When Jack Gartside thinks of fishing in Boston Harbor as a child, two memories stand out. In 1956 he was walking along the beach when he came upon a floating body. “It had been in the water for a very long time, if you know what I mean,” he says. It turned out that the person had been a passenger on the ill-fated Andrea Doria, which had sunk earlier that year off Nantucket. Then there were the hours he spent fishing near what locals called the Bubble, which was the business end of a pipe that discharged Boston’s raw sewage. With a good tide, the Bubble would produce a 200-yard-long slick of brown sludge. “I didn’t care that I had to pick turds or bits of toilet paper off my line. There was actually quite a bit of life there, you know.”
But things have changed, for the better. The harbor that the first President Bush once called “the dirtiest in the country” has become perhaps the best urban fishery in America, a baitfish-rich stopover on the east coast migration route for thousands of ravenous striped bass and bluefish. And Boston Harbor is not alone. All around the country, the once polluted waters that surround our nation’s great cities have undergone remarkable recoveries spurred by the far-sighted Clean Water Act of 1972. It’s not a stretch to say that, in modern times, urban fishing in the United States has never been better. But here’s a little secret: Despite being accessible to literally millions of people, most of these waters remain relatively underfished.
It’s a situation that perplexes men like Gartside, the undisputed “Dean of the Boston Harbor,” who is a notable flytier and raconteur, among other things. “In my high school yearbook, other people listed doctor or lawyer in the space provided for their future job,” Gartside says. “I put fishing.”
For him, that’s meant spending every May through November working the almost 200 miles of coastline in the harbor, which hosts healthy populations of stripers and blues. There’s good fishing downtown near the Fleet Center, home of the Celtics and Bruins. You can cast a line in Charlestown with the Bunker Hill Monument peering over your shoulder. Or you can walk down to State Street near the New England Aquarium and fish off the walls where stripers lurk by the hundreds.
But for Gartside, the best fishing is on the 34 islands that dot the harbor. Wading the skinny water there offers shots at fish that are inaccessible to boats. For an $8 round-trip ticket, he takes the 20-minute shuttle from the city to George’s Island, the site of an old Civil War fort. From there, he hops on a free water taxi that drops him off on any of the smaller, undeveloped islands, some of which allow free camping (Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area, 617-223-8666; nps.gov/boha). He fishes the in- and outgoing tides for stripers up to 30 pounds, using his various creations, like the famous topwater Gurgler. At 6 p.m., he’s on the last shuttle back to the city.
To be sure, the municipal environment still provides some strange moments. Gartside was once fishing near the Fleet Center when a bunch of teenagers started throwing cups of beer at him from the bridge. “I made an easy target,” he says. On one of his favorite spots, Nix’s Mate, a small island near the harbor’s entrance, pirates were once shackled as a warning to other sea dogs. “If you have an active imagination,” says Gartside, “you can still hear the chains of Capt. William Fly rattling in the wind.”
But to him, it’s all part of fishing urban waters, where nature and commerce often go hand in hand. “The harbor feels like such a solitary place. Then the QE2 will come so close that I can bounce a fly off the bow.”
_Contact Jack Gartside, 617-846-5984; jackgartside.com. _