The Queen of Central Park

The queen of Central Park was enormous, an aged creature from a long time ago. All the other carp got out of her way and kissed her ass. She was swimming along the darkened windows of the Boathouse restaurant, closed for the pandemic. I watched her dark yellow flanks sway from side to side and waited. As she slowly came into range, her thick body glinted pink and orange in the sunny water.

I made a low back cast under the trees. The white fly landed a few inches in front of her. She saw it, moved and sucked up the gauzy morsel without a thought. I waited for a second, lifted horizontally, hard, then completed the strike with the rod tip and pierced the hook into her upper lip.

ABOVE Bow Bridge Charcoal and oil pastel on Angel Soft toilet paper wrapper.

She turned in disbelief, even though she’d seen it all, you know, and heaved in the water. A shudder rippled across the pond, reflecting along the wall of plate glass windows, the empty restaurant. The fish plowed through the warm water, hauled her considerable mass to the other side in a panic, and paraphrased Edmund Burke: How dare you disrupt civilization, a tea party?

The queen took as much line as she wanted, under considerable drag, almost to the backing on the first run. I bent the rod into the handle and got her halfway back. Then she decided to stop and fight it out. A desperate and passionate struggle ensued; I had a little Orvis 6-weight that almost, but didn’t, buckle under the strain of the grind and torque and power. I must have turned her six, eight times, each time the little rod creaking, each time the heavy fish flicking her thick tail, dragging herself away, line cutting into the surface vibrating underneath as she pulled it around in a bow. Fortunately, there was sufficient flex in the rod to reel and straighten, and I managed to bring her back and tighten up again. She wasn’t running but she was throwing her weight into stubborn resistance. The rod was underpowered. I could barely move her.

ABOVE Empty Crosswalk. Graphite and watercolor on takeout bag.

Then she plowed ahead and went all the way to the right taking the line beyond another tree and to the bank. I wasn’t wearing waders in Central Park so all I did was stick the rod out as far as it would go. I bent down in a squat and just held it out curled to the right for a long time and finally she came back out and swung toward me and I rapidly reeled in and had her in close. My friend J.R., a writer, appeared out of nowhere with a wooden trout net.

“This net’s too small,” he said. “But it’s all I have.”

This was during the beginning of the pandemic. My work went online, and I started to get ambitious about spring fishing. I’d been unfocused and harried, but now my predatory mind quieted down and began to set goals: alligator blues, large stripers, the alewife bite at the mouth of the Housatonic where a group of us had rented a cottage for four days. Sure, I was worried about the virus and the economy, but I was also anticipating the crab hatch in the sand in the Atlantic.

A week later, Heidi got sick. We’d just started seeing each other and she put herself in quarantine. Not wanting to spread COVID around like a sociopath, I too quarantined but didn’t end up getting it. For a brief period, I noticed refrigerated trailers whirring quietly outside the hospitals and then there was one trailer parked, rattling, around the corner from my apartment, in front of the funeral parlor.

Spring fishing was torpedoed.

ABOVE LEFT Sucker Spawn. Graphite and oil pastel on paper.

ABOVE RIGHT The Connection. Charcoal and conte on paper.

The best-laid plans, the foundation of fishing success, proved impossible to keep. We cancelled the cottage on the Housatonic. New York was under a travel advisory—fishing was legal, but the uncertainty, and the fear, put a damper on driving around to area hot spots. Luckily, most of us avoided the worst; Heidi recovered, except for a lingering lung condition, and we limped through to Memorial Day.

The economy was on life support and we were adapting as best we could, anxiously, when J.R. called me up one morning. “The Boathouse is closed at Central Park. You know what that means?” he asked.

I didn’t. I hadn’t fished there despite living in the city for more years than I cared to account for.

“For the first time in memory,” he said, “there won’t be any tourists rowing and gawking and taking pictures. We’ll have clean shots at carp to 15 pounds, tailing and clooping.” By which he meant pouty lips mouthing the surface behind which heavy languorous bodies lolled voluptuously.

I’d flyfished for carp a total of one time, on a highland New Jersey pond, a few years before; I’d seen a big carp nosing the mudbank and walked up behind a stand of reeds and dapped a size-10 nymph over and behind the broad auburn shoulders, long sinewy spine and expansive yellow tail, expecting the carp to turn, see it and eat it.  I’ll never forget the reaction when I set the hook. Vivid and alarming, explosive, she churned the rich black water, her panic dispersing the rest of the pod grazing around her.

I got lucky with that one.

I had the fish subdued and almost beached on that muddy bank, but she was too heavy to just drag out of the water. I made the mistake of lifting the tip as she lay there passively resisting in a foot of water. Taking advantage of my weakness, swinging her head to and fro, she snapped the 1x tippet. I gasped and leaned in, bent at my knees, lunged forward on my haunches and bear clawed her with the fingernails of both hands—I must have tossed the rod aside—then pressed her to my chest and flipped her heavily onto the tall grassy bank. She landed softly and rolled over once, then lay there panting and immobile, shiny scales tinted rose and the color of straw, eye, dilated, rolled to the back of her head like a black hole to some other place.

ABOVE LEFT San Remo Sunrise. Watercolor and graphite on paper.

ABOVE right Trash Fish. Graphite, charcoal and gouache on pastry bag.

I’d been reading and absorbing information about the species ever since. Now, as the result of the economic shutdown, it was my chance. I seized the idea.

“Let’s keep this quiet,” J.R. suggested. He was one of a group of experienced flyfishers I fished with in the city, all of whom were sharp enough to catch the fish in front of you. During the pandemic, some had abandoned the city for places in the Catskills or the Hamptons. But not all of us could do that.

“I always keep it quiet about fishing,” I said, “as a matter of policy. Anyway, all we’re doing is catching a fish in a city park. It’s no secret there are giant carp in Central Park. They’re a tourist attraction.”

They are obviously a managed fish; it’s all catch and release and they inhabit a world made by humans. These carp take a passive approach, wary of humanity and accepting of its sins. You’d think they would be easy to catch, but if you’d just started out in flyfishing I don’t think you could catch these fish.

It was hot and bright, the air difficult to breathe, dry with tree pollen, a fine pale dust covering the surface like lace, barely ruffled by an occasional breeze. We stalked the perimeter. Looking beyond, towers loomed gray and blue, elegant, condescending and empty; at my age I’d stopped caring about the lifestyles of the rich.

ABOVE Central Park Prize. Oil pastel and charcoal on pastry bag.

The park was lacking in tourist and gondolier, and we started sighting the carp unharried. They had swollen heads with dark eyes and finger-like barbels hanging off slightly obscene mouths, reddish-brown bodies and yellow sides, scales glowing in the daylight water. They swam in pods, calmly feeding on the surface.

We found we had to put the fly inches in front of them and had to execute repeated 30-foot roll casts under the leafy canopy of a broad, old American elm. The branches sprawled above and hung down heavily, blocking the sun. The carp were feeding on the tree’s pollen and seeds and flower petals. They swam the shadow line of the lush bowers 30 to 40 feet out, and we waited for them to start clooping. Eventually a tea party of about six gathered and they formed a small circle of heads and mouths facing each other, touching the powdery delicacy with their barbels, and in a greedy but tasteful manner mouthing it in, a cream mustache left around the lips like confectioner’s sugar. Often a larger social queen on the edge would enter the circle and take over the conversation.

I managed to drop a white sucker spawn fly right on the saucer in that ring of pouty mouths and fingering barbels and, even then, five, six times, nothing. Of course, if my roll cast went high, I got hung up in the overhead leaf. Alternately, I could make a low side cast, but I had to keep the back cast in a true plane—and the side cast is inherently inaccurate. I leadered the fish once, and they went down, indignant. I rested the water, cast again and leadered them again, and this time they abruptly scattered, offended. We moved to another spot and found another social circle. While gossiping, they filled their soft, plump bellies.

ABOVE Bow and Arrow. Charcoal on grocery bag.

“It’s just a matter of time,” J.R. said “Keep putting the fly on that pastry dish. Look at those mooching mouths smacking their lips.” It looked like kids eating cannoli.

This went on for 45 minutes. A party broke up, the fish circled, those big bodies swimming in the opaque green water, and 10 minutes later another gabfest began. They tended to gather up right at the edge of my casting range.

The sun kept burning and we stayed shrouded in the shade, men seeking rest and refuge, not young, still suitors paying court, backs bent and leaning in, sharply. There was something civilized about it, trouty—a British park, European cafe, a Pacific stillness. Yet coarse, too; the democratic carp didn’t exhibit overt predatory behavior. They don’t chase a fly. They don’t hide and ambush prey.

These cosmopolitan fish were like high-society ladies at lunch. Condescending, impeccably dressed, slow and casual with luxury. No longer young and slim, they do little but eat. If they bother to notice you, they have a ready judgment at hand and it’s kept inside their circle.

This time, however, when the queen took my fly, she had to react. A great commotion stirred, and a wake spread out wide and crossed the lake.

“This net’s too small,” J.R. said. “But it’s all we’ve got. I’ll stand over here; you steer the fish to me and I’ll handle the net. Bring her to me headfirst.”

But the queen wasn’t having it. She took another 30 feet without trying and held there as I bent into her. Turmoil emanated from the point of resistance. We were 10 minutes into the fight.

ABOVE Shoulders Out. Watercolor and graphite on a Joan Baez vinyl dust jacket.

Predators know how to subdue their prey, Gary Borger writes somewhere. This sounds like a general statement, but it isn’t. Netting a big fish, like other things, is only learned by experience. There are, of course, a few rules of thumb that can be reviewed. One thing that makes it difficult is the high stakes. Another is the fish itself. Yet another is the netter doesn’t want to fail the angler. And the angler doesn’t want to blame it on the netter.

The matter of grabbing the leader is difficult. I guess it depends on the pound test. With any leader under 10-pound, maybe 12 to be safe, it’s not recommended to touch the leader at all. I had 11—tippet, not leader. One thing is for sure: If the netter grabs the line, he takes on a large chunk of responsibility for the ultimate catch or release. This matters only subjectively. It’s only a fish.

We only had a few feet on the bank to perform the maneuver. I kept leading the fish toward J.R. who looked competent but we both knew he didn’t have much experience with netting big fish for another angler. Neither did I, for that matter. I’d netted my own trout on a stream; even that takes practice. However, when you’re netting your own fish, you can only blame yourself.

ABOVE Sky Line. Charcoal and oil on notebook paper.

We shuffled on the bank and the big carp really didn’t have to yield to the little 6-weight. A more powerful rod would have been…nice. The bank was muddy. I kept slipping, not wanting to wade into the lake.

I could hold the fish 10 or 15 feet out, but I couldn’t bring her in. This went on for several more minutes. I backed up, letting line out from the reel to gain advantage, but the line just added more stretch. J.R. was beginning to panic.

“Don’t grab the leader,” I said. “I’ll lead her to you.”

But the fish wouldn’t go where I wanted. J.R. stood there like a crane, silently, eyes locked on the swaying bulge in the water. I bent the rod to its limit, but the big queen wouldn’t listen to reason. I backed up on the narrow dirt peninsula, rod bent like a bow with 20 feet of line out and slowly, slowly she came in, swinging her head left and right in gray froth and flopping her body to and fro—enormous back, distended pale belly flesh, thick, serpentine and monstrous tail.

J.R. stepped swiftly to the side, paused and bent, then swept the head of the carp into the little net. But her body extended out of the basket and J.R. lunged like a cornerback. He scooped and somehow balanced the body sticking out of the net, tail now upright, and knocked it to the bank. At the same time netter and nettee tumbled into the wet, slippery edge and I watched J.R.’s right knee slide into the lake, but he managed to throw the center of gravity of the queen onto the bank and she toppled toward the shore.

I moved to the whole trembling mass, kneeled and used my fingers to clasp the mesh around her head, a veiled face only a courtier could love. Her thick golden body flashed in the sun, and her dorsal spine was as thick as a rib and sharp as a spear. It pricked my middle finger as I worked to loosen the netting. The spine had pierced the mesh and wrapped around several holes like a barbed hook in your jacket. My finger bled bright red and she was exhausted, her face moaning in the dust. Finally, I slit the net with a knife and freed her, plucked the tiny fly from the fleshy lip and lifted her up for a moment, then let her slide back into the water.

I turned to J.R., leg still in the water, watching the whole thing, and caught a quick laugh aimed right at me.

This article first appeared in Volume Thirteen, Issue Three of The Flyfish Journal.


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