Sargent Breve

“Once a rat snatched the fish off the line while I was pulling it on the rocks,” says Sargent.

Story by Nicola Scevola - nscevola@gmail.com Photos ©Anna Schori

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“That’s my favourite spot for fishing,” says Ben Sargent, before stopping his truck on a stretch of Brooklyn’s industrial wasteland that faces the coffee-coloured waters of New York’s East River. He points at some rocks next to an abandoned wooden pier, half-sunk into the river. A barrier of metal scraps and barbed wire, put up by the owners of a nearby warehouse to avoid trespassing, has made access difficult. But this avid urban fisherman and star of a new TV show about seafood is not deterred. Rod on his shoulders, he climbs a metal pillar, jumps off and reaches the weedy rocks. Minutes later, he casts his line into the muddy river, watching the sun while it sinks behind the Empire State Building.

Gone fishing photo©Anna Schori

“This is the most underappreciated body of water in the US,” he says. “There’s a real abundance of game fish in New York City.”

Sargent has been fishing in this river for years and this is one of the best spots he knows. The bright lampposts pointing from the warehouse toward the water attract fish at night.

“This is when industry helps rather than hurts,” he points out.

Sometimes he has to duck from the police patrolling the area while fishing. Technically he’s on private property, and the physical terrain is dangerous. The surface of the rocks where he’s standing is slippery, and the current of the river is strong. If he falls in, it’s likely nobody would know where he ends up.

Caught photo©Anna Schori

“Fishing is a bit like gambling: there’s a component of luck and risk. And I like that,” he says.

Sargent admits he may not find the quiet he would in the remote beaches of his native New England. But here’s what he finds in the city’s waters: some of the best inshore saltwater fishing in the country. The East River, the lower Hudson and Jamaica Bay teem with striped bass, bluefish, and weakfish, he says. And some of them are even edible.

Fifteen years ago, untreated sewage and toxic wastes dumped by factories into the Hudson River had turned New York City’s waters into a cesspool. But a law passed in 1972 started the long recovery process. Today the State Department of Health says adults can safely eat 200 grams a week of fish caught under the shadow of the Statue of Liberty.

Little fishy photo©Anna Schori

“Mostly, I do catch and release, but I’ve eaten some big striped bass caught in these waters. And I am not glowing in the dark, yet. The taste? It was great,” says 33 year-old Sargent, who studied at the French Culinary Institute and has been fishing since he was five.

When Sargent moved to New York in 2001, he didn’t expect to be able to cultivate his passion for rods and lures right in Brooklyn. But a friend convinced him to give it a go, and once the first fish bit, he became addicted to urban angling.

“My record catch is a 82-centimeter striped bass,” he says proudly.

Few years ago Sargent founded the Brooklyn Urban Angler Club and organized the first fishing derby in Brooklyn.

What's that? photo©Anna Schori

Nowadays Sargent is quite busy recording “Hook, Line and Dinner”, a TV show that follows him across the country on a vintage motorbike in search of the best local fishermen. This way he gets to fish in the best spots around the US. But when he’s in New York he still enjoys angling in Brooklyn’s waterways. And when a tiny bell hitched to a stationary rod makes a faint jingle, he dashes over excitedly and starts reeling in the line.

To catch a fish in this river, you have to be very quick. Not only reeling in the line, but also grabbing your pray when it is out of the water.

Nighttime fishing photo©Anna Schori

“Once a rat snatched the fish off the line while I was pulling it on the rocks,” says Sargent.

Despite the proximity to millions of people, though, he insists urban spots in New York remain underexploited. And, compared to other places, they present an extra advantage.

“You are more likely to get elbowed off some famous trout stream in the Rockies than you are within sight of skyscrapers.”

Just be prepared to dodge the hungry rats.

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