Welcome to OnlyFins, New York City’s freshest column devoted to fishing the city’s polluted waters.
It was on an overcast spring morning earlier this year that I caught the biggest largemouth bass of my life—a gorgeous, dare I say sensual, two-pound beauty, her gleaming body lush with the promise of the coming spawn.
Until that moment, I had been unsuccessful in my efforts that day, two hours with nothing but a snagged tree limb to show for my time. I was well on my way to being "skunked," but to be an angler is to always cling to hope, so I had cast out my lure—a 2.75-inch plastic worm on a Ned rig jighead—close to a partially submerged log on the far shore of the lake. Almost immediately, I felt that tell-tale tug. As I reeled her in, my heart started beating faster as my ultralight rod's tip bent almost to its breaking point. She emerged from the murky depths, and I couldn’t help but whisper, Holy shit. The sheen of her scales, an ombre fading from an inky black to olive to a pearlescent ivory, the bloody tint of her gills—just, wow. Holding her slick body in my hand, I carefully unhooked her, before gripping her lip between my thumb and forefinger. Taking the obligatory selfie, I then slipped her back into the lake from which she came.
She flashed through the waters and then she was gone. Keeping her wasn’t the point. I had been blessed, once again, by Prospect Park Lake.
To answer the obvious question: Yes, Prospect Park Lake! (To answer the slightly less obvious question, fishing is kind of sexy, to me—stay tuned for a future installment of OnlyFins on why.)
I don’t remember the exact moment when I realized that not only were there fish in Prospect Park Lake, there were fish that one could catch (and then release, according to city regulations), but it was sometime in the fall of last year. That summer, still shellshocked from our year of mass death yet desperate to spend time outside of my apartment and outside of my own head, I had bought myself a cheap fishing rod. Why? I honestly don’t know. Until then, my associations with fishing were almost entirely related to a certain former president's son’s Instagram account, which is to say, negative. But I began, clumsily, to learn—first at a friend's place in Maine, where I caught a truly disgusting-tasting catfish, then at various bodies of water in upstate New York.
I soon became obsessed. My life, or what little of it remained, whittled down as it was, became devoted to fishing—I paid too much money (i.e., more than zero dollars) for a membership on a fish-centric social media app, spent hours researching lures and rod and reel combos, and subscribed to not one, not two, but three subreddits. I was hooked (haha) on the thrill of the catch, but it was more than that: I was desperately lonely, but being alone on a lake or a stretch of river never felt lonely to me. There was the water, the trees, the sky. They were there, whether I was or not; I was just an afterthought, if that. Sending out cast after cast, the line between my discrete existence and everything outside of myself would blur, as pleasant as tripping on shrooms without the subsequent crash. For those hours spent on the water, I wasn't thinking about sickness, about worry; I wasn’t thinking at all.
That feeling—the meditative calm of turning off your brain, the sensation of the boundary of the self dissolving—can also be found in Prospect Park, which is full of tucked-away corners rarely frequented by other people. And the lake in New York City's best park isn’t just filled with abandoned shopping carts and an invasive species of turtle, nor is it merely a dumping ground for someone who has a hundred eels on his hands and a soft, if misguided, heart—according to a 2019 New York Bureau of Fisheries survey, its trash-filled waters provide some of the best largemouth bass fishing in the entire state. (As one longtime New York City angler notes about the lake in a guidebook he self-published, the "risk of an unforgettable five pounder exists.")
These days, I hop on my bike—now tricked out with a handy fishing rod holder—and ride to the park at least twice a week, often more, to chase that high just as much as I’m hoping to reel in a Prospect Park monster. (The technical term, I've learned, is "hawg.")
Unexpected places in an urban setting are often said to transport you to a different place, but I’ve found something else to be true—you don’t forget where you are, you remember that the blue heron winging by you is just as much a resident of the city as you (and likely more important). And as I've become a regular over the past year, I've found a community of people all as obsessed as I am, and the joy of solitude has been joined by an equal pleasure—the feeling that you've found yet another iteration of the city that was previously unknown to you, not new by any means, but one that was there all along.
There's Lenny, whose prowess at locating fish and knowing exactly what they want that day is a skill that I am both deeply jealous of and impressed by; he tells me he just caught a bass a few minutes ago and that his wife has a baby on the way. (Congrats, my man.)
There's Jerry, talking again of how the fishing was so much better a decade ago, right before he shares the details of his longstanding grudge against a fellow fisher and former friend, who one day effectively ended their friendship when he bought cigarettes with Jerry's cash instead of the lunch he had promised.
Rick is there too, and oh shit I forgot to tell him I was heading to the park. I run into Anthony, playing some pretty sweet house music from a portable speaker, and he tells me about the ultralight combo he's using. He promises to text me a link to buy that reel, and a few days later, he does. I write back that I've been so busy that I haven't been able to make it to the park. Don't worry, he writes: "Many good days are coming."
In the next installment of OnlyFins, join Esther as she and one of New York City's preeminent freshwater anglers go on the hunt for some of Prospect Park's biggest bass.