Still sipping Starbucks, we ease out of the New York Skyports Marina, the primary seaplane base for Manhattan, tucked in next to FDR Drive at East 23rd Street. It’s a gorgeous summer morning, just one day before the July Fourth holiday — the sort of morning when one wouldn’t mind a long run, but that’s just not necessary. In fact, in little more than five minutes, Capt. Tony DiLernia is anchoring up his 26-foot Maycraft cuddy in the East River. (He now runs a brand-new, very well-outfitted and beamy 34-foot Island Hopper.)
Although we’re there to fish, we out-of-towners can’t stop gaping at the magnificent skyline view of the Big Apple against the clear blue sky. Meanwhile, DiLernia has idled down in the gentle current in one of his favorite go-to spots, just off the United Nations Building. As he ties off the anchor and the boat swings tight, he points to the top of one of the skyscrapers. “That’s where the big fight scene in Spider‑Man was filmed,” he says.
But immediately, he turns his attention to the task at hand, chunking up fresh bunker (menhaden) and threading them onto circle hooks just so. The fact that DiLernia’s been doing this for not years but decades is evident: Within an hour or so, we have missed a strike and had two good fish on, one coming off midway through the fight and the other right at the boat. Fortunately, our fourth time was the charm, giving us the chance to admire in the net a bass just south of 30 pounds.
DiLernia’s Rocket Charters offers anglers a unique experience both by virtue of its prime location (the dock is accessible to anglers via a short taxi ride from most of Manhattan; then, the fishing grounds are but a very short ride away) and by its skipper. No one knows the busy, current-swept waters around New York — after so many years of navigating and fishing them by day and night — better than DiLernia.
DiLernia, who’s also director of maritime technology at Kingsborough Community College, is not only a consummate skipper but a savvy master of striped bass fishing as well. On that basis, I thought I’d see if I could pick up a few pointers on how DiLernia connects with some very hefty bass (he’s caught them better than 50 pounds).
Bait accounts for roughly 80 percent of the stripers taken on Rocket Charters. When we fished with DiLernia in early July, the options were menhaden, menhaden or menhaden. The oily baitfish remains his offering of choice until eel fishing starts in the fall.
And it was very fresh. That, says DiLernia, is key.
“Frozen bunker’s okay for blues, but not so great for bass,” he says. You can, however, use your fresh bait a second or even third day by putting them in a brine with kosher salt.
The skipper prefers chunks to whole fish and, at that, always likes the head best. His hook of choice: an Eagle Claw Circle Sea 10/0. Lots of striper specialists still use J hooks, but DiLernia prefers circles, not only for all the usual reasons but also because they allow him to fish with reels in gear. Often currents get strong enough that the coefficient of friction of a reel in free spool with clicker on isn’t enough to keep lines from running out. With circle hooks, that’s not a problem, nor is hooking fish, as a rule.
DiLernia runs the circle hook through the top of the head where it was sliced from the body.
“Lots of guys will put the hook through the lips,” DiLernia says. But when a fish grabs the bait, he explains, it’s likely to stay on the hook. DiLernia hooks it to come off and get out of the way. “It ought to tear out easily so the hook comes out of the bait’s head when the striper is swimming away with it. Then the hook should slide into the fish’s jaw hinge,” he explains. “And that’s just what usually happens.”
When no head is available, he’ll go to a body chunk — but his pièce de résistance is adding the pogy’s heart onto the hook. “I’m convinced the blood in the heart attracts stripers,” he says simply.
Timing the Tides
According to DiLernia, spring through midsummer is prime time for bunker fishing. Tides are always a prime factor for him, and in this case, he wants to be anchored up and fishing about a half-hour after the high slack tide: The next couple of hours, with boat and baits sitting still in the moderate current, will produce the hottest bite.
Then, well into the ebb, the current will be running too fast to hold bottom without ungodly amounts of weight. “That’s when we drift and bounce lead-heads on the bottom until late in the ebb when the current slows. Then we’ll go back to fishing bait at anchor.”
Once the tide nears slack, and the boat starts swinging on the anchor “so the baits slide all over the bottom,” it’s time to troll deep divers. DiLernia’s choice of lures: big Mann’s Stretch or Stretch Plus and Yo-Zuri Hydro Magnum Deep Divers. Usually, he’ll do this just until shortly after the tide turns: Then the cycle begins again with a couple of hours fishing bait.
DiLernia notes that tides vary tremendously around New York. For example, depending on the tidal pattern, he might fish the East River for the first hour and a half of the ebb, and then run quickly down to the Hudson River to fish off the Statue of Liberty, catching the early ebb there. By the time the current’s starting to get too strong there, the East River is just beginning to slow down again.
DiLernia proudly holds up the big, complex-looking watch on his wrist. “It’s a Reactor Graviton,” and he says it’s been a huge factor in maximizing his efficiency fishing the area per tidal flow. It’s programmed to tell him just what the tide is doing at any day, any moment, in the East River, the Hudson, Sandy Hook and West Sound.
Fall for Eels
Though early July is a great time to fish the Big Apple for bass, DiLernia’s season continues through early November (after which it’s too cold and “time to go hunting,” he says). As summer wanes, DiLernia drifts mostly eels. “They’re migrating then, so it’s a good time to match the hatch.” This is a drifting show and somewhat less tide-critical. And not anchoring allows DiLernia to fish productive areas that include shipping channels.
DiLernia offers eel fishermen a tip regarding the inevitable struggle to get a hook through a writhing eel: “Snap its tail on the rail. For whatever reason, this disables it momentarily but doesn’t kill it.” Some anglers give that love tap to the eel’s head; that will disable it, but sometimes for good.
“This area around New York is highly productive because it’s at the nexus of some stripers’ migration routes, and it’s ecologically productive in its own right,” says John Waldman, professor of biology at Queens College (and author of Heartbeats in the Muck: The History, Sea Life and Environment of New York Harbor). “Also, adult spawners of the Hudson stock, which winter in the open ocean, come into the Hudson to spawn, and so are available in New York Harbor.” Bass from Chesapeake and Delaware Bay stocks migrate north in spring and also enter the mix, Waldman says.
As DiLernia’s customary success shows, in addition to the surprising productivity of this urban waterway, understanding the dynamics of these waters, and how stripers move and feed in them is critical.
For more information about Rocket Charters or to book a trip, visit www.rocketcharters.com or call 718‑423‑6007 or 917‑691‑6489. Options include morning, midday, evening or full-day trips for one to five passengers. Some sticker shock might be involved, but keep in mind the sort of rates DiLernia must pay to dock his boat in such a prime location, as well as the fact that there ain’t nothing in New York that’s cheap. Many of the charter’s regulars are Manhattan businessmen who’ll slip away (there’s a place at the dock to change clothes) or even conduct business with guests while fishing. Expect to be fed, but not your basic 7-11 hoagies; rather, Tony’s better half, Lu-Ann, will send out some of her famous Italian meals. Rocket Charters was picked by New York magazine for a Best of New York award.
Many visitors who fish Rocket Charters also plan some time for restaurants and Broadway shows: this is as much DiLernia’s domain as are the waterways. He can advise, or with Lu-Ann, join you. (One eatery he’ll certainly recommend is Barbetta’s — a very upscale favorite of his on West 46th, in John Jacob Astor’s old townhouse — for some exquisite Italian cuisine, as we discovered.)
Finally, for an unforgettable experience on the water, time your fishing days or nights around the Fourth of July, as we did, and check with DiLernia for some of the best options to get out in New York Harbor to see the spectacular fireworks amid the boats. You’ve never seen fireworks until you’ve seen that show while in the harbor, not to mention the show of such a vast array of vessels crammed into the huge waterway between the Big Apple and Jersey shorelines, and then exiting simultaneously. It’s definitely not a place for an inexperienced hand at any helm.