|What can be as flat as a pancake one minute and high as a roof top the next?
Listen to Tim DeGroat's story and find out!
Rescue the dog or catch the sturgeon? One day Tim's Dad had to do both. Listen to "Fish Tale," 1.5 minutes. Read the transcript.
A Lost Tradition
The Hudson River has provided sustenance for fishermen for as long as people have inhabited the valley. Will the Hudson River fishery come back or will the traditions, skill and lore of the rivermen be lost forever?
Tim DeGroat is a 4th generation riverman. Sitting by a crackling fire in his boat house, Tim recalls the days when the river was filled with commercial fisherman. Listen to StoryScape Hudson Valley radio program "A Lost Tradition," 6 minutes.
Read the full transcript of "A Lost Tradition".
For more information about the Hudson River Fishery and the Department of Environmental Conservation's efforts to manage and protect the fish in the river, visit their web site.
Transcript of StoryScape radio program "A Lost Tradition?"
All of a sudden this was our fish, our river, now all of a sudden I have nothing to say about what so ever and it gets right in my craw.
NARRATOR: Welcome to StoryScape Hudson Valley. I’m Jim Metzner
We are sitting in a small wooden boat house on the shore of the Hudson River. It is a cold rainy day. Not many years ago this room would have had 3 or 4 rivermen - men who made their living off the river - sitting by the crackling fire. While they waited for the weather to clear so they could go fishing, they’d tell stories. But today there is with just one riverman, perhaps one of the last.
Tim Degroat has been on the river for as long as he can remember. He is a fourth generation riverman.
My father, my grandfather, and my great grandfather were rivermen.
We were fishermen, Shad fisherman and Striped Bass, and Sturgeon fisherman and we fished for crabs and we fished for eels. This made quite a.catch. Fish all year round on the river at one time.
NARRATOR: Before New York State began limiting commercial fishing on the Hudson due to pollution and a decline in the number of fish, rivermen like Tim would fish on the river almost the entire year.
The season of shad season begins March 15th along with the Stripers and if it was a warm spring by the 1st week of April you would catch some shad. We use to catch them past Mother’s Day sometimes the 2nd week of May. But when that run comes through it was sometimes 300 miles long that run and they would just come up the river by the millions, thousands millions, and we were ready for them. And we weren’t the only fishermen, there were a lot of fishermen on the river and everybody caught fish.
I know one time we were fishing out of here back in the 70’s and 80’s we ran four boats out of here and we would get from anywhere between 6 to 17-20 pounds a day of shad. We would have a tractor- trailer come up from South Jersey to get rid of the fish. We use to catch a lot of fish. He paid us $.75 per lb., which at that time $.75 per lb. a thousand pounds is $750.00 and you catch 3-4 thousand pounds a day you made a few bucks. Yeah, that’s not bad.
NARRATOR: The shad population has diminished so much in recent years that New York State has limited fishing to 3 days a week. But Tim recalls the days when the shad run was just the start of the fishing season.
After shad fishing, come May, we would fish for the big ones. There were so many sturgeons we use to ship them upstate and we use to call them Albany beef. But we would start fishing in May and we got two three a day we were happy. You have to go by the tides. If the tide was early in the morning it would take 2-3 guys in the boat because if you got a 6 foot 8 sturgeon he was alive it would be like wrestling a Sumo wrestler for crying out loud. He was strong. We would gut them, take out the caviar out of them, drop off the caviar, and a friend of mine across the river use to sell it down in Hampton’s Caviar House in the city. And gee wiz, I mean you wouldn’t get that much but every once in a while you would get a female that had eggs in it and it was worth a few bucks. But nothing better eating than the sturgeon. If you like chicken you would love sturgeon. Everybody thinks it’s ugly but I think it’s one of the most beautiful fish there ever was. It’s one of God’s beautiful creatures as far as I’m concerned. And then the winter time when I was real young, my father and my 3 uncles, we use to get 35-40 inches of ice here on the river in the winter time. We would go right out here in the deep water and cut a slit in the ice and put a couple nets in and we would get sturgeon that were 5 feet long and 6 inches in diameter, all kind of sturgeon in the dead of winter here. I mean there were literally millions of them.
NARRATOR: Warmed by the crackling boathouse fire, Tim remembers fishing for eels in the cool days of September.
Oh yeah, goodness the most beautiful eel you ever saw in this river.
And we would keep them in live carts and then when we get enough of them we would grab them out and put them in special boxes, heavy duty boxes, and take them to the market. I had one take a dump truck one time for a couple guys down...I had 2000 lbs. of eel to take down.
I said boy oh boy what a mess it would be if I got on the FDR Drive and had an accident with all those eels, they were alive. (Laugh) There are some big eels out there and I’ll tell you what, when those eels they were good eating; just white as that paper, good eating and they were sweet. Everything we use to catch was real good eating.
NARRATOR: Tim DeGroat understands why the state had to set limits on shad fishing and even the need for the 40 year moratorium on catching sturgeon. But when the topic of striped bass comes up his tone changes. The striped bass fishery was closed in 1976 due to contamination by PCBs. Now with the PCB levels in an acceptable range according to the federal authorities, many commercial fisherman don’t understand why the ban has not been lifted.
I’ll never see the stripers again. I had equipment upstairs, all kinds of net upstairs to catch,. We were strict at how many we could catch, where we could catch, and we had lift periods and everything, and size limit. And we use to harvest them and keep them thin down somewhat. All of a sudden this was our fish, our river, now all of a sudden I have nothing to say about whatsoever and it gets right in my crone. No, we’ll never see the stripers again.
NARRATOR: The Hudson River has provided income for fisherman for over 300 years. Will the Hudson River fishery open again or will the tradition, skills and lore of the rivermen be lost forever.
These days, Tim DeGroat still fishes for shad and he goes crabbing.
Now I just go out for the fun of it. Me and my partner. I’m 70 and he is 74, to catch a few for my friends.
NARRATOR: You can hear some of Time DeGroat’s fish tales and learn more about the Hudson River fishery at soundandstory.org. And while you are there, why not tell us your story.
Yeah I’ll tell you a fish story and this is the Gospel truth and you may not believe but it’s the truth. I have several of them but this is the best.
My father when he was 70-72 years old somewhere around there, they had a black dog named Ringo and he was a Chesapeake Lab and he weighed 100 lbs. and every place my father went out on that boat that dog would go with my father. He would sit up on the bow and he would bark at that boats and my father would say, “Ring you’re a pain in the butt, but I’ll take you with me.”
He went across the river to check his bait net in May or June and he says, “On the way back I was on the other side of the channel and on the way back this tug boat went by on a barge and I waited until the churn slowed down and I look and I saw this huge Sturgeon on top of the water.” Where the Sturgeon must have come up and the prop must have hit the Sturgeon and it crippled it and my father grabbed the Sturgeon by the tail by himself, 70 something years old! To get the Sturgeon in the boat and Ringo goes barking at the Sturgeon and jumping up and he said next thing I know Ringo was in the water and I got the fish by the tail and the dog in the water and he says I put a rope on the tail of the fish and got Ringo in the boat and I tied him off and I got that fish up across. He said it took me a little bit to pull the 8 foot Sturgeon up over the bow of this aluminum boat. And he made it to shore by himself and that’s the truth.
He came in here with that boat they told me he was all smiles and he told them how he caught it and he never caught it with a net and he told them how he caught it on top of the water. And here the dogs in the water and he’s trying to get the dog and hold the Sturgeon at the same time.
"It could be a nasty river."
I’m not afraid of the river and I was never afraid, but I respect that river. That river can be calm as it is now or it can be nasty as the ocean and when you get those northeast winds’ blowing that’s a terrible place to be. So one day I was with my friend and a thunderstorm came up and we couldn't’t get back, I had the small boat, and so we tied on the side of Bill’s boat and we got in Bill’s boat. I’ll tell you what I’ve seen some big waves on that river but these babies were big and they were about 12 feet high when that storm came up. And this guy kept circling and circling and they had 55 gallon drums of gasoline tied up on the bow and every time he circled around when he hit the windward side that drum would rattle back and forth. They hit a wave one time and knocked all the dishes out of the cabinet right there on the floor and they all smashed. The side of the boat hit my boat and put a hole in it like that. Great big hole in the side of my boat. To make a long story short the storm subsided and we came to shore, but I’ll tell you it was scary. This goes to show how that river can churn on you just like that and some of these people go out on these sailboats, these small boats, and apparently don’t pay attention to the weather. When you see that storm coming in in the summertime or the spring from the west and you see that old cloud thickening over there and the sky starts rolling that’s not no place to be. It could be a nasty river.