Originally reported in 2009 by Sydney Parker
“I’m forty years old and I hooked a forty pound fish!” declared John Ruffino, hoisting the giant first prize Brooklyn Fishing Derby trophy over his head. The first annual derby held it’s closing celebration Sunday night at the Brooklyn Alehouse.
An enormous striped bass hung by it’s lip from a tree branch at the entrance, marking the spot. The ceremony signified the end of the month long competition to catch the biggest fish anywhere along the East River from Red Hook to Long Island City, Queens.
Catching the big fish was a proud moment for Ruffino. A class room of Orthodox Jews had taken a field trip to the Gantry State Park pier that day and cheered as he reeled in the line for the massive fish. It took him over twenty minutes to pull the bass out of the water.
“When I stuck my hand in to pull out the hook, the fish bit me,” said Ruffino, unwrapping his hand from his beer to show the scar.
Back lit by a stunning view of the Manhattan skyline and flattered by the sparkling East River, Gantry State Park provides the ideal conditions for the fisherman’s reverie. The park was recently transformed from an industrial space into an award winning design. Two gantries, old Long Island Railroad shipping lifts, remind the public of the area’s industrial history.
“I come out here and fish every day after work,” boasted Ruffino, attempting to pull off his sweatshirt over a lit cigarette. “It doesn’t leave a lot of time to meet women.”
Ruffino began fishing when he was a little boy and quickly developed an obsession, leading him to spend extravagant amounts of money on new fishing equipment. He wishes that there was a local tackle shop in Long Island City but doesn’t mind making the trip to the Dream Tackle Shop in Brooklyn, a hangout for fisherman in the know.
Ben Sargent and James Potter, members of the Urban Anglers Association founded the competition almost as a joke to see if any New Yorkers would actually participate. To their surprise, 40 competitors signed up ranging from old-timer fisherman to skinny-jeaned Hipsters all striving to become New York’s “biggest hooker.”
“The fishing community is a tight, discrete network,” said Sargent, adjusting his Katz’s Delicatessen baseball hat. “We wanted to open it up to everyone.”
Sargent is notorious in the culinary community for his seafood chowder recipe featured on Food Network, his surfing club in Rockaway Parkway and his honorable work with I Fish NY, a program that introduces city kids to the world of fishing.
Sargent’s derby awards extended way beyond 1st and last. The awards for Most Jealous Fisherman, Most Time Spent in the Water, and Best Dressed Fisherman were also greeted with applause and laughter from friends and family. The award for Most Absent Fishermen went to Jason Lamb, a young man with a shaggy mop of hair who notoriously left his pole unattended. His prize: A $50 gift certificate to get a haircut.
Russell Dugan, a young shop regular sporting dirty vintage glasses and an unwashed mullet warmed beneath a red trucker hat enjoys Ruffino’s vast fishing knowledge and outlandish personality. Dugan rarely catches anything but appreciates the sport.
“It’s not about the catching, it’s about the fishing.” The Brooklyn Fishing Derby officially advocates a policy of catch and release. In spite of this, Ruffino plans to share his bounty of fish with good friends and neighbors.
Eating fish from the polluted East River is not advised by environmental experts, but fishermen swear by the safe and pleasurable experience of ingesting the fish you caught by way of your own patience and diligence.
Potter is proud of the derby’s popularity with people of all ages and backgrounds. “Fishing is a common language,” says Potter. He can’t wait to see who joins up next year.
His sister Clarissa Potter is happy for her brother’s success but is relieved that he will now be more available to spend time with loved ones. Mr. Potter won the Most Jealous Fisherman Award for his attitude of complete despair when he lost a fish and very vocally condemned his competitor’s big catch.
New York might seem like the last place a fisherman would go to relish in the tranquil art of casting and reeling, but for Micheal Louie, the Long Island City shore is pure paradise.
“When I’m waiting for the fish to come, I clear my head,” says Louie. “Water runs in, problems run out.”