Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.
― Norman Maclean
This being the week we celebrate Earth Day, I thought it appropriate to trot (or trout) out a piece about fishing. But I hope it’s more about connecting than catching, luring more men, so to speak, to safely explore coastal shorelines and inland wetlands, lakefronts and riverbanks, to benefit from the stress-releasing power of being outdoors, and to experience, rod and reel in hand or not, the truth in William Shakespeare’s words: “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”
When I was a young boy, maybe eight or nine years old, I caught a good-sized weakfish from the docks at Northwest Harbor, a tranquil and secluded body of water with a narrow channel connecting it to Sag Harbor, Shelter Island and the town of East Hampton to Gardiners Bay and the open waters of the Atlantic Ocean. It was long enough ago that I forget most of the details of the catch: what bait I used, what was the tide, how hard it fought, even the exact time of year. I was thinking about it recently, trying to sift through the cobwebs of my fishing past, when I asked my father, who just a month shy of 87 has even more bouts with hook and sinker in his grey matter to sort through if he remembered when I landed the fish. “It must have been late Spring,” he said, “when the azaleas are in bloom.”
I should have known this was the case. My father often spoke of how, as a young boy growing up in the Hamptons, he and friend, at the first flush of color from the azaleas, would row a boat out into Sag Harbor and drop squid for weakfish. They would then sell their catch to the chefs who worked on the wealthy estates that dotted the area – sort of a Little Rascal sea-to-table venture. Capitalism aside, the exchange with my father piqued my curiosity about what other agricultural “signals” might be used by anglers, from widespread wisdom to local lore, be it information passed down from generation to generation, or tips discovered from personal experience. With a focus on New York waters, here are three connections between what sprouts and what swims that are more well-known, and one, from a friend, to add to the canon. And because research shows that a sea-food rich diet helps to ward off depression, I’ve included a recipe!
Dandelions and Blackfish
Back in 1986, nature writer Bruce Stutz wrote an excellent article in The New York Times (Outdoors: Natural for Fish to Bite) about the renewal of fishing in the spring, mentioning that “blackfish, or tautog, come inshore when the dandelion appears.” This seems a fitting tandem as both are in need of a publicist to counter misconceptions and tout their value. Dandelions, for instance, are not weeds as commonly thought, but flowers with a litany of reported health benefits, such as relief from liver disorders, diabetes, urinary disorders, acne, jaundice, cancer, and anemia. Tautog, perhaps due to their less than comely appearances, including a white chin and buck teeth (dandelion, by the way, is derived from an old French phrase, dent de lion, which meant tooth of a lion), also are underappreciated. The fact they dwell on the bottom, in rig-snagging structures, are reluctant biters when the weather is nice, and hard to hook even when hungry, have kept many pursuers at bay, so to speak. This is good for the fishery, but bad for diners, as tautog are, by most accounts, one of the tastiest treats in the sea. And while fish in general are high in depression-fighting Omega 3 fatty acids, tautog, active in Mid-Atlantic waters after most boats are put in dry-dock and rods and reels stored in closets, also give anglers a chance to ply their craft and defeat those “winter blues.”
Shadbush and Shad (and Lilacs)
Shadbush is native to the temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere (thank you Wikipedia) and is known for its spray of five thin white petals that constitute its flower. It’s also the harbinger for what’s been called “the fish that fed the (American) nation’s founders.” According to a post on the Hudson River Maritime Museum’s website, ‘Although shad begin their runs up rivers as early as March, April is usually the month in which shad return in significant numbers to the Hudson, their arrival heralded by the blooming of the shadbush.” The shad’s 150-mile trek (from New York Harbor to Albany) usually reaches a crescendo around mid-May, with their numbers declining at month’s end along with the lilac blossoms.
Dogwood and Black Drum
Considered by many to be one of the most beautiful eastern North American trees, dogwood and its spray of white flowers is an early spring stunner. The English language developed the phrase “Dogtree” for them in 1548, and in 1614 the name was changed to its present incarnation, some say because when the wind blows and its branches knock together, it sounds like a dog barking. It’s apt then, in terms of making a racket, that the black drum, a member of the croaker family, which use their air bladders to create a sound similar to a drum beating, have long been said to arrive in mid-Atlantic waters, and be on the bite, when the dogwood blooms.
Wild Leeks and Brown Trout
Dan Milgate, my lifelong friend and fishing partner, is an avid brown trout angler who has over 40 years of experience fishing the Finger Lakes in Upstate New York, Lake Ontario, and the multiple trout streams in the Southern Tier of Western New York. He shared that when it comes to spring fishing, he always brings a small bag and gardening shovel to cultivate the wild leeks (ramps) that always seem to be bursting when he is in the woods in search of the perfect hole to tease a brown trout into being captured. He notes that when the trout season starts in early April, the leeks typically haven’t sprouted yet but it also is a time when the streams are not as clear and turning that tea color that is preferred. Late May and early June though symbolize harvesting success either way for Dan as he knows that at a minimum, he will walk out with a bag full of leeks. Below is a recipe he recommends that blends this combination together.
“Ramp”ed up Brown Trout
1-3 stream caught brown trout (10-15” variety, gutted, cleaned, heads left on)
1 good size bunch of ramps (wild leeks)
1 clove garlic (minced)
1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small bunch chives
1 15” fry pan (that is oven ready)
Pre-heat your oven to 300 degrees. Be sure to gut and clean your trout and leave the skin/tail/head on. If your trout are too large, you may want to do some scaling and if you don’t like the look of the head/tail, then cut them off. Set them aside and place your butter, garlic and leeks (leave whole) in a frying pan on your stovetop with olive oil, butter and salt/pepper to taste. Sauté until the bulbs of the leeks have turned translucent. Set those aside and add some fresh olive oil and butter to your pan. Generously salt/pepper the trout on all sides and inside. Once the pan is hot, place the trout in and cook on each side for approximately 2 minutes. Remove from heat and stuff each trout with your sautéed leeks. Reserve some leeks to chop and apply as a garnish on top. Place the fish back into the fry pan and place in the oven for approximately 10 minutes. Watch to see the rib cage flaps folding up. Remove from the oven and place the remaining leeks on top of the trout once plated and also garnish with fresh chopped chives.