Choices and Others, What It’s all About

Matt Yudor, 12, is putting a hurting on some Florida bass while staying sun-safe.
Matt Yudor, 12, is putting a hurting on some Florida bass while staying sun-safe.

A wise friend and fisherman once told me, of this project and perhaps writing in general: “It can’t be about you.” And he was right. If you want to write something that’s about you, well that’s what a diary is for. In the picture to the left here you’ll see Matt Yudor, age 12, holding up a big Florida bass he caught while fishing with Steve Niemoeller. Steve sent me the picture this morning.

What I noticed first, though, is that Matt’s wearing a Buff, and one that I gave to Steve at that. That’s a part of his face he’s protecting from the sun, and hopefully, along with that, he’s becoming more conscious about the sun as a potentially dangerous element we have to be constantly aware of. And hell, even if he just thinks Buffs are cool, sometimes what you don’t know can help you.

My cousins Joe and Chris Critelli hold up some Upstate New York bass.
My cousins Joe and Chris Critelli hold up some Upstate New York bass.

In this second image you’ll see my cousins and some of my best friends from Upstate New York, Joe and Chris Crittelli. Now the bass they’re holding would be big by Florida standards, but they’re not in Florida. These guys are in Upstate New York where you’ve got a growing season for bass that’s about as short as anywhere in the lower 48.

Joe wouldn’t have me tell you this but he works in a plant where he sustained a serious injury a couple years ago that has made his life much more difficult. But the thing about guys working in plants in Upstate New York is, and Joe’s no exception, they’re not going to tell you about the parts of their lives that are hard, those they’ll keep to themselves. Joe and I were talking the other day and laughing about some of the funny stories we had from when my father was alive. We were laughing about the man we knew and loved, we weren’t talking about the fact he wasn’t here anymore.

Because that’s how we choose to remember him, those are the images we share with one another, the positive ones.

And that, make no mistake, is a choice. Steve Niemoeller chose to give Matt a Buff, who chose to put it on. My cousin is recovering from his injury and he’s getting out on the water every day he can, because he chooses to move forward rather than marinate in a difficult past.

And I’m fortunate enough to share their stories, something I’ll do, and choose to do, for as long as I can. And although this trip must come to a conclusion here soon, I’m already planning next year’s. That’s my choice, and I’m making it.

Florida Sportsman Editor Gets in The Trenches to Fight Melanoma

Florida Sportsman Editor Jeff Weakley canoeing to some skinny water Florida bass.
Florida Sportsman Editor Jeff Weakley canoeing to some skinny water Florida bass.

Although being an editor at a fishing magazine sounds glamorous, it’s honestly mostly office work, and a lot of it. But Today Florida Sportsman Editor Jeff Weakley snuck out before work to slip a canoe into some bassy backwater near Stuart, Florida to help put me on some fish for Catch a Cure.

You can tell Jeff’s put his time in on the water, and he chose a small, relatively hidden public access point to fish a coastal lake near the FS office. With these fish suspended in cover and easily spooked, we weren’t ripping across any enormous waterbodies in a flashy bassboat, we were putting in some elbow grease in his canoe, trying a stealth approach for these reluctant and hot summer bass. It got us talking about our first means of chasing fish, and I got to thinking about my first “Pond Prowler,” with a trolling motor that I hauled everywhere in Upstate New York in the back of a used Dodge Dakota in high school.

There is undoubtedly something wonderful about fishing out of such a simple and timeless craft as a canoe that reminds you why you loved the sport to begin with.

In total we caught 14, 1-pound largemouth bass that were hanging in some of the thickest cover I’ve ever tried to pull a fish out of. We contributed some new lures to the lake’s infrastructure, but as a guide once told me, “if you’re not getting hung up you’re not fishing the right places.”

It was the type of fishing that is work, in the sense that we by no means stumbled upon any “blitzing” bass, but sometimes that reminds you that you know how to do this when you need to.

And in places like this, once you lose sight of the shore, you can imagine how Florida must have been a century ago, with cranes soaring overhead and alligators lazily eyeing your offering.

And of course, hiding in the thick stuff, waiting to ambush the next frog, bug or baitfish, there are the bass that have been there longer than we’ve been chasing them that keep us coming back.

The Ties that Bind

Florida Sunrise
The sun rising over Boca Raton, Florida.

To clear the air I’ll first admit yes, I’m a rabid Springsteen fan and that reference was intentional. But I was in my motel room, replacing monofilament with braid on a casting reel, and tying to mono-to-braid knot to connect the backing of mono on the spool with braid and thinking about connections, and the strongest ones.

As fishermen we’re always looking for the knot, or connection, that will hold up under the most pressure. I like the mono-to-braid knot (which probably has a more scientific name), because it’s relatively easy, it’s quick to tie and hell I remember it.

Earlier today I met a couple, Gary and Murial, over a dinner at a local restaurant and they asked about my T-shirt and what I was up to and I explained the cause, my purpose and my love of fishing. It turned out Gary had had some troublesome moles removed and they knew others that had been affected by skin cancer.

And of course, they loved to fish. Ties that bind. They vacationed in the Keys and they offered me help if and when I was down that way and without thinking twice, handed me $20 for the campaign and bought me a cup of soup. I of course rushed out to my Jeep and found the right sized T-shirt to hand them as some consolation and thanks for their contribution.

They’d learned the hard way that the sun, especially for people down South who love the outdoors, can be a dangerous thing. In Gary I found a fellow fisherman that wanted to help with the cause.

The mono-to-braid knot is not unbreakable. Like any knot, it’s the weakest point between your reel and the lure in any given angling situation. It matters because it’s stronger than most any other knot, and it keeps things together, more often than not, when it needs to.

As anglers we don’t all agree on everything. You’ll find bait fishermen calling fly fishermen snobs, fly fishermen calling bait fishermen names, and a whole host of other internal disagreements within the sport that aren’t worth the space I’d take up talking about them.

But even if the ties that connect us as fishermen are not unbreakable, they’re the strongest thing about us, they’ll be the last thing to break. The knot that holds us together as anglers is the strongest one there is.

And in an odd way, having been affected by skin cancer is a bond that more of us share than we’d like to. Go ahead, walk in any public place down South and bring it up. You’ll hope you don’t find some soul that knows about it all too well, but that hope won’t last long.

But the great thing about the mono-to-braid knot is it gives you some confidence that no matter what you run into on the water, whether it’s a fish, stump or alligator, you firmly believe that it’ll hold up under whatever pressure is exerted upon it.

Which, coincidentally, is one of the many great things about being a fisherman.

The Kids are Alright: Central Florida Derby Brings New Anglers to the Sport

Young anglers show off some prizes at a Youth Fishing Tournament in Florida.
Young anglers show off some prizes at a Youth Fishing Tournament in Florida.

I was fortunate enough today to catch the tail end of a youth fishing tournament that in part the guys at Bass Online helped put on, that got young anglers fishing (for prizes and the sheer joy of it, too).

I watched as the host called up the young fishermen, some of whom looked barely old enough to bait a hook, and handed them prizes provided by sponsors like Okuma.

When I was told about the tournament, I wondered if the kids would be paired with an adult running a boat, or they’d be fishing an especially stocked pond with more and larger fish than they might catch anywhere else.

But what I forgot was that these were kids. The young fishermen, from reports, landed everything from catfish to sunfish on a day on the bank, and although a few walked away with more prizes than the rest, it was clear that nobody lost.

It served as a poignant reminder to me, and hopefully to anyone reading this and looking at these elated young anglers, that the size of the fish or how frequently they’re caught doesn’t have as much to do with our sport as an outsider might suspect.

They were “Standing On (or near) A River Waving a Stick,” to once again borrow a phrase from a fishing writer from whom we can all learn a thing or two, John Gierach.

I’d initially gone thinking that photographing some young anglers with bigger bass might be a great way to put our sport in the limelight and for a good cause. As I was driving home, I realized that photos like these were more important. These kids were just fishing to fish, and that, regardless of their “success,” on the water throughout their lives, will sustain them and their love for the sport regardless of everything else.

What Fishing Continues to Teach Me About Life

Anyone can believe when they're biting (all fish were safely released).
Anyone can believe when they’re biting (all fish were safely released).

As anglers we take a set of preconceived notions onto the water regarding or quarry. Largemouth prefer structure, they feed most heavily at dusk and dawn, they’ll be spooked or downright scared away by noise from above, and above all else your presentation must appear genuine.

And as people we bring a similar set of previously held beliefs into the world: that people are good, that they’re being honest with us, that they wish the best not only for themselves but for all of us as a community.

And if you stick around for longer than about three hours, either on the water or in general, those theories will be seriously tested. There will be all sorts of fishing structure that is seemingly absolutely devoid of fish. The best presentation and the most realistic looking bait will be completely unmolested by anything living whatsoever, and days that should be, from everything we know about the water, completely fish-filled will be what amounts to casting practice on the water for hours on end. And off the water, if you haven’t been lied to, taken advantage of or insulted, you’re living in some kind of bubble I’ve never been in.

But as anglers we don’t change those beliefs that we’ve come to hold true. We don’t give up on something we’ve learned because it failed to prove accurate on any given day, and we don’t relent in our pursuit.

And that approach has and continues to inspire me in life every day. An absence of fish, or honesty, or kindness in any given endeavor, on the water or off, has not deterred me from holding onto these principle truths that I’ve come to have faith in.

An absence of fish, or good faith, shouldn’t shake our belief in the things we’ve come to understand when we’re at our most trusting, when the fishing, and life, is at its best.

There will be long stretches without fish and there will be hardships in life that will test our every ounce of resolve, if they don’t completely break us altogether.

But neither should compromise or weaken our belief in the things we’ve come to hold true and understand when life’s at its best… When we’re beloved by all or can’t keep a lure from getting crushed.

Fishing has taught me that my experience on any given day, and especially on the worst ones, shouldn’t be a model to look back on or put faith in. “Don’t look to the past unless you can build on it,” a very wise woman told me once. And in fishing and in life, that’s as true as anything else you’ll read, I can promise you that.

We become great anglers, and trusting, giving people, by building on what we’ve come to understand through knowledge that has proven itself in experience. And for every fishless day or survived hardship, whether we realize it or not, that strength, skill and resolve is only deepened as long as it fails to weaken our faith.

That’s what I’ve learned from years on the water, and what I hold onto every day.

On a Day Without Fish: Reflecting on the Best thing about Them

The simplest thing about fishing is the best: you can't fake a fish.
The simplest thing about fishing is the best: you can’t fake a fish.

Out here on the road, immersed in everything angling, you can’t help but wonder what it is about the sport that has and continues to draw people from all walks of life to it, and I’ll be the first to admit I don’t know any more than the next guy, so I’m certainly not here to preach any wisdom from on high some throne of experience.

I have been fortunate enough to fish a great many places, from the northern reaches of Maine down through the wonderful beaches of New Jersey (that were beautiful and fishy enough that I called them home for a while) to the blissful Outer Banks to the slooowed dooown, methodical and graceful backwaters of Georgia, out to the wide-open amazing expanses of Montana and Wyoming and into the bass-crazy havens hidden in California, and especially here in Florida, where you’d be hard pressed to find a place that’s not fishy in some sense. Thanks to guys at Bass Online, I’m experiencing the bass capital in a whole new way.

And I know what I love most about the sport, and what I think draws so many of us to it, is that there’s simply no “faking it.” In so many arenas in life, whether it’s testing our intelligence, strength or courage, there are shortcuts and trapdoors and loopholes that might make us appear greater than we truly are.

But with fishing, there’s only the fish, the true test of our abilities and our understanding of the world in which they live and the measure of our capacity to bring them, if only briefly, into ours… even if just for a picture.

And in fishing we find this genuine, “can’t-fake-it” arena where there’s some hard-sought but rarely found legitimacy that’s sorely lacking in other parts of our lives.

The water and the fish are the measure of everything about us in this one small slice of life.

And as a writer, if you’ve something to say, in time you’ll learn someone has likely captured the sentiment better than you possibly could and the best you can do is find him and quote him.

As a fishing writer, you’ll find that that someone is often John Gierach. In his book No Shortage of Good Days, he writes: “Life is an unruly mess and ideals are hard to hold onto, but fishing is an isolated enough slice of it that there’s the hope we can do this one small thing perfectly.”

And being absolutely unable to improve upon or add to that sentiment, I’ll leave you with it.

Florida Heat, Bad Room Service, and What it Can Teach us about Bass Behavior

Bass habitat
Bass aren’t out basking in this mid-Summer heat: they’re hidden away in the thick stuff.

I was sitting in what we’ll call a “modest” motel room in central Florida, waiting to get on the water with some very generous guides from Bass Online who have volunteered to help out for the cause this coming week, and thinking about bass and how they feed and ultimately, how we can relate so as to best feed them something with a hook in it.

I was in this… “modest” motel room last night, trying not to look for stains, blood or anything moving, when my room phone rang. Now imagine that you’re by yourself in a Florida motel a thousand miles from anyone you know and your motel phone rings. I was curious to put it mildly. But I answered.

The gentleman at the front desk informed me that the food I’d ordered was waiting at the front door for pickup. The problem here is that I hadn’t ordered anything. However, for a brief moment I considered going along with it just to see what was being offered instead of venturing out myself later or relying on a vending-machine selection or what odd remnants of what was once food I could scrounge up in my Jeep.

In the end, thinking of the people who actually did order the food, and my limited budget, I decided to be honest and tell them they had the wrong room number. But from this experience, like any one, we can learn something.

During the spring and fall months, no doubt bass are on the prowl throughout their home water body searching for genuine, honest-to-goodness sources of sustenance. But then May comes, and then June. And in these shallow bodies of water especially in the south, the water gets cooking hot. Fish seek out shade under structure or cover, much like humans do, hiding from the sun when it’s most intense and reaches skin-broiling level.

But then along comes an angler, slinging something that looks very much like a meal into that bass’s hiding spot. Now if the guy calling up to my room had happened to mention that the delivery was my favorite meal (fish, ironically), I don’t know that I still would have passed, but it certainly would have been more tempting not to.

And as anglers we can learn from this example. In the summer months, especially here in the South, what matters most is presentation and location. We need to hit these fish on the head with exactly what they want to eat because expending any energy in search of a meal becomes less and less of a preferable option for them as water temperatures rise.

And that has to be our mindset in these mid-Summer months. We just have to set a lure (or bait) right where a bass is at, tucked away from the heat, and hope hunger overcomes any evolved sense of caution that these fish have developed in the decades and centuries anglers have been trying to fool them.

Go to where they live, knock on the door, and be carrying (or casting) their favorite meal. And apply all your cheap-motel experiences on the water. That’s what wisdom I have to offer today. And yes, thanks to the guys at Bass Online, this blog will have fish in it next week (knock on wood).

Breaking into Triple Digits With a Great Day on The St. Johns

Connor Cato holds up a two-plus-pound largemouth that inhaled a live shiner on the St. Johns River
Connor Cato holds up a two-plus-pound largemouth that inhaled a live shiner on the St. Johns River

Thanks again to Bassonline guide Steve Niemoeller, Catch a Cure broke the $100 mark today on the St. Johns River here in Florida. I tagged along with Steve and clients Willy and Connor Cato and we had an eventful day on the St. Johns pitching shiners on the river to some chunky bass. The first fish of the day, pushing just more than two pounds, brought us from $98, where we’d been stuck, to 100-plus when it weighed in at two-plus pounds The fish would be one of six that added, in sum, twelve more dollars to our total raised for the Melanoma Research Foundation, bringing us to $110.

Connor, the younger Cato, of course stole the show with some nice fish although his father bagged a few chunky bass as well. It was in interesting experience testing out a different type of bass habitat. While the St. Johns, at this section, is a slow moving river, you’re still looking for structure that can break the flow of the current and provide some habitat for these fish.

It was agonizing but amazing to see these fish toy with, whack and finally crush the three-inch-plus shiners we were swinging into pockets and holes on the St. Johns. It was proof positive than in these slower, hot summer days, nothing beats a live bait for bass.

The guys all went home sporting a Florida Sportsman limited edition Buff after a beautiful day on the river… juuuussst before a brutal storm hit and flooded me out of my motel room. The flash flood that left me “wading” by my bed was a reminder why Florida, while beautiful, like any place, has its own set of difficult circumstances that can arise. But after a day like we had on the St. Johns, nothing could dampen my spirits. To top the day off, once we were off the boat, Mr. Cato handed me a hundred-dollar bill toward the Melanoma Research Foundation’s efforts. I was speechless, and still am.

Topping the Trip Best at Lake Toho

This fish, my personal best ever, saved the day thanks to Steve Niemoeller.
This fish, my personal best ever, saved the day thanks to Steve Niemoeller.

Captain Steve Niemoeller is an expert at his craft. Running around Lake Toho in central Florida today, he consistently put us on spots that, despite the intense heat, produced a consistent bass bite. In total, Steve, his grandson and I picked four fish, three of which were right around a pound apiece, I mean when a guy is serious enough to create and craft his own custom baits, like Steve does with his Steel Shads, you know he’s pretty dialed into his fishery.

The Steel Shads are a blade bait that you can bend and tweak with a pair of pliars to alter and improve their motion. That’s the kind of thought process that produces a big bass guru. We were drifting larger shiners, about two to three inches long, along weed beds and grass lines in the lake, starting out at sunrise and fishing until about noon. But it was one of the final fish, at a spot Niemoeller claimed was a potential big bass location, that made my day and showed his skill as a guide. We were drifting along a slightly deeper hole with baitrunner reels, especially designed to let a largemouth fully inhale a bait before hookset, when this enormous bass proved Steve’s big-spot prediction correct.

This fish, which is my personal biggest to date, weighed in at 4.1 pounds, and in case you forgot, that’s four more dollars for the Melanoma Research Foundation. It took the shiner and made a straight run for at least 25 yards before I could put on the brakes. With its straight, powerful run, it almost felt more like a saltwater fish than any of the bass that I’d fought to date. I couldn’t stop smiling for the rest of the day and it’ll be a fish I’m talking about until… well, the next one. Despite the intense Florida heat in July and trying conditions, Niemoeller sent me home with the biggest bass of my life, and one that meant more than any I can remember, thanks to Buff.

More Florida Imports: Peacocks on Live Bait

Another muscular peacock bass that crushed a live bait.
Another muscular peacock bass that crushed a live bait.

Now first and foremost let me establish that this trip is and has been from the outset a largemouth bass mission. I am and will fish with anyone that thinks they might be able to put me on America’s favorite fish, and for a good cause, and certainly the Bass Online guys have gone out of their way to help to that end. Having that said, damn peacock bass are cool.

They’re just a species of fish that has no business in tight little canals in Florida waters. Every hit, every fight and every fish feels like something stolen from a dream you had where a species that’s tougher, nastier and more muscular snuck into your quiet little watering hole.

I find myself wondering about the South American climate where these fish evolved, wondering the currents and forces of mother nature they had to battle to become such an amazing game fish.

When I became more interested in saltwater fishing as a teenager, it was because I was under the impression fish like this didn’t exist in freshwater. The violent strikes, explosive runs and vicious headshakes are more a reminder of a bluefish than a bass.

And regardless of what draws you to the water, it’s hard to deny that the beauty we see, both in nature and in the fish we pursue, is at least part of the allure. And you can stare at these fish for minutes counting the different colors in each.

I found myself googling the state record fish and wondering what a ten-plus-pound peacock would fight like. Don’t bother, I can tell you that slope’s a slipper y one and you’ll forget about every other fish and wind up in a scary place.

But my father had a simple saying that he applied ot many aspects of his life: “One more.” He did one more hour of work, one more selfless act and earned one more dollar before turning in. So in that spirit, here’s one more peacock picture, a fish as beautiful as they are brutal at the end of your line. If you’re in South Florida and get the chance to chase these fish, it’s worth every minute spent in pursuit. And even if you don’t care about your skin, this picture (and blog for that matter) should be virtual proof that Buffs are good luck, so slap one on.