The Manhattan Cup

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NEW YORK — It's unclear exactly when the reality set in.

It could have been as early as the flight in, as the plane took a flyby of the most recognizable skyline, possibly in the world. The contrast should have been stark enough, considering most flights to fishing tournaments are on crop dusters into smalltown Alabama or Texas where the bass eat like Pete Incaviglia.

Or perhaps more appropriately, a flight filled with Hawaiian shirts, straw hats and mustaches, anxiously awaiting their chance to snag the froth from a piña colada. There was none of that on the flight to New York City — just Yankee hats and f-bombs.

Reality could have, and perhaps should have, set in at the plush hotel, in the back of a taxi or in Times Square. Or even closer to tournament time at the Chelsea Piers, which had one section devoted to Law and Order and another that was a three-story driving range.

But it was somewhere between noting the horrible water clarity in East River (didn't see anyone snorkeling) and the skyline of Manhattan as the fog lifted, that the truth started to become clear — this was not a typical fishing tournament.

A few minutes later, tournament director and Fisherman's Conservation Association chairman Frank Crescitelli sounded the horn and 50 boats flew by the Statue of Liberty to mark the beginning of the 11th annual FCA Manhattan Cup, which is as far as Crescitelli knows, the only one of its kind.

"There's no more stark contrast in the world than live animals swimming in the East River," Crescitelli said. "It's known more for being polluted, or dead bodies, or tires and cars."

Like all of the tournaments on the ESPN Outdoors Saltwater Series, the Manhattan Cup is a charity event, looking to raise money for the Fisherman's Conservation Association and raise awareness for the Jacob's Team Foundation (which offers financial support toward the diagnosis, treatment and eventual cure of autism).

It's usually full of Wall Street executives (not so much this year) and professional New York athletes (Wade Boggs topped the list of celebrities), but its charitable roots takes nothing away from the competition on the day.

While teams were also fishing for bluefish and weak fish, the single largest striped bass won the tournament. That bass was all Capt. Joe Blanda had on his mind as he trolled Raritan Bay at 1:30 a.m. — more than seven hours before the tournament started — looking for Atlantic Menhaden, the baitfish he planned on winning the tournament with, which he did.

Capt. Blanda and the winning crew

The backdrop and the fishing might be unique the New York City, but a Yankee guide plays the exact same game as guides across the country.

"I had half the field convinced I was going to fish the George Washington Bridge," Blanda said with a smile as he pulled up on a sunken tugboat near the middle of Raritan Bay. The boat was anchored near where the mouth of the bay opens up into the Atlantic. To the left was Brooklyn, and to the right was Staten Island. "You got to be careful who you give your spots to," Blanda continued. "You can only run with one pack of wolves."

Blanda doesn't guide full-time, or even half-time, but he started working as a mate out of New York City when he was 13. He now owns and operates Michael's Bait and Tackle on Staten Island most days, and fishes most evenings.

"I've fished from the Gulf of Maine down to Central America, and some of the best fishing I've ever experienced is right here in New York," Blanda said as he lit a cigar. "You don't get a lot of the glamorous species, and maybe not as much variety as in Florida, but for numbers of fish and weight, this place is dynamite."

He didn't take long to prove his point. As is usually the case in charity tournaments, not all of the four guys fishing were seasoned anglers, so Blanda casted a piece of menhaden to demonstrate what they should do if they were to get a bite. And he got a bite.

"I knew when I got a bite on the demonstration cast that it was on," Blanda said.

For the next three hours, John Wigand, who was just "happily laid off" by Bank of America, Arthur Bances, and Steve Porricolo, a bond trader who sponsored the team, were pulling in fish after fish — and more importantly, striped bass after striped bass.

The fourth member of the team, John Seaton, spent most the morning watching and smiling. Seaton, who works in government bonds in New York, spent most of the 30-minute boat ride pitching NYC fishing like he was with the tourism department. He's been fishing the area for 39 years. His grandpa first took him when he was 3 years old.

"I know guys that captain and run charter boats in the East River, where you're fishing with the Manhattan skyline as your background, and you can watch the traffic back up on the FDR," Seaton said. "It's a very good place to fish. It's an area where people don't really know how good the fishing is."

Striper heaven

What Blanda thought might be tournament-winning stripers were being pulled out one after another. The first was 33 inches long with a girth of 16-1/2 inches. That was beaten by a 40-incher, then a 42-incher, but Porricolo's bass caught around 11 a.m. — two hours into the day — put them all to shame.

It started with a shout of, "Oh man. It's a nice one!" and ended with high fives and beers. The striper measured 44 inches long and 24-1/2 inches around.

Blanda started crunching numbers and estimated the weight at 35 pounds, but it eventually locked the scale at 30.5 pounds. (Each team was allowed to keep their largest striped bass in a specialized livewell built specifically for striped bass to be weighed in and released at the dock.)

"Our bass numbers this year seem to be a lot lower than in previous years," Blanda said, smiling because the day was going exactly as he planned it in his head while he was fishing for menhaden in the dark. "It forces you to fish structure. In past years, you could get away with being in a good area and still catch fish, but now you've got to be right on them."

He also attributed the day's success to using a monofilament leader instead of the wire leader he estimated 90 percent of the other teams were using and, of course, to his early morning when he caught over 100 menhaden that were swimming alive and happy in his livewell until the moment before they were chopped up for bait.

"Most of these boats today came out with 20 to 30 [baitfish] and are using them as dead chunk bait," Blanda said. "Even the guys that netted them today, they've still been dead for 6 to 8 hours. It can't compare to pulling them out of the livewell.

"The more you put into it, the more you get out of it … when it goes right."

The short ride home was a triumphant one, filled with smiles and a salute from Lady Liberty to her champions. The victory was eventually confirmed at the dock whereand Blanda and the winning crew went for beers and a silent auction at the Chelsea Brewing Company, the tournament's host.

Seaton briefly stayed behind, watching the East River and smiling like a dad who had been bragging on his son's pitching and just watched him throw 95. To Seaton, New York City is not a place of business and Broadway shows, it's one of the top fishing destinations in the Northeast.

"I enjoy fishing. It gets rid of stress," he said. "It's the same reason everyone else goes fishing. Sure, there's a lot to do around here, but it's nice to come home from work and just go fishing.

"I put our bass fishing up against any other state, any time."