Casting in the Runway’s Shadow with Top Chef Kerry Heffernan
The annual event was in full swing on Jamaica bay in the last days of April – the Striped Bass were on the run migrating from the Hudson River headwaters to the ocean. Knowing this, I set up a trip with Urban Fly Guides, on a snowy day in February. My goal: to start spring striper fishing on the end of the runway at John F. Kennedy International Airport, a spot that I’ve had luck fishing in the past and an interesting connection between the nature of this tidal fueled river and air traffic from one of the world’s busiest airports.
The Gateway Marina was in an early morning bank of deep fog when Capt. Brendan McCarthy and I rolled up at 6 am. High tide, low light, and the construction noise… just another day on the dock in Brooklyn. However, today would be special as our mutual friend, chef Kerry Heffernan was on board for the trip chasing post spawn Stripers on the move to big water and the journey north.
It didn’t take long to clear the din of the construction site and find open water, motoring our way under the highway bridge to Sheep Head Bay, then out into Jamaica Bay. The water was flat and visibility poor. For an hour or so we moved cautiously through the soupy morning fog. With a nice and easy approach to the Bay, we had time to catch up and learn about Kerry’s career, starting with a rough and tumble existence in his 20’s… the kind of stories every top chef has to tell. (Including getting smacked in the head with a frying pan and running shotgun for many of New York’s top chefs.) In time, after his experience with restaurateurs and chefs like David Bouley, Drew Nieporent and Tom Colicchio, Kerry reached the position of top toque at Eleven Madison Park, one of New York City’s most prestigious kitchens.
By the time the sun broke out we had fished several of Brendan’s favorite spots. Blind casting with a sinking line and a chartreuse clouser we had hardly any luck. When we cleared the next bridge, a roaring 747 took off and broke the silence. We’d arrived at the end of the runway, greeted by a school of bunker breaking the surface, and surrounded by an armada of boats, kayaks and 16 foot Boston Whalers. The bunker were boiling, and no one was hooking up. In time, we did hook a couple of the top feeders which was surprising as they aren’t generally aggressive towards a fly.
Fishing with Kerry Heffernan had been a topic of conversation for a few years since we met at an event on the Sag Harbor Turnpike several years ago at the South Fork Natural History Museum. I was aware of his passion for fishing from social media posts, however I wasn’t aware of his skills. Choosing McCarthy as a guide was easy, knowing of his quick wit and dedication to all aspects of saltwater fly guiding he was an easy choice. As Kerry took the bow and casted the 8-weight line it seemed effortless, each cast reaching a little further, albeit rhythmic and slow – the back cast loading and firing in good time.
Another bridge and another half hour blind casting the sinking line, which I found challenging until Brendan reminded me the weight of the tip would pull the fly deep quickly on its own, so I didn’t need to try throwing too much line. Sure enough, once that conversation faded, the first striper hit Kerry’s fly. It was short but welcomed as we finally found the fish. A few minutes later I was hooked up and grabbed schoolie #2. Then, when #3 finally hit, my fly it provided the tug I was looking for. A nice, shiny 24-inch striper reveals itself making my first outing of the year a success.
After another 40 minutes of blind casting to no avail, we headed for the shore line featuring a set of old dock pilings that Brendan described as the remains of a 1920s speakeasy; An excluded island off the coast, just far enough to be used by the underworld during Prohibition. Given Brendan’s experience organizing the one-season television hit show ESPN’s Guide House, I knew finding the right spot to execute a seafood shore lunch with a world class seafood expert would be a cinch. The island now sits abandoned, a perfect setting for our impromptu picnic – grilling porgy, butterfish and clams on the beach. Chef Heffernan came with a cooler loaded for the grill. Knowing we’d release the stripers regardless of size, he chose a unique local fish that’s been overlooked for years and remains in abundance.
In short time we had gathered the kindling. I started a fire 1-2-3 boy scout style and had the fish stuffed with lemon and herbs from the garden. A bottle of Long Island wine provided all the liquid needed to steam the clams and bring together the flavor of some ramps and porgy filet. All these local flavors came together to create a delicious melting pot representing, of all places, the New York City area.
Hudson River-Jamaica Bay: April 27, 2017 | Brooklyn New York | Kerry Heffernan, chef | Brendan McCarthy, guide Urban Fly Guides