Talk­ing Shop

Per­spec­tives on lo­cal fish­ing

The Day - Sound & Country - - Talking shop - By John Sar­gent

South­east­ern Con­necti­cut has a long his­tory of fish­ing that traces its roots back to the Colo­nial era. Be­gin­ning in the 1600s, angling was a nec­es­sary way of achiev­ing both com­fort­able liv­ing and fi­nan­cial gain, as the un­touched wa­ters of Long Is­land Sound and its trib­u­taries were teem­ing with life. From lo­cal pop­u­la­tions of sum­mer and win­ter floun­der, tau­tog, and porgy that in­hab­ited the rocky bot­toms, to the mi­grat­ing pop­u­la­tions of At­lantic salmon, striped bass, and bunker that vis­ited ev­ery spring through fall, the re­sources must have ap­peared nev­erend­ing to peo­ple who were carv­ing out new lives in the hill­sides.

A lot has changed since those early years, but the ac­tiv­ity of fish­ing both as a means of em­ploy­ment and en­joy­ment is still deeply im­bued within those who call the coast their home. Be­ing an avid fish­er­man of our lo­cal wa­ters my­self, I wanted to speak to a few tackle shop own­ers and lo­cal fish­er­men to see how fish­ing has im­pacted their lives, and how it has changed since they first wet­ted a line many years ago.

I first spoke to Jonathan Hil­lyer of Hil­lyer’s Tackle Shop in Niantic, a suc­cess­ful bait shop with white shin­gles that re­sides be­neath the Route 156 bridge near the Niantic river. “Peo­ple from all walks of life come into my shop, male and fe­male, young and old, novice and ex­pert. Ev­ery­body,” he ob­serves. Jon’s grand­fa­ther opened Hil­lyer’s in 1934, and as a re­sult, he has been around the busi­ness his en­tire life. Jon filled me in on the high­lights of his time

at the shop, men­tion­ing a num­ber of 50 and 60-pound striped bass that were weighed on the deck. When asked why he liked to fish, he sim­ply replied “I fish be­cause of the out­door ad­ven­ture and sub­se­quent eu­pho­ria. It’s ex­tremely ther­a­peu­tic.” This sen­ti­ment is com­mon amongst lo­cal fish­er­men: that the act of fish­ing goes be­yond the phys­i­cal ac­tion of cast­ing and reel­ing but is also a way to tran­scend the daily mun­dane rou­tine.

Karen Wester­berg in New Lon­don also runs a tackle shop, A.W. Ma­rina, that she ac­quired from her fam­ily. She finds that fish­ing is a way to ex­pe­ri­ence some­thing big­ger than one­self. “I like to get out on the wa­ter be­cause of how small it makes you feel as a hu­man be­ing.” she says, “Out there, noth­ing is guar­an­teed, and it’s just you ver­sus the fish. I love that.”

Karen’s par­ents came to the Con­necti­cut coast from Long Is­land many years ago, even­tu­ally open­ing A&W Bait and Tackle in 1954. Although unas­sum­ing from the street, A&W is a vir­tual trea­sure trove upon walk­ing through the door. Lures, plas­tic baits, and hooks adorn the walls, and the small patch of vis­i­ble floor is worn from years of cus­tomer traf­fic. Karen has been work­ing here for nearly a decade but says she has been in­volved with the com­mu­nity for much longer than that. “I know a lot of peo­ple, we have been here for more than a few years.” she says, chuck­ling.

What soon be­came clear to me is that the Con­necti­cut fish­ing cul­ture has deep ties with the com­mu­nity it serves, and pro­tect­ing that com­mu­nity is a top con­cern for those en­gaged in it.

Diane Wo­mack, the owner of Diane’s Bait, Tackle & Char­ters at Burr’s Ma­rina in New Lon­don, fo­cuses her busi­ness around com­mu­nal val­ues. “I want my store to be a place where every­one feels wel­come” she said to me, tin­ker­ing with a box of blood worms for a cus­tomer, “I try to give back to the com­mu­nity in any way that I can, even if it’ s some­thing sim­ple like of­fer­ing ad­vice on a fish­ing spot or help­ing some­one pick out their first fish­ing rod.” Diane’s grand­fa­ther orig­i­nally opened the store many years ago, but she has taken the re­spon­si­bil­ity by her­self, fill­ing her store with lures and old rods and reels that she her­self metic­u­lously main­tains and fixes. “I love it here, and I want peo­ple to know it.”

Un­for­tu­nately, de­spite the good­will that per­me­ates these vi­brant fish­ing com­mu­ni­ties, Jon, Karen, and Diane all ex­pressed some con­cern when ques­tioned about the lo­cal fish pop­u­la­tions to­day as com­pared to when they were grow­ing up. “You could walk across the river on their backs, there were so many fish,” says Diane, “It’s noth­ing like it used to be.” This theme is a com­mon one, as across the east coast large game­fish pop­u­la­tions have suf­fered in the past due to a wide va­ri­ety of fac­tors. Some at­tribute the de­cline in fish­eries to pol­lu­tion, such as the ni­tro­gen rich wa­ter that fil­ters into our oceans through un­reg­u­lated ur­ban runoff, but most look to­wards over­fish­ing as a ma­jor fac­tor.

Karen noted that de­spite the change in the lo­cal fish­eries, peo­ple have learned to adapt to their new re­al­i­ties, much like the colonists did many years ago. “When our fish­eries first started to suf­fer, whether it was the striped bass or floun­der, a lot of peo­ple had to make do with other species. I don’t think it’s fair to blame com­mer­cial fish­er­men. Ev­ery­body needs to make a liv­ing some­how, but things are def­i­nitely dif­fer­ent,” she says. Some, how­ever, see over­fish­ing by com­mer­cial ves­sels as a sig­nif­i­cant cause of harm to lo­cal fish pop­u­la­tions.

Frank Kor­nacki is a re­tired com­mer­cial fish­er­man who grew up in Nor­wich and now re­sides in Ston­ing­ton. Frank spent as much time as pos­si­ble tar­get­ing fish in the lo­cal wa­ters as a boy, and thinks back fondly on the va­ri­ety and abun­dance of his child­hood catches. “I re­mem­ber go­ing down to the Shetucket and catch­ing stripers, even white perch. Not any­more, it’s so dif­fer­ent now,” he ob­serves. Frank got into com­mer­cial fish­ing as a young man, and saw it as an op­por­tu­nity to cap­i­tal­ize on the ex­plo­sive eco­nomic suc­cess that many peo­ple found on the wa­ter in the mid 1980s. “I

This sen­ti­ment is com­mon amongst lo­cal fish­er­men: that the act of fish­ing goes be­yond the phys­i­cal ac­tion of cast­ing and reel­ing but is also a way to tran­scend the daily mun­dane rou­tine.

was young, and I didn’t un­der­stand what I was con­tribut­ing to, but you see it now when you’re out there, you can see what we did,” he says. Frank views com­mer­cial fish­ing as a sig­nif­i­cant threat fac­ing lo­cal fish pop­u­la­tions due to how mis­un­der­stood the ecol­ogy is sur­round­ing cer­tain en­vi­ron­ments. For Frank, one ma­jor is­sue is how ecosys­tems fall out of sync when a cer­tain species are over har­vested, which cre­ates larger prob­lems as time goes on. “I don’t mean to sound pes­simistic, I just want to see this area re­turn to the health it had when I was a kid,” he ex­plains.

De­spite the set­backs ex­pe­ri­enced by some fish­er­men, the com­mu­nity that they have built re­mains strong, en­sur­ing the sat­is­fac­tion of their cus­tomers and the longevity of their pro­fes­sion. “I think every­one de­serves to ex­pe­ri­ence catch­ing a fish,” Diane says, a small smile cross­ing her face, “that feel­ing is too great to pass up.”

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