As 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.
Finding guides that had the time to help on the lakes largely consisted of going to local tackle shops, collecting business cards, and sitting in a Jeep calling number after number. People are wary of causes, and I get that, but maybe that makes them all the more important to take part in.
Ironically, Father’s Day usually falls right around my father’s birthday, June 20th. Family likes to joke that he was “Born to be a father,” and that certainly might be the case.
I don’t know about you, but I like laughing, so usually on his birthday and Father’s Day we’ll share a funny story about a man I was enormously blessed to spend 27 years with.
We were talking, this past week, about a trip to Florida. Our flight was cancelled, and passengers were redistributed onto other flights, many of which were aboard smaller planes.
One such smaller plane was taking the number of passengers that it could from the cancelled flight, and we were waiting in line to board.
As we neared the gate, the attendant indicated that the flight was full, and that we’d have to continue to wait. We would have been the next passengers seated.
My father, a man who was raised in poverty, served his country in the army, and built a successful law practice handling everything from immigration law to armed robbery, just kept trying to subtly sneak onto the plane.
The flight attendant repeatedly, and as kindly as she could, indicated that the flight was full.
I’m not sure what his plan was if he did get on board. Maybe he’d have sat in the aisle until the plane landed?
We never got to find out. But he wasn’t going to quit trying. I’m sure life had taught him again and again, as it continues to teach me, that whether or not you succeed at a given endeavor, the only thing that you can ultimately control is your disposition, your drive and your determination to continue trying to move forward.
“Ever tried. Ever failed. No Matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” – Samuel Beckett
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.
I’ve been thinking more, as of late, how fortunate I’ve been to have fallen in love with this sport at a young age, and how grateful I am to have been able to keep at it, albeit to varying degrees, for more than two decades. I’ve thought about how my perception of the water, the time we get to spend on it, and what it means to us, changes over time. I’d like to share that idea with you, and get your thoughts and feedback if you’d be kind enough to share them with me. Here, in my opinion, are the nine stages of becoming a fisherman:
1. That first Fish: No, I’m not talking about the first fish you catch, I’m talking about the first fish that you see caught. Maybe you’re three or four years old, and perhaps it’s an uncle or a cousin or an older friend, but all of a sudden… someone pulls a living thing above the water’s surface. This, for all intents and purposes, can be a life-changing moment. You’re young enough to still believe in magic, and if you have the right pre-disposition, you’ll continue to believe in this particular type of magic for the rest of your life. The idea starts generating in your young mind that, beneath the water’s surface, there’s another world entirely, and with a rod and reel, you might be able to gain access to it.
2. Your First Fish: Some time after that spell is cast, you will put things like a rod, a reel, line, lures… and eventually an 8-foot Pond Prowler, on every birthday or Christmas list for the rest of your life. But first there is that first fish, usually a perch or sunfish or maybe, if you’re lucky, a largemouth bass. But when you first feel connected to that resistance, the tail-shaking, wiggling life at the other end of a line… you’re connected to something that will never let go. It’ll hold onto you inside of office cubicles, in classrooms, in church pews and even while you’re trying to sleep, study or concentrate.
3. Driving your Family Crazy: After that first fish, there’s usually one thing that you want to do after school, during vacations, before school or even on lunch hours in your early years of adolescence. You want to fish. You want to fish all the time. You will call aunts and uncles who you’ve not spoken with in weeks or months to see if they’d like to “Go fishing with you” (see: Take you fishing, because you can’t drive). You will ask parents to drop you off, and leave you for as long as is possible, at ponds, creeks and lakes.
4. The Life-changing Species: We all have a certain species of fish that changed our lives, and for me it was striped bass, caught while taking family vacations to Cape Cod, but this species is different for everyone. For many it’s America’s favorite fish, the largemouth bass, and for others it’s redfish, snook, tarpon or steelhead. But at some point, relatively early on in our progression as a fisherman, we find that species that will be our species for the rest of our lives. We will continue to chase all manner of fish, but this species will always be special.
5. Wheels: We all remember our first car, and mine was a hand-me-down, 1996 Chevrolet Beretta from an Uncle, who, ironically loved to fish himself. If you’re younger than 30, you might not remember the Beretta, which was retired in that very year. It was a sports car for people who didn’t have the budget for a sports car. It was a two-door coupe, and if it wasn’t the least ideal fishing vehicle, it was second on that list only to a bicycle. But you can, if you’re careful, fit one-piece, six-foot rods between the backseat and the windshield, and that’s all that mattered. When you first have a driver’s license, it’s almost incomprehensible to you how much you might fish now, as compared to that same capability in your life prior to that point. Every vehicle you own for the rest of your life will smell something like either bait, low tide or Gulp lures.
6. A Fishing Vehicle: Unless you’re very fortunate, your first vehicle will not be an ideal one for a fishing life. Your second vehicle, however, will almost certainly be. My first fishing truck was a used regular cab Dodge Dakota. The very notion that I now had a six-foot bed that could hold coolers, rods, waders, and tackle was something almost too incredible for a 17-year-old to imagine.
7. Everywhere: After you’ve explored and fished your immediate surroundings, you suddenly develop the urge to fish every body of water on the planet that might harbor any type of life. This desire was born in me when I was 23, and thanks to Outdoor Life Magazine, I had the chance to attempt to fish all of the lower 48. A certain combination of youth, an idealistic outlook, and if you’re lucky, eternal optimism, will make life seem, for you, too short to not fish everywhere as soon as humanly possible.
8. Passing the Torch: One of my favorite fishing memories, of all time, is of a day when I didn’t catch a thing. I was about 20, fishing the Brewster flats on Cape Cod with my cousin, who was then about 13 years old. Dylan Wheelock, at 13, hooked and landed a schoolie striped bass on the flats, after wading out with me almost a mile, and that picture is hanging, still, in his family’s house. If you’ve been lucky, and you try to stay humble, eventually seeing others fall in love with the sport, in the way you did in those first seven steps, will become your favorite part of being on the water.
9. Enjoying Every Moment: Once you get through those eight stages, a funny thing happens: You become grateful for every opportunity you have to get on the water, regardless of the outcome. You realize that these stolen moments will always be some of your favorite, and that while the fish might bring us to the water’s edge, they don’t have much to do with the logic behind our loving it.
You realize, finally, that the true luck in fishing is just in the mere fact that you’re doing it, that you have this opportunity, and that you’re at least wise enough to appreciate that.
It’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.”
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…
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.
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.