There are some instances in life, no matter your age, that will transport you immediately back to a state of childlike wonder. These, of course, differ for everyone, because we all fall in love with different things when we’re young enough to be enamored by a world that’s new and fascinating at every turn.
If we fall in love with the water, and the myriad of creatures it contains, and become fishermen, then we’re blessed with more of these moments than most.
The thing that’s so magical about being of an age that only necessitates one digit for description is that you are prone to believe in enormous, seemingly impossible things. The bootprints of soot on the fireplace were left by a mythical, jolly creature that captained a sleigh through the sky. If you fall in love with fish, and you’re prone to grand ambitions, you’ll try to stock the small creek behind your house with transported trout from a pail, brought from another creek, before you’re even four feet tall.
The above question was asked of me by Joe Higgins, who owns and operates Fished Impressions on Boston’s North Shore. A friend of his had commissioned a gyotaku print of a tournament-winning thresher shark, and Higgins had the 5-foot-long tail in a studio he’s renting in Gloucester, where he’s selling some of his raw prints at a lower cost than traditional, framed pieces (shameless plug).
Gyotaku, for those of you who are unfamiliar, is an ancient Japanese art form that allows an angler to commemorate a catch using only ink and paper (not just any paper, rice, unryu or mulberry paper). It’s an art form that reminds you that anglers have been bragging about the fish that they’ve caught for as long as they’ve been catching fish: Photography changed the nature of the bragging, but didn’t start it, by any means.
It sounds simple, but like many things in life, doing it well is anything but.
So, for a few hours in Gloucester, we carefully applied ink of various colors to the tail (thresher sharks have especially long tails which they use to stun baitfish before eating them) and created a number of prints. I use the term ‘we,’ here, very loosely, I performed the tasks that a toddler would be capable of doing, and a toddler who just awoke from a nap at that.
More than anything else, helping at Fished Impressions has reminded me of the reason that I fell in love with the water and the sport of fishing to begin with. Whether it’s a nearby pond, a local lake, or the North Atlantic, the world beneath the water is a fascinating and beautiful place that we should savor every second next to, and if we’re capable of wrapping words, or paper, around some of that beauty and sharing it with others, we might even appreciate it all the more ourselves.
I have been enormously fortunate, thanks to anglers all over the United States, and the editors at Outdoor Life,Game & Fish, and B.A.S.S., to fish a host of different waters from Maine down to the Florida Keys out to San Diego and up to Seattle. These days I am working on finishing my Master’s Degree, and I’ve been lucky to help out a tremendously talented artist in Salem named Joe Higgins who runs Fished Impressions, but thanks to a number of people who’ve had faith in me over the years, I’ve had the chance to travel and fish more than most. Any time that we can get on the water, it’s a beautiful day, but there are some places on the American landscape that have stood out in my memory as particularly gorgeous. I haven’t fished everywhere, but I’ve tried, and these are places that belong on your bucket list if you’re an angler.
The Florida Keys: The sunrises are surreal. You’ll swear that the ocean is temporarily alight with fire when you see one from a flats skiff. But the variety of species that are available for an angler to target here is almost enough to overwhelm you the minute you get on the Overseas Highway that will lead you out of Miami. Tarpon are the big draw out of Islamorada and Key West, and rightfully so, but yellowtail snapper, barracuda, spotted sea trout, permit and bonefish are all available depending upon the season you choose. Waking up in the Keys is something like waking up on Christmas morning, on repeat, for any fisherman. There are a host of beautiful places in the lower 48 to fish, but you’d be hard-pressed to make an argument that any are, in any sense, ‘better’ than the Florida Keys. The guys at Bud N’ Mary’s are the ones to talk to if you find yourself Keys-bound.
New Orleans: Start an argument in the Southeast about who has the biggest redfish, and you’ll never hear the end of it. Having that said, the environment in New Orleans, the potential forage base, and the climate all give it as good a claim as any Southern city to “Redfish Capital of the World.” Fishing out of New Orleans is such a memorable and incredible cultural experience, that even if, let’s say… Texas had bigger redfish, it’d still be tough to argue that New Orleans is the single best place to go if you want to fish for them. Both Gregg Arnold and Rocky Thickstun are excellent New Orleans guides, and you can’t go wrong with either. The city is overflowing with art of all varieties, from music to artwork to photography, and where the city stops, the natural beauty starts.
Seattle: Seattle gets a reputation as a rainy city, and it is, but all that water creates an environment rich with life. Whether you want to chase king, silver or chum salmon, it’s hard to imagine a place more beautiful to do it in than Western Washington. If you do get there, try fishing for sea-run rainbows on the fly, too. It’s an incredible experience, especially from shore. The lush greenery, the mountains and the crystal-clear water all make for absolutely stunning scenery. The Seattle expert to talk to, hands down, is Chris Senyohl.
Montauk: I’ll first say that during the prime striper months, like May, June, October and November, Montauk gets crowded. This is the place to travel to and set wader boot on for striper fishermen in the spring and fall. It is true that more striped bass pull closer to the end of Long Island, here, concentrating in a way that they do in few other places, but the culture is really what makes Montauk memorable. It is seemingly, for a few months anyway, a city built on striped bass, or at least the pursuit of them. Whether you love the crowds, the competition and the frenzy, or you can’t stand it, Montauk is a place to experience as a striper fisherman at least once in your life. The sun rising and casting the day’s first light on all the wader-clad, or wetsuit-wearing fishermen who have been fishing all through the night is simply a sight to behold.
Grand Lake Stream, Maine: This isn’t the southern part of Maine that most of Boston flees to in the summer months for their bumper stickers (although that part of Maine is beautiful, too). Grand Lake Stream is about four hours north of Maine’s southern border, and has some truly rugged and wild country. The landlocked Atlantic salmon that you’ll chase, and perhaps catch, in Grand Lake Stream are every bit as beautiful as the scenery. The crew at Weatherby’s are the guys to talk to if you’re headed to GLS.
Apalachicola: It might seem unfair that I’ve put Florida on this list twice, but the state just has that many unique and amazing opportunities for fishermen. Traveling through the state, many visitors never make it to the Panhandle, which, in the Panhandle, is just how they like it. The Apalachicola Chamber of Commerce has actually trademarked the name, ‘The Forgotten Coast.’ The Panhandle of Florida feels very different from the remainder of the state: The attitude of the locals is more relaxed, the sand on the beaches is even a lighter shade, and they take oysters much more seriously. Offshore fishing out of nearby Destin is popular, but I’d fish with the Robinson Brothers again for redfish if I ever made it back down: Those guys are the best.
Lake Powell, Arizona/Utah: This one might surprise a few people, but this lake itself, thanks to the surrounding geography, is absolutely stunning. Oh, and the smallmouth bass that inhabit it are a blast to catch on topwater. Seeing the rock formations that have been carved and weathered by time, wind and water reflected in the lake’s mirror-like surface on a calm summer afternoon is a sight that you’ll never forget. Danny Woods at This Side of That Guide Service is the guy to talk to about fishing here, no doubt about it.
Many of us, as fishermen, are hesitant to admit that the beauty is a big part of the reason that we love the sport. But I don’t think any of us could deny that it’s integral to the entire experience, either. If you get a chance to fish in any of these places, take it.
If we’re lucky enough to be fishermen, we’ll likely cover a lot of water in our lifetimes, and I’ve been luckier than most. Some fish, however, stand out above the rest in our memories, and for good reason. Some fish define a place, a relationship or an experience for us in a way others don’t. These are the fish that I’m most grateful to have seen caught:
Chris Critelli: There’s an area off of Brewster, Mass., where you can wade out for almost a mile to a channel that flows between two sandbars. For more than a decade, cousins and I were lucky to wade those flats almost every day for the three weeks that we’d vacation on Cape Cod every summer. I caught my share of striped bass on the Brewster Flats, but seeing my younger cousin, Chris Critelli, catch an 11-pound fish at sunset on one of our last days of vacation in 2005 was one of my favorite memories of all-time. Chris is a tremendous fisherman, and an even better human being. He didn’t have the chances to fish saltwater as often as I did growing up, so it meant more to him than it might have to me. Seeing him catch it, though, meant the world to an older cousin.
Shane Kobald: While doing a project called Fish America for Outdoor Life, I was fishing the White River in Colorado with John Kobald and his son Shane. After fishing the White in the morning, we picked Shane up after school and he caught a 20-inch brown trout that evening. Seeing that little guy (who is probably in high school now) land the trout of a lifetime was an inspiring and incredible experience, for John and I both. Oh, and Shane seemed to enjoy it too.
Mike Coppola: When I was on that same trip, I got the chance to fish with one of the best surf fishermen in Montauk, Mike Coppola. Mike took me rock-hopping under the cover of darkness to chase stripers before the sun came up, and caught more than one fish in the 30-pound range. To watch an expert fish the surf in the complete darkness, suited up from head to toe in a dry top, and do it successfully, was incredible.
Steve Niemoeller: If Mike is one of the best when it comes to surf fishing, Steve is the king of largemouth bass. Steve Niemoeller helped me more than almost anyone on this past Catch a Cure, and one fish stands out in my memory. He was casting toward lily pads on the St. Johns River when he hooked, and landed, a bass of more than four pounds. It was the largest fish that I’d see caught on the trip. Steve knew exactly where it’d be, and he targeted it and caught it in expert fashion.
Dylan Wheelock: Dylan is another cousin of mine, even younger than Chris. I dragged them all out on the Brewster Flats when they’d join us for vacations on Cape Cod, and Dylan caught his first striped bass on those flats when he was about 15. It wasn’t an enormous fish, but we have the photo proof. He’s still got the picture hanging up in the family’s house in Upstate New York.
It seems, nowadays, that almost every piece of information or news that we get comes electronically. The mailbox outside your front door has been mostly relegated to bills, flyers and takeout menus. That reality, however, makes it all the more surprising and uplifting when you do get something in the mail that has some worth or value on a personal level.
This past month, the mailbox has been good to me, and I’d like to share a few stories, and thank some people who went out of their way.
I was excited to hear that a long-time friend and former Syracuse roommate, Andrew Fillipponi, is finally tying the knot. I’m more excited, as a fisherman, that he’s tying that knot in New Orleans… one of the fishiest places I’ve ever set foot in. Congratulations Pinto Bean, we’ve got a few crazy stories to rehash at the next meeting of the… well, Syracuse fans, we’ll say.
If you’ve read this blog or followed my Social Media presence, you know by now that I’m a huge fan of a musician named Brian Fallon. He writes some beautiful songs, and I’d recommend checking them out if you’re in the market for new music (who isn’t?) Fellow fans of the band have formed a group online called Andy Diamond’s Church Street Choir (taken from song lyrics) and actually sent postcards, and very cool ones I might add, to fans around the world. I got mine this past month and it was a touching reminder of how music can connect people who are otherwise worlds apart.
When friend and former Emerson classmate James Spica saw the oyster-inspired Christmas ornaments we were selling at Tomo’s Tackle here in Salem, he naturally wanted one, so I stuck an ornament in the mail for him. This past week, he returned the favor by sending an Orvis gift card, which is all the excuse I need to head to the nearest Orvis and dream of the spring fishing that’s to come.
What do you get when you combine music and fishing (besides the world’s best possible combination)? A fellow Fallon fan, Christina LaMarca, liked one of the fish prints that we’re selling out of Tomo’s Tackle, so I sent a small mahi print to the midwest for her mom. She returned the favor recently by sending a movie she’s insisting that I watch, The Princess Bride.
I’m a fairly quiet guy who lives in a small upstairs apartment in an out-of-the-way part of a North Shore town in Massachusetts. Three people, all from different walks of life, none of whom know one another, went out of their way to send something thoughtful or personal in the past month, and each mailbox inspection has been an uplifting reminder that it’s a beautiful world, full of incredible people.
If you need some inspiration in the mailbox, and want to help a great cause… donate $25 to the Melanoma Research Foundation and I’ll send you a one-of-a-kind Catch a Cure T-shirt, thanks to Rick Roth at Mirror Image printing, who donated the shirts to the project. We only have a few left, and this will sound like a sales pitch, but it’s true so… if you want one, act fast.
Thank you to all of you you took the time, it honestly did bring some cheer amidst the snow-pocalypse we’re currently experiencing north of Boston.
Superstition typically isn’t an impactful element in our everyday lives. Sure, we might notice if a black cat walks by, and we might not walk under a latter, but for the most part most of us believe in cause and effect. It helps us navigate an unpredictable world to believe that, with a few exceptions, things happen because other things have happened in the past that set a series of events in motion that caused them.
This belief, however, stops immediately where the water meets the land. I have never met an angler who was not, to some degree, superstitious. And anglers, for the most part, I’ve found, are more superstitious than most. I’ve never met a fisherman who wasn’t aware that bananas are bad luck on boats, but that’s only the most commonly held belief, and there are countless others that vary by region, body of water and individual angler.
I’ll share a few of my good-luck tricks (tactics?) but I’m honestly more interested in hearing about yours.
First and foremost, I always carry two things in the pocket of any pair of pants or shorts that I’m wearing. The first is my father’s watch. It’s a gold Bulova that he wore for decades. My father wasn’t a man who who cared much for flashy attire or stylish clothes, but the watch was a gift that my mother and I gave him when the one he wore finally gave out. He treasured it, and so do I.
My aunt, Bridget Roberts, collects all sorts of antiques, and she has an incredible collection of antique marbles of all sizes and colors. She selected a half-dozen for me a few years back, placed them in a velvet case, and gave them to me. Of course the running joke about “losing your marbles,” has followed me ever since, so I’m sure to keep the physical ones on hand for luck, and to remember that I have a wonderfully crazy family that cares about me.
I have two rings that I’ve found to be relatively lucky: One is a hand-carved ring with ocean waves from the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island, and the other is from a Harley Davidson store in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
This past year I was fishing Fire Island with former college roommate and long-time friend Curt Dircks, and was wearing a new hat I’d bought at a Brian Fallon concert (Fallon is an incredibly talented singer/songwriter if you’re interested in finding some more great music). We’d fished all morning, and most of the evening, without landing a keeper striped bass. The six that I’d caught, despite being undersized, might very well have convinced me that the hat was good luck anyway… but when I caught a 33-inch, 11-pound striper right after last light… any and all doubt about the hat’s powers were erased.
So, whether I’m on the water or not, I’ll typically have the hat, marbles and watch for good luck. What do you carry, and why?
I’ve been fortunate to help out local Salem artist and angler Joe Higgins in his North Shore shop, Tomo’s Tackle this past year, and every time I’m in the shop, I can’t help but think: More people need to know about this beautiful artwork.
Higgins practices an ancient Japanese art form known as gyotaku, where he takes a recently caught fish, places a special type of ink on it, and creates an impression on rice paper. On many, he paints in detail to finish the impression and make it as lifelike as possible.
I don’t speak Japanese, but research suggests that the word ‘gyotaku’ translates literally to something like ‘Fish Reclamation.’ Records show that this art form dates at least back to the 7th century and is probably much older than that.
Before anglers had cameras to capture and share the story of a catch, they had to be slightly more creative. By placing ink on the fish and carefully pressing paper over it, they were able to create a lasting impression to remember their catch after it had been sold or eaten.
Higgins has given this ancient art a new life, and he creates and sells “fish prints” out of Tomo’s Tackle in Salem. His prints are on display and sold in various places throughout Massachusetts, and you can find more information about seeing and perhaps purchasing some prints near you on his site.
The stunning and memorable thing about a gyotaku print is how it almost brings the fish back to life in front of your eyes. With each carefully added detail, Higgins creates an image that is in many ways is more beautiful, alive and unique than a picture of the same fish might be.
Higgins has printed everything from squid to swordfish, and he’s seemingly up for any challenge. I’ve seen prints of false albacore, flounder and even a few redfish come through the shop, and each is fascinating in its own right.
It’s a constant reminder that as fishermen, we’re exposed to more beauty than most, and we shouldn’t take any of it for granted.
I did not, at the time… “plan” to live out of my vehicle when I left. I was working a great job that I was lucky to have, but couldn’t shake the feeling that… there’s an entire country out there of drop-dead gorgeous stuff that… I might never see. I was dealing with some problems that I’ll not get into, but suffice it to say… I felt an urge to move, go, escape, travel… anywhere.
With a bare-bones budget and nothing but a road map full of places that I’d been dreaming about for the better part of 20 years, I put everything that I owned in storage and headed for Maine in late May.
Now… I’d set up trip itinerary of places to fish, things to see and friends I’d had that I wanted to visit, but planning an itinerary for a cross-country road trip is like making a plan for what you’d do if your house caught on fire: It might ease some anxiety prior to the actual event… but rarely is it something you can execute in practice when the time comes.
Prior to that trip, I was a quiet, soft-spoken guy with a lot of anxieties about the little things in life (‘Did I wear this shirt already this week?’ ‘Am I coming down with a cold?’) and to some degree I still am.
But on that trip, more people helped me than I ever could have imagined would prior to undertaking it. Anglers from Maine down to Florida and out to California and up to Oregon had me stay at their houses, introduced me to their families, and took me fishing.
I’ve always been a religious person, although I’ve come up short of that definition more times than I can count… but I’ve always believed in God.
What that trip did, the way it changed me… was that it gave me a faith in other people that I’d not had before then. It also reassured me that you don’t need to know how something is going to work, you just need to keep trying everything and believe that it will. My idea of Divinity changed from some all-powerful master on high watching our every action… to a collection of souls down here on earth that, more often than not, want what is best for not only them… but for all of us as a group, together.
That’s what I brought back from the road, and I carry it with me wherever I go today. It has been a saving grace in the days that were to follow.
One angler's attempt to strike back against skin cancer.