If You Build It…

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The finished fillet table, constructed and stained.

To build something, anything, there are two necessary ingredients: You need a careful plan that allows for some error, and determination to create a desired, finished product. This is true of building a friendship, a magazine, or a fillet table.

In 2004, during my freshman year at Syracuse University, I met another freshman named Curt Dircks. The first thing I do, when moving into any type of residence, is put up photographs of fish. Filling an apartment, a dorm room or a house with images of the water reminds me, between trips, of a part of my journey that has brought more joy, excitement and wonder into my life than all other elements combined.

So, as you might imagine, it didn’t take long for Dircks, a fellow freshman and striper nut, and I to strike up a friendship talking about the water and what we love so much about it.

In 2004 we took what would be the first of thirteen years worth of fishing trips to Fire Island, a thin, 32-mile-long barrier island south of Bayshore, New York where his family has owned a small cottage for decades.

During those first years, the conversation went something like: “Do you want to go back this fall?” By now, it has evolved into a short exchange of dates during which we’re both free. “How about the 13th?” “Perfect.”

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Dircks and I holding a pair of bluefish during an incredible blitz in 2011.

Dircks has moved from New Jersey to San Diego and back to New York City, while I’ve moved from New Jersey to Cape Cod, back to New Jersey, down to Florida and finally up to Salem, Massachusetts.

Life had changed for both of us, but the tradition did not.

This past fall we decided to attempt to construct a fillet table. We’re not ‘sharpies’ by any means, but we’d filleted enough striped bass on newspapers on the back deck to realize that there must be a better way.

We discussed table size, placement, stain color, and amenities like a slot to hold a fillet knife, a ruler on a lip at the table’s base to double-check fish length, and a back panel with a wood-burned quote so that something that was utilitarian in function might have a bit of sentiment, a little soul.

I researched fitting quotes for a week prior to first fall trip, and we decided on one, from a hero of mine, Ernest Hemingway. “It is better to be lucky. But I would rather be exact. Then when the luck comes, you are ready.” The quote comes from Santiago, Hemingway’s famous protagonist in The Old Man and the Sea. I borrowed an electric wood-burner from an artistic aunt, Bridget Roberts, and we were set.

I thought the quote was fitting, because a fillet table is about being exact, keeping only fish that are big enough to kill, and attempting to pay homage to the nature of the pursuit by getting every ounce of meat off the striped bass that you are lucky to harvest.

Dircks is pragmatic, punctual and prepared. I, on the other hand, will lose track of time in the surf, walking a few football fields (okay, running) at the sight of dropping birds, and can spend an hour searching for the perfect quote.

A pragmatic person will think, and understandably so, that a fillet table will be a useful tool  when preparing striped bass of legal size that we will catch in the future. A guy who looks for signs and believes in omens will inherently wonder whether that type of hubris would be frowned on by the Fishing Gods. It perhaps warrants mentioning that we’ve never brought a banana on any trip, or even had them the house. There are some superstitions no fisherman in his or her right mind fools with.

I can’t say, in all honesty, that I did ‘half’ the work on the table. When we’re on the island, I’m constantly wondering if there are bass pushing bait right into the beach. It’s hard to drag myself away from the wash to sleep, let alone work on something besides fishing during daylight hours.

I did wood-burn the quote into the table’s back panel, and help with some sanding and staining, but the credit for much of the table’s construction goes to Dircks.

In my mind’s eye, I secretly envisioned the table being taken out and placed on the brackets we’d screwed into the back deck, and being removed at the end of every trip without ever holding a fish. I just couldn’t help but wonder if ‘preparing’ to catch fish you could legally kill wasn’t some kind of bad luck.

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The first striped bass that made it to the table.

Then, on the second trip of the fall, I hooked into bass that felt slightly larger than the shorter fish we’d been catching earlier that morning.

Throwing a green bucktail with a matching pork-rind trailer, I hooked and landed a 31-inch striped bass, three inches larger than they need to be to legally keep.

There are few things in the world I like as much as the feeling of a bass that you know is slightly larger than the rest you’ve been catching, hitting your bucktail as you hop it along the ocean floor.

We’d just finished the table, and we carefully set it on the rail of the back deck and filleted our first striped bass on it.

There are, undoubtedly, more superstitions involved with the sport of fishing than almost any other pursuit in human history (except, maybe, baseball).

But preparing to catch fish that you might have the chance to bring back to family for dinner, and creating a table that ultimately aids in that effort, is not bad luck. In fact, it might have even helped, as far as I’m concerned now. I guess you’ve got to believe something’s possible, and perhaps even likely, before undertaking a single step toward achieving it.

 

 

 

Printing A Thresher Shark Tail by the Ocean in Gloucester

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Higgins prints a thresher shark tail in Gloucester, MA.

“Want to help me print a shark tail?”

There are some instances in life, no matter your age, that will transport you immediately back to a state of childlike wonder. These, of course, differ for everyone, because we all fall in love with different things when we’re young enough to be enamored by a world that’s new and fascinating at every turn.

If we fall in love with the water, and the myriad of creatures it contains, and become fishermen, then we’re blessed with more of these moments than most.

The thing that’s so magical about being of an age that only necessitates one digit for description is that you are prone to believe in enormous, seemingly impossible things. The bootprints of soot on the fireplace were left by a mythical, jolly creature that captained a sleigh through the sky. If you fall in love with fish, and you’re prone to grand ambitions, you’ll try to stock the small creek behind your house with transported trout from a pail, brought from another creek, before you’re even four feet tall.

The above question was asked of me by Joe Higgins, who owns and operates Fished Impressions on Boston’s North Shore. A friend of his had commissioned a gyotaku print of a tournament-winning thresher shark, and Higgins had the 5-foot-long tail in a studio he’s renting in Gloucester, where he’s selling some of his raw prints at a lower cost than traditional, framed pieces (shameless plug).

Gyotaku, for those of you who are unfamiliar, is an ancient Japanese art form that allows an angler to commemorate a catch using only ink and paper (not just any paper, rice, unryu or mulberry paper). It’s an art form that reminds you that anglers have been bragging about the fish that they’ve caught for as long as they’ve been catching fish: Photography changed the nature of the bragging, but didn’t start it, by any means.

It sounds simple, but like many things in life, doing it well is anything but.

So, for a few hours in Gloucester, we carefully applied ink of various colors to the tail (thresher sharks have especially long tails which they use to stun baitfish before eating them) and created a number of prints. I use the term ‘we,’ here, very loosely, I performed the tasks that a toddler would be capable of doing, and a toddler who just awoke from a nap at that.

More than anything else, helping at Fished Impressions has reminded me of the reason that I fell in love with the water and the sport of fishing to begin with. Whether it’s a nearby pond, a local lake, or the North Atlantic, the world beneath the water is a fascinating and beautiful place that we should savor every second next to, and if we’re capable of wrapping words, or paper, around some of that beauty and sharing it with others, we might even appreciate it all the more ourselves.

 

Fail Again, Fail Better

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“I don’t believe in pessimism. If something doesn’t come up the way you want, forge ahead.” – Clint Eastwood

If there’s one thing that I’ve learned from this entire effort, it’s that persistence, and the refusal to quit, matter more than almost anything.

Circumstances in life have taught me this, and if I didn’t learn the first time, the opportunities just kept coming.

It took more than 100 e-mails to find our five sponsors for Catch a Cure II, and a frantic search for a brand that wanted to share the story. I’m forever indebted to B.A.S.S. for their cooperation.

I tried in a host of ways to use to sunglasses that Native Eyewear so kindly donated to the cause during the project, without much success, until finally we were able to get them to the Melanoma Research Foundation’s Wings of Hope Gala in San Francisco.

Finding guides that had the time to help on the lakes largely consisted of going to local tackle shops, collecting business cards, and sitting in a Jeep calling number after number. People are wary of causes, and I get that, but maybe that makes them all the more important to take part in.

Ironically, Father’s Day usually falls right around my father’s birthday, June 20th. Family likes to joke that he was “Born to be a father,” and that certainly might be the case.

I don’t know about you, but I like laughing, so usually on his birthday and Father’s Day we’ll share a funny story about a man I was enormously blessed to spend 27 years with.

We were talking, this past week, about a trip to Florida. Our flight was cancelled, and passengers were redistributed onto other flights, many of which were aboard smaller planes.

One such smaller plane was taking the number of passengers that it could from the cancelled flight, and we were waiting in line to board.

As we neared the gate, the attendant indicated that the flight was full, and that we’d have to continue to wait. We would have been the next passengers seated.

My father, a man who was raised in poverty, served his country in the army, and built a successful law practice handling everything from immigration law to armed robbery, just kept trying to subtly sneak onto the plane.

The flight attendant repeatedly, and as kindly as she could, indicated that the flight was full.

I’m not sure what his plan was if he did get on board. Maybe he’d have sat in the aisle until the plane landed?

We never got to find out. But he wasn’t going to quit trying. I’m sure life had taught him again and again, as it continues to teach me, that whether or not you succeed at a given endeavor, the only thing that you can ultimately control is your disposition, your drive and your determination to continue trying to move forward.

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No Matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” – Samuel Beckett

 

Teacher Appreciation Week: Five Teachers that I’m Grateful to Have Had

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Bill Glavin was a teacher that impacted each of his students enormously. 

It seems in the era of social media, every day has some online significance. All you have to do is Google the date, and you’ll find something that happened on this day in the past, and only so many dates or weeks can be noteworthy. But I saw that this past week was Teacher Appreciation Week, and I could not let it end without trying to articulate what the teachers in my own life have meant to me, from the ones that I was born with in my family, through my time at New Hartford Senior High School, to Syracuse University, and finally to Emerson College, where I’ll (finally) be graduating this coming weekend. These teachers have had a profound impact on my life, and I’m grateful daily that I encountered them:

Tara Healey: Tara is my aunt, my mother’s sister. She began the long and arduous (and largely thankless) road of becoming a teacher years ago, and now she helps learning disabled students in my native Upstate New York. She does a job, daily, that I can’t imagine doing, and she does it all with a spirit and a smile that reminds me why we’re here in the first place: To help those who we’re capable of helping. She’s one of my heroes.

Marilyn Montesano, New Hartford High School: Mrs. Montesano was a 10th-grade english teacher who brought so much enthusiasm, humor, and kindness into the classroom every day, that it even made Shakespeare fun. If she ever had a bad day, she didn’t let it show in the classroom. I’ll never forget her gathering us as students into her classroom on September 11, 2001. We were all somewhere on that day, and I’m glad I had a teacher as kind, patient and helpful as she was that afternoon.

Bill Glavin: (R.I.P.), Syracuse University: Bill Glavin taught magazine journalism at Syracuse’s Newhouse School of Communications, and there aren’t words to describe this man’s enthusiasm and humor. Anyone who ever sat in his classroom will remember the voice that fluctuated between soft rumblings and booming punch-line deliveries. He told a story that I’ll always remember, and one that I think of every time that I write. He told his students about a student reporter who went to a football game to write a story for the paper the next day, and witnessed a blowout. The student in the story came to Glavin afterward, and explained that there was “nothing to write,” it was a lopsided victory for the home team. Glavin asked about the experience, and the student said that, standing in the tunnel before the game, and listening to the deafening roar from the home team’s crowd, he knew that the visiting team had already lost. “That’s the story!” was Glavin’s enthusiastic delivery of the punchline. That reminds me to be constantly cognizant of everything around me when reporting: Often the story being played out in front of you isn’t the one that you came thinking that you’d find.

Bill Beuttler, Emerson College: Professor Beuttler teaches here at Emerson, where I’m finishing my master’s in Publishing and Writing, and has gone out of his way to help this student. He offered me an internship listening to and transcribing interviews with some legendary jazz musicians, and even took me to a show. His class structure allowed us to act both as aspiring writers and editors, working with other students, so that we could get a better feeling for how we might interact in the publishing world in similar circumstances.

Gian Lombardo: After losing my father in my first semester at Emerson, I felt compelled to do something to raise money to fund a cure for melanoma. I undertook a small Catch a Cure project in Florida through the kind people at Outdoor Sportsman Group, and asked if there were any way to use a repeated trip, with more sponsors, in an academic capacity. Professor Lombardo found a way to make it work, helping me design a survey to distribute to get feedback from fishermen around the country. Even if he knew that my dream of starting my own magazine was a long shot at best, he didn’t dismiss the ambition out of hand.

Each of these teachers has had a profound impact on my life, and I’m enormously grateful.

The Seven Most Beautiful Places that I’ve Ever Fished

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Lake Powell on a calm day can seem like a mirror.

I have been enormously fortunate, thanks to anglers all over the United States, and the editors at Outdoor Life, Game & Fish, and B.A.S.S., to fish a host of different waters from Maine down to the Florida Keys out to San Diego and up to Seattle. These days I am working on finishing my Master’s Degree, and I’ve been lucky to help out a tremendously talented artist in Salem named Joe Higgins who runs Fished Impressions, but thanks to a number of people who’ve had faith in me over the years, I’ve had the chance to travel and fish more than most. Any time that we can get on the water, it’s a beautiful day, but there are some places on the American landscape that have stood out in my memory as particularly gorgeous. I haven’t fished everywhere, but I’ve tried, and these are places that belong on your bucket list if you’re an angler.

The Florida Keys: The sunrises are surreal. You’ll swear that the ocean is temporarily alight with fire when you see one from a flats skiff. But the variety of species that are available for an angler to target here is almost enough to overwhelm you the minute you get on the Overseas Highway that will lead you out of Miami. Tarpon are the big draw out of Islamorada and Key West, and rightfully so, but yellowtail snapper, barracuda, spotted sea trout, permit and bonefish are all available depending upon the season you choose. Waking up in the Keys is something like waking up on Christmas morning, on repeat, for any fisherman. There are a host of beautiful places in the lower 48 to fish, but you’d be hard-pressed to make an argument that any are, in any sense, ‘better’ than the Florida Keys. The guys at Bud N’ Mary’s are the ones to talk to if you find yourself Keys-bound.

New Orleans: Start an argument in the Southeast about who has the biggest redfish, and you’ll never hear the end of it. Having that said, the environment in New Orleans, the potential forage base, and the climate all give it as good a claim as any Southern city to “Redfish Capital of the World.” Fishing out of New Orleans is such a memorable and incredible cultural experience, that even if, let’s say… Texas had bigger redfish, it’d still be tough to argue that New Orleans is the single best place to go if you want to fish for them. Both Gregg Arnold and Rocky Thickstun are excellent New Orleans guides, and you can’t go wrong with either.  The city is overflowing with art of all varieties, from music to artwork to photography, and where the city stops, the natural beauty starts.

Seattle: Seattle gets a reputation as a rainy city, and it is, but all that water creates an environment rich with life. Whether you want to chase king, silver or chum salmon, it’s hard to imagine a place more beautiful to do it in than Western Washington. If you do get there, try fishing for sea-run rainbows on the fly, too. It’s an incredible experience, especially from shore. The lush greenery, the mountains and the crystal-clear water all make for absolutely stunning scenery. The Seattle expert to talk to, hands down, is Chris Senyohl. 

Montauk: I’ll first say that during the prime striper months, like May, June, October and November, Montauk gets crowded. This is the place to travel to and set wader boot on for striper fishermen in the spring and fall. It is true that more striped bass pull closer to the end of Long Island, here, concentrating in a way that they do in few other places, but the culture is really what makes Montauk memorable. It is seemingly, for a few months anyway, a city built on striped bass, or at least the pursuit of them. Whether you love the crowds, the competition and the frenzy, or you can’t stand it, Montauk is a place to experience as a striper fisherman at least once in your life. The sun rising and casting the day’s first light on all the wader-clad, or wetsuit-wearing fishermen who have been fishing all through the night is simply a sight to behold.

Grand Lake Stream, Maine: This isn’t the southern part of Maine that most of Boston flees to in the summer months for their bumper stickers (although that part of Maine is beautiful, too). Grand Lake Stream is about four hours north of Maine’s southern border, and has some truly rugged and wild country. The landlocked Atlantic salmon that you’ll chase, and perhaps catch, in Grand Lake Stream are every bit as beautiful as the scenery. The crew at Weatherby’s are the guys to talk to if you’re headed to GLS.

Apalachicola: It might seem unfair that I’ve put Florida on this list twice, but the state just has that many unique and amazing opportunities for fishermen. Traveling through the state, many visitors never make it to the Panhandle, which, in the Panhandle, is just how they like it. The Apalachicola Chamber of Commerce has actually trademarked the name, ‘The Forgotten Coast.’ The Panhandle of Florida feels very different from the remainder of the state: The attitude of the locals is more relaxed, the sand on the beaches is even a lighter shade, and they take oysters much more seriously. Offshore fishing out of nearby Destin is popular, but I’d fish with the Robinson Brothers again for redfish if I ever made it back down: Those guys are the best.

Lake Powell, Arizona/Utah: This one might surprise a few people, but this lake itself, thanks to the surrounding geography, is absolutely stunning. Oh, and the smallmouth bass that inhabit it are a blast to catch on topwater. Seeing the rock formations that have been carved and weathered by time, wind and water reflected in the lake’s mirror-like surface on a calm summer afternoon is a sight that you’ll never forget. Danny Woods at This Side of That Guide Service is the guy to talk to about fishing here, no doubt about it.

Many of us, as fishermen, are hesitant to admit that the beauty is a big part of the reason that we love the sport. But I don’t think any of us could deny that it’s integral to the entire experience, either. If you get a chance to fish in any of these places, take it.

These are a Few of my Favorite Fish…

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Shane Kobald holds up an enormous Colorado brown trout in 2010.

If we’re lucky enough to be fishermen, we’ll likely cover a lot of water in our lifetimes, and I’ve been luckier than most. Some fish, however, stand out above the rest in our memories, and for good reason. Some fish define a place, a relationship or an experience for us in a way others don’t. These are the fish that I’m most grateful to have seen caught:

Chris Critelli: There’s an area off of Brewster, Mass., where you can wade out for almost a mile to a channel that flows between two sandbars. For more than a decade, cousins and I were lucky to wade those flats almost every day for the three weeks that we’d vacation on Cape Cod every summer. I caught my share of striped bass on the Brewster Flats, but seeing my younger cousin, Chris Critelli, catch an 11-pound fish at sunset on one of our last days of vacation in 2005 was one of my favorite memories of all-time. Chris is a tremendous fisherman, and an even better human being. He didn’t have the chances to fish saltwater as often as I did growing up, so it meant more to him than it might have to me. Seeing him catch it, though, meant the world to an older cousin.

Shane Kobald: While doing a project called Fish America for Outdoor Life, I was fishing the White River in Colorado with John Kobald and his son Shane. After fishing the White in the morning, we picked Shane up after school and he caught a 20-inch brown trout that evening. Seeing that little guy (who is probably in high school now) land the trout of a lifetime was an inspiring and incredible experience, for John and I both. Oh, and Shane seemed to enjoy it too.

Mike Coppola: When I was on that same trip, I got the chance to fish with one of the best surf fishermen in Montauk, Mike Coppola. Mike took me rock-hopping under the cover of darkness to chase stripers before the sun came up, and caught more than one fish in the 30-pound range. To watch an expert fish the surf in the complete darkness, suited up from head to toe in a dry top, and do it successfully, was incredible.

Steve Niemoeller: If Mike is one of the best when it comes to surf fishing, Steve is the king of largemouth bass. Steve Niemoeller helped me more than almost anyone on this past Catch a Cure, and one fish stands out in my memory. He was casting toward lily pads on the St. Johns River when he hooked, and landed, a bass of more than four pounds. It was the largest fish that I’d see caught on the trip. Steve knew exactly where it’d be, and he targeted it and caught it in expert fashion.

Dylan Wheelock: Dylan is another cousin of mine, even younger than Chris. I dragged them all out on the Brewster Flats when they’d join us for vacations on Cape Cod, and Dylan caught his first striped bass on those flats when he was about 15. It wasn’t an enormous fish, but we have the photo proof. He’s still got the picture hanging up in the family’s house in Upstate New York.

It’s the Little Things: A Good Mail Month

keepoursingingvoicesgoldenIt seems, nowadays, that almost every piece of information or news that we get comes electronically. The mailbox outside your front door has been mostly relegated to bills, flyers and takeout menus. That reality, however, makes it all the more surprising and uplifting when you do get something in the mail that has some worth or value on a personal level.

This past month, the mailbox has been good to me, and I’d like to share a few stories, and thank some people who went out of their way.

I was excited to hear that a long-time friend and former Syracuse roommate, Andrew Fillipponi, is finally tying the knot. I’m more excited, as a fisherman, that he’s tying that knot in New Orleans… one of the fishiest places I’ve ever set foot in. Congratulations Pinto Bean, we’ve got a few crazy stories to rehash at the next meeting of the… well, Syracuse fans, we’ll say.

If you’ve read this blog or followed my Social Media presence, you know by now that I’m a huge fan of a musician named Brian Fallon. He writes some beautiful songs, and I’d recommend checking them out if you’re in the market for new music (who isn’t?) Fellow fans of the band have formed a group online called Andy Diamond’s Church Street Choir (taken from song lyrics) and actually sent postcards, and very cool ones I might add, to fans around the world. I got mine this past month and it was a touching reminder of how music can connect people who are otherwise worlds apart.

When friend and former Emerson classmate James Spica saw the oyster-inspired Christmas ornaments we were selling at Tomo’s Tackle here in Salem, he naturally wanted one, so I stuck an ornament in the mail for him. This past week, he returned the favor by sending an Orvis gift card, which is all the excuse I need to head to the nearest Orvis and dream of the spring fishing that’s to come.

What do you get when you combine music and fishing (besides the world’s best possible combination)? A fellow Fallon fan, Christina LaMarca, liked one of the fish prints that we’re selling out of Tomo’s Tackle, so I sent a small mahi print to the midwest for her mom. She returned the favor recently by sending a movie she’s insisting that I watch, The Princess Bride.

I’m a fairly quiet guy who lives in a small upstairs apartment in an out-of-the-way part of a North Shore town in Massachusetts. Three people, all from different walks of life, none of whom know one another, went out of their way to send something thoughtful or personal in the past month, and each mailbox inspection has been an uplifting reminder that it’s a beautiful world, full of incredible people.

If you need some inspiration in the mailbox, and want to help a great cause… donate $25 to the Melanoma Research Foundation and I’ll send you a one-of-a-kind Catch a Cure T-shirt, thanks to Rick Roth at Mirror Image printing, who donated the shirts to the project. We only have a few left, and this will sound like a sales pitch, but it’s true so… if you want one, act fast.

Thank you to all of you you took the time, it honestly did bring some cheer amidst the snow-pocalypse we’re currently experiencing north of Boston.