Last November, I was up in Connecticut, fishing with an old friend.
We had fished together since the early 1970s, mostly in Long Island Sound and in the ocean south of Long Island, but sometimes as far away as Alaska, the Caribbean and Belize. Over that time, we’ve caught a lot of fish, of many different sorts, but on that day off Connecticut, things were a little slow.
We set out in the dark, well before sunrise, with the hope of finding some decent striped bass somewhere along the rocky shore. Although the fall migration was past its peak, November sees some of the largest bass of the season moving out of New England, headed south toward their wintering grounds off the Virginia/North Carolina line.
We found all the bass we could ask for, but nothing of size. While we caught a lot of fish over the course of the morning, I’m not sure that any weighed more than five pounds; most seemed to be three-year-olds, from the strong year class spawned in the Chesapeake three years before.
Notably, larger fish from the even bigger 2011-year class were nowhere to be found.
It was a little discouraging.
So we switched off to tautog—what we always called “blackfish” in Long Island Sound—dropping green crabs down to assorted rock piles that were historically productive at that time of year.
The first drop yielded a big toadfish, and then nothing more. The second drop produced even less; not even the bergalls (a/k/a “cunners”) that used to swarm in those places turned out to nip at our baits. So we moved a couple of miles, to a piece of hard bottom where we found a few fish.
Most were far too small to keep. Along the way, as we picked at mostly undersized fish, my friend repeated something that he had said more than once in recent years. “If I was a kid, just starting out, I don’t think I’d bother buying a boat. It’s not worth it. There aren’t any fish anymore.”
It’s not the first time that he’s said something like that, but every time, it still jars me. My friend and I were both introduced to fishing by our fathers when we were very young; for both of us, it was probably the defining family activity of our childhoods. When our fathers weren’t working, we fished with them from our families’ boats. Other times, until we were old enough to take the boats out by ourselves, we fished from docks and from shore.
I still recall one summer morning when he was out with his father, and I was out with mine, fishing a stretch of rocky shoreline. It was a calm day, with the sun climbing over the horizon, when without warning, black clouds roiled out of the west, it started to rain, and lightning flashed on the too-near horizon. My friend’s boat shot past where we were fishing, heading for home. We were planning to head in then, too, but a decent-sized striped bass rolled on my lure and made it clear that we weren’t going anywhere for a while, regardless of the approaching storm.
Some time later, our boat caught up with his, deep in the harbor. I held up the bass, lure still stuck in its face, as mute explanation of why it took us so long to arrive.
I’ve got a lot of stories like that, and so does my friend, because when we were young, fishing was a heritage that was handed down to us, and that we always expected to hand down to following generations.
But now, I have to wonder whether there will be much left for us to pass down, and whether those who follow us will have anything at all to pass on to their successors.
When we were young, fishing was easy to do. There were a lot of fish, and a lot of places to catch them. Over the course of the year, there were probably less than three months when we didn’t fish, mostly because the harbors were covered with ice.
Once the ice went out in March, we caught winter flounder and tomcod from docks in the harbor. By April Fool’s Day, that fishing was going strong, and the first schools of river herring—first alewives, and bluebacks later on—swarmed in silver hordes so determined to spawn that, when the tide was out, they swam on their sides through trickles of water, trying desperately to get to fresh water.
We watched the herring, wondering at their seemingly endless multitude.
By the second week in May, we caught blackfish from shore at the town beach and eels from the local docks. Two weeks later, we caught striped bass from our fathers’ boats and sometimes from shore; by the time I was in junior high, bluefish chased menhaden into the harbors, and we could catch them from shore, too. When the big bluefish weren’t around, summer vacation was mostly about catching eels and the occasional flounder until the young-of-the-year “snapper” bluefish showed up. At that point, just about every child older than five years old—and more than a few who were younger—lined up along just about every piece of land that bordered the water, some with their parents, the older ones alone, in pursuit of the small, but avidly feeding fish.
After we went back to school in September, the year sort of unraveled itself.
The snapper disappeared first, then the big bluefish, but blackfish again bunched up in the shallows, where a kid with a pint of fiddler crabs, who knew how to cast, could easily catch a dozen or two near the top of a rising tide. As days grew shorter and colder, flounder and tomcod grew more abundant, and were joined by rainbow smelt returning to the estuaries prior to their early-spring spawn.
Finally, the days grew so cold that our hands froze numb, so numb that we could sometimes slip a hook right through our bait and into a finger, and not realize it until we went to swing the hook back in the water, and found that it wouldn’t go. Shortly after that, ice would cover the harbor, and our season would end.
It was a wonderful time, and a wonderful way, to grow up.
But for today’s kids, things aren’t like that anymore.
The smelt were the first to go. I caught my last one in the fall of ’68, the same year that I entered ninth grade. The tomcod didn’t last too much longer. Whether warming water did them in, or too many dams blocked their way to crucial spawning grounds, is difficult to say. Either way, they disappeared.
River herring went next, the big runs gradually thinning out until, by 1980 or so, only a few fish still entered the harbors. After that, blackfish grew ever scarcer, as an increasing demand for live fish sold, often illegally, in urban markets, coupled with an ineffective interstate management plan, caused abundance to sharply decline. Winter flounder made it into the 21st Century—barely—but since then, the southern New England stock has completely collapsed.
Striped bass collapsed in the late 1970s, but the stock was rebuilt two decades later. Now, the stock is overfished once again, but the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission seems to be in no hurry to rebuild it this time. Bluefish, too, appear to be growing scarce, although we’ll figure that out for certain when the stock assessment is updated in August.
There are some bright spots amid the gloom. Summer flounder didn’t become a regular catch in the western Sound until 1970 or so, but the stock remains in fairly good shape. And scup and black sea bass are probably more abundant than they have ever been during my lifetime.
But a young angler really needs to go out in a boat to catch those fish with any regularity; from shore, they will catch a few, but few of what they catch will be large enough to take home. That makes it tough for young anglers, many of whom are tied to the land, and provides little tinder to catch and sustain whatever dim spark of interest a child may have in the outdoors, before it’s quenched by electronic distractions and the lure of youth soccer and baseball.
To feed the fire that forges new anglers, and make the flame run hot in new generations, children must be able to inherit the same sort of quality experiences we knew when we were young, experiences built on abundant fish stocks that we could cheaply and easily access from local docks, bulkheads and piers. For if young and inexperienced anglers are to maintain their interest in the sport, they must be able to catch fish regularly, despite their lack of skill and their simple gear. And, perhaps most important, despite their lack of a boat.
At some point, the new angler will grow old enough, and earn enough money, to buy a boat of his or her own. Provided, of course, that there are enough fish around to merit the purchase.
As my friend has suggested, that might not be the case anymore.
Thus, it is hard to understand why both the fishing tackle industry and the boating industry are supporting bills such as last year’s H.R. 200, which would have weakened federal fisheries laws and led to decreased abundance and reduced opportunities for novice anglers, instead of aggressively supporting conservation measures that will assure that tomorrow’s generation of anglers will still have a reason to go fishing.
In the sixty-plus years since I first became a fisherman, we have allowed too many of our fish stocks to decline, allowed too many of our waterways to become degraded, allowed far too many of our marshes, estuaries and other critical inshore nursery habitats to be filled in, developed and destroyed. By doing so, we have stolen a treasured heritage from today’s young anglers, and from anglers who have yet to be born.
Why should they fish, or buy fishing tackle, just to frustrate themselves on the shores of an emptier ocean than we knew in our early years?
It is our moral responsibility, and the moral responsibility of the fishing and boating industries, to pass on to our successors a world as vital and as full of life as the one we received from our elders.
Failure to do so bathes us in the shame of a thief who would steal from a child.