Perspectives on local fishing
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.”