy with a spinning rod who said he wasn't having much luck walked by me up the river. Then I made a good, long cast under a spruce bough to a patch of deep water ringed with lanes of current, like a piece of land in the middle of a circular freeway-access ramp. This patch of water had a smooth, tense surface marked with little tucks where eddying water was boiling up from underneath. My fly sat motionless on this water for a time that when I replay it in my mind seems really long. Then a fish struck so hard it was like a person punching up through the water with his fist. Water splashed several feet in the air, and there was a flash of fish belly of that particular shade of white—like the white of a horse's eye when it's scared, or the white of the underside of poplar leaves blown by wind right before a storm—that often seems to accompany violence in nature. The fish ran downstream like crazy (I don't remember setting the hook), then he ran upstream, then he ran downstream again. He jumped several times—not arched and poised, as in the sporting pictures, but flapping back and forth so fast he was a blur. Line was rattling in my line guides; I was pulling it in and he was taking it out, until finally there was a big pile of line at my feet, and the fish, also, in the shallow water at my feet. He was a thirteen-inch brook trout, with a wild eye that was a circle of black set in a circle of gold. The speckles on his back reproduced the wormlike marks on the rocks on the stream bottom, and his sides were filled with colors—orange, red, silver, purple, midnight blue—and yet were the opposite of gaudy. I hardly touched him; he was lightly hooked. I released him, and after a short while he swam away. I stood for maybe ten minutes, with my fly rod lying on the gray, softball-sized rocks, and I stared at the trees on the other side of the river. The feeling was like having hundreds of gag hand-buzzers applied to my entire body.
Excerpted from The Fish's Eye by Ian Frazier. Copyright © 2002 Ian Frazier. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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