At least once a day in conference rooms and business schools across the galaxy you’re certain to hear someone say that if you want something done in a way that’s good, cheap, and fast, you’re dreaming, because realistically you can only pick two of the three.
That saying may apply to a great many things but I discovered last weekend that it’s not true of the Harlem Meer, a lake in the northernmost reach of New York City’s Central Park where the fishing is free, good, and fast, as well as easy and fun.
The Meer, which incidentally is Dutch for “lake,” offers catch & release fishing April 1 through November 30 (Mon-Sat 10-4, Sun 10-2, rods available until an hour before closing) unless blue-green algae afflicts the lake and causes the park to suspend the fishing program, as happened last summer.
Fingers crossed that it doesn’t happen again this season, especially in summer, the busiest time for fishing at the lake, according to an employee at the Charles A. Dana Discovery Center (212/860-1370), the easy-to-spot over-sized cottage on the lake where my son and I picked up our fishing rods — free to borrow after you show your photo I.D. and provide a phone number — as well as free bait of corn niblets, provided in little paper cups.
My son and I headed to a spot a few feet from the Discovery Center and started fishing immediately — that’s how easy and fast it is — though you’re welcome to walk around the lake and cast your line in other spots.
I borrowed that Fish Responsibly subhead from a leaflet provided by the Discovery Center, although I didn’t read it carefully — particularly the part that says “using bread or meat as bait isn’t good for wildlife or the Harlem Meer” — until later.
See, what happened was, shortly after my son and I went to the edge of the lake and lowered our corn niblet-baited hooks into the water, a woman who was quitting her fishing for the day said, “You know the corn works okay, but you’re free to use that hot dog,” pointing to some tiny pale red chunks on the ground. I’ll get back to those shortly.
As I thanked the woman, I caught my first fish, a tiny bass, which I identified from its picture on the handy aforementioned leaflet that depicts what you can pull out of the lake, aka, “what lives in this thriving aquatic ecosystem,” that also includes black crappie, pumpkinseed, chain pickerel, catfish, carp, crayfish, and bluegill. Though for the most part we caught bass.
As for releasing the fish, it’s worth noting if you’ve never done it that the act of gripping a squirming, slippery fish while carefully removing a hook from its mouth has taken me years to get used to.
All I can say about that is that your desire to free the fish as quickly as possible forces you to better accept the ick factor while handling and unhooking the fish. And while my son had me release his fish, he was brave enough at one point to take a just-unhooked fish from my hand and throw it back.
Hot dog confessional
After my son and I each caught a fish or two using the corn, we encountered a lull in our catching because, and I say this as definitively as an amateur angler and non-marine biologist can, the fish had wised up. My son, who’s 10 and thus has that crafty boy’s sixth sense about when somebody’s on to him, agreed.
So we each baited bits of the hot dog that had been left for us and lowered our rods and bam, the fish hit it instantly. Two more bass caught and released. But soon enough the fish were on to us again, robbing our hooks lightning fast of the remaining bits of hot dog.
And of course the fish of the Harlem Meer would love hot dogs. They’re New Yorkers, after all, and we eat everything. Later on, another dad came along with kids and fished beside us, using their own equipment – you’re permitted to bring your own as long as you avoid using lead-based fishing gear and barbed hooks. And we noticed this family was fishing with bread, which the fish loved maybe more than the hot dogs.
But the bottom line on using bait in the Harlem Meer is that while you will catch fish quickly using meat and bread, you shouldn’t do it. And I own up to having disobeyed the rule until I learned there was one.
Enjoy your surroundings, and the turtles and ducks
While fishing in this thriving aquatic ecosystem you also need to be mindful of the snapping turtles and red eared slider turtles that pop up in the water every now and then, but avoiding them simply requires moving your rod a bit to the left or right a little. You don’t have to cast your borrowed rod very far — in fact you can’t, because it doesn’t have a reel — and there’s really no need to: the fish congregate close to the water’s edge, so it’s just a matter of lowering your line into the water right where you’re standing.
Also gathering close to the lake’s edge are ducks, which more than once tried to help themselves to the forbidden franks as well as our corn, but for the most part they just enjoyed hanging out with us.
As we fished, some typically random New York things happened around us. An annoyingly fit man came along and skipped rope like a boss for a half hour straight. Two different clusters of millennials (a group of millennials is called a “cluster,” right?) congregated at water’s edge for selfies, fake-laughing loudly, giving me the chance to say quietly to my son, “They’re scaring the fish.” Always feels good to say that excuse out loud.
But for the most part, over the three hours we fished at the Meer — and three hours is plenty — we were joined by other families fishing, either with their own gear or, like us, with borrowed rods. Later, as my son and I were returning our poles to the Discovery Center, I asked the employee I had spoken with earlier how people find out about the free fishing at the Harlem Meer. I had only learned of it two weeks ago while I was Googling something completely unrelated.
“People know about it through the website” or otherwise, she said, they “just know.” And now you do, too.