Only a madman would forsake a warm bed for a cold, drizzly waterfront to pull a cold, slimy codfish from a cold, windswept sea in the dead of winter. Only a madman, that is, or the brigades of amateur codfishermen (left) who, like chill ghosts on a fog-shrouded carnival midway, appear every morning at 4:30 on the docks where Sheepshead Bay washes the shore of Brooklyn. Barbers, ironworkers, doctors, delicatessen clerks, they come from as far away as Buffalo, Harrisburg, Pa. and Milwaukee. In one weekend alone this winter, 1,305 of them paid $5.50 to $7 each for the privilege of silently freezing to the rail of the Glory, the Jovial, or one of the other 31 party boats in the codfish fleet. By 6, the first boats are under way, heading out past Ambrose Lightship for rich fishing grounds: the rocky Cholera Bank, gravel-bottomed Middle Grounds, the sand and gravel of the Angler Banks. Two hours later their diesels cease chugging: anchors rattle over the side and the boats rock on the swells. A skipper announces, "O.K., folks, go ahead and fish," and the fishermen take up their stations on the rail, in the privacy of the sleet.
"At the rail they think of nothing," says former Cod Skipper Jimmy O'Driscoll. "There's only that big one, down in the deep below. Then they've got him, and that's the joy! But until they do, they are not fit to be near." As the fishermen line up, silence descends on the water. The regular (below) fishes with a stubborn passion, not even pausing to light a cigarette, wipe his glasses or to eat. He wills abomination for the tinhorn at his side, a tenderfoot whose enthusiasm sank with his stomach on the rolling voyage out and who, invariably, tangles lines at precisely the moment that a codfish begins nuzzling the regular's bait. At least once a week a tinhorn hooks someone's hat, glove or sweater on the backswing of a cast, and pitches it into the sea—occasionally followed by rod, reel and the tinhorn himself. When the tangles and the quarrels begin to outnumber the fish brought aboard, engines grind alive again, and the skipper commands, "Lines up, gentlemen. It's time to move on." The boat plows on ahead—to Seventeen Fathoms banks, to Benson or Giralda Wreck. The anglers settle in the cabin below, in a fume compounded of the odor of fish, cigar smoke and thawing bodies. Some of them doze, their minds idling back to land, their thoughts almost audible: "Well, her and the kids must just be getting up now." Others group themselves around a poker table in order to push away still further the mortgage payment due next week, the squabble with the family the night before. "And raise you five!" "Call."
No one speaks of fishing, but the man who holds the biggest fish thus far may be distracted from his poker game. He is busy poxing the lines of his fellow fishermen, for money rides on every cast. A dollar buys entrance into the Sheepshead Bay Codfish Pool, which carries a fat payoff for the biggest fish caught in the fleet. Last year a 44-pound 2-ounce codfish brought $7,781.57. This year more than 12,000 fishermen have had a crack at $3,900 already given out in weekly prizes. By Feb. 24, when the tournament ends, the jackpot ought to top $8,000—heady figures to think over as the cabin gets warmer. At last the engines stop again, the anchor rattles like the clanking of coins, the poker game breaks up and the fishermen go back on the rail. They slip cold skimmer clams on 8/0 hooks, awaiting the call from the skipper.
For a man in the codfish pool, the landing of a good-sized fish (above) is an event to rival the birth of a firstborn son. And once aboard, the fish is handled as tenderly as a baby. An ounce more or less can determine who wins; the fish will not be weighed until the boat turns for home, and if it spews up before then the lost weight will not be counted. Homeward bound, with lines up and engines turning again, the chill, satisfying task of scaling and cleaning the fish is all that remains. Stones and the carcasses of crabs devoured by the codfish are solemnly dropped in the sea. The weary sleep on life preservers and life rafts; the card game resumes below. In time the screaming of gulls feasting in the wake will arouse them all, as surely as the sight of land. Mooring lines will be made fast. The fishermen will troop ashore. Some will return to wives and jobs in Buffalo or Harrisburg. Some will return tomorrow to stand where burlap bags tied to the rail mark their places.