You Can Take it with You: Places we Save

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The Rapidan River in Virginia is as beautiful a place as it gets. I tried to fool a few wary trout with a Tenkara rod in 2010. 

If you get the chance to travel and see the American landscape while you’re young, especially in today’s social-media driven, share-everything culture, you’ll have one beautiful difficulty. I can almost guarantee it. And if you’ve aspired to wrap words around ideas, places, or experiences to keep the heat on, this will become especially vexing.

Because for some places… There are not words.

I could rattle off a few just sitting here: The Florida Keys, The Grand Canyon, the Montana landscape, the Maine Coast, the Outer Banks… but there are too many to list in a blog, a Facebook post or any online list that you’ll read, if we’re being honest.

And what happens when you stand before these natural monuments is something that’s hard to describe, but I’ll try. With most every other experience in life, no matter how far-fetched or absurd, we experience it by sharing it. If we are crossing the street and a car runs a red light and nearly hits us… we share this story, others recognize its absurdity and agree. We get it out, we see our estimation of it mirrored in the reaction of others, and we move on.

When we experience love in the way of marriage, there’s a church full of onlookers to share in our excitement and gratitude and congratulate us. When we experience loss, there’s a church full of loved ones to console us.

These experiences are defined by our sharing them, describing them, and having some type of community around us to verify and reflect their worth and value. If a man lived and died alone in a forest, would he have ever “lived,” in any real sense? Would his death be a “loss,” in the way we typically understand a death to be? It’s hard to say.

But when we stand in front of the Pacific crashing on the beaches of Cape Flattery, Wash., or see the ocean lapping on the shores of Islamorada, Florida, or see the sun light up the sky in the Outer Banks in North Carolina a thousand shades of fluorescent orange, that’s not necessarily an experience that’s defined through sharing, but rather internalizing.

Sure, in today’s social-media driven culture we’re bound to photograph, hashtag, and post images of these places and landscapes… but truthfully we could just as easily sit in an apartment, download a .JPG, and upload it to our timeline. Sharing the experience doesn’t define it, but absorbing it does.

When you see these places that defy description, you can’t help but absorb them. Somehow that beauty that could only exist in nature, could only be manifested by some divinely inspired creator, becomes part of us when we witness it. “We are what we eat,” has become a cultural slogan, but a more realistic and accurate one might be: “We are what we’ve witnessed. We are what we’ve seen.”

Because when this life’s done and we ultimately leave this place for another, we’ll take only the things that we can hold onto, and fortunately material things don’t fall into that category. “You can’t take it with you,” is right. Except for the waves crashing on beaches, the sunrises over forests, the last shades of silver on the clouds from a setting moon, or the afternoon shadows playing on a meandering river. Those, when we absorb, we keep. And we carry. For today, tomorrow and forever.


Where is Summer?

Overlooking the dense forest that starts in Old Forge and extends through much of the Adirondack National Park.

I was talking with an Aunt of mine today, about heading up to her camp in the Adirondacks this month, and it got me thinking…

My Aunt, Bridget Roberts, owns a small log cabin in Old Forge, at the foothills of the Adirondack National Park, and although this place isn’t a mansion, it’s absolutely EVERYTHING you dream about when you think about getting away in the summer.

The cabin was built more than a century ago, and when you first walk in you can smell the pine and the embers of the ashes from last year’s fire… almost. There is a fire-pit they keep out back for larger, s’more-making campfires, but there’s a stone fireplace inside too, for those colder June nights that you have to go pretty far North to even experience.

Inside the camp, there’s an intricate portrait of the landscape that their daughter (a very artistic person in her own right) etched on an enormous mushroom.

On the camp’s front deck, you can overlook the Fulton Lake Chain in the Southern Adirondack region, and on a late-Spring morning at sunrise… My God. All the talk about melting glaciers forming lakes is just hot air sailing over your head in high school until you see these bodies of water poured out so beautifully between mountains, and you can almost picture the mountains of ice melting to create them.

The deer that wander by look at you the way we look at deer in most other parts of the country, with an expression of “Hey, didn’t expect to see you here…” There’s not the trepidation or instant fear that you see in the eyes of wildlife almost everywhere else, but rather an “Oh, hi” glance before they move along.

Cell phone service is spotty, there’s no cable television and certainly no Wi-Fi. You can’t help but think, while you’re there: “Before man was staring into his phone, checking Social Media, updating his status, texting, tweeting or photographing… maybe he was just… observing, appreciating, relaxing, absorbing…”

On her front porch at sunrise you see that lake chain poured between the mountains as the sun soaks the trees and slowly changes their color to your eye from shadows to breathing greens. Your pocket feels empty without a phone, your hands feel almost odd interlaced behind your head, but when you breath in the crisp air almost feels different in your lungs and the last thing you want to do, even for a second, is blink.

For all of us, perhaps, summer is not just a season but a place we go, a place we return. I’ve been lucky to visit many different ‘summers,’ over the years, but this one is truly incredible in almost every sense of the word.

“Bruuuuce!”: Inspired by the Boss

Fishing with Clarence Clemons in 2010.

I recently purchased two tickets to see Bruce Springsteen at Gillette Stadium in September. They’re the kind of seats that… well, let’s just say we’ll be in the same zip code as Mr. Sprinsgteen, and I’ll leave it at that.

I’ve been friends with some great Springsteen fans along the way. My roommate from Syracuse University and one of my best friends from childhood, Andrew Fillipponi, turned me onto Springsteen originally. Gerry Bethge is the fishing editor at Outdoor Life who afforded me an opportunity many would kill for, fishing the entire country, and he’s the kind of Springsteen fan that I’m sure knows things about Bruce’s music that Bruce doesn’t even know.

My half-brother, Raymond Bach, was with me at Clarence Clemons’ last show in Buffalo, New York, and has fanned the flames of my Springsteen dedication over the years with thoughts of his own on everything Springsteen (like most educated music fans, he prefers the early stuff). He knows music, too… he’s a lyricist in his own right.

I’ve tried to turn a Springsteen concert into a date, an anniversary present for a significant other, a birthday present… you name it, I’ve used every excuse in the book to see Bruce.

I’ve even had the chance to fish with Bruce’s late saxophone player, Clarence Clemons. We were off the Keys, fishing for snapper and grouper when a thunderstorm snuck up, waves rocked the boat, Clarence tipped and I held him up. That’s one of those surreal moments that has you muttering “If I never do anything else for the rest of my life…”

Of the 13 Springsteeen shows I’ve been blessed to attend, I’ve gone with six different people, but this time I’m taking the person who has shared my Bruce fanaticism more than anyone since the beginning.

In one of Springsteen’s lesser known songs, The Wish, he sings about someone who we don’t often hear about in Rock n’ Roll songs.

There’s plenty of songs about future girlfriends, former girlfriends, a few about fathers, some about bosses, and a handful about crazy friends.

But if we’re honest, there’s one person to whom we owe everything that we’ve got in this world, and if you’ve got two tickets to Bruce, she’s the one you should ask first.

Despite sleeping in a Jeep for 200 nights, getting tattooed from neck to knuckle, fishing with a rock star, and getting paid to do what most people only dream about, I still owe everything I’ve got to two people, and only one is still with us: My Mom.

So we’ll be in attendance come September, to see Bruce one more time.



The Best Part about Being an Angler

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Taking a breaker in the chest while fishing the Montauk surf.

I have a vivid memory of my first time fishing the Montauk surf in a wetsuit. I remember, vividly, because I was fishing with a guy named Mike Coppola, who is about the most extreme surf fisherman you’ll ever meet (‘extreme’ here meaning crazy in a way that yields incredible results) and I was trying to follow Coppola out into the surf in a borrowed wetsuit.

He’d climbed up on a boulder off the beach, and was casting, when a wave caught me, picked me up, and pounded me on the Montauk sand hard enough to rattle a few ribs.

But I got up. I kept fishing. I share this story not to brag about some intense fishing experience, because truthfully I was pretty terrified, but because I think it demonstrates one of the most important things we learn as anglers from almost the first time we pick up a rod.

Fishing demands of us, more than anything else, that we be self-sufficient, resilient, that we bounce back. It’s very rare for any angler to catch a fish on his first cast, but even if he does, his ratio of casts-to-fish, even if he’s good, will be about 1,000-to-1 after that if he keeps at the sport for the rest of his life.

And more likely than not he’ll get pounded on the beach, fall through the ice (2003), get swept off a sandbar (2001, 2004, 2007, 20… you get the picture), lose his footing in a river (2004), get stuck in an electric storm (2010) and be closer to a hurricane than any human being without a death-wish would ever want to be (2012).

Which is to say that if you’re older than 12 and still love to fish, you’ve probably been battered around, soaked, frozen and exhausted.

And the reason these experiences are so valuable to anyone navigating this ‘life,’ thing we’re all stuck in, is because they’re demonstrative of a greater truth: No one, anywhere, attains anything worth pursuing without a little punishment or sacrifice.

And as fishermen we come to understand this fairly quickly and that truth becomes ingrained in us. So when we… say, apply for a job, ask out a girl (or guy), try out for a team or try something like… raising money to find a cure for cancer... we do not expect, at first, that we will be successful by any measure any more than we might expect to hook a fish on a first cast.

We understand, in fact we’re certain, that consistency, resilience, and faith are absolutely necessary in any endeavor we undertake.

And if that means picking ourselves up off the beach, getting a few ‘No’s, or even ‘no thank yous,’  being passed over, turned down or ignored, we understand that that’s no more personal than a fish passing on a lure, it’s just life. What’s more important, we understand that the reward after the effort is almost always worth it, and then some.

And we make another cast, effort or attempt. And then another.

Fishing Intensity: The “Craziest,” most “Hardcore” Blog You’ll Ever Read

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Enlisting in the Army? Now that takes guts. Richard Bach Sr., who served for three years, in 1955.

I’ll admit off the bat that this is a bit of a negative blog, although hopefully not overly so. I think one of the effects of our current social-media driven online atmosphere is the increasing pressure we all feel to be positive and optimistic all the time. After all, when we log on any social media we see beautiful scenery, restaurant settings, wedding photos and smiling babies… everyone, everywhere is seemingly in a state of constant bliss.

But I’ll buck that trend for a moment and air one grievance that perhaps you’ll share, and if you don’t, well, hey… that’s fine too.

I see a lot of content, in this industry especially, about the “intensity,” of our sport… how “difficult and grueling and hardcore” certain aspects of fishing can be. And, to be fair… I get the point. I have fished in places, whether it’s the crashing surf in Montauk where I was washed off a rock and pounded onto the beach, or frozen rivers in Montana where I couldn’t feel my face… where there are certainly physical challenges that come with enjoying the sport.

But… it’s a sport that… we’re enjoying. I chose to undertake those experiences and I’d do it again because… it’s not that bad. It’s a sport we’re choosing to participate in. I can’t help but think, every time I read about a grueling or “hardcore” outdoor experience… of some people from my own life.

A friend of mine, Jake Jonza, signed up to enlist in the Army after he saw the towers fall on 9/11 and served in the 82nd Airborne Division. My father (a former Army sergeant), after being diagnosed with Stage IV melanoma, battled for two years after a prognosis of a six-month life expectancy, fighting the disease with drugs that had the type of effect on his body that I’ll spare you the details of. My cousin, Joe Critelli, sustained a serious leg injury while working in a manufacturing plant near our home in Upstate New York that he’s still recovering from. My Uncle Don Healey is a prison guard back home. The funny thing about these guys is that I never hear from them about how “hardcore,” or “badass” their jobs are… they just do them because they need to get done.

These guys, each of them, are “badass” in every sense of the word, except they’d never tell you that. I’d never in a million years suggest anyone threaten their family or loved ones unless they had their affairs in order, but barring that kind of situation, they’re humble, quiet, kind guys who do the things they need to to make time for the things that they love.

My point is simply this: Fishing is not, for the most part, a dangerous, health-risking, life-or-death business, nor should it be considered one. We’re out there because it’s a beautiful way to enjoy some of the most amazing places in this country.

So if we’re reaching for words or expressions to describe our favorite sport, let’s keep some sacred for those people who truly are risking something, battling something, or sacrificing something, and remember why we’re doing it in the first place: We love it.

Why Fishing Makes us Better Human Beings

The Brewster Flats on Cape Cod at low tide.

When my cousin, Everett Lockwood and I, were in high school, we were lucky to spend a few weeks on Cape Cod every summer, and of course our foremost priority was chasing fish. Since we lacked a boat, we eventually discovered the Brewster Flats, which offer a rare and unique opportunity for anglers to wade out almost a mile during low tide and fish a deep drop-off where a channel cuts about 17 feet deep through two sandbars and flows out to deeper water. Baitfish leaving with the dropping tide push through this channel and set up a virtual buffet line for waiting striped bass, bluefish and flounder.

If we stayed on the Cape for three weeks, we’d fish those flats 20 times if weather allowed. We lived for it. I learned a great many things from that experience as an angler and a young man, about safety, respecting the resource (we got good enough to catch keepers, and then smart enough to release them) and appreciating the little things in life, like the incredible ecosystem we got to witness on the walks out and back.

If I had to tell you how many striped bass, bluefish or flounder we caught in the ten years we spent wading the flats, I couldn’t even wager a guess, but one I do remember.

I’m from a large Irish Catholic family, and have more than a dozen cousins. A few would drop in for a week or a weekend during the summers and fish the flats with us, but I remember Dylan Wheelock’s first flats striper specifically.

Dylan is almost ten years my junior, which would have made him 12 or 13 the first time he waded the flats with us. As luck would have it, he caught a striped bass. It wasn’t big enough to keep, even had we wanted to, but I can still picture him, a young guy who, like me, had grown up mostly landlocked in Upstate New York, a mile from dry land, holding up a striped bass.

I was over at his mother’s house this winter and saw that she still had that picture hanging up in their house. It’s not a great photo, photo-wise: He’s off in the distance and the fish is barely discernible as a striper. It was probably taken with a disposable camera that we somehow kept dry.

But there’s a 13-year-old kid from Upstate New York holding a striped bass on the Brewster Flats, grinning ear to ear. I remember that fish, because it meant more to me to share that experience than it ever did to keep it all to myself. What, in this world, is worth anything if experienced or enjoyed alone?

That fish, a decade ago now, was probably the first wave of realization coming over me that there was something even more gratifying in this sport than anything we might attain from it of our own accord, alone: Sharing it with others.

Since then I’ve been blessed to have caught more fish than I ever dreamt I might in my entire life at that age, but I find increasingly that it’s the ones I see others catch that are meaning more and more.

Fishing Friendships: A Line Never Broken

Curt Dircks and I intercepted a bluefish blitz off Fire Island in 2012.

I was talking with an old friend, a former college roommate from Syracuse University, and we were setting up our annual striper fishing trip for the spring. Every year, since 2004 when we met and later became friends and then roommates, we’ve made an annual spring and/or fall pilgrimage to Fire Island, a barrier Island south of Long Island where his family has a small cabin.

As we tentatively penciled in this year’s Spring trip, I got to thinking about the strength of friendships built on or around the water.

When you’re a teenager, or in your early 20s, you make more friends than you might for the rest of your life combined. Whether it’s all the new people you meet as an undergraduate, high school friends you stay in touch with, or those first people that help you on your career path… it’s a time when you meet people you’ll remember forever.

I was lucky to be born into a large Irish Catholic family, and my cousins back in Upstate New York are some of my oldest fishing friends. Joe Critelli, two years my junior, dutifully helped me load our Pond Prowler into my first used Dodge pickup to explore ponds all over Upstate New York. Everett Lockwood, only a month younger than me, would spend summers on Cape Cod with me tracking striped bass and bluefish when the tide was right and using that same Pond Prowler on as many Cape ponds as we could. Joe’s younger brother, Chris, three years younger than I, got the road-trip gene and has traveled via motorhome throughout much of the lower 48, but I was able to catch up with him on the first Catch a Cure, and we’re never too far apart to remember some hilarious anecdote that usually involved teenaged stupidity or overconfidence.

Our lives diverged on different paths (congratulations again to Everett Lockwood, now a husband), but we’re never too far apart or too busy to share a fishing picture, a story, or a memory. There’s an almost endless number of stories that could finish the ones that start: “How bout that time we…”

I even found a fisherman at Emerson. Classmate James Spica was kind enough to invite me down to South Carolina and hook me up with a guide that put me on my largest redfish of all-time.

But as we penciled in this year’s striper trip, I couldn’t help but think of how powerful fishing is in keeping friends together through anything that life throws at them. It’s been eight years since I graduated from Syracuse University, and I’ve worked in New York City as an intern for Field & Stream, at On The Water as an editor, traveled the country blogging for Outdoor Life, worked from Florida as a full-time content creator for a website, traveled the coast fighting melanoma for both Game & Fish and B.A.S.S.  and now I’m back in the Northeast, in Boston, finishing my Master’s Degree at Emerson. Curt has lived in New Jersey, New York City and even San Diego.

And we might not be in touch on a daily basis, sometimes we won’t see one another for months or even a year… but when the spring rolls around, we set up the annual trip. Making plans this year I was reminded of how profoundly important fishing is in our lives, and for so many reasons.

Melanoma Monday: Please Read

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St. Simon’s Island, Georgia, one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen, and one of many beautiful reasons to live as long as you can.

Today is a day dubbed “Melanoma Monday,” by a group seeking to raise awareness about sun safety, not just for anglers, but for everyone.

Here’s the thing about melanoma, and all skin cancers for that matter: When you get diagnosed, it hits your life, and the lives of your family, like a ton of bricks.

This isn’t the type of illness where you’ve smoked for years and part of you saw it coming. We’re not talking about people who aren’t… we’ll say… “nutrition conscious” and know that sooner or later it’s going to catch up with them. Those types of cancers or illnesses, while devastating and unfortunate, are like car accidents that occur when someone’s speeding and running red lights: You hope like hell they don’t happen, but at the same time you’re aware to some degree that they might.

Melanoma is not like that. And I’ll stipulate here, that yes, there are people out there tanning on a regular basis to achieve that perfect glow. They’re not the people I’m talking about here. I’m talking about anglers and outdoorsmen who just consider sunscreen as something to “maybe put on if they happen to remember.”

I’ll share my family’s story, not for sympathy, but because I believe it’s one that many families probably share, and one that we need to prevent at all costs.

My father, a hapless driver, was in a minor car accident at the age of 74. It was nothing serious, a fender bender, but they asked him to allow some X-rays just to make sure nothing was broken.

Nothing was broken. There was, however, melanoma spread throughout his body: Stage IV. As many of you know, there’s no Stage V, unless it’s Heaven.

That is how you get told you have six months to live. You’re in a fender bender, doctors run some tests, and then you’re having the most grave, terrifying conversation of your life with a doctor. You’re consoling your wife and calling your son with the news. I’ll remember that phone call forever, just sitting on the stairs of my Red Bank apartment, holding my phone in my hand, wondering how to phrase the news to my then girlfriend, wondering if I should drive home immediately, wondering if it were a dream, wondering if I could just go back to sleep and wake up and have it not be real.

But this is not a story of sadness, the human condition is not despair, the default emotion, for all of us, if we can maintain it, is hope. My father’s hope turned a six-month death sentence into two-plus more years of life.

My tattoos tell a story I am too shy to share, and my first one was four Gaelic words surrounding a cross and a shamrock (our family’s maternal side are Gillorens from Kilorglin, Ire.). One of those words is Dochas, which means, and I’ll quote directly here: “Hope: bringing faith to the future.”

Until we are broken, that is our default emotion that, despite whatever hardship, we return to again and again: Dochas… hope… faith in the future. And that’s what I’ll summon today, Melanoma Monday… faith that we are ever closer to the cure.