Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

A Pelham Fish Story

For hundreds of years, Pelham was considered a sportsman's paradise for hunters, fishermen, clam diggers, hikers, and those who loved the great outdoors.  Though adjacent to the growing metropolis of New York City, the town was sufficiently remote so that thousands of ducks, geese, turkeys, pheasants, grouse, woodcocks, doves, and other game were taken in and around the Town each year.  Additionally, during much of the 19th century (and at times even today), the waters off Pelham shores teemed with hundreds of species of large fish including striped bass, bluefish, sharks of various types,  blackfish, sea bass of various kinds,  flounder of various types, and much, much more.

Thousands of sports-loving New Yorkers have fished the waters off Pelham (including today's Pelham Bay Park) for centuries and continue to do so today.  Thus, as one might expect, so-called fishermen's tales have been common over the last two hundred years.  Some, however, are a little odder than others -- such as today's "Pelham Fish Story" reported in 1889.

According to the tale, two friends rowed a small boat out to Huckleberry Island off the shores of Pelham to fish for blackfish.  Like all who fish, they were ever the optimists and had prepared for success.  One had brought a length of unusual window cord with which to string the pair's catches through the gills and hang them overboard to keep them alive as long as possible.  

The pair had a lucky day.  The fish were biting.  By 4:00 p.m., they had caught forty-two pounds worth of blackfish, stringing each one on the window cord that they tied to the oarlock of the rowboat.  They kept the fish so strung in the water to keep them alive.  

Near the end of the day, ready to call it quits, one of the two tried to untie the cord and lift the fish into the boat, only to let the cord slip through his hands.  The pair watched helplessly as the mass of blackfish slowly squirmed away, deeper and deeper into the waters of the Sound.

Avid fishermen, two weeks later the pair was out fishing again.  This time they were fishing from the Eastchester town dock near Eastchester Bay on the Hutchinson River.  The two had not been fishing for more than ten minutes when one of them hooked what he thought was a monster fish.  He tugged and pulled to bring it up.  As it reached the surface, to his shock, it was "the self-same string of blackfish that I had caught two weeks before at Huckleberry Island."  

He knew it was the same string of blackfish because they were attached to the very window cord he had used to string them in the first place.  Even more surprising, not only was every fish that the pair had caught and strung two weeks before still alive, but also "every fish weighed double what it did before."  Thus, according to the fisherman's tale, ""instead of having forty-two pounds I had ninety-seven pounds of nice, living fish." 

Somehow, the string of fish had made its way for miles from Huckleberry Island to the Eastchester Town Dock.  Moreover, the blackfish reputedly had thrived and grown in Pelham waters during the previous two weeks.

We all have heard strange fishermen's tall tales before, usually involving little more than exaggerating the size of a fish.  Before dismissing this particular tale skeptically, however, let this author now step outside the role of local historian and relate his own fisherman's tale -- one that evokes the "Pelham Fish Story" told above.  The author's own tale is, most assuredly, true.

As a youngster growing up in Jackson, Mississippi, I had the fortune to fish frequently at what was then called Ross Barnett Reservoir.  One summer in the early 1970s, while fishing for catfish with a friend, we left a rod and reel propped and unattended as was so often done (whether napping or tending to multiple rods).  Shortly the rod bent violently and began bobbing, signaling that a catfish was on the hook.  Before either of us could get to the rod to fight the fish and reel it in, the fish dragged the rod and reel right into the water and took off with it.  (I even stripped to skivvies, dove in after it to the bottom, and felt in the murky water for the outfit.  Soon it was apparent.  The rod and reel were gone -- a difficult result for an avid young fisherman who did not have the money to replace it easily.

Several weeks later, I was able to return to the spot and was trying my hand at stalking catfish once again.  This time, I had learned my lesson and kept the rod and reel in my hands.  Soon the rod bent violently and began bobbing.  I began fighting the fish, but it seemed unusually large and difficult to reel in to shore.  

I was successful and reeled in a nice catfish.  It was nice (several pounds) but not, however, as large as I expected given the difficulty I had getting it to shore.  As I looked more closely, I noticed what looked like an extra line hanging out the fish's mouth.  I tugged on the extra line.  It seemed snagged on something.  I began pulling and felt it give a little.

I pulled and tugged until I reached what was on the other end of the extra line.  It was the rod and reel that had been pulled into the water several weeks before.  Incredibly, the catfish seemed none the worse for the wear and tear.  Indeed, it seemed quite healthy, but for the two hooks and lines that it had swallowed.  

You may think this catfish story is merely another tall tale, but it is entirely true (except, perhaps, for exaggerating ever so slightly the size of the fish).  I ask you, however, to ask yourself:  if I assume the catfish tale to be true, might the Pelham Fish Story involving catching the same blackfish twice in 1889 also be true?

I, for one, am a believer. . . . 

Blackfish (Tautoga Onitis)

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Below is the text of a news item that forms the basis of today's Historic Pelham article.  It is followed by a citation and link to its source.

"Ready to Furnish Proof.

Two weeks ago last Sunday a friend and myself were fishing for blackfish at Huckleberry Island.  Our luck was good.  Every time that we caught a fish we would string it on a line that we had tied to the oarlock.  About 4 o'clock P. M. we got tired of fishing, and in untying the line it slipped from my hand and sank to the bottom, fish and all.  Last Sunday my friend and myself were fishing at the East Chester town dock.  We hadn't been fishing ten minutes before I had a tremendous bite and hauled up the self-same string of blackfish that I had caught two weeks before at Huckleberry Island.  Every fish was alive, and strange to say every fish weighed double what it did before, and instead of having forty-two pounds I had ninety-seven pounds of nice, living fish.  This string of fish must have traveled about ten miles.  There is no mistake about the string that I used, because it was a piece of window cord that I took with me from home.  This story can be vouched for by the crew of the yacht Sara, who saw me lose the fish two weeks ago.

W. A. S., 
432 East Seventy-fifth street."

Source:  Ready to Furnish Proof, The Evening World [NY, NY], Jul. 2, 1889, p. 3, col. 2.  

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