New York, of course, is a marvel of modern civilization. It’s also a pretty sweet little fishing hole. In no other place on the planet, one could argue, do the natural and man-made worlds collide to more spectacular effect. Just getting out on the water allows you to see the city with new eyes. The place you normally think of as a claustrophobic Habitrail of glass, steel, and asphalt morphs into a broad, expansive Hudson River School painting, its subject a thin, lovely finger of land encircled by rivers on three sides and a deep, cobalt-blue harbor on the fourth, all tucked under the stolid walls of the Palisades. “It is as pleasant a land as one can tread upon,” wrote Henry Hudson, and offshore, you can see, in a way that’s all but impossible to conjure from land, that he was right.
Purists contend that the trappings of modernity—the skyscrapers and cruise ships and bridges—have spoiled all that. In a sense, that’s true. And yet, what we’ve lost in Edenic simplicity, I’d submit, we’ve gained in postmodern aesthetic mash-up. Nothing makes that more apparent than fly-fishing in New York Harbor. The recovery of the striped bass, in fact, is itself a reason to love New York. Stripers are one of angling’s most prized species, but because of decades of overfishing and PCB dumping by General Electric, the local population had been all but wiped out in the seventies. Now, thanks to steadfast conservation efforts, the local striper count is said to be up from its low of 250,000 to between 4 million and 5 million. As feel-good environmental success stories go, that’s difficult to beat.
The signature experience is the fall striper run, when millions more Morone saxatilis make their way from Maine to the Carolinas, taking up temporary residence in our home waters alongside their city cousins. On a good day, the water practically boils with pods of feeding fish. Hook into a nice, fat, 32-inch striper, and that’s when the beauty of the Old World–New World culture clash really sets in. Maybe twenty feet off your bow, connected to your hand by nothing more than the gossamer thread of nine-weight monofilament line, is a fish that’s been swimming in these waters for millennia, a muscular, darting, black-and-silver-striped natural wonder. Now look up. You’re surrounded by the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, and the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, wonders of a different sort, yes, but still wonders.