The Bergall and the Baseline

Our ocean’s story in a single fish

Paul Greenberg

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The lowly bergall, a.k.a. “cunner” by Derek Keats is licensed under CC BY 2.0

When the fishing stops the internet takes over. In the Northeast, winter drives us anglers indoors and with computer instead of rod-and-reel we bounce the sinkers of our minds over the depths of our pastime. Tackle is browsed, trips are planned, and the sites of the few “open” boats still fishing are perused to see what’s coming over the iced-over rails.

In years past the “whose-fishing-and-what-are-they-catching?” peruse would often be a “gosh-I-wish-I-had-been-there” experience. A brace of nice green codfish held up by a beefy dude in Montauk or maybe a shot of a “snow shoe” flounder — the big spawner sized editions of Pseudopleuronectes americanus — gripped around the middle and shoved toward the camera might have made our fingers twitch with line-less envy. In much earlier times I might have done my perusing offline, making my fingers inky by looking through the flimsy winter editions of “The Long Island Fisherman” to see who was catching whiting (a.k.a. “frost fish” a.k.a. silver hake).

New York Times headline from 1921

But this year as I sit back and check the usual fishing boat websites, a new kind of winter game has emerged as the catch of the day. Ladies and gentlemen (ok, mostly gentlemen) I present to you the gamefish of 2024: Tautogolabrus adspersus, a.k.a. The Bergall, a.k.a cunner, a.k.a. choggie, a.k.a. get this f-ing thing off my line.

When I was a kid in the 1970s the idea that you would keep a bergall for your supper (let alone directly pursue one) would have seemed absurd. Bergalls fell into the category that one used to call “trash” fish. Whether you were fishing for tautog with green crabs as bait or sinker bouncing for black sea bass with squid, bergalls always had a way of getting between you and your heart’s desires. Excellent bait stealers, they forced you to reel up more than you’d care to. At the same time they also kept the bottom alive when it seemed like nothing was around. For the false hope they provided, I still feel grateful.

Funny what gratitude brings if you’re a fish. Because in the winter of 2024, the bergall is now the intended target. With…

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Paul Greenberg

New York Times bestselling author of Four Fish as well as The Climate Diet and Goodbye Phone, Hello World paulgreenberg.org