The Guys at BassOnline: The Best

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Steve Niemoeller of BassOnline shows off the trip’s biggest fish no the St. Johns River in Florida.

I’ve tagged on Facebook, thanked and thanked again the guys at BassOnline in Florida for their help with both Catch a Cure I and II, and still every day I find myself thinking: “What more can I do? How can I demonstrate how much of a difference these guys made in this project and in my life?”

When I set out on the second Catch a Cure, after sending e-mails to everyone in the iCast catalog to see what sponsorship or contributions I could solicit for the Melanoma Research Foundation, truthfully I had no idea if it’d work. For all of our planning, effort and hope, a lot of any attempt or endeavor boils down to faith, luck and persistence.

I knew that I could crash in the Jeep or find the most “interesting” (see: cheap) possible motels on the road. In South Carolina it came down to grabbing every card from nearby tackle shops and just dialing number after number until I finally found Brian Roberts, an incredibly kind and cool guy who helped me explore the freshwater rivers flowing into Winyah Bay. Roberts is an aspiring entrepreneur himself and is trying to get his “Keeper Reeper Jigs” on the market.

In Oklahoma it was still February when I arrived before the Bassmaster Classic, and while I’m used to freezing temperatures in my native Upstate New York and adopted home of Boston, fishing on open water in February in Oklahoma was a new experience for me.

But when I got to Florida to pre-fish the tournament on the St. Johns River, the BassOnline crew, for the second time that year, were more helpful than I ever could have imagined or asked them to be.

These guys had almost single-handedly made Catch a Cure I possible, and for a second time, they saved the trip.

A great deal of this effort is done behind the scenes, e-mailing potential sponsors like the great people at Native Eyewear, Get Vicious Fishing and Sunology Sunscreen to get backing. For every sponsor that gets on board, there are a dozen who, understandably, can’t. And it just takes faith and persistence to keep reaching out until you find the people who can help.

The guys at Bassonline, though, didn’t hesitate for a second to help this trip and effort in every way that they could. Steve Niemoeller is a combination of one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met and one of the best anglers, too. He is completely responsible for the largest fish (a bass of about 4 pounds) that I encountered anywhere on either journey. While we fished he offered several insightful ideas on how, if the project was repeated, it could garner even more support.

Brett Isackson understands the Florida fishery so well, he even invented a snake-like rubber lure to take advantage of the biggest bass that were feasting on snakes in the Sunshine State.

Todd Kersey will absolutely amaze you with Florida’s (relatively) newfound peacock bass fishery if you give him the chance. I’ll never forget Todd and his wife putting me on an incredible peacock bass bite on Catch a Cure I.

All of which is to say, if you ever get the chance, please do yourself a favor and fish with these guys. There are no guarantees in fishing, but I’d bet everything I’ve got that you’ll have a fantastic time, catch more than a few fish, and… like I am now… you’ll be wondering how quickly you can return to give it another shot.

The America I know: “I am part of all that I have Met”

TravelWhen I was 23, going on 24, I undertook the ambitious project of fishing my way across the country for Outdoor Life Magazine.

When I offered the idea as a project pitch, truthfully, I had no idea if it’d work. I was experiencing some stress from other things going on in my life, and thought that movement of any kind, escape, motion, would at least be something different. Without a budget for motels, I figured I’d sleep in my vehicle. That’s the kind of thing that, when you propose it to yourself from inside of an apartment, doesn’t sound that bad.

I created and edited a video pitch using iMovie, went down to the offices where Outdoor Life was located, took a deep breath, stepped into 2 Park Avenue in Manhattan, and said that I was ready to fish my way across the country.

If anyone can ever be ready for such an undertaking, I was not. I remember putting the stuff from my apartment in cheap storage and closing the door on everything that wouldn’t fit in my Jeep the way you remember a movie that you saw: I remember it happening, but not what it felt like.

I had drawn up a map, with a calculated timeline, concerning where I’d fish and when. Drawing up a map with a timeline before fishing your way across the country from a vehicle is kind of like playing a round of miniature golf before taking to Bethpage Black. In your head, you might feel slightly more prepared or ready, but in reality what you’re doing won’t in any way ready you for what you’re about to attempt.

Because it was early summer, I decided to start in Maine before working my way down the coast. Some online research lead me to the kind people at Weatherby’s Lodge in Grand Lake Stream, Maine, as a place to start.

I shut the storage door on almost everything I owned, got in the Jeep, and headed north. Truth be told I was terrified more than excited: I had no idea if any of this would work.

Then a funny thing happened, slowly and all at once. Jeff McEvoy and the guys at Weatherby’s put me up for a night, and even managed to help me land my first landlocked Atlantic salmon on the fly.

From there, Brooke Hidell taught me the subtle art of trolling for landlocked Atlantic salmon on Maine’s Sebago Lake.

As I headed down the coast, I was more falling that flying, but anglers kept catching me at every place I stopped. They welcomed me, helped me, inspired me. They made me think, laugh and even start to believe that this mission that I undertook might even be possible.

The first night sleeping in a vehicle was nerve-racking to say the least. Every slammed car door and police siren has you crawling out of your skin.

But slowly, even that became routine. I learned where the safer places were to catch a few Zs (Walmart parking lots are great, because they’re open 24 hours), and that if a cop wants to search your vehicle near the Texas/Mexico border… you let him.

As the trip continued, my faith grew: not in myself, I was as 24-year-old-terrified as ever, but in something larger. I came to believe in people, no matter who they were, even if we hadn’t met, and even if our ways of life, thoughts and ideas were different.

The trip continued down the East Coast, to the Keys, out through Louisiana and Texas, to California, up through Oregon and Seattle, back across the beautiful mountains of Montana and Wyoming, and after 200 days and nights, exactly, back to Upstate New York just in time for Christmas.

The greatest thing that I took away from that trip, what I remember most, is one simple but beautiful idea… You cannot possibly control or predict the variety of forces that will come into your life. If you had a thousand guesses, you’d still probably be a mile off the mark.

And placing trust in ourselves is the hardest thing of all, because we know better than anyone our faults, shortcomings, and difficulties.

But if you trust other people, and I mean collectively, fully and wholeheartedly… you’ll get a return on that investment of trust that is far greater than what you put in. People will amaze you with kindness, humor, hope and help at almost every turn.

Theodore Roosevelt said, “I am a part of everything that I have read.” I love that quote, but some research will reveal that it was likely drawn from the poem Ulysses, by Lord Alfred Tennyson,  which reads: “I am a part of all that I have met.”

And most importantly, their altruistic willingness to help a complete stranger is now part of me. I came back from the road with faith that I was part of something larger, part of something kind, forgiving and, at its core, good.

And it inspires me every day.

 

 

 

The Amazing Eight, Take II

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Brooke Hidell, on Sebago Lake in Maine.

Alright, I undertook the ambitious attempt last week of naming the eight (okay, nine) best anglers I’ve had the pleasure of fishing with. As soon as I started the list, I knew immediately that it’d require a sequel. There are far too many amazing anglers who have helped me along this journey to name them, or rank them, in a single blog. The following anglers deserve every bit as much credit for being incredible fishermen and great human beings.

Brooke Hidell, Maine: I had the pleasure of fishing with Hidell in 2010 on Maine’s Sebago Lake system, and it was not only a great time, but it was a fantastic learning experience. Hidell fishes in a number of ways, but one of the more interesting ones is trolling flies around the perimeter of Sebago Lake. Now you’re saying: “Trolling flies? What?” But that’s not a typo. Hidell has mastered an art of dragging flies at just the right depth, depending on the season, to target the landlocked Atlantic salmon and lake trout that populate those bodies of water. It’s truly a unique experience because unlike traditional trolling, where you’re fighting the fish on a stout rod, wrenching it up from the depths of the lake, with Hidell’s system the fight is every bit as much fun as if you’d hooked the fish on the fly.

Gary “The Toad” Stevens: I first met Gary when Field & Stream sent me, as an intern, out to Montauk to cover the Fall Surf Classic. Stevens is without a doubt, a hilarious character. The nickname “The Toad,” I believe, came from stunts in his younger days when he used to attempt to jump over an entire car in one bound. It’s that kind of crazy courage that makes him great in the surf. He seemingly has no fear and will chase stripers in any conditions and at all hours of the night. He’s definitely one of the characters that gives Montauk it’s unique and wonderful charm, and fishing with him is an unforgettable experience.

Rom Whitaker, OBX: Whitaker and his son fish one of the most abundant offshore grounds off any coast, the Outer Banks off North Carolina. Whittaker was a master at devising and setting a trolling spread to target the yellowfin tuna and mahi that we were going after in 2010. Finding and catching offshore species like yellowfin can be a difficult task, requiring a tremendous understanding of the climate, the ecosystem, and how even a few degrees in water temperature can make a world of difference in finding fish. If you need proof that Whitaker has it down to a science, click here.

Clay Cunningham, Georgia: Cunningham targets striped bass on Georgia’s Lake Lanier, one of the best striper lakes in the South. Cunningham is a master at finding the exact depth that the freshwater stripers will be holding at, and targeting them with a specific approach dependent upon the season. One of the coolest parts about fishing with Cunningham was seeing these fish actually “blitz,” almost like saltwater stripers, forcing bait into shallow areas and going to town. And if website-name creativity counted for bonus points, this guy would get it with catchingnotfishing.com.

Mickey Delamar, Texas: The first thing Mickey would say if I told him I was including him on this list, is that he doesn’t belong. He was one of the kindest, most humble people I met on my journey across the country. One look at the wall inside his house, however, would prove him wrong. He’s got a trophy wall of largemouth bass mounts, the largest of which, the last time I checked, was 11 pounds. He lives near Texas’s bass-famous Lake Fork, and is hands down one of the best anglers on it.

Kevin Shaw, Texas: Shaw is another Texan, but he’s a master of the saltier side of the state. Shaw targets redfish off the Texas coast and he’s one of the best I’ve ever met. It takes a certain amount of toughness to take to the water either as a guide or in a competitive arena. Sure, you get those bluebird days where the weather’s perfect, but more often than not, something goes wrong. When I fished with Shaw in 2010, it rained. And let me tell you, rain is like everything else in Texas: Bigger. I mean… it poured. But we stayed out on the water, waited through the storm, and kept chasing redfish.

Gregg Arnold, Louisiana: Nope, that’s not a typo, Arnold spells his name with two ‘g’s. Arnold is an absolute master of one of the most famous redfish areas in the world: New Orleans. Arnold is known throughout the state as one of the best redfish guides, and with good reason. When we fished in 2010, he met me first for breakfast. I was a little taken aback at the relaxed start to the day, but when I got in the boat, he started tearing to the nearest flat so fast that I tipped over and nearly flew over the side. Suffice it to say that Arnold might seem laid back and relaxed, but he takes targeting giant redfish very seriously, and he’s great at it.

Jimmy Fee, Cape Cod: Jimmy Fee is by far one of the best surfcasters I have ever met. I’ll share one anecdote, and that should be sufficient evidence to back up the claim. Fee timed the dropping tide on a saltwater pond in Cape Cod one evening, and thought that bigger bass would be pushing bait back near the shore. We crept up near an empty area by a saltwater pond without another fisherman in sight, and we each caught and released bass in the 20-pound range in a matter of hours. That type of understanding of the species and the fishery is what sets him apart from so many other anglers in and around the Cape Cod area, all chasing the striped bass that have made the place famous.

The 22-pound striped bass that I caught that night is one of my favorite fish of all time.

 

 

 

Best of All He Loved the Fall

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Blood from scraped knuckles digging up Hemingway’s grave in Idaho in 2010.

In today’s world, we’re inundated with the emotions, and everyday thoughts, of almost everyone in our “social network,” which is becoming a term that’s less and less clearly defined.

As August fades into September, we’re bound to see those people who are mourning summer’s end. Kids will shuffle back to the bus stops, the sunsets will come a little earlier every day.

One of my favorite passages that I’ve ever read came from a eulogy that Ernest Hemingway gave for a friend, Gene Van Guilder. Everything that Hemingway has ever said or written has been analyzed to death, and this one is no exception. Some scholars speculate that the words that he spoke were ones that he intended as much for himself as he did the late Van Guilder. Hemingway was only 40 at the time he delivered the eulogy. He still had a Nobel and Pulitzer-Prize winning novel to write (The Old Man and the Sea). He still had a plane crash to survive in 1954, a crash that some have speculated caused him a pain that made writing (the one constant throughout his life) more difficult to do than it was ordinarily for him.

He still had marlin to chase in the Gulf Stream, lions to hunt in Africa and characters and places to immortalize with words.

But there is an underlying sense both of hope and enormous, perhaps even insurmountable, struggle in almost everything Hemingway has written. The one defines, and necessitates, the other.

What made him, in my opinion, such an important, memorable and significant writer in American history was his ability to have a feeling for what defined masculinity, strength and courage, all without losing his sensitivity to the simple, yet beautiful parts of life that hide in the details.

I don’t know that there’s a passage of his that combines those two elements better than his words for Van Guilder did, and as we head down the home stretch of summer, I thought I’d share them with those of you who haven’t already found them yourselves:

“Best of all he loved the fall… The fall with the tawny and grey, leaves yellow on the cottonwoods, leaves floating on the trout streams, and above the hills the high blue windless skies. He loved to shoot, and he loved to ride and he loved to fish.”

The Amazing Eight: The 8 Best Anglers that I’ve ever Met

 

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Matt Wettish shows off a large Connecticut brown trout in 2010.

Now, first let me say that I am by no means an authority on America’s greatest anglers. I’ve been lucky to fish with a lot of men and women who are spectacular at the sport, from Maine down to the Keys out to San Diego and up to Seattle, but I’m only 26 (alright, 30) and it’d take eleven lifetimes to meet the myriad of talented and knowledgable anglers in this nation. Having that said, I have been fortunate to meet a few, and these stood out above the crowd.

Mike Coppola, Montauk, N.Y.: I love striped bass fishing, and the surf is especially endearing. Whether it’s the sun pulling itself form the ocean and turning the night into day, or bluefish pushing bunker up onto the beach with such ferocity that the baitfish are literally leaping onto the sand to escape being eaten, there are so many moments when fishing the surf that just make the entire experience an incredible one. But I am far, far from a great surf fisherman. I’ve been lucky at times, I’ve read enough to have a basic understanding, but grouping me with a guy like Coppola is tantamount to saying a Formula One racer and a Go Cart driver are “about the same.” I got the chance to fish with Mike on Fish America for Outdoor Life, and he had the entire endeavor down to a science. We waded into the Montauk surf at night, fished until sunrise, and he swam out to rocks in a wetsuit through breakers that crushed me back onto the beach when I attempted to hold my ground. I count myself fortunate that I survived but Mike? Mike, of course, landed a 20-plus-pound striped bass right before the sun came up. Gary “The Toad” Stevens, is right up there, too, in the Montauk scene.

Preston Clark, Florida: If you grow up in an area where you do enough largemouth bass fishing, a funny thing happens. You remember, distinctly, the days when you couldn’t get a lure back to the shore or the boat without landing a fish, and you tend to forget the fruitless days on the water. This can lead to the misconception that bass fishing is “relatively” easy, or something that “everyone can do.” Truth be told, if you do anything enough, you’ll succeed at some point, which is exactly the reason I prefer the driving range to playing 18 actual holes of golf. Something about rooting around in the woods for another lost ball is harder to forget than driving a practice shot into the woods for the umpteenth time. For that, and many other reasons, there’s no shortage of people who’d describe themselves as “good,” or even “great” bass fishermen. Clark, however, is the real deal. I was fishing with Clark in 2010, on a million-degree June afternoon when the Florida bass were impossibly hard to fool. Me? I managed one small fish on the afternoon. Clark caught a largemouth that was in the seven-pound-plus range. Think that was “luck”? Nope, me neither. Clark has been both a professional angler and a guide and I’m here to tell you, he’s one of the best.

Chris Senyohl, Seattle: Seattle gets the reputation as a place where it rains all the time and is generally unpleasant. Guess who is responsible for maintaining that reputation? The people in Seattle, who are aware of the amazing outdoor opportunities that they’d like, if they can, to prevent the rest of the country from finding out about. Senyohl guides in and around the Seattle area and is one of the absolute best (not to mention kindest) anglers I’ve ever fished with. Senyohl, in only about a week’s time, put me on a silver salmon, a pink salmon, and his brother even scared the life out of me on a whitewater rafting adventure. If he could hook a novice salmon fisherman like me up, I can only imagine the wonders he could accomplish with a more experienced angler.

Todd Kersey/Brett Isackson/Steve Niemoeller: I’ll group these guys together because all three work for BassOnline, Florida’s largest freshwater guide service. Kersey amazed me with his knowledge of targeting and catching Florida’s favorite invasives, the peacock bass. Isackson actually invented a lure that looks and acts like the snakes that live near Florida’s freshwater ponds and lakes. Isackson noticed that larger bass, looking for a more substantial meal, were eating snakes that either fell from a tree branch or were slithering over lily pads, and designed and crafted a rubber lure to take advantage of that phenomenon. It takes a certain amount of faith to cast a “snake” bait to largemouth bass, but it’s quickly rewarded when the thing gets devoured. Niemoeller is another guy who invented a lure, his Steel Shad, which you can customize to fish exactly the way you’d like to to target finicky bass. All three are absolutely amazing bass fishermen.

Randy Oldfield, Texas: Randy is another bass guy, in another great bass state. If I were to dare speculate that Texas is second to Florida in terms of its ability to produce giant bass, I’d need to change my name and enter witness protection, so I’ll say that the states are about equal as far as producing big bass goes. Oldfield, however, is (in my opinion) without equal in the Lone Star State. He guides on and around Lake Fork, one of Texas’s most prized bass lakes, and he’s another one of those guys that has bass fishing down to an absolute science. While fishing with Oldfield in 2010, it was overwhelmingly evident once again that bass fishing involves about as much luck as most things in life, which is to say, some, but not much.

Chris Robinson, Florida: Now, I’ve told you about the best Florida bass guides that I’ve met, but you can’t mention Florida without talking about the salt. The Robinson Brothers Guide Service is located in my favorite part of Florida: The Panhandle. Miles away from the traditional “Disney” atmosphere that most people picture when they think of Florida, the Panhandle has beautiful white sand beaches, delicious oysters and some great inshore saltwater fishing. Robinson guides out of Apalachicola and his ability to dial in and target big redfish is incredible.

Tommy Scarborough, South Carolina: I have a distinct memory of the first time I ever fished with Scarborough in 2010. Tommy decided it would be fun to see if I could handle a shark on some lighter tackle, and I’d been lucky to hook up. I’d asked him if he’d be willing to film the fight so that I could later document it for Outdoor Life. As the dusky shark peeled drag and I stood there helpless with the rod bent, Tommy howled in his distinct southern accent: “Looks like you’re getting your butt whooped!” Aside from being a great guide, like all of these guys, Tommy is a great human being. He put me up on his couch (to spare me a night in the Jeep), fed me a home-cooked meal, and continued making fun of me even after he’d put me on enough sharks and redfish to make anyone jealous.

Matt Wettish, Connecticut: This wouldn’t be a list if we didn’t have a trout guy, right? But Wettish isn’t just any trout guy. He designed a system that allows conventional spinning-gear anglers to get (almost) as much fun out of trout fishing as the fly guys do. He fishes in and around Connecticut’s trout water with mealworms on ultra-small hooks, using super-light spinning gear. We’re talking about line as light as 2-pound test, used with a six-foot rod. Connecticut might not seem like it deserves to be in the conversation with Vermont and Montana in terms of “Trout” states, but I changed my mind completely about that notion after seeing a 20-plus-inch brown trout caught out of the Farmington River with Wettish in 2010.

(Joe Demalderis: Okay, I have a tattoo that says “One More,” did you really think I could keep it to eight? Demalderis of Cross Current Outfitters guides on the Delaware River and is an absolute trout savant. The man seemingly knows more about targeting trout on the fly than I know about any single thing. His understanding of the river system and his ability to find and target fish is among the best I’ve ever seen from any trout guide, anywhere. Period.)

If you get a chance to fish with any of these guys, take it… and take notes.

If You Can’t Laugh at Yourself…

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A bison in Yellowstone

I think one clear and definite sign that we’ve started down the wrong path is when we lose the ability to laugh at ourselves. Don’t get me wrong, I’m serious about my attempt to start a magazine you’ll love, and you can help me here, and I think it’s incumbent upon us all to address the evils (like melanoma) that enter our lives, but if we can’t laugh, then I think we’ve lost something essential. When you’re sleeping in your Jeep in parking lots, attempting to raise money to find  a cure for skin cancer, or soliciting help to that end… it’s easy to get lost in your head and become a little more serious than anyone should be. Moments like these, I assume, were God reminding me to slow down, take a breath, and laugh out loud.

Seattle Wader Thief: My first attempt at a far-reaching, country-wide fishing expedition came thanks to Outdoor Life, who got behind my project Fish America. I was in Seattle, fishing with a great angler and artist named Chris Senyohl, and we were putting on waders before casting a few flies into Puget Sound. Chris and a friend had brought a black lab along for the trip, and it stole a wader boot I hadn’t yet put on. If you can picture me half-running and half-hopping, chasing a dog with my boot in his mouth, you might laugh as hard as everyone else was until the dog finally got tired and dropped the boot.

Embarrassed by Clarence: On that same trip I had the amazing, unforgettable opportunity to fish with E-Street Band saxophone player Clarence Clemons in the Florida Keys. Now, this would be an intimidating prospect for anyone… but at the time I was already a Bruce zealot. I’d been to more than ten shows, dragged friends, family and borderline-complete-strangers to shows, and… for better or worse, gotten Springsteen’s now-legendary Fender Esquire guitar tattooed inside of my right arm. Chris Miller, the guide with whom we were fishing, had seen the tattoo. When we finally made it out from Islamorada with Clarence and his brother, a storm came up and forced us inside. Rain beat down on the boat as we sat around waiting for it to pass. Clemons told stories that involved people like Keith Richards, who you constantly had to remind yourself was… yes… “the” Keith Richards, and I for the most part kept my mouth shut. Then, someone remembered the tattoo… Chants of “Show him!” started up as I looked for places in the boat to hide. Finally, I rolled up my long sleeve and Clarence started cracking up, recognizing the image immediately. When he caught his breath, he finally said: “You did that to yourself… you DID THAT TO YOURSELF!”

Have you Seen My Phone?: On that same journey, at the end of the night, if weather allowed, I’d typically climb onto the top of my Jeep Wrangler, in whatever parking lot I was living in, and try to take in a moment to appreciate my good fortune, look at the stars, and call home to assure my family that, yes, I was still alive. I’d then say a prayer that I wasn’t discovered by any law enforcement figures in the middle of the night, crawl into the back of the Jeep, and try to get a few hours sleep. One morning, when I woke up, I couldn’t find my phone anywhere. Frantic, I emptied the Jeep before I drove back to the marina where I’d fished the day before and scoured the parking lot. I asked inside if anyone had found an Android phone. Keep in mind this was my one connection… back home… to guides who I’d hoped would help later on in the journey. It had all my saved numbers and a number of photos from the road. I emptied the entire inside of the Jeep and was frantic and distraught at the prospect of having lost it. I opened my laptop, sent an e-mail back home that I’d lost the phone, drove to the marina where I was set to fish the next day, and tried to sleep that night. When I awoke the next morning I climbed on top of the Jeep to grab a rod from the Thule rack where I’d been keeping them… and there it was. The phone had somehow, despite two trips down different roads, stayed on the top of the Jeep.

Bison Encounter: If you drive through Yellowstone Park in Montana in December, you’ll notice two things. First, you’ll likely be the only human being driving down the one remaining open road, and secondly, bison are a lot, lot larger-looking up close than they appear on television. When you pay to enter the park you’re given a tag to hang on your mirror to show that you’d paid the fee. Driving through the park, I stopped and wondered if it’d be alright to get a little closer to the aforementioned bison for a photo. It was about 0 degrees and there wasn’t another human being in sight. I pulled to the side of the road, grabbed my SLR, and cautiously took a few steps in the direction of a monstrous bison, that stared at me without an ounce of fear or trepidation. I took a few shots and got back in the Jeep and continued through the park. You know where it tells you, EXPLICITLY, not to exit your vehicle in the presence of bison? Yep, on the back of that tag hanging from my windshield.

I’ve been lucky to take two trips since that first adventure, and now they have the purpose, thanks to all of our sponsors, of raising money to find a cure for melanoma. I suppose since those four examples came from the first trip… I might speculate that I’m getting a little…

…No, I won’t jinx it.