April 21, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Fish Tales: A Jewish Guide To Fishing and Other Dangers of the Deep

Among Orthodox Jews, aquatic sports, outside of swimming, can’t be counted among the most popular participant sports. Sailing, competitive rowing and sculling are simply not pastimes commonly pursued in those circles. With few exceptions, and leaving summer camp aside, unless you’re a direct descendant of the tribe of Zevulun, it’s unlikely you’ll be obsessed by these waterborne pursuits. There is, however, one water-related activity with universal appeal, and the Orthodox can be counted in numbers among the aficionados. I speak, of course, of fishing, of which there are many varieties: lake fishing, ocean fishing, stream fishing, shore fishing, guided fishing and self-guided fishing, to name just a few.

As a young Jewish boy growing up on the island of Manhattan, I often viewed the Hudson River from my bedroom window on Upper Riverside Drive. I would spy, on occasion, large, ocean-going vessels, barges and fishing boats slowly gliding over the grayish-blue waters that separated my island home from the cliffs of New Jersey. I wondered where those ships were bound, how long they had been at sea and what adventures the seamen on board had experienced. I read novels about the dangers of sea voyages undertaken by whaling crews, fantastical tales of mermaids, sirens and sea monsters. I had to face the sad fact that I was a confirmed landlubber, unable to master even the fundamentals of swimming. This put a serious crimp in my youthful plans to run away to sea as a cabin boy, a career goal firmly planted in my mind by a series of realistic Disney films such as “Kidnapped,” “ Treasure Island,” “Robinson Crusoe” and “Swiss Family Robinson.”

As I grew older, I began to compensate for my lack of swimming skill by spending as much time as I could near water with my Uncle Alex during the summer months, when, as a teenager, I visited with him in Hunter, NY. He was an expert fisherman. Born in Antwerp, he

had served as a young courier in the resistance during WWII and played semi-professional soccer when he came to America. He didn’t seem to mind spending time teaching me the

rudiments of mountain stream fishing for trout, skills that were difficult to master and required a great deal of patience. From my Uncle Alex, I developed my love of fishing and the important skill of baiting your hook with live bait. Don’t laugh! You’d be surprised how many very brave people are unwilling and/or unable to place a wriggling nightcrawler (read earthworm) on a small hook.

From these beginnings, I began to read about the sport, realizing that, as in other things in life, I’d only get better if I actually practiced. By the time I got married and started a family at the age of 25, I decided to overcome any latent fears I had of drowning while at sea and embarked on a series of fishing expeditions that took me far from local waters. I recount for you below some of these adventures, stressing the lessons I learned so that you may avoid some of the problems I encountered and better prepare yourself if you should choose to take to the water on a fishing trip. Two preliminary matters you should be aware of. First, like most of us, you likely possess seasickness genes and will suffer from mal de mer as soon as you hit open water. Second, you should note that the ocean neither loves nor hates those who sail upon it; it is merely a force of nature on which you can often successfully recreate, navigate, surf and swim. But always be aware that the ocean can swallow you up in an instant, experienced sailor or novice alike.

The first fishing expedition of note that I participated in was a Belmar, New Jersey, Memorial Day Atlantic Ocean party boat charter, along with three friends from Teaneck. The advantages of embarking on a sizable ship with 30 other stalwart fishing novices to try your hand at catching fluke and bluefish is that you’ll find you have plenty of company, and as you know, misery loves company. Unfortunately, you’ll have a better than 50 percent chance that you’ll be sharing your time chucking up your breakfast which you shouldn’t have eaten in the first place. You were probably the brave one of your group who didn’t take the recommended Dramamine dose and so you’ll be quickly introduced to the blessings every Jewish sailor learns to recite sooner or later if he engages in ocean fishing. You didn’t know there are a bracha rishona and a bracha achrona that one should always be prepared to recite when on such a trip? In fact, on setting out, you should intone the following blessing: “Please bless this enterprise with success, much fish to bring home, good weather and smooth sailing…” Upon reaching the fishing zone, whether or not you or any of your fishing companions are capable of standing up and actually fishing, you will be moved to recite the following: “Please return me safely to shore; if You do, I promise to lead a more righteous life and to never embark upon such a trip again!” The latter blessing is often recited when the declarant has taken refuge below decks and is performing natural childbirth breathing (the real reason husbands should accompany wives to their Lamaze sessions!).

The Belmar expedition was followed by a Boca Raton, Florida, fishing idyll where six hours among friends produced zero fish, but less seasickness. Next, I hired a professional guide to engage in flat fishing off of the shallow waters near Flamingo, Florida. A red tide obscured the fishing ground, so the guide diverted to Cape Sable, the southernmost point of continental U.S., on the Gulf of Mexico where we fished the mangroves offshore and caught two black-tipped sharks and several smaller fish and encountered ocean-going mosquitoes the size of sparrows. This outing was followed by an early-morning trek in April to the middle of the broad Delaware River where I, guided by a “Grizzly Adams”-type, fished for shad on the annual spring run up the center channel of the river between New Jersey and Pennsylvania. After landing nine of these shiny, razor-thin 10 lb. fish in a matter of minutes, my arms felt like they were falling off! Over the years I’ve also fished freshwater lakes, large and small, for lake trout (Lake Ontario several times, Lake Minnewanka in the Canadian Rockies) bass, pickerel, perch and sunfish (primarily at Camp Lavi on the shores of Fork Mountain pond in Wayne County, Pennsylvania) and carp (including a nine-pounder caught within 200 feet of Route 17 South in Paramus near the Fashion Center!) and the charming, though unproductive, winter waters off of San Juan, Puerto Rico, in the Caribbean.

All the foregoing were mere preparation for facing the ultimate fishing trip of a lifetime in North Pacific waters off Ketchikan, Alaska, known as the “salmon canning capital of the world.” Rising at dawn, we left our cruise ship to get dressed like Gorton’s fishermen from Gloucester, Massachusetts, complete with waders held up by suspenders, rain boots and raincoat with head gear. I motored out offshore on a 20-foot boat with two other fishermen, Californians, guided by a 74-year-old Alaskan sailor at the controls. We weighed anchor in 300 ft. of water in the Pacific channel, and over the next two hours I caught two sea bass, a scorpion fish (kosher!), and three 25-pound halibut. The two Californians failed to catch anything until one swung his rig towards me while exclaiming: “Look, I’ve caught some kind of jellyfish!” He smacked the jellyfish into my cheek and chin before dropping his rig on the deck of the boat. My face became numb immediately and then started to redden and throb seriously, the pain lasting for several hours. Back on board the Norwegian Pearl I consulted the ship’s doctor who informed me that had I been stung by the South Pacific variant of the jellyfish that had struck me, I probably would have died! I thanked him for that information and the vinegar treatment he provided me with and ran to tell my wife about my brush with death! The fishing guides filleted the 10 pounds of usable fish I had caught in the Pacific, flash froze it and sent it ahead to Teaneck where, upon my return, I placed my prized catch in our freezer to parcel out on special occasions. Two months after my return from Alaska, to my everlasting chagrin and anger, a lengthy PSE&G power outage destroyed the remaining 5 pounds of Pacific treasure!

Every parent, I’m told, prays that their offspring will be a bigger and better version of themselves. That dream unfortunately runs smack into the belief we Jews have that “the deeds of the fathers foreshadow those of their sons” (ma’aseh avot siman labanim”). And so it happened recently when my son Efrem set out for the first time on a sunny Florida fishing trip off of Ft. Lauderdale. Like his father before him who went out from Belmar those many years earlier, Efrem faced the wild chops of the Atlantic and prayed for deliverance to the same God Who had spared his father years earlier. He returned safely to shore after several hours. He felt the earth spinning many days after his return to dry land. It is unclear whether he’ll ever repeat his high seas adventure, though I’m guessing he will after enough time has passed. Bon voyage!a

By Joseph Rotenberg

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