I met Gabrielson a couple of times and liked him. He was skeptical of the press, skeptical of environmentalists, skeptical of the government, but not even slightly hostile. Others will have great stories about him on the river, setting drift nets to catch shad and striped bass, or pulling pots for crabs. I once asked him if he had ever eat shad gonads and he paused for a second or two, smiled a little smile, and said, "I didn't know they had 'em."
Here's what I wrote about him a few years ago:
Back in 1999 I wanted to write a newspaper story about the status of shad fishing, and of shad themselves, in the Hudson River, so I drove across the Tappan Zee Bridge to visit Bob Gabrielson, one of the few remaining rivermen, at his house, in Nyack. It was early April and I found him in a tiny office, preparing other people’s tax returns, which he did as a sideline (and which told me all I needed to know about the viability of commercial fishing on the Hudson).
My guess is that he was probably 70; he was clear-eyed and good-humored, and although he didn’t particularly respect the press (he had been interviewed a lot in his life), once we established that he was of Norwegian stock and had been raised in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, and that I was of Norwegian stock and had relatives from Bay Ridge, he warmed up and we had a good interview. He mentioned that people buy shad roe directly from him and so as I was about to leave I told him that when the run starts, I’d like to buy some. He took out a little book and wrote down my name and number
Good to his word, he called, on the morning of April 14. I asked if he could spare two, and when he said he could, I drove back to Nyack. A cold front must have moved through overnight, because the sky was clear, the air looked washed. The wind whipped from the north and stirred up white caps on the waters of the Tappan Zee. I parked in front of his house and walked down the driveway to the back door. Gabrielson waved me in through the aluminum storm door before I could knock.
He was in the kitchen eating cinnamon toast with I-Can’t-Believe-It’s-Not-Butter. A small TV on the kitchen counter was tuned to Rosie O’Donnell interviewing Cher. We chatted for a few minutes in the kitchen. He told me there were so few shad around that Christopher Letts, who organizes shad festivals for the Hudson River Foundation, was on his way to Bridgeton, N.J., on Delaware Bay, to buy shad for an upcoming festival. He said John Cronin was buying shad from the Connecticut River for his Riverkeeper shad fest. He said these things in a tone that indicated that Letts and Cronin would be embarrassed at the disclosures. (Thinking back, I can’t imagine why I didn’t call up Chris and John, confirm what Gabrielson told me, and write a story about how the fishing has gotten so bad on the Hudson that Hudson River shad festivals were using fish imported from the Delaware and the Connecticut.)
As we were talking, he found a knife and a Ziploc bag. We went down to the cellar and out a door to the backyard. He opened a cooler to show me a 30-pound striped bass (or stripe-id bass, as he pronounced it) his son had caught the night before. He said he was going to smoke it and, one Norwegian-American to another, he grinned and said almost in a whisper, “I make a real good Squarehead smoked fish.”
He found a plank and laid it across the top of another cooler. Then he walked to a third cooler and picked out two shad lying among a bunch of alewives that he had caught for bait. He put the shad on the plank and slit open their bellies. The knife made a ripping sound. “I knew I should have put an edge on this,” he said.
He extracted the roe from each fish and put them in the plastic bag. They were plump and clean, and their weight felt good in my hand. He looked at me.
“You’re getting the best stuff, right here,” Bob Gabrielson said.
“I know,” I said. “That’s why I came right over.”
He grinned again.
“It didn’t take you long, did it?”
Roe extracted from shad by the fisherman who caught them – I paid him and smiled the smile of someone who knew he was getting the best stuff.
The Journal News ran an obit of him, here, but there's a better one waiting to be written.