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Cold Months Bring a Fish That Can Warm the Heart


January 12, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved. 

To the best of my recollection, what my grandfather wanted most from a family gathering was pickled herring and a seat at the table near a grandchild or two. I never questioned his seating choices, but I wondered about his fish. Pickled herring was the perfect accompaniment to any meal, with large turkeys, asparagus, even barbecue. To my grandfather, herring was a comfort food as basic as apple pie.

From his seat at the table, my grandfather patiently watched me become a fisherman. He heard more than he wanted to about fishing for snappers and about how to rig bait for sunfish at summer camp. I bored him with the finer points of hooks and bobbers, with stories about early-morning fishing from one shore or another. My grandfather never fished, but through hours of talk, he laughed his thick Polish laugh and ate herring. Mercifully for him, he died before I learned to fly-fish.

There is nothing that reminds me of my grandfather as much as tramping through the patchy snow of Canarsie Pier to fish for herring. Fortunately for fishing addicts like me, herring numbers peak locally during the bleak, midwinter months. It is a very do-it-yourself kind of fishing. There are no famous herring guides, no frantic late-night phone calls from famous friends with boats announcing herring blitzes out east. There is just harsh simplicity.

If it is winter and it is cold, it is worth a trip to see if the herring are in at Canarsie Pier. This year, my first three December trips resulted in no fish. Arriving for my last visit, I expected more of the same. But as I parked, three crows peered down suspiciously from a scraggly maple at a pile of "pearlescent" scales in the snow – the surest sign that herring were in. I rigged up quickly and joined a dozen other fishermen at the pier's edge.

In Canarsie, fishers from Poland, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Korea, Russia and countries whose accents I don't recognize fish for herring almost all winter. It warms me each year to hear my grandfather's laugh echoed by more recent immigrants. This time, a man named Larry kidded me in a heavy Russian accent that I had already missed most of the action. A Korean gentleman smiled repeatedly but knew no more English than "fish, fish" as he craned herring after herring over the pier's railings.

Fishing for herring requires more fortitude than skill. The light lines and rods and the tiny hooks make it seem more like freshwater fishing. Heavier tackle is usually used in saltwater. The fish feed on tiny shrimp and plankton, so lures tied to catch them are flashy things measuring less than an inch and tied with silvered hooks, bits of tinsel and bright fabric. A string of them may measure almost five feet. The fanciest of these rigs includes hooks molded in plastic to look like tiny shrimp, or even tiny glow-in-the-dark phials that serve to attract the herring from their deep-water homes. Sadly for the makers of tackle, little is necessary to catch a herring, and less is usually more.

The process is fairly simple. First, buy a herring rig from the local tackle shop. Actually, buy two or three because there are plenty of snags at the bottom of Jamaica Bay. Buy a few small sinkers and ask about the tides. This is more polite than important. Herring bite according to their own unknowable schedule, sometimes when the tide is coming in, sometimes when it is going out. The oldest fishing adage plainly applies, though: You can't catch a fish if your line isn't in the water.

So, head directly to the pier, tie a weight to the bottom of your rig, tie your rig to the end of your fishing line, and lower it all to the bottom. Wait. Wait some more. Jiggle the rod a little. Wait some more. Talk to your neighbor. Pour coffee from a thermos. Drink the coffee. Joke with your neighbor. Wait a little longer.

It is hard to imagine what form of deep-sea creature a herring fly could possibly imitate, or, for that matter, what a five-foot rig of them jerkily swimming across the icy, black current could represent, but herring love herring rigs. At some point in the wait, you will feel a pronounced tug. When you do, reel in your line and admire the beautiful Atlantic herring, Clupea harengus.

Each herring is a marvel of adaptation, streamlined and silvery purple. One look into its huge dark eyes and you may wish to throw it back to swim again. That is always your choice.

Should you choose to keep what you catch, there are dozens of herring recipes. People who do not like fish have told me that the best way to prepare pickled herring is to fillet them, then place them in kosher salt with a brick on top to weigh them down. After three days of curing, throw away the fillets and eat the brick.

There are people like my grandfather, though, who preferred the fillets, particularly when removed from the salt and marinated in wine vinegar, onions and mustard seed. For me, herring chunks served on crackers in a vinegar cream sauce with onions take me a long way back to family dinners with my grandfather.

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