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A Growing Brooklyn Fishing Scene, Artisanal Lures Included

NEW YORK — The bright green potion cooked for 8 minutes in the microwave. During this time, Josh Wool, a professional photographer and amateur fisherman who makes homemade fishing lures out of his kitchen in Brooklyn, pressed the pause button twice to stir the liquid plastisol (raw plastic), making sure it didn’t burn. It reeked of cheap beach balls.

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John Peabody
, New York Times

NEW YORK — The bright green potion cooked for 8 minutes in the microwave. During this time, Josh Wool, a professional photographer and amateur fisherman who makes homemade fishing lures out of his kitchen in Brooklyn, pressed the pause button twice to stir the liquid plastisol (raw plastic), making sure it didn’t burn. It reeked of cheap beach balls.

“This stuff is like 330 degrees,” Wool said. “It can be pretty toxic if you get it too hot.”

Once the liquid became fully viscous, it was poured into hand-carved molds, where the shapes hardened and cooled. Wool then peeled the new fishing lures out for future field testing in the East River. He might be the only angler in the city who makes his own plastic jelly lures.

But he’s definitely not the only angler. Wool is part of a growing community of New Yorkers who have taken up recreational fishing in local waters.

Kimberly Lee, for example, started fishing with her cousin in New York three years ago. She’s now the Manhattan president of the Brooklyn Fishing Club. Since taking up the pastime, she has traveled internationally to places like Cozumel, Mexico, to fish, and she uses the hobby to explore hidden parts of the city.

“I’m a huge fan of shore fishing and getting to move around on my feet,” she said. “There are a few locations where you can kind of climb over fences, scramble down rocks toward the river. It’s a game, and the prize is catching a fish.”

Recreational anglers are allowed to keep one fish a day, as long as it measures over 28 inches, according to rules set by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. The catch here is that the bigger the fish, usually the more contaminated with PCBs it will be, especially when it comes from murky city waters. To that end, the New York State Department of Health is currently advising that striped bass from the East River only be consumed once a month (women under 50 and children under 15 should avoid it entirely).

In other words, there’s a reason catch and release is a popular practice among regular anglers, including Wool and Lee.

Capt. John McMurray, who writes about fishing and is the owner and operator of One More Cast, which provides trips through western Long Island and Jamaica Bay, credits regulations put in place in 2013 to protect menhaden, a natural prey for striped bass, with helping the larger bass population to recover in the waters around the city and make the sport more popular.

“Menhaden, in the last seven or eight years, have become the primary driver of when and where striped bass show,” he said.

And when the striped bass show, so do the men and women who fish. The number of New Yorkers who have registered for free Recreational Marine Fishing Registry permits has steadily increased to 42,800 in 2017 from 34,100 in 2014, according to state records.

Wool has tapped into this growing fishing community, which includes Lee, to help him test his baits and refine the designs.

To use artificial lures, Lee said, there are endless configurations to consider before you cast. “You have to choose what colors, what size, how to retrieve it,” she said. “You have to jig it, speed retrieval. All that stuff makes a difference.” For her, Wool’s lures seem to have just the right combination of plastics. “I don’t know what it is exactly, but the materials lend to a certain flexibility,” she said. “It really is a great tail movement.”

In Wool’s home, the microwave sits next to his back door for maximum airflow. It was purchased for the sole purpose of heating plastics. Next to it are black lentils and other foodstuffs stored in glass jars. Below it are large plastic jugs of the raw plastic used to make the lures, and other chemicals and dyes used in the process.

“Technically, I should probably be wearing long sleeves,” Wool said, as he mixed another batch.

Wool, 40, has been making his own fishing lures and testing them in the East River for about two years now. He originally got into the hobby as a way “to get through the winter,” but now he’s considering turning his side hustle into a business. “I’m still just making them for myself and some friends,” he said. “I really want to get everything dialed in before I make a real business out of it.” For the moment, Wool’s hobby/business is called Anvil Lures. He documents his catches on Instagram (@anvillures).

When he’s not nuking chemicals in his microwave for his lures, there’s a good chance Wool is mixing chemicals for his photographs. Along with portraits, Wool specializes in making tintype images. Like making baits, it’s a slow, involved process that requires mixing toxic ingredients and a lot of patience.

“I always tend to find the hardest way to do things,” he said, while opening the door in his apartment for cross-ventilation. “This particular color smells a little bit,” he continued, as he mixed the plastisol. “The chartreuse tends to be a little stronger for some reason,” he said. “Let’s put some glitter in here.”

Wool tapped a few spoonfuls of silver sparkles into the plastic green soup. The glitter gives the lures a special shimmer that has proved especially effective with striped bass in the East River.

“There’s a lot of trial and error,” Wool said of his process, which he is constantly refining. “I made quite a few different variations before finding out the ratios. I don’t know anything about hydrodynamics or anything like that.”

By his estimate, Wool has probably made a dozen different prototypes and poured upward of 2,000 lures over the last two years. At this point, he makes two basic lures that come in different sizes. They are both meant to replicate shad and bunker, two primary bait fish of striped bass. The lures have “paddle tails,” which creates vibrations that hungry fish pick up on.

“I like dark colors at night because they create a better silhouette,” he said. “Green tends to show up underwater really well. The pearl tends to replicate a natural-looking bait in the daytime.”

To test his lures, Wool uses his bathtub and then goes to the East River, which, he said, has only about a foot of visibility. His favorite spot is a 10-minute bike ride from his apartment. His bike is black, has ape hanger bars, green pedals and a milk crate attached to the back that carries his tackle box and rods. It’s the hipster equivalent of a fishermen’s pickup truck.

On a Saturday afternoon in May, Wool rode his “pickup” to north Brooklyn to test his latest products. There he ran into Mike Wood, 32, who is a barber. They exchanged photos of recent catches. “He’s the master,” Wood said of Wool. “He makes his own lure and catches his own fish with it. It’s quite respectable in the fishing world.”

With laughing gulls and cormorants swimming nearby, Wool went to work casting and retrieving his lures through the murky water. The tide was going out and the sky was slightly overcast, fairly good conditions for fishing the East River, but Wool said he still preferred night fishing.

He cycled through several variations of lures. There was the black 5-inch slow roller shad, a chartreuse 5-inch shad, the 5-inch slow roller eels, a 7-inch herring prototype. If the fish weren’t biting, then Wool would switch a lure out and try something new.

After nearly three hours, Wool got his first bite. He went to set the hook, but the fish escaped. It’s the kind of action that’s the big payoff for someone who specializes in the art of patience, or waiting for the “decisive moment,” as it’s sometimes referred to in photography.

Wool continued to cast while the lure mimicked an injured fish. He felt the paddle tail vibrate up the braided line. And then it happened: the strike.

He quickly reeled in a striped bass. Wool posed with the fish for a quick photograph, and then returned it to the river.

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