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Out of Water

I go to the shore whenever I can. I like to watch the light fall in tinselly strips on the rippled waves and hear it slosh against bridges or beaches. Over these past few years in New Haven, I have often found company there. In seaside parks and industrial lots where New Haven’s rivers converge, I have watched fishermen as they wait for the bend at the ends of their rods, hoping for a bite on the hook hanging into the sea. But in late winter, the shoreline empties. At all of the usual spots—the bridge, the parks, the underbelly of highways—no one is fishing.

When I walk into Dee’s Bait and Tackle in Fair Haven on a Friday afternoon in February, I see seven fishermen sitting, standing, and leaning against counters around the shop with styrofoam cups of coffee. They shout about routes and exits and lakes and tides—was it route 7? Exit 34? Lake Wintergreen? What about that undertow?—and discuss the quality of ice in this pond or that one, debating whether you need a permit to fish in such and such a park.

Pete DeGregorio inherited this store from his father in 2005, who opened the shop with Pete’s uncle in 1956. Holding his sleeping granddaughter in his arms, DeGregorio asks if I want coffee.

DeGregorio explains that he has twice as many people hanging out in his shop during these cold winter months, but fewer customers than in the summer. At the counter, Mark Pelletier is crimping some of Dee’s handmade leaders, steel wires that connect the hook or lure to the main line so that big sea fish can’t bite through them. He chimes in to say that fishermen come to Dee’s when they can’t fish—because it’s too cold or the fish aren’t running—for the consolation of at least talking about fishing.

“Some guys, only place they’ll come in the winter is here,” he says, stacking a leader in the pile on the counter.

The fishermen huddle around the checkout counter as they talk, none of them buying. Above them, rods, minnow traps, eel pots, and crab baskets hang from the ceiling. Newspaper clippings and Polaroids full of smiling faces and big catches have yellowed and frayed on the walls. A bait menu and price list is tacked near the counter, advertising the night crawlers, wigglers, sand eels, and bunker chums.

Many small bait shops have struggled in recent years, suffering from competition with the increasing number of big box stores—DeGregorio says you can throw a rock from the roof of his shop to a Wal-Mart down the block—but Dee’s has something many of the other shops don’t: a volunteer workforce.

“If I get busy, customers jump behind the counters and grab bait for me,” DeGregorio says. “My customers are really pushy salesmen.”

Pelletier and others pass many days grabbing bait, making leaders, helping customers, painting the steps outside, giving casting lessons, cleaning up the front yard, and more—all without pay. They teach wannabe fishermen how to reel in catch from the New Haven shoreline.

People may go to Wal-Mart for the cheap equipment, but there is often more to fishing than having a rod. DeGregorio runs behind the counter and grabs a shiner that Wal-Mart had sold to a father-son pair who wanted to catch snappers a few years back. It was two inches too long. The snappers wouldn’t bite.

The extended family of fishermen also includes people with different reasons for arriving at his shop and the shore. One middle-aged man walks in to buy bait for ice-fishing. He grew up coming to Dee’s with his father, but now the roles are reversed: Today, the son is taking his dad out on the ice. DeGregorio recalls one single mother who, a few years ago, would come in every day, buy $1.35 of bait, and catch dinner for her and her kids. Others dole out cash for sleek rods and fancy bait.

“That’s the magic about fishing,” he says, his granddaughter still wrapped around his torso. “You throw your line in, and the fish doesn’t know how much your rod cost. Anyone could catch a really big fish.”

DeGregorio is determined to keep that magic alive in Fair Haven.

“We’re here to stay,” DeGregorio says.

As long as Dee’s stays, young fishermen who find their way to the shop will also find their way to the water, where they will wait for that tug at the end of their lines.

I am no exception. Before I leave, a few fishermen give me their numbers. They say to call if I ever want to get on the water. Come March, they will help me find the fish.

Illustration by Katharine Konietzko

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