The Best Fishing Stories That I’ve Ever Read

islandsIt’s undeniable that the story is part of the reason that we love this sport. So much goes into a day on the water, whether it’s preparation, anticipation, travel or any host of “good-luck” rituals that most of us have… that no picture, series of pictures, or one-sentence anecdote can truly describe any day on the water or fishing trip. Every trip, every fish and perhaps even every cast is part of a story most of us enjoy sharing or hearing almost as much as we love the fishing itself. I am by no means an expert on every fishing story ever written or told, but I do read as much about the water as I possibly can, and here are a few of my favorites. I’d be interested to hear some of yours.

The Life Ahead: C.J. Chivers Teaches his Children to Fish: Chivers, a New York Times correspondent, is a master with words. They don’t just give a Pulitzer Prize to anyone. In this story he touches on something that is essential to the outdoor experience: Handing down knowledge, passion and patience to another generation. Chivers describes fishing with his sons in a way that only a father could, and the last line is perfect and then some: “None of us spoke. We were fishing partners now.”

Lilyfish: Bill Heavey: Heavey is a writer who reminds you that writing is work, that writing takes effort, and that yes… writing takes courage. If Field & Stream were written completely in a language that I didn’t understand, and only Heavey’s column were in english, I’d still buy it every month. He’s that good. Very few writers could quote Pete Townsend, bring me to edge of tears, and still leave me with hope at the end, but Heavey is one of them. Here again, Heavey, describing the loss of a daughter, the type of pain I can’t even begin to imagine, delivers perhaps the most emotional line at the very end: “Take your grief one day at a time, someone had told me. I hadn’t known what he meant at the time, but I did now. This had been a good day. Lily, you are always in my heart.”

On The Run: An Angler’s Journey Down the Striper Coast, David DiBenedetto: This book holds a special place in my heart. It was a gift to me for my 18th birthday, from my grandmother, who has a grandmother’s eye for perfect gifts. I have tried, and I’ll continue to try, but I am not a good enough writer to explain to you the magic of fishing the fall run for striped bass. I could, I have, and I will in the future, ramble on about it in this blog, but for right now let it suffice to say that DiBenedetto is that good of a writer. If you’re in love with striped bass, read this book. If you’re not, and you decide to read it anyway… prepare to fall in love. Had I not read this book, I don’t know that the idea of a 36-state, 7-month fishing trip would have found its way into my consciousness. And I’m terribly glad that I don’t have to wonder.

The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway: If you’re an angler, and this isn’t on your list… well, I’ll stop there. The book’s perfection is its brevity. Hemingway spent a lifetime learning how to write a book this short. Santiago falls on the beach three times carrying the mast, in the same way Christ fell three times carrying the cross. His left hand cramps when fighting the marlin, he wonders how he compares to “The Great DiMaggio,” he talks to himself, to the fish, and even, for a moment, to a small bird. Every word is chosen with great care, and if the entire book isn’t perfect, it’s about as close as a mere mortal can get with words.

Islands in The Stream, Ernest Hemingway: If you’ve read the blog, you had to guess that Hemingway would make this list twice. Islands in the Stream is my favorite Hemingway book, ever. The description of Thomas Hudson’s son, David, fighting a large broadbill swordfish, is perhaps my favorite sequence in any book that I’ve ever read. David is exhausted and nearly physically defeated before he finally loses the fish.

“But please know that I would have stopped this long ago except that I know that if David catches this fish he’ll have something inside of him for all of his life and it will make everything else easier.”

Patience, Faith and Tradition

fire-island-surfI got back this weekend from fishing the surf on Fire Island with former college roommate and longtime friend Curt Dircks. There were fish, but that, in my mind, wasn’t the important part.

Every year we make it a point, no matter what we are doing in our lives, to take a weekend and hit the surf on Fire Island, a small barrier island south of Bayshore, New York.

The tradition started at Syracuse University where we were undergraduate students from 2004-2008. It doesn’t take long, in any setting, for two fishermen to start talking about the sport and it didn’t take us long, after being placed in the same residence hall, to start planning a trip.

On that first fateful trip in 2005, we caught two fish, drifting eels, that weighed more than 15 pounds each. That’s all it takes. A tradition was born.

We’d make the annual pilgrimage each fall for those four years. After graduation, life took us in different directions. I’d wind up first in New York City, interning with Field & Stream, then at On The Water Magazine, as a copy editor, then I’d fish the country from the back of a Jeep for Outdoor Life before landing an online gig creating fishing content for a website. Curt would work in New York City, then go on to continue studying in San Diego before moving back to the East Coast where he’s currently the Director of Admissions at the College of Mount St. Vincent.

Suffice it to say, many things have changed, but the tradition has stayed the same. Like any anglers will, we discussed the weather, the presence of bait, local reports and trip timing as October approached.

Driving through New York City, after visiting my grandmother in Upstate New York for her birthday (today, actually), I ran into more city traffic than I’d anticipated, and nearly missed the 4:30 p.m. ferry I’d promised to catch. I grabbed my gear and ran through the parking lot as the boat was readying to leave Bayshore, N.Y.

But, by a matter of minutes, I made the boat. We fished until sundown Friday night and were in the surf before sunrise the next morning.

The allure of the surf is magical. Sealed from head to toe with a dry top and waders, you can almost completely immerse yourself in the waves crashing on the sand. You can scan the beach in both directions searching for feeding birds, signs of bait, or fish pushing baitfish up onto the beach.

The casting, moving and searching becomes rhythmic, and everything else in your mind fades into the background. There’s just the rod in your hand, connected to a bucktail that you’re working through ocean, hoping to imitate a wounded baitfish.

Waves pound the beach as the sun pulls itself higher into the sky, and you’re completely and wholly immersed in the beauty of it. The clouds shift and change shape and color, birds fly low over the waves and the wind moves the sand over the beach.

Between tides we’d discuss the plight of the Red Sox, women, rehash old college stories, and talk about… of course… fish.

On Saturday night, after catching a few smaller fish in the surf earlier in the day, the sun was sinking into the ocean. I promised myself that I’d keep casting until last light. I’d been working the beach for hours, and had caught and released a few smaller stripers between 20 and 25 inches.

Right at last light, in that magical moment of twilight, the bucktail I was retrieving stopped cold about 30 yards from the beach and started going the other way. As the rod bent and I stepped back out of the surf, I could only think: “This is perfect.”

The fish turned out to be an eleven-pound striped bass, measuring 33 inches. I’m all for catch-and-release, but some fish, in keeping with tradition, are meant for the grill.

We filleted the fish on the back deck as the autumn chill started to sink in. I had to run my hands beneath warm water for a few minutes to get them to the point where they’d properly operate a fillet knife.

Watching playoff baseball with freshly grilled striped bass, I couldn’t help thinking: It’s not the fish that keeps us in love with the sport, however much fun they might be to hook, land, fillet and eat…

It’s everything that leads up to that moment. Christmas Eve is always more exciting than Christmas Day itself, and until that first fish is on the beach, we are all, in some sense, our inner kid staring at wrapped presents… staring at waves crashing on the beach…

Dreaming of the incredible possibility.

 

Picking the Next President of these United States

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It seems like, the closer we get to November, the more divided we seem as a nation over the next President of these United States. You can’t look at social media for more than three minutes without scrolling by some form of vitriol directed at one candidate or the other. There are people shouting about supposed wrongs that Hillary committed in her time serving our government, and there are those shouting about Trump’s history as a businessman and whether or not he’d be a viable candidate to lead our nation.

The qualification of either of these candidates is not my concern. I think, sadly, we as a nation have come to a time when so, so few people can afford to, or even be qualified in any realistic sense, to run for President that it’s hard for most of us as voters to relate to anyone who winds up on the ballot. I cannot imagine the life of a billionaire real estate mogul, or the life of a former First Lady. Truthfully, I can’t relate to either candidate. They both live in a very different America from the one I inhabit.

And if you think that something that you write or say, either in person, on a blog or on social media might open minds or affect change… just try going up to a staunch Hillary or Trump supporter and having a conversation… starting an argument for the opposite candidate. The kind ones will be silent and let you finish before telling you that you’re wrong. The not-so-kind-ones, well…

Won’t.

It’s healthy and important that we have groups in this country who are passionate about politics and intent on supporting their chosen candidate. That’s the lifeblood of a thriving democracy.

My concern is that we’ve stopped listening to one another. My concern is that we’ve made up our minds, based on opinions and and facts that… let’s face it… most of us “choose,” and we’re sticking to our guns.

My concern is that conversation has stopped. My concern is that we are no longer being polite, civil and respectful of one another.

A conversation isn’t two people waiting for the other to finish so that he or she can rebuke the claims or let loose a long-winded list of reasons for why that person is wrong. A conversation isn’t one person hollering at the top of his or her lungs about everything that they believe to be true based on the information they’ve sought out and attained. A conversation is not two people yelling at one another about the others’ faults, shortcomings or missteps.

A conversation involves listening, considering, and responding. A conversation involves the exchange of ideas that… perhaps most importantly, we are always willing to change based on new information.

If there is one essential element for this nation’s, or any nation’s, survival, it is conversation. We must respect, listen to, and respond to the ideas being put forth.

What would we say about a mother who ignored her son or daughter’s complaints, wishes or ideas? What would we say about a spouse who just waited for the other to finish so he or she might correct them, or worse yet, ignore them completely?

What scares me about this election is that we are not one country, talking openly about the ideas being considered, talking about what is at stake… talking to, and more importantly… listening to.. one another about the country’s future.

We seem like a nation divided, having chosen our side, contented to yell across party lines at the other voters about why they are wrong, or why their candidate is corrupt.

We have two major political parties in this country (and God bless him, the once-in-a-decade Bernie-Sanders types who come along to ignite the nation’s youth) and in that respect we are like a marriage between two people who, while different, respect one another because at their core they value the same things.

I don’t think you need to be a relationship expert or a marriage counsellor to know what eventually happens when two people stop talking to, and more importantly listening to, one another.

After this election is over and we place a new President in the White House, some things will change, but many things won’t. Most importantly, we will still all live in this nation, we’ll still all call this country home. In many respects, we’ll still be neighbors, fighting for and believing in many of the same things.

So perhaps it’s in our best interest… right now, until November 8th, and even after then… to politely listen to one another about the issues we’re concerned with and the changes we’d like to see.

What I’ve Learned: Never Give Up

The sun sets on one of Florida's best bass lakes.
The sun sets on Rodman Reservoir.

Perhaps the greatest thing about fishing, as a sport we can get into while we’re young, is that our fortune or fate insofar as the fishing is concerned is always dependent upon, and only upon, ourselves.

If we get into basketball or baseball and are cut from the team, we can choose to blame a host of different factors. Maybe we can say “The coach was biased and kept his favorite kids,” or “I’m just not tall enough.”

In many other arenas in life we can choose to blame a variety of factors if we don’t have the success we’d hoped we might.

A pond or a lake, on a very calm, windless summer day, will almost look like a mirror from above. So when the results of our efforts don’t meet our expectations… the water’s there to remind us exactly what went wrong… which isn’t to say that we were doing anything wrong, per se.

Maybe we were, maybe we timed the bite wrong, were on the wrong part of the lake or the river, maybe we didn’t imitate the forage well enough or get up early enough in the morning.

But more likely than not, we just failed to spend the amount of time there that would have ultimately led to the result that we wanted. The answer, with all due respect to recent Nobel-Prize winner Bob Dylan, isn’t “blowing in the wind,” it’s in the water and in the time we have to devote to it.

And because I grew up as a fisherman, I learned not to take one unsuccessful outing to heart, not to absorb failure or hardship any more than might be necessary to glean a lesson from it.

I learned that if you spent a day on the water and didn’t catch, didn’t bring fish home, or perhaps didn’t even get a hit… it only meant one thing.

You had to go back. You had to try again. Maybe you’d try in a different way, during a different time of the day, or with a different approach…

But in fishing, and hopefully in the rest of life’s endeavors, failure or a lack of success is absolutely no reason to stop, only a reason to change, adapt and grow.

Appreciate the Little Things: We’re All Lucky

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Even the craziest of catches is a story, and we’re all lucky to be doing this.

I was fishing on Fire Island with a friend this past spring, heaving a bucktail into a beautiful churning surf, when… about 50 yards out, the bucktail stopped cold.

“This is it,” I thought. “This is the 20-pound striped bass I’ve been waiting for. This is the fish that I’ve dreamt of, the fish that I’ve driven miles for, the fish that I woke up before sunrise for.”

Seconds after the rod bent, I knew something was wrong. I wasn’t snagged on bottom, but it wasn’t a fighting fish at the end of the line. Whatever I was pulling in was coming in slowly and awkwardly. I thought at first that it must have been a clump of mung or seaweed.

Five minutes later, I had my answer. I’d somehow snagged a skate in the surf and I even brought it to the beach.

At the time I was, as you can imagine, terribly disappointed. We had caught striped bass to 20 pounds on Fire Island, we’d run into bluefish blitzes where we’d caught and released dozens of fish, many more than 10 pounds. But as I look back I can’t help but laugh. What are the odds that, casting from a beach, I’d hit with a bucktail, a skate on the ocean’s floor, hook it, and even manage to bring it to the beach?

As we sat on the back deck of his cabin between tides, we Googled “eating skate,” just to see if there was any precedent for actually targeting, keeping and cooking this species.

When the weekend was over and I returned on the ferry back to mainland Long Island and then back to Boston, the sentiment of disappointment (despite one small bluefish that we killed, kept and ate, I might add) subsided.

I’d snagged a skate in the surf: Something that I’d never done before or even thought was possible. And more importantly, I was out there, hip-deep in the crashing Atlantic, doing something that I loved.

As I prepare to head back down for the annual Fall trip, I’m still hoping we run into a bluefish blitz or that stripers are pushing bait right up onto the beach.

But… I’m not cursing the skate. It was an experience, a story. How lucky was I, how lucky are we, just to be out there, doing something we love, especially in such a beautiful place?

How foolish does it seem to consider a lack of cooperating fish, or the target species in any event, as “bad luck”? Being diagnosed with an incurable illness? Being the victim of the violence that’s sadly becoming more prevalent in our country? That… THAT is “bad luck.”

Roaming a beach, heaving a bucktail into a beautiful sunrise? That’s a winning lottery ticket whether we realize it or not. And fish? Fish will come and go, and if we’re out there enough, we’ll get our share, or more than our share if we’re “lucky.”

But I always wonder: “What if I were brought up in a household where I was never exposed to this stuff, never got an appreciation for it? What if I lived in a country where this type of activity or passion wasn’t even feasible?” “What if I hadn’t met other people who share the same enthusiasm for the sport?”

All of which got me to thinking: Whether it’s a blitz or a seemingly fish-less ocean that you’re dragging a lure through… whether it’s 65 degrees and sunny or 45 degrees and pouring rain… whether you’re using the latest G. Loomis GLX rod and a Van Staal reel or a decade-old, banged-up, Walmart-bought rod and a rusty Penn reel…

If you’re out there, if you’re in it, immersed in the natural beauty of the environment and the excitement of the sport… you’re “lucky.” Damn lucky.

Fishing: ‘Cool’ Because It’s Not Trying to Be

Everett Lockwood waits for a strike in Montauk, New York
Everett Lockwood waits for a strike in Montauk, New York

I was having a discussion with a friend about the ways that we’ve seen the sport and the industry change over the years, and there’s seemingly now, more than ever, a push to make fishing “cool.”

Now, ‘cool,’ might be the most ambiguous word in the english language, so I’ll try to clarify: There seems to be a push to illustrate the sport in a certain light where how you look, dress and approach the sport… matters.

If ‘cool,’ is anything, it’s a look, a style and an approach. Without the right glasses, nostalgic band t-shirt, haircut or certain amount of stubble, you could never hope to be ‘cool.’

It got me thinking about the sport and why I love it, and likely why many of us do… And the foremost reason that I came up with was that, because on the water, you don’t have to be anything that you’re not.

I’ll be upfront for the sake of honesty and journalistic integrity here… in high school I was cut from the baseball team. Twice. I didn’t even dare try out for football, and the only basketball games that I played in were held on my driveway with the neighborhood gang and chalk lines drawn to mark the 3-point range. I was on the bowling team, okay? The bowling team did not make cuts.

I was in Honor Society, took A.P. classes and walked our golden retriever every night. Get the picture? ‘Cool,’ I was not.

But once the Upstate New York snow melted in late April, I’d fish every night that I could get a ride to the water. When I turned 16 and got an Uncle’s hand-me-down Chevy Beretta (if you don’t know what that car is, please refrain from telling me so), it was: “Home from school, rods in the back, down to the water.” And it’s probably worth noting here… these weren’t epic adventures to “River-Runs-Through-it” rivers…

I fished primarily in two places. The first was a small creek that ran behind a factory in a nearby town. Sauquoit Creek is never more than 12 feet wide or 7 feet feet deep, but it had enough water to hold stocked trout.

The second place was a golf course pond that was stocked with largemouth bass. Again, the pond was about 100 yards long and 30 yards wide, and if there was a fish in there that weighed more than four pounds, I never caught it. But I loved both places.

When you’re a teenager, high school is either the greatest place in the world, or one of the more difficult ones, and for me it was usually the latter. Don’t get me wrong, I had a handful of friends, and I’m grateful to still be close to most of them to this day, but I wasn’t up for Homecoming King or playing quarterback on the football team… not by a long shot.

On the water, wearing an old pair of swim trunks and sandals, you didn’t have to be anything other than exactly who you were.

You could take in the peace and quiet, admire a few fish if you were lucky, and learn about them slowly over the years and the seasons as you experimented with different baits and approaches during different times of the year.

The best part about the water was for me, and still is, that you can be absolutely who you are. And if you spend enough time there, you’ll even start to become that person everywhere else.

Almost every fisherman that I’ve been lucky to meet from Maine down to the Florida Keys, out to California and up to Seattle has had one thing in common: They were genuinely and unapologetically authentic.

And I think that’s because — while the water teaches us many things, perhaps the most important thing is that pretending to be anything other than exactly who you are won’t make any difference at all.