Top Five Fish Moments… Ever

249672_10100122227052856_2624335_nAny day you get to spend on the water, especially with family or friends, deserves to be among some of your best when all is said and done. But for most of us, a few stand out above the rest, these are mine, and here’s why.

The Summer Before the Real World Started: It was my last summer of college at Syracuse University. I’d worked all year completing a triple-major while covering Syracuse sports for a website and working as a manager at the Fund for Syracuse. After that it’d be down to New York City for an internship with Field & Stream, up to On The Water to copy edit, a trip for Outdoor Life that entailed sleeping in a Jeep and fishing 36 of the lower 48, and a year-plus of full-time content creation for a site called GoFISHn. On the final day of that vacation I did what I’d done for most every day prior, when the weather allowed: I waded the Brewster flats. The day prior a car door had severed the 7’6″ G. Loomis rod I’d typically used to fish the flats, so I was toting a 6’6″ freshwater spinning rod. I couldn’t sit out the last day. Casting a pink Slug-Go over a 20-foot-deep channel almost a mile off the  beach, I hooked and landed a 17-pound striped bass on 14-pound-test braided line. The way in which everything came together perfectly made for a moment that I’ll never forget.

Bluefish Blitz: I’ve written about how fortunate I’ve been to fish with long-time friend and former college roommate Curt Dircks on Fire Island almost every Spring and Fall. But in 2011, we stumbled into a dawn bluefish blitz the likes of which I haven’t seen since. Blues to 13 pounds were crushing anything that hit the water. Seeing my then-girlfriend land her biggest bluefish from the surf was a moment I’ll never forget. We couldn’t bring a plug back to the sand without a giant bluefish attached, and the blitz lasted for almost an hour. We released most of them, kept a few for the grill, and felt like we were on cloud 9 for the rest of the day.

40 Pounds of Striped Bass: Fishing with F&S Fishing Editor Joe Cermele in 2011, live-lining bunker, we hooked and landed a striped bass that weighed all of 40 pounds. It was a slow day with a heavy fog on the water until that fish started peeling line, but the minute it did, everything changed. Just this past year I finally had a replica of the fish made, which I can’t wait to hang in my tiny apartment.

Passing the Torch: On those same Brewster flats, I saw my younger cousin, Dylan Wheelock, catch his first striper when he was barely 13. We’d both grown up in Upstate New York, a landlocked place that makes saltwater seem all the more magical. Dylan and his mom were sharing a summer vacation with our family on Cape Cod, and he got the hang of striper fishing right away, despite being barely older than I was when I started wading the flats. Catching a fish in a perfect situation is the second-best thing you can hope for when you hit the water. Seeing a friend or family member discover the magic of a place or a species is the first.

Largemouth Magic: On weekend evenings after he’d get home from the office, my father and I would head to the golf course when I was in high school. The course had a pond that, thanks to a fellow fisherman who was a member, was stocked with largemouth bass for a few years. My Dad would play the 13th hole, a short Par 3 over the water, on repeat to work on his short game while I cast Jitterbugs, Texas-rigged soft plastics and stickbaits into the adjacent pond. The hole and the pond were just far enough apart where he might not hear me hollering with delight, so it took some convincing, one night, when fading summer light forced us back into the car, to get him to believe that I’d caught and released more than 40 fish… but he finally did.

I’ll always remember that car ride home. It was perfect.

The Surf

10498073_10101737155687926_2101954513048375227_oI’ll be the first to admit I don’t fish the surf as much as I’d like, but it’s absolutely my favorite type of fishing. And it’s hard to say exactly why, but I’ll try.

It doesn’t have as much to do with the fish, for me, as one might guess. Don’t get me wrong — that feeling when your bucktail stops and line starts peeling off the reel in the opposite direction is amazing — but that’s not quite it.

Putting on still-wet waders before sunup isn’t terribly pleasant, and neither is trying to get the feeling back in your hands after an hour on the beach on an October morning.

But that first moment when you walk down to the beach, and see the sun pulling itself up out of the ocean, with perhaps a few birds diving off in the distance… for a moment… absolutely anything is possible. If you remember that feeling when, as a kid, you saw a handful of presents underneath the tree on Christmas morning — presents that might be anything — you might know what I’m talking about.

Mark Twain said: “Apparently there is nothing that cannot happen today.” After a few casts, depending upon the day, the fish and the lure you’ve chosen… you might start to understand how the remainder of the day will go…

But in that first moment of setting a wader boot on the beach, absolutely anything is possible. Maybe there will be so many bluefish pushing bunker up onto the beach that they’ll be flipping from the surf onto the sand. Maybe you’ll cast fruitlessly for hours, or, like I did on this past trip to Fire Island, maybe you’ll snag and land a skate.

But no matter what happens after that first cast — it’s what precedes it that is absolutely magical. For a frozen moment in time, you’re on the edge of absolutely anything. And if you love catching striped bass and bluefish, you’re on the edge of, perhaps, one of the best days of your life.

The Unheralded Hero: Bonnie Bach

13173206_10103005628732776_2807476143193203519_oI’ve written extensively in this blog about my father, a man for whom there are not words: he was tough as nails, moral almost to a fault and funny to boot. I’ve sung the praises of my grandmother, who amazes me daily with her strength and optimism.

I don’t, I don’t think, give my mother the credit she deserves… if indeed anyone ever could. Maybe I’m afraid to try to put into words what an inspiration she’s been and how much joy and hope she’s brought into my life… fearing that I’ll come up short.

Were it just the case that she was an amazing woman, who worked her way out of poverty to build a beautiful home and life for her son, that would be almost amazing enough in itself.

But for almost three decades she has struggled with Bipolar Disorder. This is hard to write, and certainly I never would without her permission. And it’s easy to see how far we’ve come as a society when we’re talking about medical advances in cancer research or battling diseases like leukemia, but our understanding and treatment of mental illness is, I promise you, far, far behind.

The doctors and medications that have failed her, at times spectacularly, would bring me to tears to describe. So I won’t.

Her perseverance through those disappointments, those medical attempts to provide her the healthy and fulfilling life so many of us take for granted, is stunning to the point where it almost defies belief.

Anyone who knows anyone who has struggled with mental illness knows that the word ‘struggle’ here is not at all an exaggeration. She has battled it every day with a courage I cannot imagine.

The oldest of 8 before losing a sister to leukemia,  she has helped her sisters whenever she could, and has helped her mom, my grandmother, more than anyone could have imagined she might be able to when their family of 9 was living in a second-story walk-up, using a dresser drawer for a crib for the youngest daughter.

On some days, I’ll either call or stop by the house and I’ll be telling or listening to a story, sharing a memory or a laugh, or talking about my crazy dream of building you a magazine… and I’ll just stop. A wave of realization washes over me about what this woman has been through, overcome, and what she continues to battle every day.

I don’t say it as often as perhaps I should, but not a day goes by when I don’t think: “That’s my mom, damn straight… and thank God she is.”

Don’t Give Yourself a Choice

One of the hard parts of going through a difficult part of life is the feeling, especially in today’s social-media driven culture, that we always have to present a positive face to the world. Whenever I see someone on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram mourning the loss of a loved one, or being honest about a difficult time, I’m always amazed by that courage. My tendency, and I’m sure many of ours, is to “grin and bear it,” and keep that smiling face regardless.

One of my favorite movies of all time is Cinderella Man, starring Russell Crowe playing Irish Depression-era boxer Jim Braddock. In one scene, Braddock’s wife, played by Renee Zellweger, goes to visit Crowe’s (Braddock’s) manager, played by Paul Giamatti. Giamatti opens the door to their apartment to reveal that they’ve sold everything that wasn’t nailed down (the movie takes place during the Great Depression). Sometimes glancing past a Facebook feed I wonder how many of us are, like Giamatti’s character was, “keeping up appearances.”

I read an article this morning by one of my favorite outdoor writers, Bill Heavey. Heavey is an absolute master with words, and this piece will break your heart.

It reminded me that we have one true obligation as writers, and that’s honesty, even when it’s not easy.

I was outside of a Boston classroom when I got a phone call from my mother in 2013, saying “You’d better come now.” That was November 18th. I booked a flight out of Logan, caught a cab to the airport the next morning, flew to Syracuse, got a ride from a relative home, and held my father’s hand. Whether it was the drugs to keep him comfortable, or the disease, he could no longer speak. He squeezed my hand, though… that I do know. I knew he’d want me to be back for class the next night, so I made arrangements to return on a morning train. On the train between Utica and Boston I got the call that he was gone. I don’t remember much about that class, just sitting through it, kind of numb, ordering train tickets back during break on my phone, and because I love words… starting to think about a eulogy.

I’ll never forget the friends, Anthony Malta, Curt Dircks and Andrew Fillipponi, who stopped everything and traveled great distances to be at the funeral. I’ll never forget how full the church was. Standing room, only.

A few years prior I’d asked my grandmother a simple question: “How did you survive the times you must have gone through?” Marilyn Jones was a mother to eight children, before losing a daughter to leukemia before she was even a teenager. She scraped for enough to support her family by running a yarn shop and then a daycare where I’d meet some people who’d turn out to be lifelong friends.  She’d later lose her husband, a grandfather that I never knew.

“How did you get through it?” That’s what I asked. “I had no choice,” she said. I’ll remember that forever. Of course she had a choice. We all have a choice, every day. I don’t think I that could even remotely understand what she was talking about until 2013. I don’t know how I bought those train tickets, plane tickets, or made it to that class. I suppose I didn’t give myself a choice.

When I thought about a project to raise money for melanoma research through fishing, by soliciting sponsors, and when I think about getting your input to help me start a beautiful magazine that I hope you’ll read and love, many times the question has and does pop into my head: “But how will you do it?”

And then her answer, always her answer…

“Don’t give yourself a choice.”

Bucket-List Fishing Destinations: Places I’d love to Visit

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An atlas and a Jeep… all you really need.

“For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” – Robert Louis Stevenson

By now it’s probably no longer a secret that a great deal of the motivation behind this effort, apart from raising money to cure melanoma and the desire to build you a great fishing magazine, is a love of exploration and travel.

I’ve tried to wax poetic about some of the places I’ve been blessed to see (and I HAVE been blessed), but the thing about traveling is… the more you do, the more you want to do. Each destination is seemingly a little bit closer to a place you’ve never been, and only increases your desire to get there… some day.

I thought it would be interesting to compare bucket lists with my fellow fishermen out there, so I decided to share some of the places I’ve never fished, but would love to, and see if you guys had any thoughts, suggestions or ideas about getting there, and what to do if and when I do.

Alaska: This one is a place I’ve been dying to visit for as long as I can remember. My father was stationed in the military in Alaska during the Cold War, and used to talk about the natural beauty of the place. He’d mention the polar bears, the endless summer days and the kindness of the native people. I’ve had a few friends who got the chance to visit, and that’s only made it worse. Suffice it to say, it’s the number-one place on my “to-go” list, and hopefully one day I’ll get the chance.

California Bassing: I’ve been to California, and have done some saltwater fishing out of San Diego, but I’ve never bass fished in the state that has now become (almost more so than Florida) America’s number-1 bass-fishing destination.

Cuba: There’s something, I think for all of us… more tempting about a place that we can’t go. Certainly… there didn’t seem to be much empirical evidence to suggest that the moon would be a very interesting destination, but the fact that nobody’d been there undoubtedly motivated the first space pioneers to make a lunar landing. And by that same token, the fact that Cuba has largely been off limits to American anglers for decades makes it all the more alluring. Reading too much Hemingway has filled my head with images of enormous marlin off the coast, but as of late I’ve read some pieces that suggest that their bass fishing is every bit as good as their saltwater fishing, if not better.

Minnesota: I’ll admit off the bat that I’ve never been much of a walleye fisherman. We don’t have much in the way of walleye in Upstate New York, and I’ve barely traveled through the Midwest. But when a group of anglers are as passionate about a fishery as Midwesterners are about their walleye, I always assume they’re onto something I’m ignorant of. I’ve read a great deal about the boundary waters and their beauty, and it doesn’t take much to inspire me to want to visit a place in the first place… so there you have it.

Michigan: I’ve been lucky to have fished in 36 of the lower 48, and I’ve at least traveled through many of the other 12… but I’ve never once set foot in Michigan. When you consider that I’ve been a Hemingway fan for the past decade, and Hemingway wrote passionately about Michigan, perhaps it’s understandable that it’s a place I’ve always wanted to go. The pictures of the beautiful trout and salmon, of course, have made this desire even worse.

I’m not terribly concerned that places exist that I’ve not yet traveled to, but would love to visit. I would be terribly concerned were that not the case, however.