Singers from Buck Owens to the Beatles have belted out those words over the years, but their meaning and the context in which I use the phrase are decidedly different. Not unexpectedly to anyone familiar with my scribblings, my reference is to fishing. Specifically, fishing in less than pristine, natural areas. Of course, like any angler, I prefer fishing in what might be termed traditionally beautiful waters, but fish are where you find them. My respect for my quarry is so immense, that if a fish will swim in it, I will fish in it. Take it for what it is, all you gotta do is act naturally, and the experience will envelope you.
For example, some folks turn their nose up at urban angling, and will drive several hours out of the city to reach waters more esthetically pleasing to them. Me too some times, or sometimes I just like to vary my fishing waters for countless reasons, it is all just a part of my fishing experience. However, I do also embrace urban angling, if we can use that rather general phrase. I have spent most of my life in a very urban state (New Jersey) and have maximized my fishing time by angling close to home. My “home” waters have often been urban waters as well. And just because you are standing there casting within a particular city’s limits, does not mean the environs aren’t often quite beautiful. Act naturally and you can find the wonders of nature in areas others overlook.
From Frederick Law Olmstead on down, some lovely urban parks have been created, many with fishable lakes, ponds and streams. Some actually afford excellent fishing, from trout and bass to various salt water species. I have caught many fish in my local cities in Jersey like Newark, Trenton, and Camden, as well as New York Harbor, Wilmington DE, Washington DC, Richmond VA, Charlotte NC, Pascagoula MS, Ann Arbor MI, Chicago IL, Billings MT, Portland OR, Springfield MA, San Francisco and San Diego CA, Rochester NY, Pittsburgh and Harrisburg PA, and my favorite: Philadelphia PA.
I reside just outside Philly on the Jersey side, and fish frequently in the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers, Cobbs, Pennypack, and Wissahickon Creeks, and the neighboring urban waters in Delaware County, Tinicum Marsh, Chester Creek, Lower Ridley Creek Crum Creek and others. Hands down, the Wissahickon, especially in the Gorge section, has become my personal favorite, a twelve month fishery just minutes from some of the most congested and busy thoroughfares in the country. And when you are the only angler astream, releasing triple digit catches by noon, you wonder why more anglers don’t try acting a little naturally and embrace the urban bounty on their doorstep. I spoke to a physician recently who lives in walking distance of the Wissahivkon Gorge, but never fishes there, opting instead to drive 2 1/2 hours north to the Broadheads to fish elbow to elbow with other anglers in waters that have been whipped to a froth by he multitudes of casts on a spring weekend. That is beautiful water up there that I have also fished, big fish potential for sure, but at some point, you might think one would take a shot closer to home. The big oil companies might disagree, but once you try it, you’ll try it again.
Despite the beauty and bounty you can find in the urban setting, there most assuredly is the other side of the coin, The “beauty” becomes much more subjective in most cases, though the bounty often persists. As I stated, if there is water, there are usually fish, so if they’ll bite, I’m all right! I’ll just act naturally and catch my share. Of whatever resides under the mats of weed and algae, under the rust colored pond scum, and within run-off pipes. There is a good place to start, run-offs. Concrete conduits contain varying amounts of water both in cities and suburban areas. If a foot or two of water is constantly flowing, there will be a resident population of catchable fish. The larger the conduit the better in most cases, and I’ve caught everything from eels to bass and pickerel in these tubes, though panfish and catfish are most common. One of my favorite drains into the the Navesink River near Red Bank, large enough for two anglers to fish simultaneously. Bluegills, pumpkinseeds, bullhead catfish, herring, eels, white perch and largemouths have all come from this spot, caught most usually on a variety of small jigs cast underhand into the tube and swam out with the flow. When targeting eels, small bits of worm or minnows can be used to tempt the mixed sized anguilas. It is a good spot to gather some bait size eels to liveline for stripers or weaks at nearby Sandy Hook, making your fishing trip a “double header” rather than a trip to the bait shop and a stop in the suds.
And speaking of the suds, many have felt the Van Campen Heilner-like call of the surf (The Call of the Surf by Van Campen Heilner, 1920) and experienced the crash of the waves and sting of the salt spray in our faces as we pursued everything from spot and kingfish to blues and stripers. Fewer among us have taken a step back and done the natural thing and experienced the more subdued but often equally productive surf fishing available on the bay sides of our barrier beaches. You have to scale back your expectations on crashing waves, perhaps fish size and breaching whales or schools of bottlenose dolphins cruising along, but kick that natural act into gear again. Appreciate the more abundant species often available, revel in catching something you’ve never beached before, perhaps a porcupine fish, a rabbit fish, a herring, a sculpin, a grunt or hardhead catfish. Or it may be a six pound flounder or puppy drum. Toss back some mating horseshoe crabs, seine your own bait, dig a few hardshell or steamer clams, wander off onto the sedges and gather some mussels and fish for a big one right below your feet. Be amazed at the size of the tiderunner weakfish that just grabbed your FishBite and headed for the inlet. In short, embrace the flip side, and act naturally.
Born and raised in what has been frequently described as a gritty, smoggy North Jersey industrial town, where everyone worked at Westinghouse, Otis Elevator or the Pump Works, local fishing was the last thing on most folks minds. Many families, mine included, fled the city on weekends for fishing trips to the shore or the Kittatinny Mountains, or camping and picnics near fishing waters, all great stuff. But my town bordered the Hackensack Meadowlands, and eight-year-olds with the fishing bug do not draw much distinction between the trout we caught on weekends in the Rockaway River, the pickerel from picture postcard Lake Hopatcong, or the bass from Greenwood Lake versus the carp that lurked under the industrially polluted ponds and estuaries of the Meadowlands. And since they were located just across the road from the projects I was raised in (barracks housing for WW II vets like my father, a magical experience, definitely not a negative one for us young boy, but that is a tale for another day).
So my first practice of just acting naturally came in the Meadows, actually called the Dumps because local municipalities for miles around used it as the world’s largest landfill. And the industries used it to dispose of anything short of nuclear waste. But under the often funky smelling water swam some sizable carp, and to this day, I’ll take a twenty inch bugle mouth with as much gusto as a ten inch rainbow. As a young boy, set off on his own adventure, it was a happy thing to record in my secret fishing journal a days catch of fish that often outweighed me. All accomplished by acting naturally and seizing the opportunity at hand. It should be noted that on deeper excursions into the Dumps, which stretched between the ridges of Jersey City and West Hudson County below sea level, you encountered the Hackensack River Estuary, still badly polluted, but a thriving fishery. Here your catch might include white perch, crabs, eels, snapper bluefish, gizzard shad, wild goldfish, spot or even a striper. Not captured with the fly rod or surf rod used on weekends, but a hand line with split shot and dough balls – my natural act of fishing. And easier to hide from my mother, who had long before nixed my excursions into the Dumps as off-limits, but with gear that fit into my pocket and carrying my wood bat and glove, I was perceived to be off the the county park for a pick-up game rather than a fishing trip into no man’s land. Frequently, both occurred before the dinner bell.
If I took a longer hike across town and down through the neighborhoods on the other side of the ridge that defined my town, I came to the legendary Passaic River. Legendary in part as one of several of our nations beleaguered waterways to experience spontaneous combustion from the toxic chemical brew swirling with the tides on its surface. I would bring the bait casting gear my uncle had sent to me from Alaska while he was in the service. For whatever reason, my efforts at fishing the river were openly tolerated and acknowledged, as long as I promised to stay out of the water, which I managed to do without fail. In retrospect, the difference in the two locales and my parents’ attitude towards my adventures there, were rooted in legitimate safety concerns.
The walk to the river was through neighborhoods like our own, past houses of people we knew, and culminated in an albeit overgrown, often flooded riverbank park, complete with some form of park police or ranger, and dotted with piers, bulkheads, and rip rap they knew their little squirrel monkey of a son and his cohorts could navigate. And I had a strong stomach, and dutifully turned over the days fishing clothes for a sanitary laundering and myself for a shower before sitting down to dinner. On the other hand the Dumps were a place of makeshift hobo villages, strong currents, actual quicksand, and the occasional decapitated body from some Mafia dispute. Death in the tall grass was not a book title there, it was a sidebar to our fishing adventure, and the reason they were not sanctioned by Mom or Dad. Anybody’s Mom or Dad. But as mentioned, we made out fine, and only had to flee our adventures as full gallop on rare occasions.
But back down to the river. Under the kaleidoscope of swirling chemical colors, the river breathed life, often exotic life. Large catfish, brown and black bullheads up to sixteen inches, two foot white catfish, white perch, shad, herring and eels. And lo and behold, striped bass, the prize we sought on long weekend trips along the Jersey Shore, right here under our feet and the above the PCBs. Uneatable, but undeniable, and running over thirty inches for one of us at least each spring or fall. My natural actin accomplished a twenty-eight incher, actually all-time low man amongst our group of pre-teens, so what were you catching during those years? Those bass ran a foot or more, longer than anything I was catching in Cape May, Barnegat, or Asbury Park back then. And since the Passaic emptied into Newark Bay, a salt water estuary, we had rare catches of many of the shore fishes, weakfish, flounder, fluke, blues, sea robins, Lafayettes, bergalls, and sea bass. Quite a natural act by that polluted waterway. Before moving on, I would be remiss to fail to mention that such catches are not uncommon here. and if not a fishing “destination” per se, the Passaic from the bay to the Dundee Dam is a heavily used fishery, slowing recovering with the advent of the Clean Water Act in 1972 and subsequent environmental legislation. They do not, popular misconception notwithstanding, always sit on their hands in Washington. They sign laws that have expanded and enhanced my fishing with those digits, on both sides of the aisle.
So the next time you are scouting around for a new spot to try, or have a couple of hours to kill and some gear in the trunk, maybe stop for a little while at that soupy looking park pond, and see what is lurking beneath the algae. And take note of the heron who is not too proud to be fishing there too, or the muskrat slowly paddling along the far shore, or the sliders and painted turtles on that log over there, or the northern watersnake slithering off to the left and the spring peepers sounding off in the marshy stretch to your right. All acting naturally, and so can you.
Wayne Heinze Haddonfield, NJ January 2014