STORIES FROM THE GOLDEN YEARS
THE FISHING CULTURE OF SHEEPSHEAD BAY- PART 1
Over the years I have met many fishermen more senior then myself who would enjoy telling the stories about the past history of the people and boats out of Sheepshead Bay.
Due to Sheepshead Bays convenient and quick access to the open ocean, it started attracting boat building and fishermen during the late 1800s. The area became the hub where sailing boats gathered for both the purpose of carrying customers, but also as an easy to reach haven for fishermen who fished for the local fish markets, the pin hookers, who kept their small dory like boats along the Bays shoreline.
Prior to the turn of the 20th century, the water inside Sheepshead Bay had actually connected straight through to Coney Island Creek due to a Canal purposely dug during the early 1700s, to encourage both commercial ship travel and a new seaport in the protected lee of Coney Island. As the need for land and a quicker connection to Coney Island became more apparent due to the ever increasing settlement of newly arriving immigrants to the Gravesend area, it was filled in near the end of the 19th century, cutting off the flowing current that Coney Island Creek enjoyed for almost 200 years.
A few race tracks called jockey clubs also existed around the same period of time, and sat just to the west and slightly north of where the boats docked. They remained there for a number of years on till prior of World War I when they were shut down by the New York States Horse Racing Authority. A motor speedway replaced them, (yes hard to believe we had that in Brooklyn in the early 20th century), which lasted barely a few years onto be shuttered around the end of the first World War.
The large tracts of land that housed at one time three horse racing tracks (at the end of the 19th century Brooklyn was the horse racing capitol of the world) and speedway, were now broken up by the city into lots and sold to real estate entities that had come into business to take advantage of the fast growing development of this area in NYC near the ocean.
Along the shore line of what would be considered the Emmons Ave side of the Bay and Manhattan Beach, there were a number of fish shacks that sprung up over the years, post and prior the 20th century, and as the bulkhead was built and the roads paved, today’s familiar geographic layout started to take shape. The beach access which existed all around the Bays shoreline, was gradually lessened as both the fish shacks, boat launching railways, water based restaurants (like Lundys) and hotels, were moved off the waters edge, on till most finally disappeared prior to World War II.
By the time of the first World War, Sheepshead Bay was a bustling, developed fishing port with the fingers for the fishing boats now laid out in the familiar fashion we all know, along Emmons Ave which now had become one of the most congested strips in the southern end of Brooklyn even though their were still a number of farms around that area.
The area also attracted a very large diverse group of people, most who directly or whose family sailed over from Europe. These were the people who made up the fishing community and filled the boats daily. Interestingly for immigrants coming to our great country, Sheepshead Bay is still a haven for many of them, attracted to its unique scenery, and wide protected port where a fishing fleet still lines up along the reconstructed concrete fishing piers more then hundred years later.
As post WW II came, the for-hire fleet was gearing up in getting back into the business of carrying returning servicemen coming home from the war. The old local patrol crafts that hovered just off our south shore beaches were now in the process of being sold off, the ban lifted by the US government on traveling more then a few miles off the beach, and a number of Navy enlisted men and officers back from their service during the war, entered the fishing industry buying converted sub chasers from the War Department or other smaller but more common 40 foot class wooden fishing boats.
Sheephead Bay provided a easy to reach location to take people fishing and once a pier space was secured, all you did was hang a ‘shingle’ off the dock, to take people fishing. At that time, you did not need a operators license to carry passengers on a for hire boat. That standard would become a coast guard regulation in the fifties.
In fact fishing out of Sheesphead Bay post WW II was incredible, with codfish being caught right at the Breezy Point jetty during the spring and fall, and the largest sized scup, yes ‘Sheepshead sized’, just sitting right off Coney Island along the mussel beds just west of the Jetty, an area marked by the West Gong buoy.
To give you an idea of how good the fishing was, I remember talking to Captain Billy Doll one winter at Roller Roaster about blackfish and wrecks and he said something to the effect, ‘you didn’t need wrecks for blackfish in those days….… my dad Adam just anchored the Jet near the Breezy Point jetty and caught all you wanted with a boat load of customers’!
It was a amazing time for fishermen and the characters who made and gave Sheepshead Bay it’s flair as the preeminent party boat fishing port on the coast, was in full swing post WW II.
Here are a few stories that one of my older friends has told me to start this thread off. I should put in the disclaimer, that I am relying on a older persons memory here and recollection of events so forgive us if the dates, names and some of the stories have a little more fiction then the actual truth.
Theses stories will be broken up into a number of parts.
On the Flamingo – This story was told to my friend by Captain Walter who took over for his father, Captain John Weigand.
Down at the boat the original Flamingo which was docked in Brooklyn along Shellbank Creek, most owner/captains of their vessels would dress like you would imagine a fishermen would, with fish like work clothes, worn and blood stains over it. But Captain John was well noted by the fishermen in the area of wearing a three piece suit while getting customers to come fish on his boat.
The Flamingo post WW II, was a for hire vessel that had two steering stations, one in the cabin on the main deck level, and a steering station above the cabin which was exposed to the weather. Now imagine a captain who in the early spring, late fall and winter would bundle up with a heavy duty hat on his head, thick gloves and wear goggles over his eyes because all that he had on top of the cabin to protect him from the elements was a steering station that only had a low wrap around wind screen for lack of a better term, in front of him. Captain John would only come down to run the boat in the main cabin, when there were storm like conditions!
Later in the 50s, Captain Walter became the main operator of the vessel, and this is where the Flamingo became a vessel both know for incredible customer service as well as an extremely reliable party boat in making consistent large catches of top water fish. It was during the early sixties that the Flamingo became known as one of the best fishing boats for catching bluefish, whether jigging or at anchor when chumming.
On a side note, anyone familiar with the Flamingo property where the boat was docked during this time period would tell you that they not only had a number of cats and dogs running around, but goats and ducks too, almost like a little farm along the water.
The Rocket – Well known as one of the greatest wreck fishing boats post WW II, run by Captain Laddy Martin who at that time was considered the ‘electronics guru’ of party boat fishing captains, who latter left the for hire fishing business in the late sixties/early seventies and became a consultant for a electronics company in California. He became the first captain that we knew of who used Decca, a system originally made for airplane navigation. He became one of the most noted offshore wreck captains of that era, and found a handful of codfish wrecks, one in which was just south of the Virginia wreck that we still hunt for these days…..damn that A loran conversion!
My friend worked on the Rocket during his teen years. He said it might be difficult for fishermen of today to believe, but for a while Captain Martin made all the mates wear a cheap looking version of a captain’s cap, which looked closer to a ‘Good Humor’ cap then a nautical hat, while working on the boat. The mates felt pretty uncomfortable and silly wearing something that made them look like something seen in a comic book, so the mates would purposely lose the ‘Good Humor’ cap after wearing them after a week or two while working on the boat. He did not say how long they had to wear these caps, but after a while the caps finally disappeared off the mate’s heads, and Captain Martin did not replace them.
Captain Martin was known to run a very tight ship which was unusual comment to make during that era since most captains post WW II where extremely skilled craftsman who put great care into the up keep of their wooden vessels, and most fishing vessels were kept in excellent visual and working condition. It was noted that both boat and crew had to be always squared away, with everyone looking the part with clean clothes in the morning as they started another fishing day. There was no coming down to the boat with blood, worn or torn clothes to work the deck on the Rocket, and not one mate would tempt Captain Martin ire with clothes that looked like they had just come down from a fish cutting house!
But on one particular day my friend came down to the dock needing a shave, and he said that he maybe had a two day growth, not much for a fair skinned teenager to have. Captain Martin upon seeing him quickly proceeded to stop him from walking onto the boat and then gave him a stern talking to, which literally came down to getting a razor and then promptly going across the street to Mikes Tackle to remove the light shadow off his face or he wouldn’t be allowed to work that day on the fishing boat! He was then lectured on how he was a representative of the boat, and that one of the mates most important jobs was to present a ‘clean and squared away’ image to the customers.
He said that he had to quickly find a razor which was really not the hard part of the whole issue, but in cautiously asking Mike Senior who ran the tackle shop, if he could use the small bathroom at Mikes Tackle so that he could be allowed to make a days pay onboard the Rocket.
During the sixties, Captain Martin hired a French war veteran Roland, who just happened to have fought in Vietnam as a French Foreign Legion soldier in the fifties. My friend later finds out from talking to him that he was part of a group of professional soldiers who held out and lived to tell the tale, as the French fought in Vietnam against the precursor of the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) at the battle of Dien Bien Phu.
It turned out that he was a sad part of French military history as that noted expeditionary army, engaged in the last major battle that the French fought in that Southeast Asian land, was soundly beaten and almost totally destroyed. Of the thousands of French Army soldiers who fought, Roland was part of the few hundred that survived, was in turn captured, imprisoned and then later released, and over time made his way to New York and down to Sheepshead Bay to work on the fishing boats.
Roland ended up being a true McGuyver on the Rocket, and was well known as a top flight mechanic. In all the years that Roland worked on the boat, the Rocket never had a breakdown while Roland was the engineer for the boat.
True to the type of person he was, he became a expert at anything he did, and over time a top fish catcher himself. During the day he would come up from below where the engines of this converted sub chase sat, and would pickup a rod and fish, and through trial and error, teaching himself how to catch fish. My friend said that he never had done any saltwater fishing before he became a mate, but yet instantly became as good as anyone who came onboard the boat to fish during the period he worked on the Rocket.
Part II at a later date……