Most Everybody is Sick of 2021, and Understandably So…
If anyone told you, one New Year’s Eve two years ago, that in the coming years you’d be wearing a mask every time you went out in public, you’d be getting multiple vaccinations that adversely affected your health in their own right, that you’d be laid off from work (if you worked in the public sphere whatsoever), collecting unemployment, going stir crazy cooped up, and seeing infection rates scroll by on the bottom of your television like school closings after a winter storm… You’d likely bet them a month’s wages that it was B.S.
But it all happened, and we’re here, two years later, a society changed, likely forever, in small and large ways.
There have been more than enough pundits rambling on about the disease’s origin, the effectiveness of masks, the merit of stimulus checks and whether or not this is the apocalypse, so I’ll not add fuel to that fire.
But for me 2020-21 posed a simple question: Without a job/jobs to frantically scramble to, without a schedule ruling every waking moment of your life, without 119 superficial obligations to be met between that first alarm clock and finally falling asleep… What would you do? What would you do if you had the time.
Because many of us, and I’m no exception, force ourselves to rush, scramble and run from one obligation to another, whether that’s a job or two, taking care of loved ones, keeping up on the news, or your favorite reality stars, or…. or… whatever you devote your time to…
I fell in love with brook trout and brown trout in a way I’d never have imagined possible, I wrote more than I ever have in a single year, and I talked to some incredible anglers and got their stories.
Yes, I got vaccinated, social distanced, got frustrated, went a little stir-crazy, got sick of Covid, and vaccines and masks, but I also got to ask myself… If, as Hemingway once wrote, “time is the least thing we have of…” what do I want to do with mine?
And the answer that I found, namely to fish more and tell stories about the incredible anglers we share the water with, was definitely a positive piece of 2021 that I’ll hang onto forever.
I hope you found some optimism in this past year, and I hope you carry that into the coming one.
Can our time on the water be defined by everything we do away from it?
In the last month, I’ve been extremely fortunate to start a job as stocker at a recently-built distribution center in Upstate New York. I say ‘extremely fortunate,’ because the people are kind, the pay is above average, and the original hours of the shift in question were from 5 a.m. until 1:30 p.m.
If you’re anything like me, when you see those hours, you’re thinking: “God, if I can drag myself out of bed at that hour on a regular basis, I’ll basically have an entire day to myself once my shift is over,” and perhaps more specifically: “That’s a lot more fishing time.”
Well, the purpose of this post is to first and foremost thank each and every one of you who has ever worked at a distribution center, making it possible for people who are blissfully ignorant of how shelves get stocked, like I was two months ago, to get our _____________ (toothpaste, paper towels, mosquito repellent, etc.).
I now know that it takes a small army of workers, working 50, and sometimes 60-hour weeks, so that I can waltz into the grocery store and get my paper plates.
While they’ve continued to staff the distribution center, those of us already working have been working 12-hour shifts for four days a week, with a little leeway on Fridays, when we’re more likely to get out ‘early’.
Distribution center work isn’t ‘hard,’ per se: As a repack stocker, you’re pulling pallets of products in a gate, lining them up to start the day, and then taking them, one at a time, and stocking the products in shelving, or slots that are labeled numerically to correspond with labels on the products (this makes it easier for ‘pickers’ — employees finding the products to send out to stores and customers — to easily locate a given item).
The challenging part — and of course this is subjective — is keeping on your feet, and moving, for the better part of twelve hours, hauling, lifting and stocking everything from Quickcrete (which they’ll send up on a 700-pound pallet) to birdseed. I don’t know if being 5’8″ and change and a buck-sixty is a blessing or a curse, because I do see some of the bigger guys working in what’s called ‘Full Case’ stocking, where you’re loading trailers from noon until… some nights, almost midnight, from what I’ve heard. If they thought that, when they sent me, as they do all perspective employees, to a certified trainer at a fitness center to see if I could hack it (or more likely, if I’d be a liability), I might not be the best specimen for loading trucks for 12 hours, then who am I to argue?
What I’ve learned for sure in the two months I’ve spent at the distribution center is this: Despite the continuing trend of automation in a lot of industries, there’s still an invisible army of American muscle making sure you can get your ____________ (paint, hammers, nails, toys, garbage bags and laundry detergent). They’re the kind of people who get up before dawn, work long hours, are grateful for the job and who are quick to help the new guy, even when he spills a gallon of paint that leaks through to the floor below.
And perhaps more importantly, it has become crystal clear that, after 70-plus-hours between two jobs, the beauty of the water that keeps us coming back, whether it’s the pattern on a wild brook trout, the subtle movements of a hunting heron, waves crashing on a beach in the striper surf, or just the moon rising over the trees and shining a little more light on a pool that you’re hoping has that 20-inch brown, are essential and perfect parts of our existence that I’m more grateful for daily.
Do you ever wonder why, when a stranger pulls out a phone to show you a fish they’d recently caught, you’re not terribly excited? Unless it’s a roosterfish, a recent world record, or a fish in a place we might soon visit, it’s cool, but not necessarily exciting.
It’s the circumstances behind a catch that make it memorable
Our fish photos, however, are exciting (to us anyway) and here’s my theory on why: Every fish is the culmination of a story. That brown trout, brook trout, striped bass or bluefish is the exclamation point at the end of a sentence that finishes a paragraph about how we found ourselves holding a rod, reeling a line, connected to a lure (or fly) that said fish inhaled. And it’s the story, more than the fish, that’s so endearing, so incredible.
I was standing in line at North Star Orchards two days ago, getting some fresh fruit, when I took off my hat, holding my polarized glasses on my head. The glasses hit the concrete and an an ear piece came off.
I’d had these glasses for more than a decade, they’d survived a trip around the country, I’d been soaked and frozen to retrieve them from various stream bottoms, I’d searched for them frantically right before a trip, and I’d managed to hold onto them through moves to and from Cape Cod, New Jersey, Florida, Salem, and New Hartford, New York.
If you’ve got a favorite pair of lenses, a lucky hat (we’ll save that for another blog), hoody or trinket, then you know what I’m talking about.
Let’s forget the facts of the matter for the moment — namely that without polarized lenses, ideally of a light amber shade, it’s harder to make out stream bottom, spot moving fish, or see holes or drop-offs underneath the water’s surface, or keep from squinting all day. Let’s focus on feel. Because when you don’t have your lucky/usual __________ (glasses, hat, hoody) you just feel different. You can tell, on some level, that’s something’s missing.
So, naturally, I drove like a crazy person to the nearest Walgreens, bought an eyeglasses repair kit, ripped it open in my Jeep in the parking lot, said a prayer, and picked the first tiny screw to try to put my glasses back together.
Let’s pause for a second here, shall we? Who in the name of Sam Hell invented these glasses screws. I have felt grains of sand stuck in my eye that must be twice as big as these things. They’re smaller than socks a flea would wear. I can imagine the microscope they must need at the factory where these things are assembled.
This has got to be some kind of joke on all of us right? Let’s see how many people we can get swearing, muttering and cursing while holding a screwdriver a quarter the size of a toothpick? I digress. By some miracle the screwdriver screwed the atom-sized screw back into the sunglasses and they (knock on wood) have held together since.
But now I was running behind, and I’d lost an hour of fishing time. Am I the only one who does this? “If I leave at ____, I’ll get there by _____, and then, well… the sun technically sets at _____, but I can fish until _____, which still gives me _____ hours.” I feel like I have this conversation with myself seven times per week.
Now there was just the matter of gas money. I work in retail, which is fun, interesting, and you meet some great people. I also drive a Jeep Wrangler that gets, by my estimate, a third of a mile per gallon. Basically, my income is direct-deposited into my gas tank, which was empty.
But would an empty gas tank stop you from getting on the water on your last day off before an eight-day work stretch. Of course not, which is where cans and bottles come in.
I had about seven bags of returnable cans and bottles, which were the closest thing to cash I had in my possession. I threw them in the empty-tanked Jeep, raced to the can and bottle return, and … waited.
I was third in line behind two people who, from the looks of it, were returning the cans and bottles consumed by entire sports franchises for the past six months. I tried to do the math in my head to decide if returning them to a grocery store, which would involve a drive, and feeding can after can into the machine, would be faster. When in doubt, stay the course.
What felt like 17 hours later, I emptied the cans and bottles, all five bags, onto the tray in front of the guy who counts them. Whenever I think about any aspect of a job I’m not wild about, I think about this guy. He counts, for hours at a time, other people’s soda-covered cans and bottles.
And you know what? He’s a pretty upbeat, easy-going guy. I always think: If a guy sifting through a town’s empties can be pleasant, what am I going to complain about?
It turns out I had sixteen dollars in cans and bottles, which is enough to get to a stream an hour away and back.
For a number of reasons, Nine-mile creek near Syracuse has become my favorite trout stream. There’s a handful of blue herons that frequent the area, and seeing the enormous, majestic birds always makes me smile. In the upper reaches of the creek, closer to Otisco Lake, there are brook trout, and even some wild ones. And I’ve caught browns to 21 inches in certain stretches, and if nothing else, that’ll make a stream your favorite pretty quick, won’t it?
So, with can-and-bottle money in the gas tank, and glasses held together by a drug-store screw, I made it to Nine Mile.
Not one, but two browns better than 15 inches made the trip an incredible one. The blue herons and a stunning sky on a start-of-summer night would have made it amazing either way, but two beautiful trout made it perfect.
And in-between looking at the photos and trying to put gas from a spare tank that I’d had for the lawnmower into the Jeep so I’d make it to work and back the next day, I couldn’t help but think: It’s the story more than the fish, isn’t it? We might need the fish, but we definitely need the story.
If there’s one topic anglers are always ready to discuss, it’s the trips we’d love to take.
One of the most endearing elements of the fishing life is that the future is every bit as, if not more, exciting than the past. Sure, we love to hear and share stories about our favorite species, trips or days on the water, but being a fisherman almost demands optimism on several levels, so naturally, we’re more excited about trips we might take than trips we already have.
But let’s open it up a little bit, shall we? If you could take a week and chase any species, anywhere… where would you go? These are a few that have been kicking around my head for a few years now, but don’t hesitate to tell me what I’m leaving out, or why I’m wrong…
Alaska: Alaska has three million lakes, twelve thousand rivers, and 627 different species of fish. We’ll let that sink in for a minute. How could a state with more than a million lakes and a thousand different species of fish not be a dream destination?
We realize that fishing, as a sport, has several endearing elements, we each love it for our own reasons, but I can’t help but like cool-looking fish. I just never lost that fascination with a fish’s patterns, markings or coloration. That’s part of the reason I’d love to chase species like the arctic grayling, pictured above, in Alaska.
My father was stationed in Alaska in the army, and some of those stories undoubtedly piqued my interest.
But I think it’s more than any individual interest I might have in the state, because I’ve talked with too many anglers who’ve either gone there, or hope to some day. I think it’s a uniquely American mindset that we want to go as far as we can go… to the end or the edge, just to see what’s there. The fact that Alaska is the end of the road on our continent is what makes it, to me, such a dream destination.
Bluefin Tuna on Light Tackle: Whether it’s the fact that a bluefin tuna just looks so sleek, shiny and cool, or the notion that they can grow larger than the car in your driveway, the species has always been one I’ve hoped to chase. I was watching a clip of the On The Water guys casting at schools of tuna this week, and it just looked so… much… fun.
Roosterfish: If you’ve never watched the ‘Running Down the Man,’ video… take a minute. You can’t tell if these guys are nuts, kidding or onto the most fascinating, maddening type of surf fishing you’ve ever seen. But once you start thinking about casting at giant combs cutting through the surf on a Mexican stretch of sand… good luck stopping.
Patagonia Brown Trout: In the past year, I’ve come to love trout fishing. I caught a beautiful fish yesterday that was pushing eight… inches. So, when I imagine a sea-run brown trout that can weigh more than thirty pounds… yep… that sounds like just about one of the coolest damn things on earth. You’re talking about the trout I’m chasing, except they’re running out to the ocean, and they weigh ten times as much? Yes please. Angler’s Journal has an intriguing piece on the fishery, just in cast you’re not already sold.
Canadian Brook Trout: Can you imagine a 34-inch, 14-pound brook trout? That was the size of the brookie caught in Nipigion region of Ontario, Canada. I get excited if I land a 10-inch brook trout, and we’re talking about a place with 10-pound fish? Lake Nipigion alone covers 1,872 square miles, making it the largest in Ontario county and one of the biggest in the world. In 1887, Field & Stream called the Nipigion “The finest trout stream in the world.” That’s more than good enough for us.
What rivers, coastlines, lakes and regions did we leave out?
We just published Issue 2 of the Road to Water, an online magazine about all the elements of the sport that make it one you spend a lifetime in love with.
The magazine, which we launched last Fall, is one that I hope is about more than just the fish. As first-time contributor Matthew Gutchess puts it in his feature, the answer to the question, “What are we looking for on the water…” “more often than not, had nothing to do with a species or time of year.”
Gutchess goes on to explain that there are any number of elements pulling us back to the stream, beach, river, pond or lake and that the fish often form a relatively small part of the equation.
Even Roy Bilby, a man who has caught and released more than 30,000 bass, who we profiled in this issue’s first feature, is quick to admit that numbers “are certainly not the most important way” to gauge your growth as an angler.
Chris Senyohl, Joe Higgins and John Kobald are all incredible artists who depict the fish we love in various forms (ranging from ink to sculpture) and we brought you their work in a feature about the angler as an artist. Certainly when looking at Higgins’ beautiful gyotaku prints, or Kobald’s stunning sculpture, we are reminded that we are in pursuit of much more than fish when we take to the water.
Striper fishermen are their own breed entirely, and sometimes, talking to one, you’ll feel like you need a translator or a dictionary. That’s why we included “A Striper Dictionary,” in this issue, too, to give those interested in joining the striper cult a crash course in the lingo, and for those already well versed, perhaps a laugh.
In the past two years (in part thanks to the pandemic) I’ve fallen more in love with trout than I’d ever been before, which had us dreaming about the best trout trips in the country. We put together a list for you to consider, and that’s in this issue too.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a fisherman without a storm story. Storms are an integral part of our existence as anglers, and we pay them homage with a list of a few of our favorites.
We’ve got some of the most unforgettable seafood restaurants, for you foodies, and an interview with one of Upstate New York’s steelhead-obsessed anglers about what makes the species so endearing.
We’ve got pieces on catching your next giant redfish, from a man who has landed and released more gargantuan reds than most of us ever will, and a list of niche fisheries (like peacock bass, sea-run cutthroat trout and Boston carp) that… if you haven’t investigated, you might want to.
There’s more in this issue, including a profile of a fly tying guru named Pat Cohen who makes some bugs you won’t believe, a list of the best fishing movies (and what makes them great), and an angler named Mark Kiburz who will design you a custom crankbait… no really.
One of our goals with the Road to Water was to pack every issue to the gills with stories, color and life, because the fishing life is a beautiful one that’s immeasurably improved when we share our stories and experiences with one another.
We all believe that luck plays at least some role in our success on the water, but the degree to which we’ll admit to relying on this vaguely defined cosmic force in our day-to-day fishing lives can vary.
Here’s the undeniable part: Any fishing adventure, no matter how well researched or planned, is ultimately reliant on chance to a certain degree. Let’s face it, you’re hoping a wild creature in a body of water you’re either wading through or boating over mistakenly eats a man-made object that it takes for prey — nothing’s guaranteed. Never mind the fact that your taking to and returning from the water without incident — regardless of whether or not fish are caught — is luck in its own right. (In the past year I’ve misplaced a rod while trying to fish a lure off a branch, taken a dunk in the river, mid-winter, and had a serious motor-vehicle malfunction on a main highway at 70 m.p.h.) When framed with the right perspective, just getting to and from the fishing destination in one piece is… relatively lucky.
When I saw weather forecasters calling for highs in the (gasp!) 50s on St. Patrick’s Day (we dare not hope for much more until mid-May in these parts of Upstate New York), a day I happened to have off, it seemed like the ideal time to test luck’s influence on angling success. After all, despite a German last name (Bach), I’m the descendent of McCabes on one side and Gillorens (after Killorglin County) on the other, so Ireland’s history, lore and culture have always played an important part in my life.
After about 4.5 hours on the water on St. Patty’s, my faith in luck’s existence, and the role it plays in the lives of fishermen, is as strong as ever.
Let’s start with the fact it was 50 damn degrees, mid-March, in Upstate New York. If that’s not luck, I don’t know what is. Sure, you’ll say we’re cooking the planet and the next generations will have to deal with global catastrophes that will threaten the life of anything that’s not a cockroach in 200 years, and you’re probably right but… it was 50 degrees! Consider that during this same week in 1993, a storm dumped 42.9 inches of snow on Syracuse while winds gusted to 40 m.p.h.
Mother Nature pulled out some of her finest colors for the evening, as brilliant shades of red and orange lit up the sky. A hawk soared overhead searching for a meal throughout the afternoon, a beaver lazily meandered down the stream, a pair of geese honked at me while I slowly waded toward their stretch of water, and red-headed woodpeckers, sparrows and ducks rounded out the menagerie of critters making cameos on the water.
And three brown trout cooperated to make it just about as perfect a day on the water as you could ask for. Of course there were fish that hit and came off…. and of course, they were bigger than the ones landed… did you really need me to tell you that?
But less than a mile away a city bustled, citizens struggling in the midst of a pandemic, strapping on masks, washing their hands, hoping for stimulus checks — a weary world we all return to these days after any trip onto the water or into the woods. But just wading up a beautiful stretch of water, underneath a blanket of crimson clouds, it was hard to feel anything but lucky.
These are the moments we… or I, anyway, wait all winter For
Bunker Scent: If you are not a striper fisherman, this might not be a smell you’re familiar with. If you are a striper guy, there is one scent that is separated in your head from all others: The smell of bunker being shredded beneath the water’s surface. Now, if you’re not a surf fisherman or a saltwater fisherman, it might sound absurd initially to suggest that you can actually ‘smell,’ bunker (atlantic menhaden) being diced by stripers and bluefish in a blitz beneath the water’s surface. But here’s the thing: You can. When bass or bluefish are blitzing on thick schools of bunker and thousands of these fish are being torn to bits, there’s a certain odor in the air — because they are a very oily baitfish, that is immediately recognizable. Certain guides will tell you it smells like watermelon rind, but what the hell does that smell like? The truth is it is a distinct, memorable odor that — once you’ve detected, you’ll never forget… because it very likely signals a fantastic day of fishing ahead. And the first sign you might be in for a great day in the surf is that smell.
Jacket-less Trout Fishing: Don’t get me wrong, I’ve grown to love winter trout fishing. And with Underarmour layers, a neoprene dry top, two pairs of socks and a wool cap, it’s not that uncomfortable… for the first half hour, anyway. But that first day in April when you can wade that same stream in a short-sleeve shirt and feel the sun and wind on your face without stopping to tuck your hands beneath your armpits for warmth… that’s going to be a damn good day.
The First Brook Trout: Don’t get me wrong, I love brown trout. In fact, if you pressed me to decide between a 20-inch brown and a wild, native brook trout, I’d be hard-pressed to make a call one way or the other. But the cool thing about brook trout, for me anyway, is that they are rare and unexpected. So, when you’re having a great day on the water landing and releasing brown trout, and then you land a brookie… it’s like your team winning on your birthday… It would have been great anyway, but now…
The first Striper on the Sand: I do not know why I love striped bass so much, to be completely honest. I could probably write you a short book on how being in the surf, with the NorthAtlantic crashing at your knees, whales breaching in the distance and birds diving on bait just out of casting distance for me feels like everything on the inside of you reaching a type of harmony with your surroundings… how it feels damn near perfect… but here’s the thing… it isn’t perfect… not quite anyway. When the bucktail stops and the rod bends… that’s pretty close. But when that first striped bass… that fish you’ve been dreaming, reading and writing about for months… is on the sand at your feet… that is perfect. It feels like… “Okay… the rest is gravy.”
The first Better Brown: Stocked brown trout are incredible… They’re fun, you can catch a mess of them, and each one looks slightly different. Perhaps the coolest thing about them, though, is how they lull you into a relaxed state of catching and releasing 10-inch fish so that, when you do hook a 15-, 17-, or 21-inch brown… it is almost more shocking than it would have been were it not for the stockies caught prior. That first brown you send a photo of to friends and family, though, that’s a Spring moment to look forward to.
New Water: Last year, despite not having fished there for almost a decade, I went back to surf fish the Jersey shore and sheerly by divine miracle, I’m convinced, I found and caught stripers. Technically, it wasn’t ‘new water,’ per se, since I’d caught stripers on the Jersey shore in my twenties, but it’d been a decade, so it felt brand new. While laid off during the height of the Coronavirus, I started exploring trout water around my native Upstate New York and found a few stretches of water that I’ve since fallen in love with. I don’t care how confident or experienced you are, there is always some trepidation when you’re exploring new water. Show me the angler who says: “I’m going to fish here for the first time and crush them,” and I’ll show you an inflated ego. Part of the beauty, mystery and excitement of being an angler is finding and exploring new water, and I’m looking forward to that as much as anything this Spring.
The ___________ (Unexpected Miracle): We were striper fishing on Long Island a few years back and I looked up and saw humback whale breach about a quarter mile off the beach. It was June, and I was fishing by myself at the moment, so I immediately texted my friend who was back at the house to come down, and then I went and found the nearest person, who happened to be a toddler playing in the sand, and told him to look offshore for a minute. The kid saw the whale, and had the exact emotional reaction that I was trying to seem too cool to act out… there was a lot of pointing and yelling…. from both of us, actually. The breaching humback whale is one example of the type of miracle you never know if you’ll see on any given day on the water. It could be a bolt of lightening hitting the surface of a lake, it could be a double rainbow, a breaching humpback, a great blue heron, a rising moon so Orange that it looks like a basketball on the horizon… The fact that you don’t know what it will be, on any given trip, and that it could appear at any moment, in a myriad of forms, is what makes it so incredible every time it does.
In Places like Upstate New York, you’ll hear no shortage of complaints about long, freezing winters… but there’s a solution.
If the idea of tucking your hands beneath your arms while breathing through your nose in the middle of an empty, softly flowing stream surrounded by snow-covered banks sounds invigorating and fascinating to you — please read on. (If it sounds like terrifying torture, you might want to stop here).
I was raised — and got my undergraduate degree — in a place that is consistently ranked (by Accuweather, anyway) as one of the five snowiest places in the United States.
When you typically see your first snowfall before halloween, have weeks where the predicted highs for any given day aren’t above 30 degrees, and you’re equally likely to have Mother’s Day flurries… you learn to… well, let’s not say enjoy, but perhaps, tolerate… winter weather?
And I’ve heard some people say… okay, a lot of people say… ‘I just don’t like winter.’ And hey, I’m with you. If you’ve got a condo in the Keys that you’re offering me for our six-month winter, I’m all ears.
But here’s the thing: While Upstate New York winter weather is less than ideal, for most of us, the hot air expended by people complaining about it, has not, as far as I can tell, melted a single snowbank (we’re working on destroying the ozone layer with our cars so as to extend Autumn into December, but we’re not quite there yet).
So what are you going to do? I’ve heard phrases like ‘hibernate,’ thrown around, and truthfully I can’t blame anyone who chooses this option. There are more entertaining options on television than we’ve ever had, the internet is a black hole of frivolous, endlessly entertaining content, and sleep never hurt anyone.
But I’ve discovered something about winter fishing: it has a strangely rewarding nature that is — as you might expect — the exact opposite of its summer counterpart.
On a beautiful May afternoon, a hike down a stream might very well be worth the time spent in of itself. You’re liable to see blue herons, beavers, otters, all manner of wildlife working in concert in and around the water.
A January fishing trip starts by blasting the heat, full-bore, for ten minutes before summoning the courage to kill the engine, wader up, grab hand-warmers and hike through the snow to the water’s edge.
There is no part of you that believes you’ll entice a trout during these outings. Mainly you are hoping that friends and family aren’t reading about your life in the past tense in the next day’s paper.
But that tiny part of your brain that stays fixated on fish, fishing trips and ways to catch fish on fishing trips is thinking: yeah this is borderline painful but wouldn’t it be cool if…
Without the ‘Wouldn’t-it-be-cool-if’ parts of our brains, we would not be fishermen, and we would not have stumbled, driven, ran, or casted into some of the most wonderful and terrible circumstances of our lives. But that’s another blog.
If you’ve got enough layers of wool, cotton, Underarmour, neoprene and polyester on… most of your body will stay — if not warm then, at least… so much warmer than your hands, that any discomfort won’t be noticed because… well, you’ll be wholly focused on trying to regain feeling and functionality in your hands.
So the trip will be equally divided into three — maybe four — parts: First will be casting at promising trout pools and catching nothing and then repeating to yourself: “Yeah, no *&!$, it’s January you moron.” The second part of the trip will be spent with your hands tucked under your arms shivering. The third part will be spent holding, licking or sucking the eyes of your rod which will continually freeze over with the moisture that your line is bringing back up through them.
If there’s a fourth part, it’s the shortest one. This is the part you spend fighting, landing and releasing an actual trout. This is the part that, once you’ve thawed enough, back in your vehicle, to regain functionality in your hands, you’ll text every fish friend you’ve got that… ‘You knew would happen because ___________ (something about the wind or barometer).’ This is the part that feels like a stolen moment of summer was wedged into winter’s window. This is the part that’ll warm you up in an an instant because an increased heart rate will pump much needed blood to your hands. This is the part that — when you’re holding a brown trout just above the water in an empty, snowy, winter-wonderland, will feel almost like a dream.
It’s the same part that keeps us coming to the water during the other three seasons, and I’m here to tell you — it’s better in the winter because you really didn’t think it’d happen — and proving a doubter wrong, even if it’s you, is a feeling of sweet success. It’s that same feeling of unlikely enchantment that you get in the summer and the fall, but because the likelihood is even more diminished when the mercury falls below freezing, the magic is all the more… magical.
This is Issue 1, the beginning, of an online fishing magazine about… anglers, and why we love this sport.
The Road to Water is an online quarterly fishing magazine with a simple premise at its core: That fishermen, people, human beings… are what make fishing, and the lifestyle that surrounds the sport, such a beautiful and intriguing one.
Picture for me, if you will, for a second, the following situation: You’re on a beach (or a lake, or a riverbank, take your pick) and you’re catching fish after fish, and they’re your favorite species. Every cast results in a hit, a tremendous fight, and a landed fish.
But it’s just you, you’re completely alone in this scenario. There aren’t any family members or friends to send pictures to, no one to swap stories with around a campfire, and not even a social media platform to post proof on. How meaningful would those fish ultimately be?
If, after some consideration, you admitted that even the best days of fishing would be forgettable if they weren’t captured in images to show friends, video to share with family, and stories to trade around a campfire, then you’ll easily understand why The Road to Water is about anglers, it’s not about fish or new tackle or new tactics.
We have bucket lists of beaches and streams we’d like to visit (and we’ll list those in these pages), we have favorite lures, and we’ll even mention those a time or two, but we are most grateful for the people we get to share this sport with. It’s the stories from other anglers, it’s the advice, the congratulatory pats on the back, the comment on a social media post, the shared dreams, trips and memories that make any fishing life a valuable one.
We hope you love this first issue, and become part of our story, whether it’s by sharing with us your personal road to the water in future issues, or just by reading, and following along on Facebook and Instagram. You can find this issue in the Apple Bookstore, too.
My name is Rick Bach, and thanks to the incredible people at Outdoor Life I had the chance, at 24, to fish 36 of the lower 48 while living out of a Jeep Wrangler. It was the people who made that trip an incredible one that changed my life, and many of those stories are in these pages.
At 27 I began a graduate program where I met fellow fishermen James Spica and Gian Lombardo, two incredible anglers who helped bring this magazine to life. Mary Nolan, a meticulous editor with the courage to jump aboard a headboat out of Gloucester in her first semester at graduate school to chase cod and haddock, was more supportive of the dream than anyone else I’d meet along the way.
During two trips fishing to raise money for melanoma research, I talked with anglers from South Carolina to Florida to Oklahoma about what kind of magazine they’d like to read, and so many of you — from the incredible people at BassOnline in Florida, to anglers who were guiding on the side like Brian Roberts in South Carolina, and everyone in between, went out of their way to tell me what they’d like to see in the next fishing magazine.
So many of you took the time for a phone call, to return an e-mail, to send pictures, stories and ideas that helped bring this first issue to life, and I’m eternally grateful.
My hope, and my belief, is that we can all grow in our love of this beautiful sport by learning from, and being inspired by, one another. Welcome to The Road to Water.
It’s the circumstances surrounding a catch, not the fish themselves, that often dictate what a fish means to us and why.
Two fish made this past weekend one of the most memorable of my fishing life. It’s the context, I’d argue, in which a fish is caught that gives it its value to us as anglers.
The first was, by almost any other measure, a relatively insignificant catch: It was a bluefish, about 18 inches long, that I unhooked and released back into the Ocean Beach surf.
But on any given day, there’s absolutely nothing I’d rather be doing than fishing the surf, and living in Upstate New York, I get a chance to target stripers and bluefish a half a dozen times per year if I’m lucky.
Luckily, a friend and former college roommate, Curt Dircks, and I have kept an annual tradition alive that has us fishing the surf in Ocean Beach, New York (on Fire Island) at least once in the Spring and once in the Fall, and often times a handful of times throughout the year.
We had a trip set for this past weekend, but anglers know better than most that life rarely goes according to plan.
Dircks, a new father, was also in the midst of starting a new job, and still trying his best to keep a tradition alive. Work held him up, but he told me to head out to Fire Island (accessible by ferry only) and start fishing while he made his way out from New York City.
After waking up at five a.m. in Utica, New York, and driving the five hours, I couldn’t argue with getting a head start.
Fishing the surf is the most fascinating and engaging type of fishing I’ve ever had the good fortune to try. If you’re a restless soul that likes to keep moving and searching, it can be especially endearing. Because conditions are always changing in the surf (the tide is either dropping or rising, winds are switching, fronts are coming and going) there’s always the possibility that feeding fish will show up in front of you at any given moment. When you consider that these feeding fish, off the coast of Long Island, anyway, are striped bass that can reach 80 pounds, or bluefish that can travel in schools so vicious that they’ll turn bunker pods into oily shreds in a matter of minutes, it’s an exciting proposition.
On Friday afternoon we were looking at light winds out of the south and west, but the strength was predicted to increase substantially into Saturday morning. Forecasters were throwing around words like ‘gale’ when talking about Saturday’s weather. Winds out of the South and West usually give me hope, because they’re brining warm, dry air, which should lift the barometer, and make fish more likely to feed. Typically an east wind, brining moisture and colder air, will have fish moving off the beach, and less likely to feed (“When the wind’s from the east, fish bite the least…”)
By the time I’d made it over to the island, suited up in waders and a dry top, and onto the beach, the light south winds were picking up. It’s also worth considering that while a prevailing wind might be good in the sense that it’ll make nearby schools of fish more likely to feed, casting with it is a different story. From Fire Island, a 27-mile-long barrier island south of Bay Shore, New York, casting into a south wind can be challenging, to say the least. I switched from a 1/2-ounce bucktail to a 4-inch, 3-ounce diamond jig in hopes of punching through the wind. A diamond jig is a relatively simple lure, that can imitate a variety of baitfish, and particularly a large sand eel, like the ones I was seeing dart through the waves crashing at my feet. After about an hour of hurling the jig into the wind, moving down to stretches where drop-offs are nearer to shore, and thinking “this was easier ten years ago,” I was retrieving a cast when I got a vicious hit.
When I went to cast again, the line parted and the jig went sailing. I felt the fluorocarbon leader and noticed, albeit too late, that it was frayed. This could only mean one thing: bluefish.
I tied another diamond jig on and kept casting and connected with my first fish at about 5 p.m. It had been 12 hours Since I’d dragged myself out of bed, it had been close to six hours in my Jeep, navigating metro area traffic for my least favorite hour of driving, and finally, I was fighting a fish in the surf.
It was not a 20-pound striper, as it turned out, but if you love the surf, and get to fish it as seldom as I do, then when you are bringing in any fish after months without setting foot on a beach, it’s a surreal and incredible feeling. Bluefish are especially promising, in my humble opinion, because where there’s one, there’s typically a ton, so hooking up with a blue in the surf often means you’re in for a day of fighting and releasing them. That would not end up being the case for us, but landing that first bluefish, it certainly seemed possible. Once you’ve landed the first fish, once the “skunk is off,” then everything else about a trip is gravy on top.
It’s a good thing that bluefish cooperated, too, because for the next seven hours, despite switching to a variety of different bucktail colors and working more than a half-mile of shoreline, I couldn’t find another fish in the surf. It’s worth noting here that one of the elements that, for me, makes surf fishing so incredible is that even when the target species isn’t cooperating, you’re still liable to see things like… oh, I don’t know, humpback whales breaching off the beach, which, when you think about it, is something people up and down the coast are paying good money for on whale watches. To see a whale breach from shore never ceases to amaze me.
After waking at sunrise and spending four hours in the surf without a fish, it was decision time. Weather forecasters were calling for heavy rain and potential storms on Sunday. I would not suggest carrying a 10-foot rod, a backpack with a change of clothes and other necessities and twenty pounds of surf gear through the pouring rain unless you absolutely have to. For five minutes at a time, over the course of Saturday morning, I agonized over the decision whether or not to take my surf bluefish and beat the weather off the island, or stay and fish through it. I checked the forecast for Upstate New York, and it looked much more promising, so I decided turn Sunday into a trout-targeting day.
I caught and early afternoon ferry and returned to Upstate New York, and the next day hit Nine-mile creek in Onondaga County.
When I arrived at 1 p.m., I took my trout set-up off the top of my Jeep, where I keep it in a Thule rack designed for skis, to find that the handle was actually missing off of the reel. Somehow, no doubt owing to the fact that my Jeep shakes considerably at certain speeds (which I’m looking into), the handle to my trout reel had actually come loose. If that seems impossible, as it certainly did to me as I stood there in awe looking at the set-up like a kid looking a Christmas tree devoid of presents on December 25th, all I can offer is that I have no other explanation for a runaway reel handle.
I was about to cut my losses and head home when I remembered that a Bass Pro Shops was only 20 minutes away in Auburn, New York. I made the 20-minute drive, and the sales associates in the fishing department, God bless ’em, gave me the reel handle I needed. That truly was an act of kindness that made an enormous difference in my weekend.
I fished nearly a mile of stream, landing only one small brown trout. I tried to keep reminding myself that, amidst a global pandemic, with runaway reel parts, just to be fishing at all was great fortune.
Then, about 45 minutes after last light, I cast into a promising pool about a half mile from where I’d parked and started fishing.
I could not turn, stop, or control the fish that took the Phoebe Wobbler with the 5’6″ rod. It darted back toward a sunken branch, and then under a cut bank. Despite turning up the drag and bending the rod in half, I simply could not change this fish’s direction. For five minutes that felt like forty, this fish tore downstream, into brush, and beneath undercut banks. For several moments during the fight, I wondered what the hell I would do if I lost this fish — how I’d ever stop thinking about it. You’re wondering to yourself: “Do I horse him in, for fear of a longer fight giving him the advantage, or just let him run and keep the pressure on?”
By some miracle that I doubt I’ll ever understand, with 10-pound-test braided line on a 5’6″ ultralight rod, I brought the trout to shore.
It measured 21 inches and change, and had the Phoebe so embedded in its jaw that one of the treble hooks broke off as I tried to work it free.
After staring in utter awe at the best brown trout I’ve ever caught in my life, I tried to revive him in the current. It took two or three minutes that seemed to last forever, but finally he gave a shake of his tale and darted back into the current.
In a forty-eight hour span I’d managed to land a bluefish from the Long Island surf and a brown trout from an upstate stream. I’d had a surf rod bent on one of nature’s most violent feeding machines while whales breached on the horizon, and had somehow brought a trout more than half the length of my arm to shore in the complete dark on an ultralight rod. I felt, and not for the first time, like perhaps the luckiest guy in the world at that moment.
I wondered if any other sport could give us that sense as often as fishing seems to for me.
One angler's attempt to strike back against skin cancer.