If you’re still skeptical, just check out this video from the 2010 derby. You’ll see this rag tag band of fisherman (and women) climbing under fences, scaling the rocky shores of the East River, and proudly displaying their trophies.
Ben Sargent is no stranger to the foodie/fishing world. He’s appeared on the food network with Bobby Flay, opened Surf Bar, right here in Williamsburg, and is the host of Catch IT, Cook IT, & Eat IT on Bushwick’s Heritage Radio Network (run out of Roberta’s). Veteran Greenpointers might also remember him as the guy who made (questionably legal, but super delicious) lobster rolls to-go out of his basement apartment, which he dubbed The Underground Lobster Pound (until he was shut down by the Board of Health). His alter ego, Doktor Klaw, could be found, as Jen Galatioto described, “delivering lobster rolls in his tricked out truck with a huge ass gold lobster claw hanging around his neck.”
This is actually the 5th year that Sargent has thrown the derby, which he founded after opening his first restaurant in the neighborhood in 2001. He explained that when it first began, he and his friends decided to throw a Brooklyn fishing competition as a joke, but it quickly became more serious, with hefty cash prizes and professional fisherman stepping up to the challenge. This year, though, the goal is more democratic–to bring the craft of fishing back to the community and encourage newbies to give it a whirl.
Of course, there is some natural doubt about eating fish from the polluted waters of the East River. But Sargent explained that the particular fish being caught in the derby, Striped Bass and Blue Fish, are migratory, meaning they only pass through the river for a short period of time on their way to clearer seas (and therefore don’t ingest as many toxins).
“These are the same fish being caught in Montauk and Martha’s Vineyard.” Sargent said, “We want to show the public that people can eat the fish here.”
The fact is, eating one fish from the East River won’t kill you. And Sargent argues that the act of doing so puts more pressure on city officials to clean the waterway. There is no shortage of living swimmers in there either (and they’re not small)– Sargent says that on a good day, a local fisherman can pull 15-20 fish from the river. All past derby winning fish have been over 30 inches long. That’s some serious fish.
Sargent isn’t the only one with a line and hook up his sleeve; the Brooklyn Urban Angelers Association has 1,822 members in it’s facebook group alone and many more enthusiasts across the city.
Jane Borock, one of the derby’s yearly attendees, once fished for 36 hours straight, building a makeshift tent on the pier with tarps and scavenged supplies to get shelter from the windy night. She has a scooter with bait and tackle that she drives around the waterfront, scouting the best spots each year.
“I’m just completely obsessed with fishing.” Jane told me over the phone, “One I get out there and start, I can’t stop.” A native New Yorker, she started fishing in Brooklyn and has never done the sport anywhere else.
“People here forget that we’re completely surrounded by water.” she explained, “When I’m out fishing, it feels authentic, like I’m connecting with my home city.”
She also emphasized the thrill of the hunt, when it comes to Striped Bass. Apparently, people are obsessed with catching this particular fish because of it’s migratory nature– the Striped Bass move quickly and they don’t travel in schools, so catching one, in many cases, is a stroke of luck. They also happen to be delicious, Jane says.
So, here’s how the derby works: On Friday (11/8), everyone will gather at Dream (673 Manhattan Ave) to pick up bait/tackle and custom derby t-shirts. For newcomers, Dream will be selling packages that include poles, bait, and all necessary supplies for $40 (registration is FREE). Then Sargent and the other seasoned BKUAA members will give a rundown of derby guidelines– everything from which fish are legal to catch in NYC to the best techniques for catch and release. A bell chime will signal the derby start, and everyone will run off to the hidden corners of the East River to throw in their lines.
The whole Northern waterfront, from LIC to Redhook will be fair game, but participants can’t use boats (in the spirit of fairness), so will have to make due on the water’s edge, relying on piers like the ones on India Street and North 5th. Throughout the weekend, they’ll be posting photos and measurements of their best catch on the BKUAA website.
On Saturday, the derby-ers will be hanging out at the Brooklyn Rod and Gun Club (59 Kent Ave), where the organizers will be hosting a kind of warming station, so that fisherman can take break and have a drink before getting back to the shore.
But, the real triumph of the derby happens on Sunday (11/10), when the competition comes to an end (at 2pm), awards are given, and a massive fish fry takes place in the Dream’s backyard. Some great chefs will be grilling up East River’s best (as well as some backup fish, for those not brave enough to try the local fare), including chef Jacques Gautier of Palo Santo, the guys from Greenpoint Fish and Lobster, and veteran food writer, Peter Kaminsky, as well as the Chowder Surfer, himself.
Everyone in the community is welcome to stop by and try some freshly caught, urban fish, says Sargent, not just the competitors. Who knows? You might like it. And even if you don’t, eating fish from that water merits a lifetime of bragging rights.