Legend Of The Harlem Meer
by Randy Kadish
The Site Of The Old Fly-Casting Tournaments
Once, not that long ago it
still seems, I was an unpublished writer. Then, by almost by
accident, I wrote a fishing article and sold it. And so I dreamed of
erasing some of my failures, of becoming an outdoor writer. I did;
and after a long run of publishing in magazines, and after a wild
sprint of writing a book, my dream drifted downstream of me. I
didn’t pick it up. You see, I no longer wanted to endure endless
hours, sitting at my mostly white and black computer screen,
revising sentences five, ten, even fifteen times; no longer wanted
to endure submitting a story five, ten, even fifteen times, and only
occasionally landing, like an elusive brown trout, an acceptance.
Besides, didn’t I finally deserve to enjoy endless hours doing what
I loved, what ironically my writing had kept me from: fishing?
Yes! This striper season I
wouldn’t miss, especially with so many new piers sticking out of
Manhattan like the legs of a giant caterpillar.
I checked the tides. High
tide was six hours away. Another disappointment, though small in the
scope of things, I reminded myself, especially when I had another
fly-fishing option: the Harlem Meer.
An hour later I walked into
Central Park. The Meer, at least the half I could see, looked more
beautiful than I remembered, perhaps because the autumn leaves were
orange, yellow, amber and different shades of green. Again it seemed
unfair that leaves looked most beautiful just before they fell.
The wind chilled me. I
zippered up my fleece jacket and looked for anglers. I saw only one,
near the ice-skating rink.
I set up my fly rod, and
walked along the bank. Suddenly the Meer’s shape reminded me of a
giant boomerang. Maybe the shape wasn’t an accident. Maybe whoever
designed the Meer wanted to remind people the Meer’s beauty was
never going away.
I liked the image of a
boomerang, so habit told me to take out my pad and write it down. I
did. But the more I looked at the Meer, the more its shape reminded
me a of bird with long, outstretched wings. Again I wrote, then I
thought of how migrating birds, like boomerangs, always came back,
and of how the two images, therefore, were connected by a bridge I
The angler near the
ice-skating rink was an African-American, about my age. He fished
with an old, beat-up spinning rod and reel. He flipped a jig and
landed it gently a few inches from the small island.
Impressed, I said, "I
haven’t been here for a while. How’s the fishing been?"
He glanced at me, then
studied my fly rod. I hoped he didn’t know the cost of a GLX.
"This season? I don’t remember you.
Did you give up fishin’?"
I wondered, is he accusing
me? Interrogating me, to see if I now felt too good to fish the
Meer? If so, when it comes to fishing, I have nothing to atone for.
I said, "I’ve been busy with
Without looking at me, he
worked his jig up and down.
A silence. I didn’t like it.
I walked past him.
"Wait a minute," he said. He
reached into his canvas bag, took out a small photo album, and
showed me pictures of big bass he and some of the other Meer anglers
had caught. He looked into my eyes, sadly I thought. "Those TV
anglers got nothin’ on us," he stated. "I’d like to see them fish
from a bank, without fish finders and all those rigged rods. Let’s
see how many fish they catch then."
"Not many, I bet."
I asked, "Do you know Thomas
"The old guys? Sure. I just saw
Thomas in the first cove. He’s fishin’ from a wheelchair. He’s got
cancer. He told me Kenny’s cancer came back. They’re legends here.
Fishin’ here won’t be the same without them."
A Wheelchair Angler
"No it won’t. I’m Randy." I held
out my hand.
He nodded, then shook it.
"My name it Bruce. Nice meetin’ you. Nice fly rod."
I walked almost up to the
sharp bend, put on my stripping basket. I don’t know where Bruce is
coming from. He was probably dealt a bad hand. Therefore, I
shouldn’t judge his bitterness, especially when I often wish I was
someone else in this card game of life: a lawyer, a father, a close
friend to people who actually asked to read at least one of my
George M.L. La Branche
I false cast, letting out
more and more line. I landed my popper well short of the island.
Yes, I needed casting practice; so I forgave myself for a bad cast,
then looked across the Meer and watched boys throw stones into the
water. Angry, I wanted to yell and tell them they might hurt fish.
Luckily I didn’t have to. They ran out of the park, taking my anger
with them. Suddenly, in my flushed-out mind, I saw the image of a
long dock--the dock I saw in a new edition of George M. L. La
Branche’s, The Dry Fly In Fast Water. I retrieved my popper, six
inches at a time, and thought it was sad that almost no one knew
that some of the first American, fly-casting tournaments were held
in the Meer, and that La Branche and the great fly-rod builder, H.
L. Leonard, had competed. There should be a bronze plaque, insuring
that the legacy of the tournaments won’t be washed away. At least La
Branche is remembered for his book, and Leonard for his fly rods--
but not the other competitors. And what will Thomas and Kenny be
remembered for? And me? Will some of my memoirs live on in the
annals of fly fishing? How I hope so!
I cast again and again. No
strikes. I turned away from the island. Casting lefty, I landed my
fly in the deeper water.
Ten minutes later, still no
luck. I walked around the bend, into the bird-head-shaped cove. At
the back of the cove Thomas sat in a motorized wheelchair. The
wheelchair, I knew, would hide - ironically, I thought - his most
obvious characteristic: his limp. Thomas false cast about twenty
feet of line, then landed his fly. I stepped toward him, but
realized he might want to be alone with his thoughts and his
memories. I didn’t take another step. Wanting to respect his fishing
water, I cast across the mouth of the cove, and thought of how
Thomas, a former corrections officer, once told me he regretted
spending much of his life locked up with, as he called them, "the
dregs of society."
Yes, he has a real right to
The sound of a toy motor.
Thomas was riding toward me. He stopped about ten feet away.
"I remember you," he said.
"It must be my fly-fishing hat. No
hard feelings if you laugh at it."
"Kenny gave me your story on the
"I’m glad someone I told about it
managed to read it."
"It was really different. I loved
it; but you don’t look old enough to come to terms with a mid-life
"Maybe I’m still working on it."
"Speak louder, please. I’m having
radiation treatments and don’t hear well. They told me my lung
cancer is terminal." Thomas roll cast.
I retrieved my line, and
walked up to Thomas. Because my mother had passed away from lung
cancer, I thought I would be able to come up with the right words to
say. I couldn’t. Again I felt like a writing failure. I put my hand
on Thomas‘s shoulder and said, "I’m sorry. I wish I knew what to
He smiled. "There’s nothing
you can say. I just got to love the time the man upstairs has left
me. I just wish a fishing season was starting instead of ending.
Well, at least I’ll have fly tying to keep me busy. Do you tie?"
"Now that I’m finished with
writing, maybe I should learn."
"Finished with writing?"
Again I felt accused. This
time, however, I didn’t mind. "My well is dry; and I too want to
enjoy the fishing time left to me." I thought, what a stupid thing
to say. Thomas would give anything to have half the time I have left
on this earth. "Thomas, I thought of you last week. I took the court
"My niece took the test too."
I never heard him talk about
his children; so I assumed he too didn’t have any. Would he die
alone? The thought scared the daylights out of me; I guess because I
was scared I would too.
"Thomas, thanks to you, I didn’t
take the correction officer exam."
"Where would I be without the
city’s great medical plan and great pension? Twenty years ago I
retired, with what seemed like an eternity to fish."
I was surprised by Thomas‘s
gratitude. Will I have to wait for terminal cancer to be grateful?
The sun, I noticed, had slid
behind the trees, stealing my precious fishing time. I looked into
Thomas‘s eyes. They pulled me like warm magnets. I cut a new deal
with myself, and decided to spend my fishing time on listening to
I asked, "What are you
"Pheasant Tail nymph. Crappie love
A flock of screeching
seagulls landed on the water.
"Thomas, since when do seagulls
come here? Do you think they lost their way?"
Thomas smiled. "Seagulls
aren’t like people. They came from the East or Hudson Rivers,
looking for easy meals."
I thought of the small bait
fish. "That doesn’t seem fair. Maybe they came because the Meer is
so beautiful. Look. Baby geese. It’s amazing how instinct tells them
to swim in straight lines, behind their parents."
"Yes, it is. So many generations of
geese and ducks, I’ve seen. My mother’s cousin, Eddy, first took me
fishing here when I was about ten. We fished with bamboo rods for
blue gills. Eddy was the real quiet type. The only thing he talked
to me about was sports, especially about how much he hated the
Yankees. He wouldn’t even tell me where he lived. But I suppose just
being with Eddy, especially in the outside world, made me feel like
I was as good as other boys whose fathers hadn’t died.
The Northeast Bank
"When I got older Eddy bought me a
spinning rod and taught me how to fish for bass. I still remember
when I caught my first one, right near the steps. Fighting a bass
was nothing like fighting a blue gill. I guess that’s when I got
really hooked on fishing. Then one day, after Eddy said good-bye, I
followed him, hoping to see where he lived. But he saw me and shook
his fist and seemed to turn into a monster with flaming eyes. ‘Don’t
you ever spy on me again!’ he yelled.
"Scared he might hit me, I ran
away. I cursed myself for doing wrong, especially when day after
day, week after week, I waited for Eddy to take me fishing again. He
never did. Finally I asked my mother why Eddy didn’t want me to see
where he lived.
"‘Maybe because he enlisted in the
Army, and knew that because of this damn war, he might not see you
again.’ My mother cried.
"To make a long story short, about
a year later I came home and found my mother crying. She looked at
me and said, ‘Thomas I’ve got something to tell you. Eddy was killed
somewhere in France. How could a man like Hitler come to power? I’ll
never understand. But what I do understand, as clearly as two plus
two, is that one day you’ll find out the truth; so it’s only right
that you find it out from me. Eddy isn’t my cousin. He was the only
man I ever loved. He was married to someone else. Eddy is your
"What did I feel? The funny thing
is I felt as numb as Novocain; but as the days and weeks rolled on,
I began to hate Eddy and to hate his and my mother’s lie. Over the
years my hate got smaller and smaller, but I couldn’t leave it
behind, until, until I met so many inmates who never knew a real, or
even a fake, father. Soon I remembered that before I hated my
father, I loved him. And so I became thankful my father had given me
something, fishing, that I’ve loved my whole life. Suddenly I wanted
to love him again, and I did. I suppose that’s why, even though I’ve
fished all the great waters of the Northeast--the Beaverkill, the
Salmon, Martha’s Vineyard--the Harlem Meer is the water I always
come home to. Often I see my father in the water’s reflection,
smiling like a boy. Often I see him on the bank, teaching me how to
cast a spinning rod. That’s when, for a few moments at least, it
seems as if all my yesterdays have merged and re-formed into this
one big today."
Now it was my turn to feel
as numb Novocain. I remembered the power of a good story, especially
one told by someone who never wrote one. I remembered how my father,
in his way, had also deserted me and how, even after his death, a
part of me wanted him back, partly because I knew if he read my
memoirs, even he would be proud.
I didn’t have to wonder why
Thomas told me his story. He wanted me to write it and, in a sense,
keep him alive in the small world of fishing. But did I, a
little-known writer with a long line of mistakes in life, have power
over life and death? If so, did I want it?
The wind, I noticed, had
retreated. The leaves were still, and the Meer looked like a frozen
frame on a movie screen, a three-dimensional, full-size frame. Did
the Meer somehow act like a movie director and create the frame to
acknowledge Thomas and to give him a little more precious time. If
so, I wished the much larger world could do the same, for him and
for other cancer patients as well.
Though the water had become
darker, the colors of its vibrating reflections--trees and tall
buildings--had deepened, ironically, I thought, how I wish that, as
the sun sets on our lives, we became beautiful, like autumn leaves.
Are we people less deserving than leaves because of our mistakes?
Because of our long, long string of wars?
A flock of geese dived and
the shattered surface of the Meer. The geese and seagulls soon
formed two distinct camps on the water. The camps reminded me of
opposing armies the night before they clashed. But the geese swam
away. The seagulls didn’t pursue. Yes, geese and seagulls are more
like anglers sharing the same lake or river than like opposing
armies fighting, killing for the same land.
Fishing The "Back"
"Randy, I have to go. Good luck
with your test."
"Thanks, Thomas, thanks."
I watched him drive out of the
park. Will I see him again? What’s going through his mind, knowing
he might not ever see the Meer again? What will his final journey -
to where time cannot go - be like? I hope he, like my mother, won’t
be ravaged by physical pain. And what will my final journey be like?
Will it be peaceful? If not, I don’t want to now know.
I looked up. The full moon
hung right between the two tall, matching buildings, and reminded me
of a football flying through goal posts. Maybe the moon is being
kind and giving me back the fishing time I had given to Thomas.
I cast toward the back of
bird’s head. For the next twenty minutes or so I covered most of the
cove’s water, still without luck. Wind chilled me. Time on the Meer
flowed again. To keep my false casts from being blown out of shape,
I cast harder; but in the advancing darkness I couldn’t see my casts
unroll. My popper landed in the back of my vest. I pulled it out and
was about to cut it off and head home when I noticed flickers in the
park lamps. Are these man-made inventions, like judges handing out
justice, giving me what even the full moon could not: more fishing
time? I wish the Harlem Meer, unlike the wide world, is governed by
its own laws of fairness.
Standing still, I watched
the lamps burn brighter and brighter. They reminded me of stars in
the dark sky; and so in my mind, the Meer changed from a giant
boomerang or flying bird to a beautiful, miniature galaxy.
Again I false cast, but the
man-made light was short-ranged.
Maybe my trying to see my
line unroll is really a metaphor for my trying to see, like a Don
Quixote, the world as it isn’t: a beautiful David or Mona Lisa.
Maybe getting older shouldn’t be about seeing a world filled with
images of dark and light, but about seeing beauty and gratitude
where I once saw none. If so, therefore, it isn’t what the world and
all its craziness owes me. It’s what I owe the world: more stories
that, arrogant as it sounds even to me, help people come to terms
with the unpredictable game of life.
Suddenly I felt like an
angler after he fought and landed several good fish: grateful for
another day of angling and ready, very ready, to go home. I reeled
in my line, cut off my popper and broke down my rod. I retraced my
steps along the bank. Again I looked up. Except for the real stars,
the sky had turned pure black; but something told me the sun hadn’t
set on my writing, that I had at least one more story to tell, one
And so I felt lucky, very
lucky, to be a writer again.
Text and photos by Randy Kadish 2007 ©
Randy's historical novel,
The Fly Caster Who Tried To Make
Peace With The World, is available on