For displaced, misplaced, and nostalgic ex-Brooklynites
World War II Era Fishing - Reflections of an Old Ex-Brooklynite
hat was it like for a Brooklyn angler during the winter months of the early-to-mid 1940's? First, I can tell you that winter night fishing for Whiting around the Sheepshead Bay piers was pretty cold all right, but still bearable for those who wished to try their luck. However, to experience really cold weather, it would be necessary to take an all-day boat hunting Codfish during the prime fishing months of January and February when temperatures were often in the twenties and sometimes with snow either falling or already on the ground.
These boats carried groups of hardy fishermen to a destination which in those days offered abundant fish stocks considered "Codfish heaven". Although this term is not likely applicable today, the area must still be the remote, windswept place with rough, wintry seas that we associated with it so long ago. It was the Cholera Banks - a frigid four-hour round trip to nowhere and back - or so it seemed to us. When I say "us," I mean a very few diehard fishing fanatics who were barely into their early teens. We were neighbors and had a common interest in, and dedication to, saltwater fishing. Unwilling as we were to wait for mild weather, we were armed with the knowledge that fish were out there to be caught in the dead of winter, provided that we cared enough to go out after them.
More often than not, we would sail on the Carrie D II which left from Sheepshead and was skippered by the always colorful Captain Sal Dragonette, an unforgettable character. The fare was all of $1.50, with no extra charge for frostbite. Other than we three, there were few teenagers on these trips. It may have been that for the average young fisherman, dealing with the cold outweighed the good fishing that was available. As far as the clientele and the crews, they seemed to be: those guys past the age of military service; those classified 4-F by their draft boards (unfit for the draft); and perhaps just a few individuals who knew someone with connections that enabled them to remain civilians. It was wartime, and I well remember from trips to Riis Park, the debris from ships floating around in the surf that had been sunk by U-boats off our coast early in the war. This fact was government-suppressed during the war, I suppose for reasons of civilian morale. A frequently discussed topic among us fishermen was, what would happen if a German U-boat would surface while we were out? Would they fire on our fishing boat? Fortunately, we never had to face this situation.
The lightweight thermal clothing we are blessed with today was unknown sixty years ago. Under the circumstances, we did the best we could to keep warm with our "1940's technology". This was not entirely successful. We were frequently very, very cold, but here's how we prepared: uniform of the day normally was a flannel shirt, two sweaters, two or three pairs of pants (corduroy being the warmest), three pairs of socks, sometimes boots or workshoes if we had them, then the heaviest coat in our relatively modest 1940's wardrobe. In my case this meant wearing my "lumberjack," an item of clothing that seems to have vanished from today's scene. Gloves, we figured, would be just the thing to keep our hands warm. We soon found, however, that wet gloves were infinitely worse than bare hands in cold weather and we never wore them again. To complete our outfit we wore a warm hat, preferably one that had flaps or otherwise covered our ears. If not available, then just a hat plus earmuffs. Oddly, something that occurs to me just now, but never occurred to us at the time, is that dressed like stuffed dolls as we were, if one of us fell overboard there was no way he could have swum, but would have sunk like a stone.
Terminal tackle consisted of two large fishhooks tied to leaders made of catgut. Each hook was baited with an entire clam and a 12-to-16-ounce sinker to get our lines down to where they had to be, the bottom of the deep waters of the Cholera Banks. Before the mouths of you clam lovers start to water, these were not clams of the Cherrystone or Little Neck variety, but a big mud clam used exclusively for bait. The choice of catch from the icy waters was, of course, the highly prized Codfish, which ran to twenty pounds and more. I caught several of this size over the years.
Although we teenagers were frequently successful in taking Cod in those days, the fishing itself was not without its trials and tribulations. We experienced an abundance of trash fish, real nuisances. They made their presence known far more often and in far greater numbers than we would have wished. As a rough estimate I would guess ten to fifteen or more for each Cod caught. Ling and Pollock were two of the fish that constantly plagued us while fishing for Cod. Often caught in immense numbers, both had unappetizing appearances and apparently their looks matched their taste, at least in those days of plenty, for they would unceremoniously be dumped back over the side by one and all.
We also had our Creature From the Black Lagoon to contend with. This was the Conger Eel, and what ugly critters they were. They apparently ran in schools, so if someone caught one, everyone else started catching them. Up and over the rail and onto the deck we would hoist them. They would be twisting and turning as only members of the eel family can do. The result was a tangled mess of Conger Eel, line, hooks and sinker. Working with our half-frozen fingers, it seemed an eternity before the eels were unhooked, everything untangled and we were prepared to fish once more. Someone would have had to have a screw loose to take one of these nightmares home. They had a face that only a mother Conger Eel could love.
Now it so happened that due to the war effort our usual metal fishing reels were no longer available at any price. When I say at any price, perhaps they were on the black market, perhaps they were not. As a teenager it was unlikely that I would have been approached to buy one, assuming that they were on the black market. But how I did covet a good metal Penn reel! Perhaps I can chalk this one up to a sacrifice on my part in support of the war effort, but on the other hand, probably not. In the place of the metal reels was a substandard wartime creation, the infamous wooden fishing reel. If you needed a reel (and I did) then this was your baby - the one and only choice of the time. Only marginally better than having no reel at all, it was crudely made, without a drag and with a handle attached to one side, somewhat resembling a king-sized spool of thread about three inches deep and perhaps six inches wide and filled with cotton, linen or dacron line, the lines of the day. Monofilament line was still a twinkle in the eye of it's future inventor, providing he had even been born yet. Perhaps some of you old timers remember what a chore it was to bring up a fish from the depths or attempt to make a cast with this piece of junk. Working their wooden reels, fishermen would spout language that would make a sailor blush, and given the circumstances, quite understandable it was, too.
The fishing trip was now at an end and we prepared to board the trolley for the trip home, which in my case was Flatbush and Newkirk Avenues. It would be another decade before Brooklyn's trolley cars were replaced by buses and although the trolleys were probably obsolete in the 1940's, they were reliable, furnished plenty of heat for winter riders, and hey! - they were non-polluting as well. Anyhow, we boarded the trolley and then went from one extreme to the other. Still half-frozen from fishing we were suddenly exposed to the trolley's heat. With our layered clothing we were faced with a most unpleasant ride. There was just so much you could take off publicly in the 1940's, so we were frequently on the verge of passing out before our exit stop.
If I had been lucky (actually, rather than "luck" I like to think of it as "skill" on my part) there would be fresh fish on the menu for dinner at home that night. With wartime food rationing in effect, the arrival of this tasty denizen of the deep (meaning the Cod, not me) on the dinner table was heartily welcomed by one and all.
There are two more recollections related to Brooklyn fishing that I want to mention here before I wrap things up. I had a buddy at that time whose father was skipper of a commercial fishing boat that operated out of Mill Basin. His father maintained that while fishing out at sea, German U-boats would surface from time to time and buy fish from him. Now that sounds like one of those offers he couldn't refuse! I believed this to be true when I first heard it and I have no reason to doubt it today either.
The other memory, and a vivid one still, was a day fishing from a Sheepshead Bay pier and catching nothing, which was not at all unusual. All at once car horns started blaring all along Emmons Avenue and presumably elsewhere as well. The war in Europe had ended on that day, known as "VE Day" and the car horns were honking in celebration.
Well, there you have it, folks, my recollections of winter fishing in Brooklyn during the years of World War II. Today, I still fish on a regular basis, but it is now along the Gulf Coast of Florida, and good fishing it is, It gives me great pleasure to report that I wear a good deal less clothing fishing now than I did at Sheepshead Bay. Having said that, I fondly remember fishing in a half-frozen condition so long ago in Brooklyn. It was sixty years ago and a whole different ball game but then really, what has not changed over the years? To be sure there were inconveniences and hardships as part of this cold weather fishing. However, I believe this was more than offset not only by the abundance of fish available to be caught at the time but also the joie de vivre, the zest for living, that can only be enjoyed to the fullest by one of tender years (meaning yours truly in the 1940's). It was a memorable, rewarding experience and well worth the inconveniences, in my humble opinion.