GLASS AND RUSTED METAL on the beach. The deafening sound of planes landing. And a steady striped-bass bite. The mussel beds and grungy shores of Boston Harbor may not be pristine, but they reliably produce fish—stripers, bluefish, carp, even the rare bluefin. When I tell people I fish here, they scoff, laugh, or plain don’t believe me. And I can’t even blame them, really, because the place is still pretty rough around the edges.
Twenty years ago, an environmental lawyer and former colleague of mine named Peter Shelley filed the first lawsuit that led to the cleanup of Boston Harbor, which had been dubbed by George H.W. Bush as “the dirtiest harbor in America.” The moniker may have been a political dig at Dukakis, but the reputation stuck, and many people stayed away from the water. Among those who didn’t was a friend of mine who fell off his boat and, having gulped a bit of harbor water, spent the next day confined to his bed when he wasn’t running to the bathroom.
Today, the much cleaner harbor hosts everything from boating and fishing tournaments to triathlons and sightseeing cruises. When I recently showed Peter some photos of flycaught stripers from the harbor, he beamed. Another friend has a coveted office overlooking the water and has been known to grab his rod leaning in the corner and cast to surface feeds between meetings.
Yet the harbor remains a far cry from an unspoiled, innocuous fishing experience. It holds at least one giant rusted-out tractor that I’ve left many a flatwing on. And when a friend who works as an environmental enforcement attorney discovered some egregious clean-water infractions at a particular marina, we were promptly run off the property. Another time a fishing partner and I were alarmed by the sound of nearby gunshots. But we soon discovered that it was only the Logan Airport police clearing geese off the runway.
Despite, or maybe because of, these stories, I love fishing the harbor. It’s gritty and colorful, surprisingly productive, and within reach. That it’s not too heavily fished makes it feel like a secret hiding in plain sight. But there’s also just something about the harbor’s trajectory that mirrors that of Boston itself—a story of resurrection, in which the underdog makes good without giving up its gritty underbelly. These waters are historic, and not only because of the jettisoned tea.
Boston Harbor was home to Jack Gartside, creator of the Gurgler, among others, and an inductee to the Fly Fishing Hall of Fame. In fact, many of the spots I fish today I know only because my friends and I used to drive around looking for Gartside’s old Buick—a technique Gartside only came to appreciate when he met my friend’s beautiful blonde wife. Gartside was known to effectively fish the warm water of the sewage outflow with a corn fly. As Bob Green, a fellow Harbor fishing devotee, observed the other night over a beer, he was the king of Boston’s dirty water.
Today, his old neighborhood is the home to Dave Skok, a skilled photographer and innovative fly tyer who invented the Mushmouth. Just to the north lives Rich Murphy, author of the encyclopedic Fly Fishing for Striped Bass and the creator of one of my favorite patterns—the Pamet Special. I’ve often wondered what is it about these waters and these fish that breed such innovative techniques?
Gartside wrote a book called The Fly Fisherman’s Guide to Boston Harbor. It’s difficult to find, but worth it for its specificity, and for the insights that remain accurate years later. I got a PDF from a friend who had one of the secretaries at his law firm scan the entire thing. (Thank you to whichever client paid the billable hours on that one.) In it he describes one section as offering “a wide variety of fishing situations. It has beachfront, mussel beds, gravel bars, jetties, breakwaters, rock gardens, surf, enough variety in a small area to have some interest for just about everyone.”
Years later, that still remains true. The water may remain dirty, but this is our city and our stripers. Just don’t tell too many people that they’re there.