On any given morning, there is a trail of fish parts and entrails leading along the Liberty State Park boardwalk on the western bank of the Hudson river. The New York City skyline glows in the Golden Hour light like a picture postcard. A fish head here – its eyes gnawed out by the wheeling gulls – a fin or a tail there: the trail leads to a group of men waiting for the Atlantic tides to come in. They are the Fishermen of the Hudson.
Frank has been fishing these waters for the last five years, as he did in his home country before he arrived in America as an immigrant. “It isn’t as good here,” he says as he carves a chunk of baitfish and skewers it on a large hook. “I always caught a lot to eat at home. But here, you have to be patient. The fish don’t always want to bite.”
Casting his line, Frank smiles: “but it isn’t only about fishing for the table here. This is fun for me. I do it to unwind.”
Frank has three lines in the river, baited with one-and-a-half mullets. He’s fishing for something big. What remains of his bait leaves a spreading red stain on the concrete embankment that had to be rebuilt after Hurricane Sandy swept the Hudson Estuary across the park and into downtown Jersey City five years before.
The fishing was better then, Raoul remembers. But he still comes down to the Hudson almost every day. “I throw in a line, and whatever I get on the hook, I bring it in,” he says. “Last Sunday was good, though, I got three blues.”
He means bluefish – along with striped ocean bass, the main prize. These are migratory ocean fish that summer off the coast of New England and Atlantic Canada, before following the coastal currents down to Florida and the Caribbean. And they are big, growing to as large as 30-pounds and two feet long.
“Blues always give a good fight,” Raoul says. “I had to drag one over to the rocks last week to get it out. I always tie my rod down so they don’t take it away.”
“I find fishing relaxing,” he adds.
While the sorry state of the Hudson river makes much of the freshwater catch inedible, tides as high as six feet sweep huge schools of ocean fish into the river’s estuary twice a day. The blues and the bass are largely uncontaminated and very good eating, says Yoely, fishing the river with his nephew Daniel a few yards down the boardwalk.
“I throw the small ones back,” he says. “There isn’t any point to try to eat those. But the big ones – I caught a 20-pound flounder last week. That was good.”
“It was ugly,” Daniel adds.
For Claude, there is no question. If it’s big enough to eat, he’ll eat it. “It’s better for you than any of the processed food you can get at the market,” he says. “I have bluefish and flounder in the freezer, and I’m going to have more after today. Do you know how much all that fish would cost at the market?”
“If I can catch something this big,” he gestures to indicate the size of a catch, “and I often do, that’s a good couple of meals for me and my family.”
It’s sport for many of the Fishermen of the Hudson, but it’s never just sport, says Carlos, who fishes with his friend John from the rocks near the causeway that leads from Liberty State Park to Ellis Island. “Oh yeah,” it’s for food, he says, holding up his iPhone to show a picture of the 22-pound striped bass he caught a week before. “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t catch something to eat. With the price of everything, what can you expect?”
Raoul, nods. “I do this because I’m retired, and I like it,” he says. “But I share my catch with my friends and family, and they really appreciate it.”
For others, fishing the Hudson is necessary for survival. “I lost my job six years ago,” says Antonio, who declined to be photographed. “And with my situation, and at my age, I haven’t been able to find another. That’s six years. I have to eat. This is what I did to eat before I came to America, so this is what I do now.”
“I am here by the river every day, in every weather, for as long as fish come in with the tides,” he continues. “It’s fun a lot of the time. But a lot of the time it’s not fun at all. When the weather’s bad, I wish I could be anywhere else. But I have to eat. We all have to eat.”