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Anglers Earn Their Stripes in New York

Brendan McCarthy spends half the year on the waters around New York City as a fishing guide.
Brendan McCarthy spends half the year on the waters around New York City as a fishing guide. (By Michael Keegan)

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By Richard Morin
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 18, 2008

The boat deck vibrated in harmony with the thundering jet that lifted off the runway at John F. Kennedy International Airport and passed overhead before banking steeply left over Jamaica Bay. To the northwest, the skyline of Manhattan stood in dark relief against the morning sky as we drifted closer to the busy runway a few hundred feet away.

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"Marking fish," said guide Brendan McCarthy, peering at the electronic fish finder mounted above the steering wheel of his 24-foot, center-console boat, his eyes fixed on the small technicolor smudges on the screen. "Really marking them now."

Moments later, my line grew taut, then alive as a fish took the weighted fly 20 feet from the boat and raced away, the line whipping through the rod guides from the loose coils at my feet. A few minutes later, McCarthy grabbed the leader and hoisted a silvery five-pound striped bass into the boat.

"Nice fish!" he said, and tossed the striper back into the 42-degree water.

Some people come to New York for the shows, museums and art galleries. Others to dine at fine restaurants, shop or play in the city that never sleeps.

My friend Mike and I came here to fish. During late April, May and early June, and then again in the fall, the city becomes a destination for savvy anglers drawn to the trophy-size stripers that pass by Gotham on their annual spawning run up the Hudson River.

At times, the action rivals the best on the Atlantic seaboard. "2004 was a crazy year," recalled McCarthy, one of a handful of guides who ply these waters for stripers, bluefish, false albacore and other species. "We caught 30 stripers over 20 pounds on flies in May."

Suddenly, the flashing blue lights of a police boat ended the fish stories and the fishing at our airport sweet spot. We had strayed deep inside a no-trespassing zone. This airport security buffer extended out 100 yards from water's edge, and white buoys marked the boundary. The police boat pulled alongside. "I'm giving you a warning . . . one warning only, captain," one of the burly officers said, his voice softening. "It's the start of the season."

We moved on, finally arriving at a spot the guides called Radar Pier, named for the narrow wooden quay that extends from airport grounds into the bay.

"Marking fish," McCarthy said. Mike had a spinning rod and was casting a white popping plug, a five-inch-long hunk of wood with a single wicked hook at one end. The plug wove a frantic track across the water, imitating a wounded baitfish trying to escape. Suddenly the water erupted just behind Mike's plug. Ten feet from the boat the fish pounced, but missed -- and an even larger striper rose behind it and engulfed the plug. Five minutes later Mike held up a nine-pound fish, the biggest of the dozens of stripers we caught over the weekend.

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