A typical fishing trip in New York City often involves casting for hours without a bite. But on a recent morning in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, magnet fisherman James Kane had luck on his side.
He tossed a powerful rare earth magnet tied to the end of an orange rope into the lake and slowly pulled in the line. He’d attracted a big one.
“Holy crap! It’s a friggin’ gun! The first toss!” Kane, 39, said. “Dude, it’s a Smith and Wesson.”
The five-shot revolver was heavily rusted and looked like it had been underwater for decades.
Instead of catching largemouth bass in Prospect Park Lake or stripers in Jamaica Bay, Kane and his wife, Barbie Agostini, are catching bicycles, scooters, cellphones, bottle caps, rebar, vintage oar locks, trash cans, knives, silverware, signs, countless fishing lures and even a sex toy.
One other common catch: firearms. Kane has caught 10 guns in just five months.
About three hours after catching the revolver in Prospect Park, Kane pulled in the receiver of a second firearm: a Hi-Standard .22-caliber pistol. He opted to catch and release that gun – to the NYPD – and called 911. Park police and officers from the 78th Precinct quickly responded to the southwestern edge of the lake.
“You’re contracted to do this with the city?” an officer asked.
“I’m independent, a YouTuber,” Kane replied, offering the officers stickers promoting his channel, LetsGetMagnetic.
“If you find a body, push it back in,” the cop joked, before telling reporters to back away because it was now a crime scene.
The officers took the gun and declined to comment. An NYPD spokesperson said the gun was vouchered and an investigation is ongoing. The NYPD did not respond to a question about the legality of magnet fishing. The parks department, however, is not a fan.
“We appreciate New Yorkers helping to keep our parks and greenspaces clean by removing litter. However, using magnets to retrieve sunken metal objects can have negative impacts on local wildlife and is not permitted,” parks department spokesperson Chris Clark said. The Prospect Park Alliance echoed that statement, saying the hobby can be harmful to aquatic habitats.
Kane, who lives in Jamaica, Queens, explained the appeal of magnet fishing.
“I’ve always wanted treasure since I was a little kid,” he said. “And obviously I’m not affording a ship to go out and do those things. But this is like the ‘everyman’ treasure hunting.”
He added that there’s an environmental benefit, too. “In the process, you’re cleaning,” Kane said.
Using magnets to attract debris from water isn’t new, though the hobby grew in popularity during the pandemic. Enthusiasts are drawn to magnet fishing for the relatively low cost, the ability to be outdoors and the chance to interact with history.
For Kane, a former member of the Merchant Marine, magnet fishing is “gross but fun.” Kane uses two neodymium magnets — one rated for 2,400 pounds and a second capable of holding up to 3,800 pounds. Each magnet has a radius of 3 to 7 inches.
He usually fishes twice a week for around five hours, and often ends up soaking wet and filthy after his expeditions. He has a fisherman’s penchant for exaggeration. He describes a knife in one video as a “murder weapon.” He regularly refers to discarded bags pulled from fetid waterways as “mystery bags.” He calls one fishing hole a “crime dumping ground.”
“The not knowing what’s in there – I can’t live without it,” he said. “I love to recover the history. Then, I research and I find out where things are from.”
Agostini tends to be behind the camera, filming Kane and posting the footage to YouTube. Videos show Kane all over the city. In Central Park, he pulled an iPhone and cash from the water, much to the delight of tourists. On Nov. 11, he pulled what looked like a grenade from the water near a Holocaust Memorial in Sheepshead Bay, prompting a large NYPD response. The find was determined to be an inert dummy grenade, according to the New York Post. A month ago, Kane pulled another inert grenade from the water at Gantry Plaza State Park along the Long Island City waterfront.
He collects his most interesting catches in a bucket to take home, but leaves larger items like Citi Bikes (he said he’s found seven near Prospect Park’s boathouse alone) and rebar near trash cans for parks officials to clean up. He said the junk he pulls from the water doesn’t make him any money – though he’s making a buck off of his YouTube presence.
While the hobby is particularly popular in Tennessee and Florida, Kane appears to be one of the few magnet fishermen in the five boroughs with an online presence. Kane and his team, who sport bright construction vests and are often surrounded by grimy junk, tend to attract onlookers.
During the recent fishing trip in Prospect Park, passerby Al Torres said he’d thought of picking up the hobby himself. But after observing cops retrieving the pistol, he thought better of it.
“I don’t want to pull up nobody’s murder weapon,” Torres says. “I wanted to do it in Red Hook, but I kept saying ‘no, I’m gonna find too many guns.’ So I’m gonna leave that alone.”