Issue Preview: Soturi Spirit

The Road to Water Five will be live this winter, but here’s a peek at one of our favorite features from the issue thus far.

Scott Boese’s lure company, Soturi Tackle, held a coloring contest for local children with disabilities from a North Dakota gas station where their lures were sold. The child who could come up with the most creative lure design would have his pattern painted on a Saturi Tackle hardbait. That’s how a young man named Wyatt ended up getting an orange-and-black crankbait that he could rightfully say that he designed. And when Boese and his son Jon sold about 180 of the crankbaits, they took the profit that they made and donated it back to Prarie Grits, the organization that helps disabled children participate in adaptive sports.

That’s not a lure pattern you’re going to find on the shelf at Bass Pro Shops, not yet at least, but it’s a brand ideology we can get behind. Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a lure company that was the brainchild of a marine who spent time overseas in Afghanistan and his father would have an altruistic backbone. But what is surprising when you visit Sokuri Takcle’s website is how different these lures look at first glance.

The hue and shades of the hardbait selections is the first thing that will pop out at you on Soturitackle.com. The shades you’re seeing here aren’t ones you’ll soon see on the shelves at at your local tackle shop. There’s a creative, almost magical glow to the shades these guys have painted on lures and the names of the patterns, like ‘Uncle Fester,’ ‘Area 51,’ and ‘Fat Belly Barbie,’ are every bit as original.

“We’d hear the same complaints from a lot of our fellow fishermen,” Boese recalls. “’The other lures, they all look the same.’ We wanted ours to stand out in a school of baitfish. Our patterns are bold, they flash. Half of the patterns we came up with came from pro staffers and customers requesting a specific pattern.’ These guys are actually listening to fishermen on their home water and making lures that are working for pike, walleye and bass right in Minnesota.

Soturi Tackle swimming plugs come in a variety of bright color selections

“It’s good to have a different looking lure, when fish see something different, it just stands out,” Jon says. And when you consider that many tackle manufacturers are looking to exactly mimic the natural forage of the fish in the lake (i.e. perch pattern, etc.) the Soturi approach is certainly a bold one.

But the Boeses can play match-the-hatch, too. They created a deep-diving crankbait that had a white body and silver stripe that made it a dead ringer for a baitfish called a cisco that was prevalent in some Minnesota lakes. “At that point, we had guys driving from 40 or 50 miles away to get that bait, we got a cult following. They were hooked.”

Although Scott and Jon have been fishing together for as long as Jon could walk, conversations about starting their own bait company began with Jon got back from the service. “He was kind of struggling, so we went to Lake Vermillion in Minnesota and were fishing for between 8 and 10 hours a day for three straight days,” Scott said. “He would talk about his experiences over there, and I was amazed and horrified at the same time.”

“But his attitude changed when we started thinking bout things we could do.” Just as you’d expect from a young man who enlisted for the most dangerous job on the planet, once he put his mind to something constructive, there was no stopping them.

The lure-creation business wasn’t exactly new to the father-and-son team. When Jon was just a boy, Scott whittled down a two-by-four into a muskie bait, painting it and eventually fishing it. It got young Scott’s attention, and the seed was planted for a full-scale project twenty years later.

And Scott is quick to point out that Jon has long been a more dedicated and talented angler than his dad. “When he was in fifth grade, he was already a better fisherman than I was,” Boese says of his son. “In the spring you can see the bass sitting on the beds. Jon would start casting and them and I’d tell him: ‘You’re not going to catch that thing.’ But he’s very determined, that’s his nature, very determined.

In 2019 when Jon moved to Ely, Minnesota to work at a lodge called Smitty’s, not far from the Canadian border, he started taking clients on guided trips in his spare time on a lake called Snowbank Lake. The Lake is so clear, that is has a reputation for intimidating even the best fishermen, because fish are so easily spooked. In other words, your presentation has to be perfect on Snowbank.

“Jon took the time to understand water temperatures, and he established a reputation as the guide on Snowbank Lake,” Scott says. He’s guiding part-time now, and does some ice-fishing guiding as well.

In a that-can’t-be-a-coincidence twist, there’s a lodge called Veterans on the Lake Resort that caters strictly to military veterans and their family members and Jon Boese happened to bump into the owner at a gas station and of course, gave him a free jig. The next thing you knew it, Veterans on the Lake was carrying the Soturi Banshee jig in their tackle shop.

“That’s where things kind of started getting cool,” Scott says in the understatement of a lifetime. “There are tons of veterans up there, and because this tackle company was a therapeutic thing for Jon, it became one for the veterans too as he spent more time with them on the water. They started inviting him out for seminars, and he really established himself up there.”

One of their first creations was called the Banshee Jig, and Scott said that using it while fishing The Mississippi River for walleye in the spring proved that it was more than productive. In fact, their rods were bent so often that other boats would pull right up to ask them what they were using. Eventually, they began carrying and selling extra lures right on the water, and said it became almost like the ice cream truck was coming around when they went out on the water. Guys would hurriedly pull up alongside them, cash in hand, for more Banshee jigs. They took advantage of their newfound fame and had the boat wrapped in a Soturi Tackle design so that they were always ready to sell a sample on the water.

Soturi Tackle Ice Jigs are a popular produce in the Upper Midwest

As you might imagine, the Soturi Tackle Pro Staffers aren’t your average fishermen. “One is still active in the Air Force, and our first pro staffer, J.R. Cooper, was a tunnel rat in Vietnam.,” Boese said. Vietnam tunnel rats had one of the most challenging jobs in the war, clearing Vietcong tunnels, which were often booby trapped with grenades, mines, and even venomous spiders and snakes that the VC would leave for American troops. Oh, and agent orange was more concentrated in the tunnels. Cooper was inducted into the Minnesota Fishing Hall of Fame three years ago, so the fact that he’s backing Soturi jigs should tell you everything you need to know about them. Famous Midwestern fisherman Al Lindner was a Vietnam veteran as well, and when his show was a television staple, J.R. Cooper was the scout, finding them the hot lakes to fish.

Boese and his son were sponsoring a tournament in Brainerd, Minnesota, when Cooper walked up to a table at the dinner before the first day, picked up a green jig, and declared that he’d win the tournament with it.”

“I told him that if he won with that lure, I’d make him a pro staffer.”

We know how that story ended. Cooper and his wife Cindy have a lot of records under their belt, according to Boese, including an unofficial state record northern pike. Cooper has a long and storied history as a guide (as a head guide he once had five full-time guides underneath him and 38 on call), lure inventor (Impact Lure Company) and all around Midwestern fishing legend who can read more about here.

What could possibly be more intriguing than a head pro staffer who was a tunnel rat in Vietnam who has 30 guides at his beck and call? What if that pro staffer was the inspiration for a pair of fictional fishermen you have heard of named Max Goldman and Jon Gustafson. That’s right, the film Grumpy Old Men was reportedly based on the exploits of Cooper and his group of guides.

Funding for the start-up came from an altruistic source, too. The Veterans Administration in Minnesota has a program called Vocational Rehab, Boese says, that, if you give them a clearly outlined business plan, will award you with as much as 25,000 dollars to fund your plan. Scott and Jon put together a detailed, thoughtful plan for lure production and their idea was funded, although Jon is still working 40 hours a week managing partnerships for imaging and electronics company Ricoh.

Boese says that as of this writing, they were about maxed out in terms of production capacity. They were, in September, working on ice-fishing jigs, and said that they try to stay about three months ahead of the season in terms of lure creation.

They’ll, on occasion, take an outlier project, like a wooden muskie plug Boese had just finished and shipped to a pro staffer the morning I spoke with him.

Although they have investors pushing them to take the company to the next level, mass producing the baits and scaling up the entire production, Boese didn’t sound too keen on the idea when I spoke with him. He sounded like a guy who, creating a unique, effective and popular collection of lures with his business partner and son, was right where he wanted to be.

Midwest walleye are a favorite target for Boese and his family.

The passion for his craft is evident when hear him talk about it. “There are days when I can’t stand this any more but then you look at a table of stuff that you just produced and think you might like to see it get large enough to support our family and stand on its own,” he says.

“I’d like to see it recognized regionally, and maybe even across North America,” he says. “We’re getting Minnesota already.”

He knows they could be in most shops in the state if he had more time to devote to the project, but he says they’re having enough trouble keeping up with demand as it is.

And while his full-time job and lure production keeps him from getting on the water as much as he’d like, he says that he’ll still get in three or four trips in the summers. “But when a customer sends a picture of a fish we’ve caught… I know, everything we’ve done has been successful.”

At the moment he’s thinking of scaling back Soturi, perhaps choosing ten of their most popular baits and producing those on a regular basis. He likes that, as a small company, he can stay nimble, introducing and nixing patterns as the market for each changes.

On the Soturi Tackle website, there’s a YouTube Video featuring what sounds like an alt-rock anthem by an artist named Sam Tinnesz. The lyrics ring out again and again, “This is how legends are made.”

But the star of the video isn’t a heavily tattooed pro fisherman, a tournament angler with a sponsor-sticker covered bass boat sporting twin outboards or scantily clad, sun-kissed coeds in tropical locations. No, the video is entirely devoted to an angler who appears to be a little bit shorter than four feet tall. But here’s surprising thing about that video: The kid is holding up fish after fish that most of us grown adults spend our summers chasing. He’s got kype-sporting brown trout, big pike and perch that are pushing a pound.

“That’s our grandson, Easton,” Scott Boese says with a smile in his voice. “He always wants to paint his own lures.” Repeatedly producing, catching the fish we’re all out there after, with a proven product that’s unique and created with care, quality and character… is exactly how legends are made. And we wouldn’t be surprised if, keeping an eye on Soturi Tackle in the coming years, we didn’t see that process unfold, one bait at a time.

Check out the Latest Road to Water Here

An Inspired Fishing Life: John Sweeney

Eighty-seven and still fishing, John Sweeney of Middleville, New York, has lead the kind of fishing life most of us only dream about.

We’ve got some stories of incredible anglers in this most recent issue of The Road to Water, and we want to share them with as many of you as possible. We’d love to hear from you if you’ve got a story to tell, we think you’d love the whole issue, but in the interim we’ll bring you one story at a time to add some color and inspiration to your scrolling experience.

“You forget everything and just get into it,” John Sweeney says of the sport that he’s spent his life mastering. “You see so many beautiful places, and see the best in human nature. When I was growing up, I never in my life dreamed that I would see the places I’ve gotten to see. I’ve been so lucky. I know some people where nothing seems to go right for them and although some things in my life haven’t gone right, by and large, everything has fallen into place.”

Sweeney, 87, talks about things “falling into place,” while sitting at his living room table surrounded by photos of permit, tarpon, gigantic Montana brown trout, and enormous rainbow trout. He has fished Australia, Peru, Chile, Alaska, New Zealand, Argentina, Idaho, Utah and 22 years in Montana. It is an overwhelming amount of evidence of one of the most impressive fishing lives I’ve ever witnessed proof of. I’ve been lucky to visit with long-time, legendary Outdoor Life Fishing Editor Jerry Gibbs and iconic Field & Stream Fishing Editor John Merwin and Sweeney’s assembly of photos and his stories from around the globe put him right in that class of angler: The type we all dream of one day becoming.

But one look around the table should give you your first clue that things didn’t, just by happenstance, fall into place, for Sweeney, as he so humbly put it. As he opens a fly box he shows me compartments each of which contain several iterations of a given pattern, all of which he tied, for hours on end, as a professional tier for Hornbeck’s Sport Shop in famous Deposit, New York.

Sweeney, originally from Gloversville, N.Y., was a social studies teacher at Herkimer High School for 34 years until he retired in 1993. He then started John’s Guide Service, where he would guide clients on a selection of rivers and streams in the Upstate New York area, including the famous AuSable, the Delaware and his beloved West Canada.

Sweeney holds a Barrancoso River rainbow trout.

Let’s reiterate that: A man who spent a career teaching high school students history, something that is challenging to say the least, started a guide service when he retired. Any type of guiding is a job where you’re overworked, underpaid and largely unappreciated by clients who almost always expect you to find them fish willing to eat, because… well, they paid for it right?

And not only did he start a guide service when he retired, he was a wading guide who would travel as far as two hours away to guide you on any given day, provided you called and gave him notice.

And while he’d travel as far as the Delaware or the AuSable to guide, he’s always considered the West Canada his home water.

You’ll cross a bridge when you’re driving to Sweeny’s Middleville home, where he resides in a well-kept, welcoming house full of more photos, fishing gear and even fish-inspired artwork, than you’d think might fit in the place looking at it from the outside in, that goes over the West Canada, a stream that taught John much of what he knows about fly fishing today.

The New York Guide’s Association honored Sweeney with this plaque.

“It was my first fly fishing stream and know every inch of it from Trenton Falls to Kast Bridge,” he says. Sweeney remembers a West Canada that few anglers today do, and talks about the fishing there in the 50s and 60s like something from a dream.

“I could catch a limit, 10 trout there, in 15 minutes with the right fly,” he recalls. Sometimes you’d catch 40 trout in a single evening.” Saying that Sweeney ‘wrote the book,’ on the West Canada isn’t even that much of an exaggeration. Pick up a copy of Trophy Trout Streams of the Northeast, flip to the West Canada Creek chapter, and take a guess who wrote it. You got it: John Sweeney.

He has his wife, Dawn, to thank for his first fly rod, a 7.5-foot, 5-weight Shakespeare Wonder Rod she bought him in 1957. And while Dawn Sweeney is not an angler, per se, John says that she’s been very supportive of his life spent on the water. Oh, and that first setup that came with a rod, reel, line and two flies? It cost five dollars, Sweeney remembers.

He thinks that first fiberglass rod and marvels at how innovations have changed our equipment. “You’d have to wait longer for the rod to load,” he says, and adds that fiberglass was nowhere near as forgiving as today’s graphite rods. Adjustable drag on the reels? That was unheard of at the time. Your hand was the adjustable drag.

The technological advances and the plethora of information that we have access to today have made it, “rather easy,” to become a fly fisherman now,” Sweeney says, and we don’t doubt him for a second.

And while Sweeney fished both conventionally and with fly gear for a short time after picking up the long rod, he’s fished almost exclusively with fly gear since 1958.

Now, in case you thought that a man who had the energy and passion to start a guiding service after retiring from teaching took a minute off in the winter, we’ll stop you right there. Up until about two years ago, when age-related pain finally caught up with him, he tied as many as 300 dozen flies per year for shops like the West Canada Sports Shop (since closed) and the Hornbeck Sports Shop in Deposit, an outfitter he supplied with as many as 300 dozen flies per year for 30 years. The man has tied and sold more than 70,000 flies, tying for as many as eight hours per day on some winter afternoons, as he recalls. That type of concentration, self-discipline and attention to detail almost ensures that you will have a life where “everything falls into place.”

The type of precise fascination with the mastery of a craft that made Sweeney’s flies so desirable in shops like Hornbeck’s also helped him target and land some incredible specimens in his years of traveling the world in pursuit of fish..

No trout fisherman that finds the time and wherewithal to travel can resist the pull of Montana, and Sweeney was no exception. In 1993 he made his first trip to the iconic Western trout paradise and he’d return for nearly two decades thereafter.

“Our first trip was to the Ruby Springs Lodge on the Ruby River near Carson City,” Sweeney remembers. He remembers mornings where it wasn’t uncommon to catch twenty 14-to-16-inch trout on dry flies. “That was fun,” the understated Sweeney says, glancing back at photos he’s collected on his dining room table to go through.

“After that we fished the Green River in Utah, and then we went for three years to the South fork of the Snake River in Idaho,” he says.

But he’d find his favorite trout water five thousand miles away. “Argentina has better fishing than anyone would expect,” he says of his favorite destination. “It’s the best I have found anywhere in the world.”

If he had one trip left to take, that’s absolutely where he’d return, he says without hesitation. Sweeney fished Lake Strobel and the Barrancoso River on his visits to the country, bodies of water where anglers can boast, regularly, about multiple 20-pound rainbow trout in a single trip.

The trout were put in the river system in 1994 with the aim of aquaculture. That’s right, the goal was fish farming. The trout predictably grew enormous on a plentiful food supply and it wasn’t long until anglers all over the world were discovering this paradise. The 65-acre Lake Strobel is loaded with scuds, and the trout that were dropped in (McCloud River rainbows) had only the Barrancoso River, the lake’s only outflow, to spawn in.

Without any type of predation or much competition for forage, the transplanted McCloud River rainbows grew to sizes that regularly exceeded 20 pounds, and once fishermen took notice, they began coming from all over the world to fish it. The ride in, which has been described as “the ride from Hell,” still takes upwards of five hours, and Sweeney remembers bouncing around the Jeep until his back was sore but he didn’t talk about it in the kind of way that made you think for a second it wasn’t worth it when you arrived.

He talked about double-digit rainbow trout cruising right at your feet near the lake’s shore, a site that’s hard for many of us to even imagine. “The lake is 160 feet deep but these fish will be cruising right by you, and it can be unnerving,” he said.

“I caught a 16-pound rainbow on a size-12 Prince Nymph,” he says, almost still in disbelief.

The rainbows in the river would run downstream once hooked, weaving around rocks and structure to break anglers off. Leaving the river each day was the hardest part for Sweeney, who says he couldn’t wait to get out the next morning on every one of his visits.

Back stateside, Sweeney’s son Sean picked the perfect place to follow in his father’s footsteps as a teacher: Key West. What loving father wouldn’t feel obligated to visit his son there, especially during tarpon season?

Sweeney’s Middleville home is a veritable museum of fly-tying material

Tarpon would become Sweeney’s favorite Florida fish, because of the acrobatics they’ve become so famous for. “They’d run 100 yards and jump before you even knew where they were,” he says.

A close second when it comes to North American fish for Sweeney would be the False Albacore in Harkers Island, North Carolina that he chased for years during their fall run. He remembers catching more than 40 fish to 18 pounds in two days of on the water, and although he hasn’t been for the last five years, he talked about the run-and-gun fall fishing like a seasoned saltwater fisherman.

Of all the fish he’s caught, released and photographed, only a few mounts grace the walls of the Sweeney residence, but one is guaranteed to catch the eye of any angler. For three years Sweeney would return to Canada to fish with Wester’s Outfitters in Alberta, and a brook trout of five pounds that he landed on a dry is hanging on the wall right behind you if you find yourself as a guest in his home.

A five-pound brook trout takes a moment to register as ‘real,’ in an angler’s mind because, like a 20-pound mouse or a 3-pound elephant, its size just doesn’t equate with our understanding of its nature, at least at first. Once you take a moment to appreciate it, all the brook trout that you’ve caught, and were until now so proud of and grateful for, will seem just a little bit smaller by comparison.

Sweeney says that as soon as school let out in three separate years, 1963, 73 and 93, respectively, like a kid free for the summer, he’d head up to Canada. He talks about the green drake hatch with the same kid-out-of school excitement, and remembers fishing from six through dark to “Four, five-pound brook trout that were just boiling on the surface…”

And even when he returned in the fall, he didn’t leave his passion at the door when he entered the classroom. He orchestrated and ran a fly-fishing club with ten or twelve students every year, teaching them to tie flies and how to cast. Each school year would culminate with a trip to the Delaware.

Thinking about Sweeney’s life, it’s clear that although he might have started teaching students in 1961, and his walk-and-wade guide service wasn’t officially launched until 1993, it’s likely the man has been helping people of all ages, in some capacity, for almost his entire existence. Whether it was a student in Herkimer looking to get a grasp on some era of history to pass a Regents exam, a teenager looking to get into fly-fishing for the first time who happened to have a teacher who would start a club to that end, or a client on the West Canada looking for a memorable morning on the water, Sweeney has spent much of his life helping others.

South America is a place Sweeney talked about fondly, and understandably so.

Sitting across from a man who has responded to e-mailed questions with hand-written notes, and has already signed a copy of the book “Trophy Trout Streams of the Northeast,” (he wrote the West Canada Chapter) it’s evident that Sweeney goes out of his way to help anyone he can. If there’s a secret to finding a way to fish so many beautiful places in the world and land fish that most of us have only dreamt of, maybe it’s as simple as that.

If you’re reading on a desktop or laptop, check out the rest of our issue, here.

Issue Excerpt: Fear is Something You Can Face

We’ve got some stories of incredible anglers in this most recent issue of The Road to Water, and we want to share them with as many of you as possible. We’d love to hear from you if you’ve got a story to tell, we think you’d love the whole issue, but in the interim we’ll bring you one story at a time to add some color and inspiration to your scrolling experience.

Cris Lewis’s story is one that can give all of us a greater appreciation for time on the water

“A cancer journey is so many things,” Cris Lewis says, looking back on her two separate diagnoses and treatments for breast cancer. “Physically and emotionally, the fear, the joy when you know all the treatment is done, the outpouring of love from people… And then there’s the spiritual end of it. I am spiritual,”

Lewis, who turned 74 on July 4th, has been twice diagnosed with breast cancer (the first time in 2004), and twice has gone through chemotherapy, surgery and radiation to rid her body of the disease on two separate occasions.

It is impossible for most of us to imagine the mental and physical anguish that that type of journey must have on anyone subjected to it, but most anglers can relate to the peace, hope and beauty that women like Lewis find on the water, even if we aren’t fighting for our lives in-between trips.

Lewis applied for Casting for Recovery, which selects applicants using a lottery, every year. She was put on a waiting list, then she was chosen as an alternate, and finally, on one Wednesday before the retreat started in 2017, she was told that she was in. She’d be invited to the Tailwater Lodge in Altmar, New York, on the state’s famous Salmon River, to join other cancer survivors and fighters to spend a weekend learning to fly fish and then putting that skillset to use in short order.

“They go through some classroom work, they show you the flies, different categories, and then they pair you up with a guide. Mine was Lindsay Agness (a western New York guide who has been working with Project Healing Waters since 2010), who was just inducted into the Fly Fishing Hall of Fame, located in Livingston Manor, New York. Agness’ resume as a fly angler and guide is an impressive one in its own right. She has not only helped the Casting for Recovery program, but has volunteered for Project Healing Waters since 2011. Agness and her husband run a fly-fishing school for wounded veterans called CompeerCORPS/OASIS (Outdoor Adventures for Sacrifice in Service) Adaptive Sports in the Rochester, New York area.

Agness proved to be a great instructor for Lewis and made the initiation into the world of fly-fishing a much less intimidating one.

From the minute she began casting a fly rod, Lewis could tell that the experience would be a powerfully cathartic one.

“I was focused on that line in the water,” she says, “the technique.” “Sure enough I caught my first trout. I’ve got a picture of me with that first little trout.”

Lisa Abel, Valerie Plesko, Brenda Mott and Cris Lewis, all breast cancer survivors, on the Upper Fly Zone of the Salmon River in 2018.

“Fishing, it takes you some place else. You can get to thinking about things but fishing is a freeing experience…” she says.

We imagine that these women, who are at any given moment in their battle dealing with more mental anguish and anxiety than many of us will ever experience in our lives, can appreciate the benefits of fishing that we all enjoy to a degree that perhaps we’ll never understand.

If the vast majority of us use this sport as a momentary distraction from the elements in life like, oh, say… paying bills, helping our families, children and friends, getting along with co-workers or just remembering where we left the remote, then how much more meaningful must it be to women who are thinking when their next round of radiation starts, or how much time they might even have left to spend with those friends and family members we know we’ll see at this Thanksgiving and the next one, and the next one.

“I had to take it all in at first,” Lewis says of her initial experience at the Tailwater Lodge in Altmar. Although women come to the Casting for Recovery event with different levels of experience in the outdoors and with fishing, Lewis seemed from the start like she’d be a natural fit for the sport. “I love to be outdoors,” she said. “I’ll pick cherries or raspberries, and I love to travel.”

The wildlife you witness on the water certainly adds to the experience, she said, echoing a sentiment I think many of us would agree with. “I’ve seen deer on the other side of the bank, beavers and ducks, and I’ll even pick up their feathers to tie flies with.”

So, although fly fishing might not have been a stretch for an enthusiastic, athletic woman who loved to be outdoors, she said that for her, at least, part of the battle is a mental one where you don’t make something more difficult than it needs to be.

Lewis shows off a Utah rainbow trout.

“It’s just going slow,” she says, reminding us that rushing your cast will only lead to that pile of line on the water in front of you, or, if you’re practicing, on the lawn at your feet that any of us who’ve tried to become proficient fly fishermen are more than familiar with.

Not making something more difficult than it needs to be is certainly relatable for most of us anglers. How many times have you hooked a fish on an errant cast, or spooked one while wading through water that you were sure was devoid of life? We have a tendency to over-analyze this sport to the nth degree, thinking that we have to find the perfect, textbook pocket of water, tie on the exact imitation of what’s hatching according to our guide, present it perfectly with a drag free drift, then land, photograph and release the fish without ever having it leave the water so as not to endanger its health in the least. In reality, what Lewis and many experienced anglers have discovered and shared with us is that the secret isn’t all that secret: Get out there, cast, enjoy, believe, repeat. You may or may not catch fish, but overthinking every detail to ensure your entire presentation is, in your mind anyway, perfect, might be the difference between fooling an animal with a brain the size of a walnut, but more likely it has to do with patience, persistence, and the faith that drives those two characteristics in any of us.

Lisa Abel and Cris Lewis, both cancer survivors, pause for a photo near the AuSable River in New York

Even with her 74th birthday approaching, there’s no signs that Lewis will be slowing down any time soon. “We (fellow Casting for Recovery fisherwoman Lisa Abel) were out last week. We get out as much as we can.”

“She’s a wonderful person and her knowledge of fishing is incredible,” she says of Abel. Lewis, for her part, shows no signs of slowing down. She just bought, after five years with a Reddington 5-weight, a 4-weight last week. “I love the feel of it,” she says. She reported that she’d just fished the Little Salmon River the week prior, landing a half dozen small fallfish.

Fallfish are the type of species that, when we catch them, most of us will think: “Well, that’s kind of cool and different,” but in conversation we might be dismissive of them because they’re not, quote unquote, the ‘target species.’

Lewis, you can tell, has nothing to prove on the water, or in life, at this point. The woman accomplished a grand slam in Utah where she caught a brown, rainbow, brook and cutthroat trout in the same day (the rainbow was 20-plus inches). For most of us, catching a single cutthroat trout in Utah, or even a brookie for that matter, would be bragging-rights type stuff, but Lewis managed it and the other three species of trout in the state in a single day, and mentions it like she’s reading off her social security number. Once you’ve caught a grand slam of trout out West, you can certainly have fun with some fallfish back East, because there’s not much else left to prove. Oh, Lewis has tried her hand at scuba diving and she’s considering sky-diving as well, but that’ll be for another story. When she has scuba dived, sky dived and caught a grand slam of trout on the fly in the same month, we’ll see if we can’t have Time Magazine make her Person of the Year.

We suspect that curiosity and courage has a lot to do with what sounds like an impressive life thus far. She tells a story, offhand, of how, while casting a Wooly bugger on Oneida Lake recently, she had a snake following the fly while it was on the ground near her feet. “There’s a beaver that swims by on the Mohawk every night,” she reports, and a blue heron flew overhead the other night while I was fishing.”

She’s not necessarily discussing which trout just wouldn’t rise to her fly, or the size of the fish she almost landed but didn’t, or how the weather conditions, being what they were, prevented her from having the success she otherwise might have. She’s not reading off the laundry list of excuses of why she didn’t land a trophy, as you’ll often hear men do after any given outing on the water. She’s simply appreciative of the beauty she was surrounded by. The tone almost seems strange, but certainly refreshing, to hear, especially if you’ve heard enough fishing reports in your life.

I tell Lewis that I’m always amazed by the regal nature and incredible poise of the blue herons, and usually startled by the tail-slap of the beavers, and I’m grateful to have at least one thing, our shared awe of these and all the creatures of the stream, in common with this courageous woman.

One cancer diagnosis and treatment would be enough anxiety, fear and hardship for any one person to face, but Lewis has battled breast cancer twice.

“Two years after the first diagnosis I went through it again, and both my cancers were very aggressive,” she said. “The treatments for each involved chemo and radiation, but I did incredibly well.”

Lewis was on a cruise to the Bahamas when she received a call about her second diagnosis, and the doctors weren’t even sure that it was a positive test when they alerted her. When she returned home a second biopsy confirmed that the cancer had returned. She’d endure more chemotherapy and radiation to rid herself of the disease for a second time.

“I have an incredible husband,” she adds.

“I’m always thinking of where I’m going to go fishing next,” she says. “I’ll just put my boots on and go.” Although Lewis seemingly didn’t mean that metaphorically, it very well could work that way for many of us who let life’s distractions stop us from the more important endeavors. Put your boots on and go, indeed.

Lewis’s life has been a colorful and adventurous one even before she battled cancer or picked up a fly rod. Aside from scuba and sky diving, and still works out regularly with a trainer, and she shared a piece of her secret with us when we talked with her.

“We have so much control,” she said, referring to our mental state, the way we react to any given scenario or situation. I try to let that sink in. We have so much control.

“I have a therapist and once he hooked me up to a machine that measures your vitals and asked me to think of something that someone had done in the recent past that I really appreciated.

“What I thought of… My son came to visit from Salt Lake City, and he… He had shaved his head. For me, he had shaved his head.”

She stops for a moment, and you can almost see the scene of a son embracing his mom, trying his best to share her fight.

The diagnoses, treatments, fear and hardship have not, from what we can tell, taken an ounce of courage or curiosity out of Lewis’s soul. “I’m a traveler, I love to travel,” she says, starting to tick of places she’s dreamt of visiting. “I would love to go to Belize,” she says, adding that she spends time every winter in North Carolina and has a particular creek in mind in Potter County, Pennsylvania that she recently read about that she’s hoping to fish.

“I’m always thinking of where I’m going to go fishing next,” she says. “I’ll just put my boots on and go.” Although Lewis seemingly didn’t mean that metaphorically, it very well could work that way for many of us who let life’s distractions stop us from the more important endeavors.

Maybe the next time you’re thinking of spending an hour or two at the stream, pond or beach, and then you consider the bills that need to be paid, that room in the apartment that needs cleaning, the lawn that needs mowing, or any other number of household chores that weigh on us continually throughout our lives, we can think of Cris Lewis and remember that none of our tomorrows are promised, and those bills will get paid, and the lawn will get mowed, when it, or they, absolutely need to be, but the places we never fish, or the moments we do not spend on the water, are simply gone once we pass them by in time.

We might reduce our anxiety for a moment in time by addressing those everyday tasks that pile up like falling leaves in the back of our mind, but more tasks and chores will pile up, and lest we spend our lives raking, we might as well make a cast or two. If you consider that it only takes one cast, maybe 45 seconds of time, to create a memory that will last a lifetime, be a story that you share with friend and family, a photo you print and hang on a wall and look back fondly at, it certainly seems worth it to make at least a little time to fish as regularly as we can. Now is the only time we’ll ever have to make for those adventures, even if they’re small ones we can return from before the sun set.

It would seem, however, on a positive note, that at least from a genetic perspective, Lewis has got more time left to fly fish than she might know what to do with.

“My mother lived to be 98,” she says. “Her mother was 99, two of her sisters lived into their 90s and one of the other sisters was 103. That was Jesse, she was out washing her windows when she was 90. That’s the way I want to be.”

Since being part of the program she has volunteered to help with Casting for Recovery, and said the experience was a very emotional one.

“Cris has survived cancer not once but twice and she knows more than anyone the impact a cancer diagnosis can have on your life. I can tell you there have been multiple times we’ve discussed living and dying, but it has always been hopeful” said Lisa Lange Abel, a fellow fly fisherwoman and cancer survivor.

Abel and Lewis share a much-deserved laugh while a trout attempts escape.

Cris has the strength of a hurricane and what I admire about her is the way she gracefully handles adversity in her life. Cris is not only a survivor but a thriver and if cancer is how we were brought together so be it. I am very lucky to have her in my life and to call her my friend.”

Read more stories like this one, here.

Extended Life: A New Era in Soft Plastics

We’ve got some stories of incredible anglers in this most recent issue of The Road to Water, and we want to share them with as many of you as possible. We’d love to hear from you if you’ve got a story to tell, we think you’d love the whole issue, but in the interim we’ll bring you one story at a time to add some color and inspiration to your scrolling experience.

Williams and his son show off a pair of largemouth bass.

 It is a drastic oversimplification to say that in life, there are two types of people: People who complain about problems, and people who fix them, but the statement isn’t entirely without merit. If we’re bass fishermen, most of us have gone through our share of soft-plastic baits, discarding torn remnants of worms that fish destroyed or that wore out over time, and we’ve happily opened our wallets for more. The people at Berkley, Yamamoto, Bass Pro Shops, Yum Dinger and a host of other soft-plastic manufacturers have churned out the Senko-style baits by the thousands, capitalizing on the trend that is helping anglers catch more bass from coast to coast. If a wacky-rigged worm was more likely to come off or tear when you caught, or even missed a bass, well… that was just the coast of doing catching fish, right? When you’re rigging a worm so delicately so as to maximize lifelike movement, something has to give and in our case it was the worm itself. We gave thousands of them to lake and boat bottoms everywhere we fished, counting ourselves lucky if the local shop had our favorite color in stock so that we could keep handing these manufacturers our hard-earned money for baits that we’d readily admit were more than likely to tear, or tear off completely, with a single fish. How many products in life will we readily pay for knowing they’ll only last for a single successful use? Soft-plastic lure manufacturers, had, in essence, a direct-deposit pipeline from our wallets. They’d feed us tear-able baits and we’d readily hand them our hard-earned cash. It was a fixable problem, to be sure, but no one was stepping up.

Paul Williams is not the type of guy who readily accepts potentially fixable problems with a shrug.

Prior to beginning his life as a lure entrepreneur, Williams was a high pressure steam boiler operator for an employer that we won’t name in this piece.

“People got complacent around me,” Williams said of his former position, which entailed keeping an eye on the pressure that the boilers were running at to make sure that a catastrophic explosion was avoided. Williams described the machinery and technology at his previous job as seriously outdated and said that he’d conferred with colleagues who agreed that the plant was running an extremely dangerous risk for the sake of saving money. One of Williams’ responsibilities as the boiler room operator was to avoid the kind of machinery breakdown that could be deadly, and it was one that he felt was imminent.

Despite repeatedly warning bosses and co-workers that the way they were running the boilers, given their condition and age, was a high-stakes risk on a daily basis, Williams’ concerns were brushed under the rug in the sake of saving money.

So, every day, a man who is happiest on the water with family went and watched what he felt was a ticking time bomb, and one that he was ultimately responsible for. “It gave me the worst anxiety,” Williams remembers. When you consider that he was responsible for the safety of those in the plant, which was dependent upon, among other things, safely operating boilers, and then consider that at least one boiler was an older model that routinely showed potential for failure, it’s not hard to imagine how stressful of a job it must have been. In most instances, when we refer to someone as being in the boiler room, we’re using a metaphor, but for many years, Williams actually was.

If ever there was a guy who needed and deserved a successful and relaxing day on the water, it was and is Paul Williams.

And when you’re escaping a high-pressure (pun intended) job to spend a few hours with family on the water in your native Upstate New York, targeting your favorite fish, you don’t want to miss fish that you might have landed because of, albeit on a far lighter scale than you’re experiencing at work, equipment failure. And every time a Senko that Paul would fish for largemouth and smallmouth bass on his favorite lakes would tear off the hook and result in a lost or missed fish, he knew there had to be a better way. When you’re responsible for a boiler that could put a crater-sized hole in the earth if it exploded under your watch staying on track, you learn to fix problems rather than shrug and accept them.

What would keep those same Senkos from tearing off of our hooks and sinking to the bottom, covering the floor of our favorite lakes with a carpet of soft-plastic baits that might as well be one-dollar bills we were happily trading for them? If you consider the Senko situation more objectively, it does seem a little ludicrous that we happily buy dozens of these baits, if not hundreds, every year, without asking if there’s a better way.

If you picture a cartoon with a bass angler asking a soft-plastic lure manufacturer the following question: “So, these have to tear apart after a single use in order to be any good?” – and the lure manufacturer answering: “Um, yeah, exactly,” it becomes clear that the Senko situation isn’t one that companies are in a hurry to change. But if you’re earning the money you’re spending on those Senkos watching a boiler that’s on the verge of collapse, you might be more motivated than most to find a better way. Now, that “better way,” if you’re not of a mechanical mind, isn’t one that’d be easily dreamed up by just anybody. Keeping a bait that is by its very nature successful because it is supple and pliable from tearing when a fish attacks it is a mechanical challenge if ever there was one.

Williams’ testing grounds were on the St. Lawrence River, one of the nation’s premiere smallmouth fisheries.

If, when posed with this problem, your first thougth wasn’t’: “I know, you could insert a very thin mesh netting into the middle of the Senko that would catch and hold the hook better than plastic alone would…” then don’t feel bad. We are among the millions of fishermen who, when we encountered this frustrating problem, wrote it off as unchangeable and, even if we weren’t happy about it, we kept sending Gary Yamomoto our money for more of his product. There was nothing we could do, right? Expensive senkos that tore easily were like rising gas prices… yeah it sucked but what are you going to do?

Williams has the kind of mechanical, problem-solving mind that refused to accept the amount of failure we see as soft-plastic fishermen as acceptable, and so he and a friend set out to find and implement a better way. Some people aren’t quite as ready to sigh, and pull out their wallet to hand over more money for baits that keep tearing off. Some people look at a problem and shrug, and others sit down to the drawing board.

The idea that Williams came up with was the kind that seems obvious after someone else states it to you. It was a “Why-didn’t-I-think-of-that?” idea where the genius was in the simplicity. Because as is so often the case, the innovators who create a better product aren’t using some scientific equation that is foreign to us mere mortals, they’re just creative, intelligent people who look at the problem in a different light. It starts when we stop accepting failure as a foregone conclusion.

Williams would create soft-plastic, senko-style baits that have become so popular, but he would create them with an interwoven mesh netting that ran lengthwise through the bait so that when the fisherman ran a hook through the middle of the bait to wacky-rig it, the hook got (and stayed) stuck in the netting inside the bait. If a bass hit and missed the hook, the bait might tear, but it’d be much more likely to hang onto the hook because of the mesh netting. Fish might even circle back for a bait after missing the hook and anglers would at the very least get more baits back from missed fish, and in the best case scenario, miss fewer fish altogether. Williams was planning to fix the one serious flaw in the most popular bass bait on the market.

It wasn’t the kind of idea that was so inspired that it might never have occurred to an angler or lure-maker before. It was the kind of idea that, Williams would find out, was so challenging to implement that it would remain in the “good idea” stage of most angler’s minds for the entirety of their lives. It was where the rubber met the road, or in our case, the hook, that making this mesh-net-infused bait, and making it work, was truly a challenge. This is the type of idea that, as fishermen, many of us will discuss on the boat, or around a fire, saying… “Somebody should really…” and wondering aloud why a lure manufacturer with more in the way of resources and capital than most of us have access to hasn’t taken action. It’s the kind of idea that, for many of us, starts and ends in conversation only, because creating the bait, well, that’s the hard part. But maybe after you spend every day of a career monitoring a boiler that you know is an imminent danger to the facility you work in, unable to change the minds of higher-ups to spend the money on a safer alternative, something as simple as creating a more resilient soft-plastic bait seems like child’s play.

Failed Once, No Matter. Fail Again, Fail Better

Williams went to the fist place any self-respecting man looking to create a better soft-plastic worm would go when he was inspired with a creative concept: JoAnne Fabrics. First he had to find the netting that he would insert in the worms that’d be supple enough to bend with the plastic and strong enough to hold the hook, and keep the worm in one piece even after a hit from a bass. The first netting that he bought, he remembers, was the kind that is used in weddings (think: veil). He invested in the basic tools for creating your own home-made soft-plastic worms, and worked on inserting that netting between the halves with… out much success.

“It ripped pretty easy,” he remembers. Brides aren’t trying to keep their veils from being torn apart by feeding fish, so it makes sense that, with the material, tearing wasn’t necessarily a primary concern.

Material with more, smaller holes would mean that the plastic, as it melted together with its other half, would have more space to connect between the fabric material of the mesh.

When the wedding mesh failed, Williams and a friend named Bill Alexander went back to the drawing board, they found a netting designed for keeping mosquitos away from us. Williams had begun to work with Alexander because he had been designing and selling hair jigs to bass fishermen for years. Alexander’s jig had a unique head design that made it more likely to pop out of rocks it became wedged in than competitor’s jigheads. With the mosquito netting, the duo was getting closer to what they needed for a pliable bait. When you consider the size of some of the mosquitoes we can hear buzzing in our ear drum but can’t kill because they’re infinitesimal, you’ll realize the mesh netting that’d be needed to keep them away from human skin has to be pretty fine stuff.

But, come to find out, there was a mesh even finer, that had no supposed purpose or name. That was the stuff they needed.

They poured the baits with the smaller-than-mosquito-sized netting forming a layer between the two halves and took it to the water.

“The way the industry will change is if someone like us makes a better product,” Williams said.

Williams’ son shows off a largemouth.

Now, a mesh-net-infused bait that held onto the hook so as not to tear would be an innovative enough invention that you’d think it’d have a chance at cornering to soft-plastic stickbait market, provided that other variables (color, scent, etc.) were competitive. But Williams didn’t stop improving his baits with the netting alone.

Competitors baits are often salt-impregnated, because salt helps the bait sink at a faster rate. If you’re targeting bass in 30 feet of water, you don’t want to wait patiently as the un-weighted soft-plastic sinks into the strike zone. A salted bait will sink faster, but there’s a catch. Salt inherently weakens the plastic material the worms are made of, according to Williams. The salt-impregnated worms that his competitors were selling were even more likely to rip off your hook because of the material being used to get them down. Again, this isn’t a major cause for concern if you don’t mind your customers going through bag after bag of your worms. It only becomes an issue if you’re trying to save yourself, and your customer, money.

Williams found a salt alternative called glass bead media. The glass bead media actually adheres to the plastic that the worms are made of, unlike the salt which readily comes off. Glass bead media is typically a material used for sand blasting, meaning it has a very fine nature, ensuring that it will stay in a soft-plastic bait better than larger salt grains.

Now the duo has a worm that will sink faster, using a sinking agent that would stay in the worm longer. They had a worm that was far less likely to tear off the hook with a hit, and could actually be used, at least potentially, to catch multiple bass before it had to be replaced.

The next question becomes: How many can you make and how fast? Williams was heating the plastisol in the microwave, which was limiting his production to one cup at a time, or about twenty baits at once. As of this writing they’d invested in an injection machine that’ll change that cup-at-a-time pace to a 1.5-gallon-at-a-time pace.

Prototype baits are being tested in various markets, where anglers like those in the Florida Bass Association the Colorado Bass Association are experimenting with Extended Life baits and providing feedback on everything from the mesh netting to color selection. Anglers as far away as Tennessee are already placing big orders.

Williams, who has to remind himself that he’s retired every so often, isn’t looking to start a second career as much as he’s hoping to sell the rights to process to a larger lure company that can implement the concept on a larger scale. He’d want to retain the right to make the baits for himself and friends, of course, but he’s not looking to launch a lure company as much as he’s hoping to have a small part in one. “I get goosebumps thinking about the potential,” he says.

He still remembers the fish that solidified his eventual fate as a lifelong bass angler. He would take vacations with his family between the ages of 12 and 20 to Black Lake and one day and one fish in particular stands out in his memory.

“I was fishing a Rapala Fat Rap, 3.75 inches, and the fish fought like crazy for ten, fifteen minutes.” His mother, who rarely missed with the net, made sure the bass made it into the boat, and when it did it measured 5.5 pounds. “My father wrote a letter to Rapala, and they sent a package of four lures back to us.

Williams might be sending a package or two of Extended Life baits to a young angler who catches a life-changing fish on one of his soft plastics some day down the road.

We hope you check out the rest of the issue, here.

Issue Excerpt: Fishing All My Life: Lindsay Agness talks about Guiding, Casting for Recovery and a Life on the Water

Every Week We’ll Bring you a Story from our Most Recent Issue

We’ve got some stories of incredible anglers in this most recent issue of The Road to Water, and we want to share them with as many of you as possible. We’d love to hear from you if you’ve got a story to tell, we think you’d love the whole issue, but in the interim we’ll bring you one story at a time to add some color and inspiration to your scrolling experience.

Agness shows off an arctic char from Ugashik, Alaska.

“It’s like planting a seed and watching it grow,” Lindsay Agness says of the friendships she’s made while working as an instructor and guide for the annual Casting for a Cure retreat in Western New York, a program that funds a weekend of fly fishing fun and instruction for women battling breast cancer.

              “With fifteen women at each event, and having done this for eight years, that’s a lot of women,” Agness says of the anglers she’s been able to meet and share the sport with. “I am able to stay in touch with some and I’m just so in awe of them, I get back as much as I give.”

              Her current project of guiding women who are battling cancer to, what often times is their first trout, is just a small slice of a life that has been spent on or around the water for Agness, and most of the time she’s bringing the beauty of the fishing life to others. Agness’ passion for and knowledge about the sport are palpable when she talks, which she did with us in July.

              The fishing seed was planted in Agness’ psyche, in her soul, when she was a toddler keeping up with her grandfather in what are some of her earliest memories. Her grandmother would help dig worms for those first outings, and they’d all go fishing together. Afterward, her grandmother would prepare the catch for a fish dinner.

              She never stopped following in her grandfather’s footsteps to the water. After fishing with friends growing up, and getting her Captain’s License and a boat, she decided to venture into the Adirondack Park and take the exam for her guide’s license in 2011. “I had been thinking about it, but… It was Vicky [fried and neighbor] that said: ‘Let’s go do it.’” That type of courage and optimism is what makes Agness’ story such an incredible one. If you talk with a handful of men who are talented and skilled fishermen, and ask them about the prospect of guiding, or becoming a guide, you’ll hear a variety of responses which will often include but not be limited to the typical challenges that come with the profession.

Guides have to have patience with novices, they have to be able calm and friendly while teaching what can be a challenging sport to their paying customer who, for the money, of course expects success in the span of six hours. They have to be willing to sacrifice gear that’ll get broken with a smile, sleep that they’ll lose while repairing waders and rods and lining new reels, wake up at ridiculous hours and compete in an industry where everyone thinks they’re the expert. Becoming a fishing guide, or guiding at all, is an alluring prospect to all young anglers until we hit about age 15 and start doing the math, realizing what the profession entails, demands and costs. And I’m only talking about conventional guides. When you approach the world of fly fishing you’ve got an entirely new skillset that you’re expecting clients to have some mastery of in order to even have a chance at success.

What it comes down to for most guides, and you’ll hear many say this if you ask them, is that you really have to love the water, you have to love helping people to those first fish, you have to love it so much that’ll you’ll give up just about everything else and be able to live a contented life. Many guides will describe an inability to fit into conventional careers, molding their souls to a cubicle or office space, but really its an intrinsic and undying appreciation for simply being immersed in the elements of a fishing lifestyle that enable guides to do what they do, despite the sacrifices and hardships that the career path includes, on a regular basis. You’ve got to love the water.

              It seems like Agness fits that mold.

              She said that the weekend event she attended, they at first teach you CPR, water safety and then, Thursday through Sunday you are learning everything about how to target and catch these fish. In terms of becoming a guide, or getting the certification anyway, New York State offers a variety of resources for anyone interested.

              Keep in mind Agness is just now in the process of retiring from her position as the Director of the Enterprise Project Management office for Rochester Regional Health. She graduated from S.U.N.Y. Geneseo with a Bachelor’s in Science in Biology and a minor in Chemistry and Computer Science before earning her Master’s Degree in Management from Nazareth College.  She was the Director of the Enterprise Program Management Office for nearly seven years after leaving Kodak, where she was an I.T. Director, Manager, Business Systems Analyst, Senior Buyer, Project Manager and Manufacturing Supervisor.

              We’re guessing that the wariest trout or the toughest weather conditions still pale in comparison to the challenges we can only imagine must have come her way in those various roles.

              But she was bringing the beauty of fly fishing to anglers even before she got involved with Casting for Recovery. In 2007, she started the Trout Unlimited Women’s Fly Fishing Classes at the Salmon River Hatchery.

              “I’ve taught more than 300 women how to fly fish,” she says, mentioning something modestly and in passing that most of us could never accomplish in a lifetime. She was the Women’s Initiative Coordinator for Trout Unlimited when the program was just beginning. The program became so popular that it went from one event to three, held across the state.

              Between 2013 and 2015 she served on the Trout Unlimited National Leadership Council as the New York Women’s Initiative Coordinator Representative. She basically took her approach to teaching women the sport and documented it so that it could be implemented nationwide. How many women have become passionate anglers in part thanks to Agness’s contributions to the sport, it’s hard to say, but we’re willing to guess they’d line the river for miles if they were ever all assembled in one place.

              You might easily say that she’s following in the footsteps of the “First Lady of Fly Fishing,” Joan Wulff. Agness and Wulff served together as members on the Board of Trustees at the Catskill Fly Fishing Center and Museum in Livingston Manor, New York. She is, in fact, a graduate of the Wulff School of Fly Fishing, and of course she took the advanced casting class.

              You can tell that when she puts her mind to something, it’s only a matter of time before she finds a way.

              She was initially doing an L.L. Bean Outdoors Day when a man named Steve Olson, who was working a Casting for Recovery table, asked her if she’d be interested in helping out. She was the first one to sign on for an Upstate program, and she knew, from her fly-fishing classes for women, who to call to recruit help. One of her first phone calls when to Rachel Finn, the head guide at the Hungry Trout fly shop in Wilmington, New York.

              She put together a team to help these women on the water in a way very few people could have, and her ambition is clearly genuinely altruistic. “I wanted these women to feel safe, I didn’t want them overwhelmed by technology of the terminology,” she says. The vast network of anglers she’s helped is evidence of her success to that end.

              Agness says the the reward for helping the women she has learn to fly fish is an intrinsic one and comes with the nature of the work, but we were glad to see that she’s been recognized for what certainly seems like an outpouring of enthusiastic help for just about everyone in the fishing community. In 2021 she was given the Conservationist of the Year award by the New York Chapter of the American Fisheries Society. The next year, in April, she was inducted into the New York State Outdoorsman Hall of Fame for what they called a “Lifetime devotion to giving back to the outdoor sports and conservation in New York.”

              She’s also received the 2018 New York Person of the Year Award by Outdoor News, recognizing a “lifelong dedication for fish and wildlife conservation.”

              In 2016 she received Trout Unlimited’s National Volunteer Award for Distinguished Services for Veteran Service, because women battling cancer aren’t the only group that Agness has brought to the water with a rod in hand.

              If there’s another group of people out there who deserve a day on the water as much as women going through the trials and tribulations that come with a cancer diagnosis and treatment, it is certainly our veterans who are dealing with any number of difficulties that most of us civilians thankfully will never understand.

              You might think that after what sounds like an overwhelming career and with the ambitious project of getting Casting for Recovery up and running in Western New York, Agness wouldn’t have enough time to sleep let alone take on another project.

Agness and her husband show off Alphonse Island Bonefish.

              But when she was approached by Project Healing Waters to guide female veterans, you can probably guess what she said.

              As it happened, her neighbor, Bob Hoover, was a veteran who had started an organization called Oasis Adaptive Sports, which helped veterans by getting them skiing and sailing. So her and her husband started the 501c3 to get waders, boots, and everything they’d need to get veterans on the water, and in a beautiful twist of fate, the program became interwoven with her Casting for Recovery project.

              “The veterans have been tying flies at Fort Drum,” she says, “and they’ve donated the flies to our Casting for Recovery project.”

              If there’s a proverbial picture that better illustrates what this sport is about for those of us who love it than a woman who is battling breast cancer holding a trout she has caught with a fly tied for her by a veteran working at a vice to steady himself from the trauma of PTSD, we’re not sure what it would be. The water has brought peace and hope to so many of us, and these are the people who deserve it most, and they’re helping one another.

              “They’re healing from trauma and PTSD,” Agness says, “and women facing a cancer diagnosis and treatment, there is trauma that they go through, in some ways they are similar to the vets.”

              With both her and her husband retired, the future for Agness looks like it will be spent increasingly on or around the water, and it’s tough to argue with her choices of excursions.

              “We did a tarpon trip last month, and next month we’re going to Labrador,” she said. “We keep going back to Alaska,” Agness says. She and her husband return to a lodge called 58 North where guests can target, depending on the season, five different species of salmon, arctic char, grayling and trophy rainbow trout. The places that Agness has gotten to travel and fish give you a little bit of hope that there’s something like Karma in the fishing world. You know when you pick up a discarded Pepsi can and stick it in your waders’ pocket hoping it’ll translate to a better night on the water? We don’t think Agness spent her time helping women struggling with cancer and veterans with PTSD so that she might have phenomenally successful trips in her retirement, but we hope it works out that way all the same.

              Having traveled to Alaska, the Seychelles, Belize and Mexico, you’d think Agness would have a hard time choosing a favorite fishing destination, but she was pretty straightforward when asked.

Brook trout have always been a favorite species for Agness.

              “Potter County, Pennsylvania,” she says.

              “There’s no cell phone reception,” there, she begins, and for a woman who is helping out more organizations that you can count on both hands, we can see how this, if only for a little while, might be a bit of a relief. “There’s a place called Kettle Creek near Cross Fork,” she says of the stream near the Susquehannock State Forest.
              “You’ll catch these little brookies on the mountains streams in the morning, and there are some amazing hatches, especially near the end of May.”

              “They’re pretty ferocious for their size,” she adds of the colorful fish that is a Northeast favorite.

              The middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania, surrounded by forest and water, holding a wild native brook trout caught on a dry fly sounds pretty heavenly to us, and we’re hoping Agness gets more of those days in her retirement.

              When she does get back into cell phone range, she says she’ll routinely get texts and e-mails all the time from veterans who have become mentors and come to classes to support new vets learning how to fly fish.

              With six grandkids, she’s taken the role of Vice President for youth education in her local trout unlimited, so she can ensure the sport survives and is passed to the next generation. She’s been a camp director on the Delaware River where T.U. hosts an annual event for teenagers, teaching them about the sport and how to target and catch trout on the fly.

              She said at the camp there were teenagers tying flies until one in the morning some nights who could barely keep awake at breakfast. It was a good sign for future generations of fishermen, if ever there was one. She just accepted that position on June 3rd, moving from her role in charge of the Women and Initiative Diversity Coordinator. She’s also working with Costa Sunglasses and their Trout Unlimited Costa Five Rivers Club, which promotes the generation and growth of fishing clubs on college campuses around the country. “My goal would be to grow that program, find faculty members willing to help with mentoring, support and recruiting, and help them with speakers too.

              It doesn’t sound like Agness will be slowing down a bit even as a demanding career winds down. “My poor husband,” she says. “We do it together,” she adds with a smile in her voice, he’ll drive me around, I drag him around, we’re just looking for our next adventure.

              She said in our early-July conversation that Trout Unlimited had a national meeting in Maine in the coming week and that her husband was upstairs tying streamer flies for the trip. What makes Agness’ story so unique is that that advent has almost always involved helping others find and fall in love with the sport she’s become so proficient at.

              Looking back on a trout that Cris Lewis caught, on a Quill Gordon she’d tied the same day, she remembers that in that same outing the women had been sitting together, sharing the heartbreaking parts of their journeys with one another. “When something’s funny, they laugh, they cry, the women are just amazing,” she says.

              “She caught a fish on a fly that she tied, and it was very emotional,” she remembers.

              You might think that helping women battling a potentially terminal illness and soldiers facing the rigors of PTSD would wear on a person, steal some of their light, but Agnes’s doesn’t seem diminished in the least as she talks about the road ahead, the one she started down, following her grandfather to the pond all those years ago.

              “I thank my lucky stars every day,” she says.

Thanks for reading…If you enjoyed this story, check out more than 100 pages of features like this one in the latest issue of The Road to Water.

Bee Stings and Bronzebacks: The power of day-saving smallies

Smallmouth are always fun, but some are day-savers.

The realization that you have just mowed over a ground hive of bees is one that hits you immediately. One minute you’re mowing the lawn, eyeballing your path to go along the edge of just-cut grass, and the next minute you’ve jumped out of your Merrells and are run-jumping (a type of running that involves lifting your legs to swat at the stinging sensation without cessation of movement) toward shelter in a frantic display that, in retrospect, you hoped at least amused some neighbors.

Not many fish can bring you back to optimistic after a day when you mow a beehive, but some can.

There are any number of questions you’ll ponder as you wonder about this event in the hours and days to come: Why hadn’t the nest ever been a problem in the past? How did I not see a ****ing beehive in the ground before I mowed it? Will my knee/chin/shoulder ever stop itching? Do they make grenades small enough that I could throw one at that thing without any human casualties?

But immediately after you are attacked by bees while mowing the lawn, you will only wonder one thing: What can I do right now that will take my mind off the bee stings going up and down my leg, arm and neck?

And if you’re of a particular mindset, the answer will only and always be: Go fishing. Going fishing can, at times, be a peaceful distraction from the everyday obligations most of us deal with for 80 percent of our waking hours. The thing about being on a stream, beach or lake is you can’t pay a bill, read your e-mail, check your bank balance or read about the latest world catastrophe.

Alright, yes, you can. Thanks to that smartphone you can do all of those things mid-stream with the rod tucked under your arm but no sane, rational human being would drive to a body of water, wader up, hike a half mile and start paying bills. You’re in the water with fish, it only stands to reason your time should be spent trying to coerce that other species to accidentally eat a hook.

There are times when you can take a deep breath and roll with the punches, dealing with the less enjoyable aspects of daily life one at a time, and maybe even with a smile, but when you’ve just been stung a dozen times by bees… that is not one of those times.

Some smallmouth are decidedly more rotund than others.

Have you ever noticed how, on certain outings, you’ll get exactly the fish you need. It is difficult, of course, to discern this when we’re skunked or the fish are less than completely cooperative, because we tend to think we always need a good fish. We don’t. Some days, if you’re out there, you aren’t hit by the storm that passes by just to your east, you see something cool like a buck and a doe crossing the stream, and you don’t decorate too many sunken logs with jigheads, soft-plastics or spinnerbaits, then that’s more than enough. It’s easy to forget that a walk on a stream or river, or a boat ride on a lake or pond should be an enjoyable, relaxing thing to do whether or not you catch fish. It’s very easy to forget that.

But have you noticed how, on some days, like days after bee attacks, the infinite creator of everything who you’re sure must be far too busy to consider your tiny existence, except he somehow isn’t, gives you a fish that more than offsets recent hardship.

Yesterday, while scratching bee stings, I decided to climb, crawl and wade farther down one of my favorite smallmouth creeks than I ever had before.

When I’d reached a spot that I was fairly certain difficult terrain probably kept a lot of anglers from getting to, I threw a crawfish soft-plastic into a promising looking eddy and a pretty fat smallmouth inhaled it almost immediately.

After a nerve-racking fight on ultralight gear, I landed, probably the largest smallmouth I’ve ever caught. This, by some measures, wouldn’t be an astronomically impressive feat, because my best smallmouth to date, thanks to former Field & Stream Fishing Editor Joe Cermele was probably three pounds and change. But this one bested it, I’m pretty positive.

Walking back to the Jeep, I couldn’t help thinking: This just turned from the day I mowed a beehive to the day I caught the biggest smallmouth of my life. One cast changed the entire nature of a day. Fishing might not be able to save your life, turn a terrible year into a great one, or change who you are as a person, but if it can turn a lousy day great, then it at least has the power to start the ball rolling on all those fronts. I was scratching the bee stings on my neck while thinking this, but nevertheless…

We’d be honored if you’d check out our most recent issue of The Road to Water

Rising Trout Madness

Seeing is Believing: How one Trout Can Drive you Insane

If you’re like me, you read a great deal about the fish you’re chasing in magazines, blogs, social media posts and even (gasp!) actual books. In the past few years I’ve developed an increasing interest in trout, where they live, how they behave, what they’ll eat, how they move seasonally and why they do what they do.

It’s mostly because I’m living in Upstate New York, and salmon and steelhead aside, trout captivate the imaginations of more fishermen here than just about any species. Now, since we’ve got great smallmouth water, giant pike and a very underrated muskie fishery in the St. Lawrence, you could make a compelling argument for a number of species that’d rank first in the minds and hearts of central New Yorkers… But, when most people think New York, great trout water comes to mind. We’ve got the Delaware, The Beaverkill, the AuSable, the Neversink, The West Canada and the list goes on.

I was fishing a stream called the Oriskany Creek yesterday, which has the added benefit of a decent smallmouth fishery, when I saw a fish I’ll be hard-pressed to forget.

Have you had this happen: You see a specific fish, and just knowing it’s there, in water you were wading through, gnaws at you? You think: “If I could forget that fish existed, I’d be perfectly contented with the smaller fish I was catching, hell I might even explore new water happily… but no. Now I know that specific fish is in that stretch, and it is the fish by which all other fish I catch there will be judged.”

This was a brown trout that was behaving in a way that was almost perfectly textbook. It was holding in a current seam and rising, periodically, to take flies off the surface. The hits weren’t subtle enough that you might miss them, but they weren’t audacious enough that you’d notice unless you saw one while studying the water. But once you saw one, you could watch the specific seam the trout was in and see it rising, perhaps every 20 seconds or so, to sip another bug.

That sight in of itself would have been kind of a cool way to witness nature in action: It’d just be a real-life realization of the scene we play out in our heads when rigging up a fly rod.

But it was the size of this trout, which veered out of the seam and close enough to me for a glimpse, that’ll just haunt the bejesus out of me to be perfectly honest with you. I will not be one of those guys who tells you he saw a _ _ – inch trout because honestly, who among us can guestimate the length of a trout that’s underwater at 20 yards?

I do not know how big this fish was, only that it was larger than the biggest trout I’ve ever landed, which would have it pushing 22 inches at the very least.

So this 20-plus inch trout sat in a current seam, rising periodically to take flies off the surface and it had absolutely no interest in the small lure I was throwing.

To witness such a large fish in a body of water that is never deeper than six feet or wider than 30, feeding on one specific bug, paying absolutely no mind to a lure that has fooled dozens of his smaller brethren, is to really get an appreciation for what incredible creatures larger wild brown trout are. This fish was keyed into a specific hatch, eating his fill in one seam, at the perfect time of night, and if he saw my Phoebe Wobbler, he dodged it without a second thought dozens of times as he sipped his flies.

The next day I was at The Troutfitter in Syracuse, N.Y. talking flies and filling a cup. Lesson learned.

An Issue for the Dreamers

February is a month to dream, and our latest issue has got inspiration in spades

Alaska Sportsman’s Lodge Owner Brian Kraft writes: “Drone shot from the lodge.  “This is looking downriver on the Kvichak River in what is known as the Kaskanak Flats part of the river.  The lodge is just off camera to the lower left corner of the picture.”

February, if you live in the northern half of the United States, will test your mental and emotional mettle. Sure, you’ve got a holiday for lovers, once in a while a woodchuck predicts an early spring, there’s some great college basketball and at least it’s shorter than other months, but still… February is a month you get through.

If there’s one month that’s timed perfectly for dreaming of new fishing destinations, new species, new adventures and angling escapes, it’s February.

That’s why, this month, we’re delivering you a Road to Water with the kind of stories that’ll have you ogling, Googling, dreaming and planning.

First off, we’ve got Alaska. And if you’re a fisherman who has never dreamt of visiting Alaska… well, we’ll end that for you right now. Brian Kraft, who owns the Alaska Sportsman’s Lodge, with outposts in Bristol Bay and King Salmon, talked to us at length about what makes the region, and the fishery, so incredible. After you visit the site and the social media pages and see 20-pound rainbow trout jumping five feet out of the water… yeah, you’ll be dreaming.

If you’d rather dream about a place you could take off for right now if you hit the lottery, then we’ve got the Bahamas for you. We’re talking stunningly beautiful beaches, bonefish you can wade to, barracuda that’ll take said bonefish right off the end of your line, permit and tarpon on an island paradise. Vince Tobia, who helps anglers arrange D.I.Y. bonefishing excursions to the Bahamas, told us why so many fishermen from all over the country keep coming back to this veritable paradise.

Outfitter Vince Tobia holds a Bahamas barracuda.

Looking to learn about something a little closer to home? We talked with a group who has initiated a project in New York state to preserve brook trout water and save this beautiful species from extinction. If you live in a state that has native brook trout, this piece is worth a read, and honestly, if you’re just fascinated by these gorgeous trout like I am, we think you’ll like the guys behind TroutPower.

We interview the anglers behind TroutPower, an organization looking to save wild New York Brook trout

Roy Bilby and Steve Smith, two Upstate New York anglers who’ve both caught smallmouth better than five pounds (and Bilby has tallied more than 30,000 bass to his name) tell you what it’ll take this summer to find your personal-best smallie.

Long-time outdoor writer John Pitaressi tells us what it takes to go from a conventional fisherman to a fly guy, and how he made the transition on some of New York’s most legendary trout waters.

Steelhead savant John Giovenco breaks down why chasing these powerful fish is worth it even in the dead of winter.

We’ll take you through what it requires to fish for trout when it’s bone-chillingly cold out, and what kind of madness would drive a person to such desperation, and then we’ll break down the fishing-destination trips you’ve got to read about, and start dreaming of taking.

Even the most devout anglers only get to spend a fraction of their time on the water. We’ve got to sleep, work, help one another, mow the lawn, file income taxes, take out the garbage, feed the dogs, pay the bills, etc.

So while most of us can’t fish incessantly, we can always dream. There’s nothing to stop you from picturing permit and bonefish, or steelhead and brook trout while dragging the garbage to the curb, doing a laundry or paying the bills.

And the funny thing about dreaming about your next fish, trip or adventure is that while it might seem completely meaningless until it’s realized, when it is realized, it makes the experience itself infinitely more valuable than it would have been otherwise. It’s the dreaming, waiting, anticipating a fishing trip that makes its realization as incredible as it inevitably is, right?

So, we’ll share some of our favorite fishing some-day destinations with you this February and hope they inspire some new dreams for you the way they have for us.

A Year to Remember

Most Everybody is Sick of 2021, and Understandably So…

2021 was about time, and how we spend it…

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…

These past two years have asked me, and I think asked a lot of us, what would you do if you had the time? I decided to fish more than I’d ever fished, and to try to start a beautiful magazine about anglers and why they love this sport.

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.

DISTRIBUTION CENTER LIFE AND MID-SUMMER SKUNKINGS

Can our time on the water be defined by everything we do away from it?

In the early spring, distribution center days begin before the sun comes up.

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.

One angler's attempt to strike back against skin cancer.