All posts by Rick Bach

I'm a 29-year-old freelance writer and graduate student. When I lost my father to melanoma in 2013, after he battled the disease for two years, I took on the mission of fighting the illness in a fun and informative way. I've raised $700 and counting for the Melanoma Research Foundation in Washington D.C. thanks to sponsors at Buff (www.buffusa.com), Sunology (sunology.com) and I'm currently looking for anyone else who wants to sign on to get some publicity for a good cause. If you've been affected by skin cancer, or have a loved one who has, know that I'm fighting it and feel free to reach out on Facebook, through e-mail at rickbach@ymail.com, or follow me on Twitter at Catchacure47. Thanks for checking in.

The Ancillary Elements

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A Ninemile-Creek brook trout.

Earlier this Spring, amidst the Covid-19 crisis, I began trout fishing more than I had in the past. I did some research and it turns out New York State lets you know exactly which species of trout it stocks (and how many) in each body of water in a given county.

As you’ll note from that chart, Ninemile Creek in Onondaga County not only gets more brown trout than surrounding waters, but brook trout are stocked there as well. The sheer number of trout gave me more hope than I might have had otherwise, and I gave it a shot.

I was pleasantly surprised (alright, downright elated), with the cooperative fish, though none were what a true trout aficionado would call ‘enormous.’ The largest brown I landed was probably between nine and eleven inches, and most were between five and seven. The brook trout that I was able to catch was one highlight, but another was the blue heron that I seemed to see on every trip.

The gigantic bird would be upstream, patiently watching the water while taking sideways glances at me as I waded closer. If we wound up fishing too close to one another, he’d take off, but I’d see his shadow on the water as he flew overhead an hour or two later. Some research revealed that while these birds can have wingspans of up to six feet, they rarely weigh more than six pounds. While their diet consists mainly of, you guessed it, fish, they’ve been known to target and eat small mammals, too.

On nights when I was the only human fishing Ninemile (as far as I could tell), it was a calming reminder of how ingrained in our souls the sport is to see another creature plying the same water, for the same fish, albeit for a different reason.

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Pulling a phone from inside of waders to capture a breaching humpback is harder than it seems. 

When May and June roll around, I can’t help but think of striped bass. Being in the surf targeting stripers is something I love more than I can articulate. The feeling of being in the breaking waves, hurling a bucktail into the Atlantic, has always felt, to me, like standing on the edge of a cliff with an infinitely fascinating world stretching out in front of and beneath you. The fact that that universe’s contents are hidden from us 99 percent of the time somehow seems to make it even more intriguing.

In rare instances, we get glimpses, and a few weeks ago I saw something from the New Jersey surf that I’ve only seen a handful of times in my life from shore: I saw a humpback whale breaching. To see one of the largest mammals on the planet hurling itself into the air less than a mile from where you’re standing in knee-deep water is utterly awe-inspiring. You’ll see fishing boats gathering around the whale as it rises, feeds, and submerges. Then, suddenly, a 60-ton creature is airborne in the center of a small fleet of fishing vessels.

JerseySurf2Luckily, I was able to land a few small stripers, but I reminded myself that all over the East Coast there are people on whale watches, paying good money for something that I just witnessed for free.

When talking with friends and family after the trip, about how “freaking cool it was,” to see a blue heron fishing not ten feet from me, or a humpback whale breaching less than a half mile from the beach, I’d stop myself mid-sentence and think, you sound like a kid rambling on…

And inevitably that maybe that inner kid, the one fascinated by blue herons and humpbacks… is what we’re looking for on the water as much as anything else.

First Fish of 2020: Last-light, tiny Stocked Trout

9MileTroutThis fish might not look like much, and by all accounts, it isn’t. It’s a small brown trout that the state stocked in Nine Mile Creek, about an hour from where I live in Upstate New York. I did some research before heading out, and it turns out the state tells you how many fish they stock, and where, if you’re interested. As you can tell, Nine Mile gets more trout than most places, so I decided to give it a try.

I’ve never been much of a trout fisherman, truth be told, although there’s some tremendous trout water right around where I grew up. Our early April outings were usually, as kids, a desperate attempt to escape the mind-numbing cabin fever that had set in by the time trout season finally opened (sound familiar, my housebound brethren)? We were happy to be outside doing anything that wasn’t snow-related. In Upstate New York, April 1 isn’t necessarily the end of winter, per se. I can remember a few years when we didn’t have at least one April snowstorm, but there aren’t many. So, although in other parts of the country the month might be a 30-day segue into summer, around here it feels more like a month where you wait, and hold your breath for winter’s last punch.

I don’t have anything against trout, mind you. It’s just that, by the time we could realistically target them, I was so focused on getting ready to take a shot at striped bass on Cape Cod vacations, or chase largemouth bass from a pond prowler in local ponds, that they were kind of an afterthought for me.

NutsytroutI have friends, and cousins (like Chris Crittelli, pictured to the left) who are much better trout fishermen than I’ll ever be.

That’s not to say that I’m dismissing the species altogether. If anything, the behavior of larger, wild trout seemed so intimidating to me that I never thought I could realistically dial in the fishery with much success (and I certainly haven’t yet). I’ve read (almost) every book and story that John Gierach has ever written, and there are a slew of similarly intelligent, talented fishermen who have waxed poetic about trout. I have had the chance to fish with a few anglers, like Matt Wettish, who are masters at catching gigantic browns in Connecticut.

But on Nine Mile Creek this past week I discovered something about trout fishing that I’d forgotten. On a pond or lake, you’re probably moving around looking for structure that’s likely to hold bass. Cast under a dock, or a weedline enough times without success, and it stands to reason there aren’t a ton of fish holding there (or feeding ones, anyway). On a trout stream, like in the surf, the water is always moving, so it’s possible, at any given moment, your quarry might just come to you. And to stand in a body of water that is changing around you by the minute, presenting new opportunity where none existed only a few casts ago, is kind of an exciting thing.

Now, yes — those larger trout will likely be holding, like bass, in deeper pools, and around structure. But if you’re a novice enough trout fisherman to be excited with a small stockie like the one pictured above, then every new hour presents, at the very least, possibility.

I realized two things while holding the small (alright, tiny) trout for a photo before releasing it: 1. I have a lot to learn about targeting and catching a species that my home state is famous for and that 2. If the circumstances are right, and you were going stir crazy enough between reading about mortality rates (my heart goes out if you or a loved one are fighting this #@$%ing disease), washing your hands, and putting on a hazmat suite to get orange juice, then even one, very small stocked trout can make you feel as jubilant as a kid again on an April afternoon.

And if there’s one reason that we’ve kept at this sport well into adulthood, it’s because the feeling, that feeling, hasn’t changed all that much since those first few fish, even if — especially now — almost everything else has.

Social Distancing, Roads and Rivers

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“There are people in my life who sometimes worry about me when I go off into the fields and streams, not realizing that the country is a calm, gracious, forgiving place and that the real dangers are found in the civilization you have to pass through to get there.” – John Gierach

When you turn on the television, there’s incessant updates: A news line runs along the bottom of local channels updating you on death counts, hotlines for people who suspect that they’re infected, and warnings about not leaving your home for anything but necessities.

The government is scrambling, taking unprecedented measures, in an attempt to help the millions of recently unemployed Americans looking for answers. Restaurants are closing, or offering takeout only, and in places like the Post Office, there are shoe-shaped stickers on the floor showing customers how far apart they should stand.

You’d feel ridiculous wearing a face mask and gloves to get orange juice, soda, peanut butter and bread, except for the fact that everyone else is, too.

And whenever you start thinking that these are stressful times, and you can’t wait until they’re over, you just think: “Thank God the people I love are okay…”

And if there were ever a time when a stream, river, pond or beach offered a welcome escape from the stress of everyday life to a greater degree than it does during this Coronavirus epidemic, I haven’t lived through it.

The photo above is from the Moose River between Otter Lake, and Thendara, New York, taken a week ago, today.

The trout weren’t cooperating (or, more likely, since I’ve never fished the Moose before this year, I was working the wrong stretch), but I can remember few times in my life when it felt better to just cast into moving water.

Perhaps it’s because the post office, grocery store, supermarket, and highways are either empty or sparsely populated with terrified neighbors, and it’s a disconcerting reminder of our global predicament.

But an empty trout stream looks exactly as it’s supposed to: It’s the one thing that still feels normal, right now.

I want you to know that if you’re behind a glass barricade so that we can get our groceries, if you’re working in an ambulance, at a police office, a post office or a restaurant so we can maintain some semblance of normality in our own lives, I’m grateful for you and saying a prayer for you.

And if you’re on the water, whether it’s after trout, those first migratory stripers that will be showing up in New Jersey, pike, pickerel or panfish,  I hope that you have more luck than I did this past week, and I hope you’re reminded that being a fisherman is a gift, a truth that is perhaps more evident now than it ever has been in the past.

 

The Gear We’re Playing with at Bass Pro Shops

One of the many benefits of working at Bass Pro Shops is that you get to see a lot of the newest gear that’s coming out, almost as soon as it hits the market. When you’re responsible for maintaining, cleaning and organizing an entire department, you can’t help but notice the newest rods, reels and lures that are hitting the shelves. Since winter is the absolute best time to evaluate the newest products on the market (because you’re either ice fishing or going stir crazy), I thought I’d share some of the highlights.

ShimanoDCShimano Curado D.C.: The D.C. has been an interesting conversation starter with gear aficionados because there’s the perception that the reel can in essence ‘prevent’ an angler from backlashing. Basically, the D.C. has what Shimano calls a ‘mini computer’ that is supposed to monitor the speed of the spool, and slow it down to prevent those monofilament cluster****s we’ve all had blow up on us. The neat thing is that you can turn the D.C. feature on or off, so at the very worst, for $250, this is still a top-of-the-line Shimano baitcaster. I will not say that the reel can, in effect, prevent backlashes altogether, because that hasn’t been our experience with it. I will say that it’s a light, smooth, beautifully machined baitcaster from a company that I trust, Shimano, where they seem to be at least trying to prevent one of the most frustrating problems in baitcasting history.

snakeSavage Gear 3D Wake Snake: If you would have told me that big largemouth bass will eat small snakes that are slithering across the lily pads before I’d fished with guide Brett Isackson in Florida, I’d have… given you a suspicious look … at the very least. After fishing with Isackson, who crafts his own snake-imitation baits from the remnants of discarded lures, I’m a believer. Savage Gear just makes some cool stuff, to put it bluntly, and although a few of us have wondered what it’d feel like to cast off a lure that costs $18, we might fork over the money if it was a proven pike- or muskie-magnet. The ducks that they make, to target muskie who are crushing ducklings on top, are gruesomely awesome to consider in action.

planoPlano Edge Tackle Boxes: The claim that Plano’s making with the Edge line is that the boxes prevent gear from sliding around inside, and getting into a tangled mess. There are two types of boxes, the one pictured here is a crankbait box, which has soft-plastic rubber fingers inside to keep lures in one place, and another style with a sticky surface inside the box to keep lures and terminal tackle in place. (Open the boxes, the bottoms actually have a type of adhesive material). There’s no doubt in our minds that the boxes are solving a problem, we’ve all untangled a mess of hooks or interlocked baits. The question is: Is it a problem that is worth paying $50 to solve? The quick take on these is that yes, they’re very cool (albeit a little heavy) but unless you’ve got more money than you know what to do with, you might be better off saving your cash and spending the two minutes untangling hooks.

river2seaRiver2Sea S-Waver Swimbait: If you do not think that a largemouth bass will eat a stocked rainbow trout, read the book Sowbelly, by Monte Burke. (You know what, read that book anyway if you haven’t already). My point is this: The biggest bass in California, and a handful of other states, are looking for more in a meal than a measly crawfish. They’re looking for something exactly like a stocked trout. Now, whether or not we have bass big enough in New York state to realistically be targeting trout the size that River2Sea is making is debatable (although I’ve heard some powerful testimony to suggest that we do). But nevertheless, anything that’s feeding on rainbow trout, whether it’s pike, muskie or enormous bass, would have a hard time discerning a River2Sea replica from the real deal. Again, the price here is a potential sticking point, but if you’re targeting enormous muskie or lake-record bass, you’re probably not trying to do it on the cheap, are you?

DoubledawgMusky Innovations Double Dawg: The first thing that strikes you about the Double Dawg, when you pick it up, is how damn big the thing is. I mean, I have caught several fish that were neither as long, nor as heavy, as this lure. There’s no mistaking what you’re chasing if you’re hucking this thing: You’re either going to hook the most pissed-off muskie in the lake, or at the very least go home with a sore shoulder from casting this thing enough. But if you’re looking to move a lot of water and create a commotion with something that’ll get the attention of a muskie or a giant pike, we’d have to imagine this would do the trick. If you are able to catch a largemouth bass, perch or pickerel on this thing, we’ll nominate you for a Nobel Peace Prize. (The Nobel committee does not respond to, or as far as we can tell, even recognize our nominations).

Hopefully this gives those of you in the northern part of the United States something to read, ponder and consider while we wait out the warmer months. I’ll try to keep the gear reviews coming, if and when we get new products in that are worth writing about.

Thank You

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I’ve had more help from family than any one person deserves (Uncles Tom and Don pictured above).

On this holiday, when we all get together to share a meal, watch some football, reminisce about great memories from the past and plan a few adventures for the future, I couldn’t help but think about how grateful I truly am for help from so many people around the country in the past 33 years.

My parents have given me more opportunities than any one person deserves: My mother is the kindest woman you’d ever meet, and helps anyone who asks for it. My father was the most driven, hardest working person I’ve ever known. For as long as I knew him, until the absolute final weeks of his life, he woke at dawn, walked for two or three miles with our golden retriever, was to work by seven, and rarely came home before 9 p.m.  He lifted himself from the absolute utter depths of poverty to park a Lincoln Town Car in a three-story suburban home. My mother’s kindness, compassion, and forgiveness and my father’s work ethic, drive and faith are characteristics that I’m grateful to aspire to emulate every single day.

I am so lucky to have a large Irish Catholic family that our grandmother, Marilyn Jones, kept together for as long as I’ve been alive. I’m lucky to have cousins that have joined me on fishing adventures everywhere from Naples, Florida to the flats of Brewster on Cape Cod and in countless missions to places like Sandy Pond, Chittning Pond, Sauquoit Creek and the West Canada Creek, right in our own backyard.

Thanks to my father I was able to pursue a love of the written word at Syracuse University. Thanks to the editors at On The Water I had chance to work at a fishing magazine, and thanks to Gerry Bethge and Outdoor Life, I had an opportunity almost no one gets: fishing 36 of the lower 48 out of a Jeep.

The anglers — from Brooke Hidell in Maine who I just spoke with last week, to John Kobald in Seattle — and everyone in-between: I want you to know that I think about those trips, those fish, and your sincere hospitality and help, every day.

Thanks to Emerson College I was able to at least get a start on my dream of building you a fishing magazine, a project I’m still thinking about, and working on, every day. And thanks to Buff and Outdoor Sportsman Group, Todd Smith specifically, I got a chance to try and raise a few dollars to contribute to the Melanoma Research Foundation in memory of my Dad. The editors at B.A.S.S. gave me a crack at a second Catch a Cure, and Native Eyewear, Get Vicious Fishing,  Rick Roth at Mirror Image T-shirts, and Sunology Sunscreen all got on board to help. Thanks to Joe Higgins, who creates some beautiful artwork, I was able to work at a truly fascinating shop while I lived in Salem, Mass.

I’m thankful to be working at Bass Pro Shops, where passionate and kind co-workers have helped me out time and again over the past two years. (I’m hoping I survive my first Black Friday).

My father had a fondness for nature, one that was no doubt distilled to its purest form by the incredible hours he forced himself to put in at an office on a daily basis. He always made note of the geese flying overhead this time of year, and I’m reminded to appreciate those subtle but important details every time I hear them heading south. My grandmother appreciated the overwhelming beauty we’re able to see every day, and she didn’t take a single sunset for granted. Hers is a gratitude I try to maintain as often as I can in her absence. In our first Thanksgiving after her passing, the Buffalo Bills, a team she loved to watch every Sunday during football season, pulled off an impressive victory to continue a shockingly strong run of wins this year.

Almost our entire family cheered them on, and I’m grateful for those people who’ve been with me, and have supported me, for as long as I can remember.

If you’re reading this, I’m thankful, and I hope you have as many altruistic and helpful souls in your life as I’ve been lucky to encounter, so far, in mine. Whether you’re a guide who helped on Fish America or Catch a Cure, a professor or former classmate at Emerson, or one of the kind customers or co-workers I’ve met at Bass Pro Shops: Thank You.

 

 

Bass Number 30,000: On The Water with Roy Bilby

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Bass number 30,000 for Roy Bilby.

The air temperature was hovering in the high 40s on an October morning when I met Roy Bilby on the Mohawk River. Fog was burning off the water, and a sweatshirt wasn’t enough to keep warm before the sun pulled itself overhead, but a bite in the air wouldn’t stop a man who was after his 30,000th bass.

Roy Bilby is a local pro, a member of the Mohawk Valley Bass Anglers Club, and a carpenter and locksmith at Suny Cobleskill when he’s not on the water, which is … rarely. The man once went 230 straight trips without coming up empty. 

Over the years, the Upstate New York fisherman has kept incredibly detailed logs that he says make him a more efficient angler with each outing.

After catching one smallmouth against a lock gate on the Mohawk, Bilby pulls out a tape recorder and makes vocal notes of where the fish was caught, the temperature of the air, water, the lure being used, and the size of the fish.

“When I get home, I’ll play this back and add to a detailed journal,” he explains.

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Bilby’s license plates suggest dedication.

Bilby is an energetic, careful, detail-oriented fisherman, as you might imagine, but after six hours on the water on a day when it didn’t crack sixty degrees until we’d been on the water for four, I realized that it wasn’t so much that he was detail-oriented, meticulous, or that he was a student of the fish that accounted for his astronomical number of  caught bass.

On a day when few of us might even be on the water to begin with, the bass were not cooperating. After three hours at various spots, we were coming up empty. But Bilby once strung together 235 straight trips without getting skunked.

“We were on the water until midnight for that final skunking,” he remembered. “My buddy, with me at the time, didn’t want to go in, he didn’t want to be the one on the boat when it ended. But if you’re just going to fish until you catch a fish regardless of circumstance… well, anyone can do that.”

It was that resolve, the determination to fish until midnight before calling it quits, that allowed Bilby to reach the 30,000-bass milestone.

More than skill, which I can testify that he has as in spades as an angler, more than attention to detail, which you can clearly see that he demonstrates with his copious note-taking, and more than luck, which he admits plays a small part in any fishing, and certainly a streak like the one he’s had, it’s just pure, relentless resolve that gets you to 30,000 fish. Bilby won’t quit.

Bass number 30,000 was an otherwise unimpressive specimen: It was a smallmouth between one and two pounds, and one of only four we scratched together on the day, but its significance was overwhelming.

Even the most dogged fishermen among us, if we truthfully assessed our lifetime totals, aren’t anywhere near Bilby’s numbers. With a garage sporting 160 rods, three boats, and more lures than some small tackle shops, Bilby’s passion for the sport far surpasses the average angler’s.

And it’s that drive, resolve, and refusal to quit that has got him to 30,000 bass, and I suspect it’ll have him at 50,000 before he quits keeping track.

If there’s something we can take away from a man who has caught more fish than most of us ever will, it might very well be a lesson best illustrated by a relatively small smallmouth bass caught after four empty hours on a brisk October day when the fish simply weren’t cooperating: Keep moving, changing tactics, have faith (on the back of his jersey he has inscribed, “Prov. 3:5-8” — (“Trust in the lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding”)) — and don’t quit.

Who knew?

Lessons Learned from a Fishing Professor

The amount of joy derived from any given fish caught is inherently tied to the amount of effort and time taken to be in a situation to catch said fish in the first place.

This past week I had the pleasure of fishing with a former professor of mine at Emerson College, Gian Lombardo. While I was a student pursuing my Master’s Degree in Publishing and Writing at Emerson, I’d get together with classmates after one of Lombardo’s courses before hopping the commuter rail that took me from Boston back to my apartment in Salem, on the North Shore.

This fluke, one of the biggest I’d ever caught, was a day-maker.

During one such post-class conversation, we got to talking about how Lombardo felt more like a friend than a professor, like someone genuinely pulling for, emotionally invested in, his students. I made a comment about how he seemed almost like an Uncle, someone who cared about our well-being both in and out of the classroom. The nickname ‘Uncle Gian,’ was born, and it stuck.

In a city like Boston, and on a campus like Emerson’s, full of bright young minds studying the latest media trends and editing video in high-tech laboratories at the hub of New England’s cultural capital, fishermen in the mix will inevitably find one another, by virtue of our scarcity amidst that particular population.

So while taking his Book Overview course as part of my degree, I inevitably wound up talking to Lombardo about striped bass, bluefish, sea bass, scup and tautog, which he’d pursued his whole life from his home in Connecticut, and I’d been chasing on family vacations to Cape Cod, and later in places I was lucky to live, like New Jersey, Massachusetts, and visiting another fish-minded friend on Long Island’s South Shore. He’d later go on to help me work my mission to raise money for melanoma research into my academic program at Emerson.

For the past two years, Lombardo has been kind enough to invite me fishing to his Connecticut home, and it has been a learning experience on every level.

Most of my saltwater fishing experience has come in the surf, which I’ve fished on Cape Cod, in New Jersey, and on Long Island. In the surf, we might study tide tables, wind predictions and water temperatures  before setting up a trip, but my recipe for any success has usually been: Get and stay in the surf, casting relentlessly until striper and bucktail meet.

Targeting fluke, black sea bass, scup and stripers by bucktailing the rips in Long Island Sound is a different game, albeit a fascinating one. This past week Gian and I plowed through a bit of a chop to get on the water for the second straight year, and prevailed.

I won’t say ‘we,’ found the fish, because I didn’t have much to do with it, but Gian put us on a school of black sea bass, a handful of which were big enough for the cooler, and the largest fluke I’ve ever landed in my life. It wasn’t a ‘doormat’ exactly, but to someone who could count the number of fluke he’d caught on both hands, catching one of New England’s most coveted food fish, and one big enough for the box, was absolutely incredible.

We targeted the rips and structure that Lombardo, who has been fishing Long Island sound his entire life, was more than familiar with. Early in the afternoon, in one of those moments that keeps you returning to the water, we saw bluefish blitzing on bunker so viciously that they were pushing them almost out of the water in surging waves.

The fascinating aspect about the trip for me, was a notion about catching fish that was slightly different from the one I’d held prior. While relentless dawn-to-dusk effort can and will yield results, precision, timing, attention to detail, and a record of prior successes can make an enormous difference on the water.

Lombardo had plied Long Island Sound carefully but regularly in his 16-foot skiff, learned the rips and structure, how each weather pattern might affect them, and the fish holding on them. We wound up with a cooler of sea bass and, by my standards anyway, a damn big fluke as a result of that experience.

The fish would have been memorable by any measure, but the three-hour drive there and back, the  brief return to the Ocean, the active and successful lesson in bottom-fishing for some of New England’s most coveted species, and the professor-like patience for a former student who showed up almost an hour late (I know, I know, we’re never late for fishing, work or church, as Paul reminds us in the classic A River Runs Through It) tied it all together in a way that I couldn’t have predicted but wouldn’t change. That fluke was one that I won’t soon forget.

In The Depths of Winter….

CamusAs we embark into February, many anglers are thinking: “This is as far from the beauty of short-sleeve, carefree, see-your-reflection-in-the-water fishing as we can get without coming back.” And you know what? You’re right.

My father was a philosophy major at Syracuse University, and I followed in his footsteps. We were both likely thinking the same thing: Examining the ideas behind ideas is fascinating and gives us a foundation for further critical thinking as move through life’s challenges and unexpected experiences… AND… this might serve as a good undergraduate degree for law school.

His favorite philosopher was a man named Albert Camus. Camus was famous for espousing existentialism, which focused on the absurdity, or absurdities, we encounter in everyday life. I recently purchased The Myth of Sisyphus at Barnes & Noble, in an attempt to greater understand the philosophy that drew my father in at Syracuse. Camus’s existentialism basically touted that life was a meaningless struggle unless… unless… we were devoted to cooperation, solidarity, and joint effort.

Camus concludes that to look elsewhere for meaning in our everyday lives is pointless, but we can find the exact, precise hope and meaning we are searching for in ourselves, in one another.

It is a strange paradox that years after his passing, I understand my Dad more with each passing day. He found his meaning in helping others, namely, those who were fighting uphill battles in courtrooms. He defended and supported people who almost no one else would.

Fishing the entire country showed me that our nation and the world that we live in is a an inherently good place, full of beautiful souls, and you only need to open your front door and find the courage to explore it to realize that reality in its fullest. Raising money for melanoma research deepened that faith in me more than I could ever articulate. People helped me on a mission through a tunnel where the light at the end is, right now, faint at best. The hope for a cure, like the hope to start a fishing magazine from scratch that readers all over the country love, read and contribute to, is existent, but it necessitates work and faith before we have something concrete to continue to build on.

One of the quotes most famously attributed to Camus is one that I think is appropriate as we head into some of February’s darkest, coldest, days.

“In the depth of winter, I finally learned  that within me there lie an invincible summer.”

That invincible summer, in me, was created and maintained by hope and help from so many of you. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.

 

Life in the Bass Pro Shops Fishing Department

BPSThis past year I moved to Upstate New York to be closer to family, and because, well… Boston is an expensive place to live if you’re working with a marine artist who has seasonal hours. If you haven’t, please check out Joe Higgins’ work at fishedimpressions.com. 

It was tremendous timing and luck, because just as I arrived back at the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains in Mohawk Valley, Bass Pro Shops was hiring a full-time sales associate in the fishing department.

I applied, was hired, was teased about living in a jeep for my first few months there, but have become a member of an incredible team of people.

If you’re reading this blog, chances are you’ve visited at Bass Pro Shops, and have some familiarity with the nature of the chain. Working behind the scenes is a little different.

During a typical week, we’ll be there between half an hour and an hour and a half before the doors open to the public. We’ll unload and run between one and three trucks ranging from 200-700 pieces. We’ll run the carts of backstock to make sure that every item any hunter or angler might be looking for is available to them. We’ll hold meetings to see what products we can get in that customers are asking for, we’ll field phone calls and questions that can come at a frantic pace, and we’ll help other departments however we can.

On any given day we might be having a fish finder shipped from a nearby store for a customer, sending out a rod for repair, spooling up dozens of reels, giving seminars on how to target local species, or … my favorite part, feeding the largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, sturgeon, crappie and trout that mesmerize visiting kids in the store’s enormous aquarium.

But the most fascinating part about working at the store are the stories. Rarely does a day go by where I don’t hear about incredible fisheries we’re fortunate to have in the Northeast, from Hudson-river stripers to St. Lawrence muskie.

I’ve had anglers invite me fishing, make and frame flies for me, give innumerable suggestions on places to visit, and share their stories about a life spent in pursuit of fish, beauty and adventure.

In all honesty I can say that I love almost every aspect of the job, the constant motion, the daily learning, the feeling of putting a new rod or reel into the hands of a fisherman who worked and saved for something they’ll treasure…

But the most inspiring part is a realization that first occurred to me as a teenager, then again as a twenty-something sleeping in a Jeep to fish the country (or as much of it as I could, thanks to the guys at Outdoor Life, Gerry Bethge specifically), then as a grad student fishing to raise money for melanoma research, and now again as a young adult: the community of anglers that you’ll find in any given location in the United States is a passionate, decent, altruistic and sincere one, and one that I’m grateful to be a part of.

If You Build It…

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The finished fillet table, constructed and stained.

To build something, anything, there are two necessary ingredients: You need a careful plan that allows for some error, and determination to create a desired, finished product. This is true of building a friendship, a magazine, or a fillet table.

In 2004, during my freshman year at Syracuse University, I met another freshman named Curt Dircks. The first thing I do, when moving into any type of residence, is put up photographs of fish. Filling an apartment, a dorm room or a house with images of the water reminds me, between trips, of a part of my journey that has brought more joy, excitement and wonder into my life than all other elements combined.

So, as you might imagine, it didn’t take long for Dircks, a fellow freshman and striper nut, and I to strike up a friendship talking about the water and what we love so much about it.

In 2004 we took what would be the first of thirteen years worth of fishing trips to Fire Island, a thin, 32-mile-long barrier island south of Bayshore, New York where his family has owned a small cottage for decades.

During those first years, the conversation went something like: “Do you want to go back this fall?” By now, it has evolved into a short exchange of dates during which we’re both free. “How about the 13th?” “Perfect.”

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Dircks and I holding a pair of bluefish during an incredible blitz in 2011.

Dircks has moved from New Jersey to San Diego and back to New York City, while I’ve moved from New Jersey to Cape Cod, back to New Jersey, down to Florida and finally up to Salem, Massachusetts.

Life had changed for both of us, but the tradition did not.

This past fall we decided to attempt to construct a fillet table. We’re not ‘sharpies’ by any means, but we’d filleted enough striped bass on newspapers on the back deck to realize that there must be a better way.

We discussed table size, placement, stain color, and amenities like a slot to hold a fillet knife, a ruler on a lip at the table’s base to double-check fish length, and a back panel with a wood-burned quote so that something that was utilitarian in function might have a bit of sentiment, a little soul.

I researched fitting quotes for a week prior to first fall trip, and we decided on one, from a hero of mine, Ernest Hemingway. “It is better to be lucky. But I would rather be exact. Then when the luck comes, you are ready.” The quote comes from Santiago, Hemingway’s famous protagonist in The Old Man and the Sea. I borrowed an electric wood-burner from an artistic aunt, Bridget Roberts, and we were set.

I thought the quote was fitting, because a fillet table is about being exact, keeping only fish that are big enough to kill, and attempting to pay homage to the nature of the pursuit by getting every ounce of meat off the striped bass that you are lucky to harvest.

Dircks is pragmatic, punctual and prepared. I, on the other hand, will lose track of time in the surf, walking a few football fields (okay, running) at the sight of dropping birds, and can spend an hour searching for the perfect quote.

A pragmatic person will think, and understandably so, that a fillet table will be a useful tool  when preparing striped bass of legal size that we will catch in the future. A guy who looks for signs and believes in omens will inherently wonder whether that type of hubris would be frowned on by the Fishing Gods. It perhaps warrants mentioning that we’ve never brought a banana on any trip, or even had them the house. There are some superstitions no fisherman in his or her right mind fools with.

I can’t say, in all honesty, that I did ‘half’ the work on the table. When we’re on the island, I’m constantly wondering if there are bass pushing bait right into the beach. It’s hard to drag myself away from the wash to sleep, let alone work on something besides fishing during daylight hours.

I did wood-burn the quote into the table’s back panel, and help with some sanding and staining, but the credit for much of the table’s construction goes to Dircks.

In my mind’s eye, I secretly envisioned the table being taken out and placed on the brackets we’d screwed into the back deck, and being removed at the end of every trip without ever holding a fish. I just couldn’t help but wonder if ‘preparing’ to catch fish you could legally kill wasn’t some kind of bad luck.

Keeper
The first striped bass that made it to the table.

Then, on the second trip of the fall, I hooked into bass that felt slightly larger than the shorter fish we’d been catching earlier that morning.

Throwing a green bucktail with a matching pork-rind trailer, I hooked and landed a 31-inch striped bass, three inches larger than they need to be to legally keep.

There are few things in the world I like as much as the feeling of a bass that you know is slightly larger than the rest you’ve been catching, hitting your bucktail as you hop it along the ocean floor.

We’d just finished the table, and we carefully set it on the rail of the back deck and filleted our first striped bass on it.

There are, undoubtedly, more superstitions involved with the sport of fishing than almost any other pursuit in human history (except, maybe, baseball).

But preparing to catch fish that you might have the chance to bring back to family for dinner, and creating a table that ultimately aids in that effort, is not bad luck. In fact, it might have even helped, as far as I’m concerned now. I guess you’ve got to believe something’s possible, and perhaps even likely, before undertaking a single step toward achieving it.