Yi Xin Tong visited Special Special to host a workshop about fishing in NYC. The event was held in conjunction with Gong Press’s release of NYC Fishing Journal at Special Special (available for purchase at specialspecial.com). The workshop was the third Frontiers Conference event, organized by Wildman Clab as part of its year-long residency at Special Special.
“Fishing in NYC: A Workshop with Yi Xin Tong”. Photo: Wen-You Cai
1. What is fishing?
People always ask me why I fish in New York. Firstly, you get spectacular views in Manhattan. Sunsets. Shipwrecks - there’s a boat graveyard near Coney Island. If you are not catching fish, you can pick berries.
Secondly, you can also fish for images. I have a GoPro camera that I turned into a lure and then attached to a hook. When I use the camera lure, I am also capturing sound and images. You might also find a pearl inside a seashell.
Freshwater or saltwater fishing, which is better? It costs $25 for a freshwater fishing license, but for saltwater fishing, you can just get a free license online. With saltwater, you never know what you are going to catch. I ran into a seahorse once, and I felt the texture of its scales, as well as its tail around my fingers.
Here you are looking at a pregnant female blue crab.
Before you start fishing, you have to know what you’re getting into. You will get tan lines. Every summer I get very dark, and I turn paler in the winter. In the past, I was a good studious artist. Now I'm different.
What can we catch in NYC?
You follow the change of seasons. With different seasons, different fish migrate into New York City’s waters. Around April, the striped bass and bluefish come from Florida, moving up north to Nova Scotia. Fish follow a certain pattern, and that’s how you catch them.
2. Gear Talk
To start, you need a basic tackle, rod, and reel, not that much. I’m an urban fisherman, so I do wear a shirt. You might also need a hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, and facemasks.
Basically, there are two kinds of rod and reel. One is spinning, beginners like to use these. The other is bait-casting, for which the reel is on top. Personally, I prefer bait-casting reels. They are compact, so you can cast and retrieve really fast. It’s good for catching bass.
I noticed that fishing reels look like cars. People really spend money on these things. I’m poor, so I can only spend a lot of time.
I’ll show you how it feels when you catch a fish. Usually it takes 5 seconds to reel in a fish, but this was a big one. The reel is a device that stores line, so when you cast it out, especially if the fish is really strong, it will take the line out of the reel. So you have to let the line run.
People would cheer for me and even request to take photos with me. You get more attention and compliments than when you’re doing an art show. How many people come to your opening and say, “Can I take a picture with you?” Consider changing your career now.
How do you catch striped bass and bluefish? They love lures. You can catch them with these soft plastic spoons. When they flutter and move in water, they resemble fish. Sometimes you can work your rod so that the bait looks like injured fish, and these appear to be easier prey that takes less energy. Fish are lazy, and so are we.
That is a bluefish, broiled in the oven with potatoes. It tastes perfect. We usually release the larger ones, as they don’t taste as good. Once you have the lures tied to your line, you need to know how to cast. I’m going to show you how.
Let’s practice at home like this. On the edge of your bed.
Yi Xin Tong, Goldfish Fishing in a Hotel Bedroom for a Tiger, 2019,
HD video with sound
Fishing in NYC takes practice.
If you are seeing the fish, you cast close to the fish. That’s called sight-fishing. If you don't see any fish and you cast, it’s called blind casting. Usually, if you are fishing from the shore, you want to cast further.
In May and June, different species move into the water, such as flounder or fluke. They can change their colors to the sub-strait. It’s really amazing that they can camouflage themselves. You can catch them with lures as well. They taste great and are very desirable among fishermen.
This is a porgy. It usually weighs around one pound. They fight frantically when they are hooked. The one below is a tiny black sea bass. This one is about 6 inches or so. People also call them sea biscuits because of their good flavor.
Now we are moving onto the concept of rigs. A rig is a combination of items including line, hook, and perhaps a bait.
Sometimes you have to use smaller fish as bait; they come in chunks. You hook them onto your hooks then toss them out. This process is called chunking.
3. Bonding with Different Types of Fish
These things are called skates. It’s one of my favorite fish, and one of the most hated fish. They just grab your bait and run. A lot of fishermen just leave them to die on the shore. They don’t throw them back because they are really bothered by them. However, some people find them tasty, and they are valued in other cultures. Sometimes you can find them at Korean markets.
Do you see a difference between the image on the left and the right? The cross legged one is a male. The other is a female. People shouldn't be mean to a certain species. If you don't like them, just leave them alone.
Yi Xin Tong, Animalistic Punk - Skate, 2018, Jacquard tapestry,
metal tube, eye bolts, 63 x 90.5 x 3 in
Moving on to herrings. They are around in the winter. You’ve probably had canned ones, right? Russians and Eastern Europeans love them. There are huge schools of them coming around to Coney Island and Brooklyn. It’s fun to catch them. You use long rigs with multiple hooks so you would have a string of fish coming up. They are super tasty.
It’s great to hang out with old people. They are really devoted, going out even in minus degree weather.
Most of the time, you don’t catch fish. That’s the reality of fishing. But once you catch them, it’s really enjoyable.
The one on the left is a sea robin. It’s very unusual looking. This is the first fish I caught in New York - it took me a whole year. I learnt by myself; I didn’t attend a workshop like this. On the right is a dogfish, it is like a shark. Like it or not, when you get fish and chips from restaurants, that's the preferred kind of fish.
When you are feeling lazy, it’s hard to catch fish. What are some alternatives? You go to Sheepshead Bay, and you pay $75 or $100 for a half-day trip. Usually it makes it easier for catching smaller fish like ‘scup’ or porgies; you can probably catch 20 or 30 a day. Just make sure the boat doesn’t sink. I found this image on Craigslist: someone was trying to sell a boat that sank in the ocean.
Yi Xin Tong, Animalistic Punk - Abandoned Sunken Boat, 2018, Jacquard tapestry, metal tube, eye bolts, 45 x 80 in.
You can find many other species. There’s trash fish, northern kingfish, and oyster toadfish, which are sometimes sold in Chinese seafood markets. That’s a freshwater turtle I found by the ocean. Someone must have released it. I brought it back to Prospect Park, where a lot of turtles gather in a freshwater environment. This one is a huge American eel, it’s really tasty. This one is a puffer fish. They have the most amazing green-blue eyes.
“Other species: Northern kingfish, oyster toadfish, weakfish, blackfish, American eel, winter flounder, mackerel, Atlantic menhaden (bunker), shad, turtles, pufferfish.” Caption and image from artist.
I’m sure a lot of you are concerned with whether the fish are safe to eat. According to the government's map, fish that you catch in the Lower New York Bay are safer to eat than those caught in the Upper New York Bay. Coney Island is also fine. They advise you to eat the larger fish you catch only once a month because the larger fish are more likely to be predators, and accumulate more toxins in their body. For smaller fish like porgies and summer flounders, the government doesn’t provide much data, which means they are safe to eat.
“Catch and release. Do not take more than needed.” Caption and image from artist.
That’s me catching a 30 inch striped bass in Coney Island. It took me a long time. I thought I was going to release it, but I kept it for my friends. We went to a restaurant and asked the chef to prepare it. It took him an hour. It was really beautiful, almost transparent. He did it in the Cantonese hotpot style. There were thicker chunks with meat and bones, as well as super thin pieces.
4. Don't Get into Fishing
With fishing, you will also encounter disasters.
You lose all your rigs, you get stuck, and worst of all, you get into a fight with another fisherman.
It gets dangerous. You always want to go to areas with less fishermen. Also watch out for slippery rocks and isolated places.
Other disasters include dangerous animals, like jaguars, snakes, beavers, depending on the area you are fishing in. But I would say the most dangerous are peer fishermen. There’s also the danger of isolating yourself too much. Initially, you do it to get away from people. You spend time away from your friends and family. You might forget to speak and lose your communication skills. I had to practice a whole week for today’s presentation. But you might build your bond with other animal species.
One goal I had with this workshop is to convince you not to fish. If you are still serious about it, we have to learn the fisherman’s terminologies. You have to learn how they dress and how to speak. It’s all about acting and performing. If you want to learn more about fishermen language, check out this playlist called “Fishermen’s Words” on my YouTube fishing channel Gravesend Fisherman.
“Still serious about becoming a fisherman / fisherwoman / cat? Learn their terminologies. (from Fishermen's Words, 2018–ongoing, poetry music video series)” Caption and image from artist.
A common saying is “Jeez Louise”. You can say: “Such a big fish. But I lost it. Jeez Louise.”
I would say good luck, or in fishermen’s terms, “tight lines”. Why is that? If there’s a fish at the end, it makes the line tight.
About the Artist
Yi Xin Tong is a nowhere-based artist and fisherman. Tong studied geology at China University of Geosciences in Beijing and received his BFA in Visual Art from Simon Fraser University and MFA in Studio Art from New York University. In poetic and absurd languages, he uses multimedia installation, site-specific project, video, and sound to analyze seemingly desperate social conditions, and our contradictory relationships with ourselves and with other living beings, objects, and cultural entities. Recent solo exhibitions include Snarte Space, NARS Foundation, Vanguard Gallery, Katzman Contemporary; group exhibitions include the BRIC Biennial, Guangzhou Airport Biennale, chi K11 art museum, Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts, MOCA Shanghai, CAFA Art Museum, Aranya Art Centre, Long March Space, Chambers Fine Art, and Alyssa Davis Gallery.
About Gong Press
Founded by Qianfan [New York] and St.Jiu [Beijing], GONG PRESS is a continuation of The Hunting’s “Gong” Column. It is named after the weapon “GONG (弓, bow)”: a bow without arrow remains in a mild yet potent status. GONG PRESS encourages, supports, and produces art publishing.
About Wildman Clab
Wildman Clab, founded by Lu Zhang in 2017, is a lab/club for researching and proving the existence of primitive individuals. WC organizes activities and provides experiences. Wildman Clab has previously created social encounters through mobile karaoke at Columbus Park, New York, Boat Date at NARS Foundation, and Pool Date at Special Special. Wildman Clab is currently the events resident at Special Special and organizer of The Frontiers Conference.
Wen-You Cai, When You Catch a Fish After Gravesend Fisherman, 2020. Video: Chia-Ying Yu
Wherever you are, whenever it is, you can virtually fish anywhere according to tips by Yi Xin Tong (aka Gravesend Fisherman). Bad Weather No Problem: No Fish in Theory.