By Henry John Steiner
Historian of Sleepy Hollow, New York
Introducing the tomcod
Before we suburbanites came to Sleepy Hollow, Tarrytown, and the other river towns, there were the millionaires—our neighborhoods are carved from their estates. Before them, there were farmers—they displaced (to put it nicely) the Native American farmer/hunters who inhabited these lands for thousands of years. But even before the native people there was the humble tomcod, swimming in the Hudson.
December has long been the month for tomcod (Microgadus tomcod), also known as the Atlantic tomcod, tommy cod, frostfish, poulamon (French), or winter cod. I wonder how many hungry, bygone residents of our community have sustained themselves on tomcod when there was little else at hand? Few of us give these small creatures a passing thought, or even know that they exist at all. Be that as it may, they are out there now, along the edge of the Hudson—a modest little fish. It is described as an “in-shore fish,” rarely swimming into deep water, sticking to shallows, estuaries, and tributaries. And it loves the cold, being able to tolerate extremely cold temperature and significant fluctuations in water salinity.
The similarity and dissimilarity of the tomcod to the codfish
A first sight the tomcod appears to be a miniature codfish. Like the cod, it has a marked “overbite,” with the upper jaw protruding beyond the lower. Both types of fish share a small barbel or filament projecting downward from the chin; both fish also display a pale lateral line along the sides. The most obvious differences between the adult tomcod and the adult cod have to do with size and girth. The tomcod is very much smaller; in fact the record weight of this species is little more than a pound and a quarter, whereas the record size of an Atlantic cod was in excess of 200 pounds before it was commercially fished to less gargantuan proportions. Also, the tomcod is considerably more slender than the cod. There are other subtle differences too. At the risk of getting too technical, in the tomcod the origin of the first dorsal fin aligns approximately with the midpoint of the pectoral fin, while in the codfish this point aligns further forward on the pectoral fin. Additionally, the tomcod’s caudal fin (or tail fin) is more rounded than that of the cod and the tomcod’s eyes are smaller in proportion to the whole.
In recent Hudson River lore
In the past six years, there has been important scientific news that affects the desirability of tomcod as quarry. I will get to that in a moment, but first let us reflect a bit on how our community related to the fish in decades gone by.
Whatever local knowledge one needed about fishing—or tomcod—once safely reposed with the late Tony Morabito. Tony was the proprietor of the now extinct Hudson Valley Rod and Gun Shop, formerly located on Beekman Avenue in Sleepy Hollow. He was born-and-bred in Sleepy Hollow and was one of the last to know anything about the lore of tomcod fishing in the Hudson River towns. He and his family fished here and catered to local fishermen for two long generations.
Years ago when I first approached Tony on the subject of tomcod, I think he was a little surprised at my sudden curiosity about the “December fish.” It had likely been a long time since anyone had raised the subject with him. Within the last fifty years the tomcod season still figured on the fishing calendar, but today I imagine it would be a rare occurrence to spot even one hardy fisherman angling for them.
There was a time when I carried with me the impression that the best time to hunt tomcod was at night. Tony corrected my notion, indicating that there was nothing magical about nighttime fishing in this case, “When people got out of work it was dark at this time of year—so they fished after sunset.” According to Tony, Thanksgiving signaled the beginning of the season for tomcod, and the season continued until the Hudson iced over. They begin to spawn in late November with their numbers increasing during December. The height of egg production is in January. Their eggs are laid in salt water or brackish water in stream mouths or estuary shoals.
Local old-timers can still envision the General Motors workers of another era donning their hats and gloves after sunset, grabbing their fishing gear, and heading across the railroad tracks to the Hudson River shoreline. As trains clattered along in the darkness, dosing commuters glanced out of the windows to catch glimpses of silhouetted figures. The tomcod fishermen warmed themselves over driftwood fires lighted in dented, rusty, fifty-gallon drums. During the 1950s, many of the workers at GM were French Canadians who already possessed a well-developed appreciation for this sleek little fish. It was a love they carried with them from their home fishing grounds in Quebec.
I think it was Tony who told me that, in season, tomcod frequent docks and other kinds of under-water structure. To catch them one needs bait, some small hooks, and a lightweight rod. The preferred baits are bits of sandworm or clams. In olden days often two hooks were used to form a tandem rig. The angler must be sure to hide the hook with the bait—evidently the little fish have a well-developed sense of smell that warns them away from metal. A small weight takes the rig to the bottom, and then it is raised up very slightly. When you feel something dancing gently at the end of your line, it is time to pull up.
What emerges looks like a miniature codfish but unlike the imposing cod the tomcod seldom weighs more than a pound. The fish look olive-brown to green on top, with paler coloring underneath; the sides are darkly mottled with spots and blotches.
These days anglers have fewer options about what to do with their catch. They can let their fish go, or take them home and put them in an aquarium to watch them for a day or two. In years gone by you could also eat them, but today it is plainly not advisable to eat tomcod from the Hudson River. In the old days, Tony prepared his catch by heading and gutting them, and then frying them in breadcrumbs. I also came across an old Native American recipe that called for simmering the fillets in water seasoned with salt and diced onion.
The tomcod—a mutant rock star
For a number of decades, one of the major concerns with the health of the Hudson River has been the presence of a toxic, chemical pollutant, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls). The lion share of this pollution originated from two General Electric plants which dumped PCBs into the river in the period from 1947 to c1976. For State of New York advice on what Hudson River fish to eat and what not to eat, see this easy-to-read state pamphlet at:
Hudson River fish contain PCB contamination to a greater or lesser degree. The toxins present in certain species are more likely to be a threat to humans whom consume them. Particularly dangerous are high-fat bottom-dwellers such as eels and catfish. Certain people are more at risk to the effects of eating PCB-affected fish: women of childbearing age and children under fifteen years of age.
These days the tomcod is not a very prominent “sports fish,” nor is it considered commercially significant. Most consumption of tomcod is by the anglers who catch them and, as a result, state advisories do not feature specific information about the fish, but tend to lump them in the category known as, “all other species.” But the tomcod is not just another species. Since 2011 it has emerged as a kind of evolutionary rock star. A study from that year published by researchers from New York University and Boston University revealed that tomcod are the first known vertebrates to manifest high-speed, evolutionary, genetic adaptation. In other words, what normally takes vertebrates millennia to accomplish the tomcod has done in the course of half a century. The little fish is a scientific and natural marvel—a natural marvel living under unnatural environmental pressures.
So what has the tomcod done in record-time to the awe of modern science? It has produced with “lightning speed” a genetic modification or mutation, one that favorably affects the fish’s resistance to PCBs. Tomcod in the Hudson River overwhelmingly bear this genetic mutation, and this how it works. Virtually all tomcod in the Hudson River are missing two amino acids in their AHR2 protein. The AHR2 receptor mitigates toxicity in early life. The missing amino acids interfere with the metabolizing of the toxic compound PCB. This enables the fish to store unusually great numbers of PCBs in its fat without becoming ill. Good news for tomcod, bad news for humans who eat tomcod.
Tomcod range from Virginia to Newfoundland; only Hudson River tomcod appear to have this mutation in such overwhelming numbers. One source suggests that 99% of Hudson River tomcod are “mutants,” whereas only about 5% of Long Island Sound tomcod possess the mutation. This means that the survival rate of Hudson River tomcod to PCB exposure has significantly improved; it also means that that people and fish (such as striped bass) that consume the tomcod are potentially at greater risk. One could say that,more than ever, humans ought not consume tomcod taken from the Hudson River.
So now rather than hunt and eat tomcod, we can hunt and admire them. They go back a long way with us… or we with them. We always knew there was something special about them; we just didn’t know what other special qualities they possessed. No matter what your holiday traditions, it is unlikely that they predate December dinners that human beings have long taken near the Hudson with tomcod as a table offering. This was one of the legacies we were given as residents of the lower Hudson Valley, and with any luck one day it will be a legacy we can enjoy again.
A happy holiday season to all!
©2007-2016 Henry John Steiner