You’ve seen the fishermen on the piers around Brooklyn — old guys and young men, families, even some women. You’ve admired them from afar, or maybe up close (You really eat that fish?). But you’ve never thought of joining them.
Ben Sargent thinks he knows, and has figured out a way to get more folks to cast a line into the East River. It’s called the Brooklyn Fishing Derby, and it began at 6 this morning.
The restaurant designer (and onetime owner of Williamsburg chowder bar Hurricane Hopeful) has encouraged Brooklynites to enter uncharted territory before. For better or for worse, his Rockaway Surf School has helped crowd waters long filled by Irish policemen and firefighters.
So, Sargent figured, if he could get people to wake up at 5 am and take three trains to Far Rockaway with a 10-foot longboard in tow, he could get them to fish. It doesn’t take the same amount of skill or dedication as surfing, but it still gives people an appreciation of their own waterfront.
“I really see the aim of this as bringing attention to the River. If no one cares about the water, they don’t see the problems” — or the improvements.
Sargent has always had a personal connection to the water. He hails from Massachusetts, where his grandfather was head of the state’s fisheries. Once in New York, he started fishing in 2001 and spent a year as a guide for I Fish NY, a program that brings city kids to fishing spots in their own backyard, be it Prospect Park or Jamaica Bay.
In that time, Sargent’s seen tighter water quality regulations help bring back oyster populations, and has heard many of his fishing buddies say that the fish are the healthiest and biggest they’ve seen in years. They’re still not safe to eat in large quantities (or at all for pregnant women and children) — but plenty of people do it.
“Some of those guys survive on the fish they catch — and these guys are healthy, strong individuals without health problems.”
The derby’s not a means to dinner, though. The month-long competition is catch and release, and instead of a weigh-in station, entrants are asked to measure their fish by video (Flips and cell phones will do!), and then email the clip to Sargent. The high-tech requirement doesn’t seem strange when you consider that his own site is filled with a self-produced series of videos called Seafood Secrets of the Brooklyn Chowder Surfer (imagine the Anthony Bourdain of fish, and you’ll get an idea). For the next month, the site will become the derby’s own ESPN — though it’s not so far-fetched to imagine the network covering it themselves.
What if you can’t tell a striped bass from a bluefish? Sargent’s encouraging even inexperienced anglers to get involved, and tonight from 6-10 at Dream Fishing Tackle in Greenpoint (673 Manhattan Ave., 718-389-9670), he’s going to teach folks the difference. Ninety people are expected at the opening party, where Sargent will serve locally caught fish — from the Long Island Sound, not the East River! — he’s smoked all day. The derby’s $45 entrance fee includes a few more meetups like this, along with membership to the Brooklyn Urban Anglers Association (created by Sargent), the official tape measure, and a t-shirt with bragging rights. And if you don’t own a rod, for an extra $60 you can get the full kit from Dream Fishing — which happens to be around the corner from his apartment.
There is one catch. The derby doesn’t extend beyond inner Brooklyn (and a bit of Queens). Its boundaries are along the East River from Long Island City to Red Hook, a calculated decision meant to get new (and often white) Brooklynites on the piers, who may otherwise be intimidated to cast for blues beside a Dominican family who’s been fishing there for years.
“I’m not saying that there won’t be a bit of a backlash if it becomes popular — like, ‘Thanks to you, there’s these tight, blue-jeaned gay guys fishing next to me.‘ But I don’t mind that. Why shouldn’t there be?”
Brooklyn Fishing Derby, Oct. 1-31. Rolling Entrance. More info at brooklynchowdersurfer.com.