New York – Last week, I carried a 9-foot fishing rod and a plastic bag full of frozen bunker, dodging tourists and taxicabs across the Broadway and 34th Street intersection after a visit to Capitol Fishing bait shop in midtown Manhattan. Then I hopped the subway for the Upper East Side. I suppose it’s true that in the places you go, you’ll see the place where you’re from.
How a Minnesota kid now living in East Harlem took his love of fishing to the streets of the big city traces back to my days growing up on Phelps Island in Mound, Minn.
Every spring I waited patiently for the honeycomb ice on Lake Minnetonka to turn over — all at once. Some years, the ice would take its sweet time to go and I’d throw lures out toward the edge of the ice, just in case an early fish was looking to buy what I was selling. Eventually the sheet always churned around Phelps Bay, pinging along the shoreline, making whitecaps and currents in the open water before the ice vanished.
I’d take my shoes and socks off to stand in the frigid water before the dock went in, casting a half-ounce chrome-and-blue Rat-L-Trap from the shore. There’s nothing like the first splash of the season, seeing the circle of ripples spreading from the epicenter, feeling the rattle of the beads in the lure reverberate down the line.
My father, Patrick, is a fisherman from Minnesota who taught me to fish. His father was a fisherman from Texas who moved his family to Minnesota and then taught my dad to fish. My dad still shares fond memories of fishing with his father in Grays Bay on Lake Minnetonka — we did our fishing in the very same lake. Little by little, my dad imparted the knowledge and discipline necessary to be a competent freshwater angler. He taught me how to properly hook a worm and how to take a sunfish off a hook. My dad tied the last knot for me when I was 7.
“Eight is too many,” he told me, “and six isn’t enough,” demonstrating the number of times needed to wrap a fisherman’s knot. He worked the clear line through a hook with his finger and spun the hook around. I watched and learned, and I still tie knots the same way today.
Once Minnetonka’s water warmed, it was rare that an hour of fishing in Lake Minnetonka wouldn’t yield at least one largemouth bass or a pike.
Down to the dock
The vagaries of life would separate me from Minnesota’s lakes. I attended college at Denison University in central Ohio. Still, my love for lakes shaped my college experience. I spent a semester writing a story for a class about Capt. John Liles, a charismatic, lazy-eyed charter boat skipper on Lake Erie who adamantly believed he saw the Lake Erie monster named Bessie in 1983. Writing — not fishing — Erie was the closest I could get to the water. Unless I wanted to fish for bullhead in Buckeye Lake, my options were few compared to Phelps Island. I missed the days when I could go down to the dock with a cup of corn and hook sunfish.
My next move, last December to Manhattan, took me further from my roots, yet it was my love for Minnesota’s lakes that got me here. I worked as an intern for Minnesota Sea Grant in the summer of 2015, communicating science about Lake Superior and some of the inland lakes. It was the best job I’ve ever had, so I was thrilled when I was hired as a freelance publicist for New York Sea Grant, communicating coastal science that the grant helps fund for the Marine District in New York City.
Here I was living on an island again. This time in an area of East Harlem called El Barrio, meaning “the neighborhood.” Tall apartment buildings abound courtesy of the New York City Housing Authority. There are taco stands, delis and barber shops on nearly every block, and El Barrio is a wonderful place. Still, for a Minnesotan at heart, it can be hard to feel at home in the bustle. Some tug inside me made me need to catch the first fish of spring.
Walking with my 9-foot pole toward the East River helped bridge that divide. My intentions were clear, and many people talked to me, prompting me to take out my headphones and give a report on the striped bass bite.
Poles poke up like fence posts along the railing on the walkway along the salty East River. Just on the other side of the walkway is FDR Drive, a bustling six-lane highway runs the entire length Manhattan’s eastern waterfront. At 5 p.m., rush hour traffic crawls along the highway, while anglers show up to catch bass.
Once at the water, I thread my line through the eye of a hook, spin it exactly seven times, cinch it, and cast my line as far as I can, before setting the reel and waiting patiently for a strike.
It’s a fishing environment like nothing in Minnesota. But there are stripers — big ones — lurking between the rocks and scrap at the bottom of the East River. It’s no placid freshwater lake with a beautifully forested shoreline, but it’s enticing all the same when the sun sets behind the housing projects, the lights atop the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge glow in the city twilight, and the traffic jam on FDR dissipates. There are no loon calls or early spring ducklings, but the nightly cycle reminds me of Lake Minnetonka’s in a way.
Yet for all the nostalgia, back at the East River’s edge, I have a singular concern. I focus on the end of my rod and wait for the bend that comes with an enormous, hard-fighting striper.
Ryan Strother, 23, grew up in Mound. He lives in East Harlem, N.Y.