There’s something thrilling and strange about hunting a wild creature in the shadow of a departing 747. I was standing on the bow of a 23-foot motorboat piloted by captain Bryan Goulart, a square-jawed 41-year-old fishing guide, and we were bobbing gently in the slate-blue waters of Jamaica Bay, just a football field or so from J.F.K. International Airport. It was early May, the beginning of the striped-bass season, which runs through December, and the boat traffic was heavy. Fishing vessels surrounded us on all sides; a gray-haired man in a sea kayak with an American flag mounted on its body paddled past, looking for a good spot to start casting. I unhooked my fly—a long, green, steel-eyed thing called a clouser—and cast toward the runway. I remembered something Goulart had told me earlier that morning: “Let it sink a foot per second. About half a cigarette’s time.” The boat drifted, I smoked half an imaginary cigarette, then started stripping the fly in. It was dead calm, silent. Then there was a deafening roar as a huge blue American Airlines 747 ripped down the runway and soared overhead. According to Goulart, we were on some of the eastern seaboard’s finest fishing grounds.
Striped bass, or rockfish, the large, predatory anadromous fish that give saltwater anglers fits, have two major spawning zones on the Atlantic coast. One is Chesapeake Bay, in Maryland. The other is the Hudson River watershed, which is better known for encircling the busiest city on the planet. Every April, tens of thousands of fish swim into the mouth of the Hudson from the Atlantic, passing the Statue of Liberty and Manhattan on their way upstream. After releasing their eggs in the Hudson’s headwaters, the stripers turn around and swim back out to the open ocean, heading up the coast to waters off Massachusetts and Maine. But before they make the journey, they stop to feed at a common layover spot: Queens. Jamaica Bay’s waters warm up before the Atlantic does, causing baitfish like bunker to congregate here. The stripers follow.
This is one of the city’s great secrets. I grew up on the Hudson, in Nyack, and have spent my adult life trout fishing, but until this spring I’d caught precisely one striper, and that was in Cape Cod. In the 1980s, when I was a kid, fishing the Hudson was not a well-advised pastime: The river was polluted by industrial spills, and the striper population was in free fall due to the environmental degradation and years of overfishing. But in the past two decades, Atlantic striper populations have made a remarkable comeback thanks to stricter fishing regulations and efforts to clean up the Hudson. It’s now possible to walk down to the water at the Cross Bay Bridge on Jamaica Bay, cast a line and pull out a 15-pound fish that you can actually eat. (It might sound unsavory, but think of it this way: There’s striped bass that spawned in the Hudson on Manhattan menus.) Goulart makes his living by putting high-end clients onto stripers between April and December.
The waters adjacent to J.F.K. yielded nothing, so Goulart radioed a couple of his buddies who were having better luck on the Atlantic side of the Rockaway Peninsula. A voice crackled over the radio: “It’s rugged out here.” Goulart looked at me. “It’s gonna be a little choppy.” He gunned the motor and we bounced across the gentle bay and then turned left at Breezy Point, toward open water. Now the urban infrastructure that was visible from the bay—the runways, the highways, the roller coasters at Coney Island, the NYPD boats—disappeared. Everything turned blue. This is the amazing trick of Manhattan: You forget you are on an island surrounded by big and wild water. The waves were rough: four, five, six feet. The boat lurched and slammed down hard against the surface. Eventually we saw terns feeding on baitfish, and Goulart pulled up. This was no task for the fly rod, so we cast big spinning lures called swim shads beneath the birds, let them sink and reeled in slowly. I saw a silver turn: a striper just beneath the surface. I felt two long tugs. The fish was on and, after a ten-minute fight, in the boat—15-odd pounds of striped bass. It was long and surprisingly thin, a female that had just spawned and lost the weight she had been carrying. An “Al Roker fish,” Goulart called her. He removed the hook and threw her back, and soon enough both of our rods were bent at the same time. My fish was a 20-pounder, thick through the middle even though she’d just spawned, a big wild thing. I could see the Robert Moses–era public housing units of Far Rockaway a few miles off the bow. Goulart smiled and said, “Welcome back to New York City.”
Bryan Goulart leads daylong fishing trips for $700 for groups of up to three. To book, go to nysaltfly.com.
At Table: Should You Elect to Throw Your Catch Back…
There is excellent black bass at Arlington Club (1032 Lexington Ave., New York; 212-249-5700; arlingtonclubny.com), a steakhouse that opened in November and that cooks surf as expertly as turf. The fish is steamed in parchment paper and emerges butter-soft and infused with coconut and lime. The six-month-old Hanjan (36 W. 26th St., New York; 212-206-7226; hanjan26.com) serves a grilled, soy-glazed half-mackerel that’s sweet, flaky, unfishy and unlike any mackerel you’ve had before. And there’s Spanish mackerel on the concise, can’t-miss menu at Thirty Acres (500 Jersey Ave., Jersey City, New Jersey; 201-435-3100; thirtyacresrestaurant.com), which is drawing a steady stream of diners from Manhattan. Chef Kevin Pemoulie, formerly of Momofuku Noodle Bar, serves shards of raw fish with shattery miso chips, a lobster sauce and smears of smooth brown butter. —Stan Parish