On any given day in Princeton, New Jersey, in a small cove along the southern shore of Lake Carnegie, half a dozen cormorants can be found fishing. The cormorants—of the double-crested variety—are wildly successful in their endeavors, stealthily slipping below the surface of the water and reappearing nearby only seconds later with fish clasped in their beaks. The fish begin to thrash once they are swallowed whole, yet remain mere throbbing pulses as they slide down the birds’ long, slender throats. The cormorants repeat this routine like a synchronized swim team, diving and reappearing in an almost rhythmic pattern, seemingly unaffected by the various levels of commotion around them. In the morning and afternoon, bikers and joggers rumble down the canal towpath that parallels the lake’s shore, crossing a small footbridge as they pass by the cormorants. Also in the afternoon, at around 4:30pm every day, the Princeton University crew team arrives in full force on the lake, their coxswains’ bullhorns blaring incoherent commands like street propaganda as their paddles generate loud, cadenced scraping sounds when they hit the water. The cormorants don’t seem to mind any of this, nor are they bothered much by a group of rival fishermen—of the human variety—who line the footbridge beside them.
These fishermen—indeed, all of them are men—are an eclectic group of locals who come daily, almost religiously, to fish this spot, because it provides access to three adjacent but distinct bodies of water: the lake, the Delaware & Raritan Canal, and the Millstone River. Here, the influence of man on his environment is palpable. Precisely where the Millstone becomes Lake Carnegie, the artificial canal crosses it in an aqueduct, forcing the river to flow through culverts in order to feed the lake—which is also man-made. Each wall of the aqueduct is lined by a footbridge that carries the towpath; the lesser-used footbridge runs along the Millstone River side of the canal, while the main fishing footbridge, commonly known as the Mule Bridge, borders the lake. This is where the fishermen can be observed.
It is generally not difficult to begin a conversation with a fisherman, though I was admittedly shy on this warm Sunday afternoon as I attempted to introduce myself to a large man who was quietly hunched over the wooden railing near one end of the lakeside footbridge. Wearing jeans and a torn Jacksonville Jaguars sweatshirt, he was watching the cormorants as a light-tackle spinning rod leaned on the railing beside him. He was fishing so close to the shore of the lake that the water where he’d dropped his line seemed almost stagnant, littered with dead leaves and algae. I’d already walked by two or three times, noticing all of this, before finally figuring out a way to make conversation:
“Couple of yellow perch!” he answered enthusiastically. His loud voice was out of place among the hushed demeanors of the other fishermen.
“Nice!” I replied. I had to keep this up. I nodded towards his rod. “What are you using?”
“Nightcrawlers. Fish love ’em.” He pointed to a small cardboard container at his feet. I opened it and poked around the dirt inside to find a couple of squirming worms.
“Cool.” I looked up. “How long have you been fishing here?”
“Well, everywhere I go, I fish,” he said. “I’m originally from Florida, lived four blocks from the ocean, you know? But here, only ever since I moved, just about four or five years ago.”
The Jaguars sweatshirt made sense now. “And you come out here every day?”
“Every day that I can,” he answered.
“Do you work?”
“Well, now I’m retired.” He looked up from the water with a smile, presumably because he wanted to see my reaction to what came next. “I used to be a heavyweight boxer. Fought Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Larry Holmes, all those big guys.”
I did a double take. “No way.”
“Oh yeah! My name’s Jody Ballard, Jr. Google it when you get home, see what you find.”
Sure enough, on the Internet there is a video from 1975 of a heavyweight fight between Jody Ballard and George Foreman. In the short clip, Foreman pounds Ballard endlessly, and records show that Ballard lost in the second round. Articles from the New Jersey Hall of Fame verify everything he would go on to tell me—he was signed by the world-renowned boxing promoter Don King, fought and sparred with all the big names, and was at one point ranked the eighth-best heavyweight in the world. He’s fought in Vegas, Hawaii, Copenhagen, Paris, and London, among other places, and has lived in Houston, Cleveland, New York, Dover and most recently, Plainsboro, New Jersey. After finishing his career, he became a boxing manager and trainer, and now in retirement spends his afternoons fishing this nearby lake. My moment of incredulity was interrupted when Jody’s rod twitched, which we both noticed. He picked it up calmly, only needing one rotation of the reel to lift a tiny fish out of the shallow water.
“Yellow perch,” he said. “A baby.” He slipped the hook out with ease and flicked the fish like a candy wrapper over the other side of the bridge into the canal. I wondered if he knew that the canal is not connected to the lake.
“Anyway,” Jody continued, the fish almost an inconvenience, “everyone ‘round here’s got a nickname. So, they call me Champ.”
“Champ!” I repeated, and we laughed. “What are some of the other guys called?”
Jody looked around. “Well, over there, you’ve got The Russians.” He gestured towards the other end of the bridge, where two men in black jackets had been nonchalantly fishing while chatting in a foreign language—now, I could assume, Russian. A heavy, gray-bearded man with two large cameras hanging around his neck was passing by them, and had joined in on their conversation. Jody called out to him: “Hey, Birdman!” Birdman scowled. Jody turned to me. “That there, that’s Birdman. He comes out here every day, takin’ pictures of everything—birds, fish, trees—everything. You gotta talk to him, man.” To Birdman: “Birdman, get over here!”
“Okay, I’m coming, I’m coming!” Birdman yelled back. He had a thick Russian accent and, as I’d soon learn, a gruff attitude to be reckoned with. When he finally waddled over to our end of the footbridge, Jody introduced him to me, and for a few minutes we discussed the piece I was writing.
“Show him some of your pictures, Birdman,” Jody said.
Birdman threw a hand in the air. “What for?” he responded, as if it was a preposterous request. But with his other hand, he was already scrolling through his cellphone camera library.
Meanwhile, Jody kept going. “If you’re writing a story, you gotta meet Stevie. Birdman, you got a picture of Stevie?”
Birdman looked up and shot us a glare. “No, because he is not a fish, or a bird.” Another unreasonable question. He kept scrolling.
Jody shrugged. “Well, Stevie’s only about eleven years old. We started him out when he was just a kid, and now he just a regular pro, man. Catchin’ bass, huge bass. Lots of fish. One of the best of the best out here. He real good. Come out here fishing with his granddad—now I been fishing with them for years, but never did know that guy’s name. We call him Pops. But they real good, man.”
While Jody went on about Stevie, Birdman tapped me on the shoulder. On his large cellphone screen appeared several professional-quality photos of a cormorant with a fish between its mandibles. The close-up shots revealed in the cormorant’s face a warm orange highlight, which gradually turned yellow as it reached the tip of the beak. The fish that had met its untimely fate was indeed a yellow perch, and its face revealed a look of utter terror, if fish faces can communicate such a thing.
Birdman proceeded to show me pictures of bird eggs and fresh hatchlings. He claimed to have more on his computer at home. He visits the Delaware & Raritan Canal State Park every day, wandering the towpath in search of eagles, snakes, and other wildlife to photograph. The towpath, canal, and resulting state park stretch over 70 miles, north to south, connecting the Raritan River to the Delaware, and Birdman claims to have walked most of it. The corridor, albeit narrow, is filled with history—the link between the two rivers served as a vital shipping connection for coal and other freight being transported between Philadelphia and New York in the 19thcentury—and, especially in this section adjacent to the Millstone River and Lake Carnegie, teeming with fish and wildlife.
The next afternoon, I met Dan, a flooring installer and ten-year veteran fisherman, who could list—to the best of his knowledge—all of the fish species present in the three waterways. Yellow perch, white perch, carp, sunfish, black and white crappies, chain pickerel, catfish, bluegill, gizzard shad, eels, and walleyes are in all three. Largemouth bass are only found in the river and the lake, while smallmouth bass are only found in the canal. During the spring months, the NJ State Division of Fish & Wildlife stocks trout in the canal at Harrison Street just half a mile from the Mule Bridge, and the fishermen rejoice. “Trout season starts next weekend,” Dan told me. “You’ll bet your ass I’ll stay here till I caught my limits.”
Weather permitting, many of the fishermen—Dan and Jody included—can reliably be found at the footbridge every single day. Yet despite the sheer amount of fishing that is done, none of them seemed to show any concern towards what has been cited as heavily polluted water. Litter, fertilizers, pesticides, and oil and gas from cars have all been found at dangerously high levels in Lake Carnegie, prompting high mercury readings and an advisory on the consumption of fish caught in the lake. When I asked them if the waters were contaminated, however, the answers I received amounted to a resounding “no.” “There’s no problem with the water or the fish,” Jody told me after I asked if he ate his catch. “Some days, you can see straight down to the bottom of the canal. All other days, it’s just muddy.”
Jody’s favorite fish are yellow perch, and he keeps them in a plastic shopping bag beside him. I peeked into the bag and saw two small, panting fish. Every now and again, while I spoke with Jody and Birdman, a fish would convulse in the bag and ruffle the noisy plastic in a last-ditch attempt at recovery, kind of like a boxer who’s been knocked down one too many times.
On the day I spoke with Dan, I met an older fisherman named Willie, who’s been fishing on the footbridge since 1969. “Only but a few years ago, used to be amazing fishing here,” Willie remembered. His voice had clearly weakened with age—now, it was more like a croak. “Guys would be lined up and down the bridge, ‘cause the word spread. Fish used to be so big they called ‘em ‘slab crappies.’ These crappies like two or three pounds. But now they’re all gone. All gone.” Crappies are Willie’s favorite dinner fish. If he’s lucky down by the lake, he’ll go home and pan-fry some freshly caught crappies in a cream sauce. Like Jody, Willie said he sees little risk in eating his catch—though during my time with him, despite catching three small crappies and one medium-sized catfish, he chose not to take anything home with him.
At the end of my second day with the fishermen, Willie killed one of the crappies. I hardly noticed that he’d even caught one. A swarm of gnats had come with the evening chill, and I was busy swatting them away when I heard him quietly muttering. Turning towards him, I realized he was actually speaking to a baby fish that had swallowed a hook. Though he spoke gently, his grip on the fish was hardly a caress. He squeezed it tightly with his left hand as he shoved pliers twice the length of the fish itself down its throat. The fish began to bleed, and Willie wiped the blood off his fingers on his face. “Come on, little guy,” he repeated. “Come on now.” The pliers were to no avail, and Willie didn’t seem the least bit stressed. Instead, he stuck his thumbs in each gill and tore the fish apart, right down the middle. After nearly five minutes of poking around the insides of the dying animal, Willie removed the hook and tossed the mutilated fish into the lake. “He’ll be dinner for somebody. Bird’ll get him, or a snake or something. He’ll be dinner for somebody.”
For a while, I watched the crappie drifting silently in the dark, muddy water. It floated almost vertically, its mouth at the surface, red with blood. One fin flapped rapidly like the twitching part of an otherwise lifeless corpse. It was nearly dusk, and the area had grown silent: no more rowers, no more bikers, no more joggers. Even the cormorants had retreated to their nests. But the fishermen along the footbridge, they waited until the sun went down.