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.
The guides at Bassonline were so incredibly helpful, that I could not envision this project having taken place without them.
The people at the Melanoma Research Foundation are the ones truly doing the important work, and I’m so thankful to have those organizations who are working daily to cure this disease once and for all.
To everyone who has helped, whether it was through a day on the water, contributing money or gear, reading or sharing the effort, or even just an encouraging word on Social Media, I just want you to know what a profoundly positive impact you’ve collectively had on my life, and the lives of the people in my family.
I sincerely hope you have an incredible holiday season, and I’m so thankful for the ways in which you’ve lifted me up along this road.
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.
Now, first let me say that I am by no means an authority on America’s greatest anglers. I’ve been lucky to fish with a lot of men and women who are spectacular at the sport, from Maine down to the Keys out to San Diego and up to Seattle, but I’m only 26 (alright, 30) and it’d take eleven lifetimes to meet the myriad of talented and knowledgable anglers in this nation. Having that said, I have been fortunate to meet a few, and these stood out above the crowd.
Mike Coppola, Montauk, N.Y.: I love striped bass fishing, and the surf is especially endearing. Whether it’s the sun pulling itself form the ocean and turning the night into day, or bluefish pushing bunker up onto the beach with such ferocity that the baitfish are literally leaping onto the sand to escape being eaten, there are so many moments when fishing the surf that just make the entire experience an incredible one. But I am far, far from a great surf fisherman. I’ve been lucky at times, I’ve read enough to have a basic understanding, but grouping me with a guy like Coppola is tantamount to saying a Formula One racer and a Go Cart driver are “about the same.” I got the chance to fish with Mike on Fish America for Outdoor Life, and he had the entire endeavor down to a science. We waded into the Montauk surf at night, fished until sunrise, and he swam out to rocks in a wetsuit through breakers that crushed me back onto the beach when I attempted to hold my ground. I count myself fortunate that I survived but Mike? Mike, of course, landed a 20-plus-pound striped bass right before the sun came up. Gary “The Toad” Stevens, is right up there, too, in the Montauk scene.
Preston Clark, Florida: If you grow up in an area where you do enough largemouth bass fishing, a funny thing happens. You remember, distinctly, the days when you couldn’t get a lure back to the shore or the boat without landing a fish, and you tend to forget the fruitless days on the water. This can lead to the misconception that bass fishing is “relatively” easy, or something that “everyone can do.” Truth be told, if you do anything enough, you’ll succeed at some point, which is exactly the reason I prefer the driving range to playing 18 actual holes of golf. Something about rooting around in the woods for another lost ball is harder to forget than driving a practice shot into the woods for the umpteenth time. For that, and many other reasons, there’s no shortage of people who’d describe themselves as “good,” or even “great” bass fishermen. Clark, however, is the real deal. I was fishing with Clark in 2010, on a million-degree June afternoon when the Florida bass were impossibly hard to fool. Me? I managed one small fish on the afternoon. Clark caught a largemouth that was in the seven-pound-plus range. Think that was “luck”? Nope, me neither. Clark has been both a professional angler and a guide and I’m here to tell you, he’s one of the best.
Chris Senyohl, Seattle: Seattle gets the reputation as a place where it rains all the time and is generally unpleasant. Guess who is responsible for maintaining that reputation? The people in Seattle, who are aware of the amazing outdoor opportunities that they’d like, if they can, to prevent the rest of the country from finding out about. Senyohl guides in and around the Seattle area and is one of the absolute best (not to mention kindest) anglers I’ve ever fished with. Senyohl, in only about a week’s time, put me on a silver salmon, a pink salmon, and his brother even scared the life out of me on a whitewater rafting adventure. If he could hook a novice salmon fisherman like me up, I can only imagine the wonders he could accomplish with a more experienced angler.
Todd Kersey/Brett Isackson/Steve Niemoeller: I’ll group these guys together because all three work for BassOnline, Florida’s largest freshwater guide service. Kersey amazed me with his knowledge of targeting and catching Florida’s favorite invasives, the peacock bass. Isackson actually invented a lure that looks and acts like the snakes that live near Florida’s freshwater ponds and lakes. Isackson noticed that larger bass, looking for a more substantial meal, were eating snakes that either fell from a tree branch or were slithering over lily pads, and designed and crafted a rubber lure to take advantage of that phenomenon. It takes a certain amount of faith to cast a “snake” bait to largemouth bass, but it’s quickly rewarded when the thing gets devoured. Niemoeller is another guy who invented a lure, his Steel Shad, which you can customize to fish exactly the way you’d like to to target finicky bass. All three are absolutely amazing bass fishermen.
Randy Oldfield, Texas: Randy is another bass guy, in another great bass state. If I were to dare speculate that Texas is second to Florida in terms of its ability to produce giant bass, I’d need to change my name and enter witness protection, so I’ll say that the states are about equal as far as producing big bass goes. Oldfield, however, is (in my opinion) without equal in the Lone Star State. He guides on and around Lake Fork, one of Texas’s most prized bass lakes, and he’s another one of those guys that has bass fishing down to an absolute science. While fishing with Oldfield in 2010, it was overwhelmingly evident once again that bass fishing involves about as much luck as most things in life, which is to say, some, but not much.
Chris Robinson, Florida: Now, I’ve told you about the best Florida bass guides that I’ve met, but you can’t mention Florida without talking about the salt. The Robinson Brothers Guide Service is located in my favorite part of Florida: The Panhandle. Miles away from the traditional “Disney” atmosphere that most people picture when they think of Florida, the Panhandle has beautiful white sand beaches, delicious oysters and some great inshore saltwater fishing. Robinson guides out of Apalachicola and his ability to dial in and target big redfish is incredible.
Tommy Scarborough, South Carolina: I have a distinct memory of the first time I ever fished with Scarborough in 2010. Tommy decided it would be fun to see if I could handle a shark on some lighter tackle, and I’d been lucky to hook up. I’d asked him if he’d be willing to film the fight so that I could later document it for Outdoor Life. As the dusky shark peeled drag and I stood there helpless with the rod bent, Tommy howled in his distinct southern accent: “Looks like you’re getting your butt whooped!” Aside from being a great guide, like all of these guys, Tommy is a great human being. He put me up on his couch (to spare me a night in the Jeep), fed me a home-cooked meal, and continued making fun of me even after he’d put me on enough sharks and redfish to make anyone jealous.
Matt Wettish, Connecticut: This wouldn’t be a list if we didn’t have a trout guy, right? But Wettish isn’t just any trout guy. He designed a system that allows conventional spinning-gear anglers to get (almost) as much fun out of trout fishing as the fly guys do. He fishes in and around Connecticut’s trout water with mealworms on ultra-small hooks, using super-light spinning gear. We’re talking about line as light as 2-pound test, used with a six-foot rod. Connecticut might not seem like it deserves to be in the conversation with Vermont and Montana in terms of “Trout” states, but I changed my mind completely about that notion after seeing a 20-plus-inch brown trout caught out of the Farmington River with Wettish in 2010.
(Joe Demalderis: Okay, I have a tattoo that says “One More,” did you really think I could keep it to eight? Demalderis of Cross Current Outfitters guides on the Delaware River and is an absolute trout savant. The man seemingly knows more about targeting trout on the fly than I know about any single thing. His understanding of the river system and his ability to find and target fish is among the best I’ve ever seen from any trout guide, anywhere. Period.)
If you get a chance to fish with any of these guys, take it… and take notes.
I’ll admit that when I cross into what’s considered “The South,” I can’t help but change the Sirius Radio to the Highway, its country station. And I’ve heard the Tim McGraw song on a lot lately, and it’s resonated more and more with me throughout this trip.
If we have any type of success in whatever we attempt in life, it’s easy to start to think we’ve earned something, that because of what we’ve achieved, built or accomplished… we’re in some way ‘better,’ than those who have failed to do just that. I’ve been guilty of this, and I’m not proud of it.
But I think it’s important for us, throughout our lives, to look to others for inspiration and guidance, no matter how old we get. And when I look at the number of the people who’ve helped this project, not from some celebrity or business tycoon, but from a graduate student and freelance outdoor writer, it’s overwhelmingly evident just how many American people feel the exact same way, and live out that humility and kindness every day.
When I dreamt up Catch a Cure II, I sent e-mails to every company listed in the iCast catalog (the annual sportfishing trade show). Now we all open our e-mails every day and, unless it’s something from someone we know, we often disregard it. But the people at Get Vicious Fishing didn’t. The people at Native Eyewear didn’t. They opened the e-mail, their hearts and wallets and got on board.
The guides in Florida at BassOnline, who are the most professional, kind and helpful guys you’ll ever meet, didn’t hesitate to get right on board with the project, and went above and beyond to help out. Steve Niemoeller, Brett Isackson and Todd Kersey each went out of their way to see to it that Catch a Cure I, and II, got all the fish it could. Above all else, I want this project to be about hope, about a fun future for outdoorsmen that’s safer because it’s informed. And I could never create that kind of project alone, and those guys made sure I wouldn’t have to.
When searching for an outlet for this dream, I sent a Facebook message to B.A.S.S. social media editor Tyler Wade. How many of those must she get, in her job, per day? And she read mine, got back, and got on board for the project. That still amazes me every time I think about it.
And when I talked about my dream, of starting a beautiful fishing magazine for conventional (not fly) fishermen, an angler and professor named Gian Lombardo at Emerson College, where I’m a grad student, believed in it and got on board. He even helped me come up with an idea about how to build that very publication: By asking YOU what you wanted to see in it. And you can answer that question for me right here, and I’d greatly appreciate it if you would. And by the way, filling out this survey will make you eligible to win prizes, in case you need added incentive aside from getting the EXACT magazine that you want made for you.
And I never forget, when I’m out here, that most of the time this is enjoyable, if it’s at times challenging. But the people at the Melanoma Research Foundation, who are working with these dollars to fund the studies that WILL find the cure, they’re the ones who truly deserve a pat on the back, and our deepest gratitude. Katherine Daniels, specifically, has been a world of help to me as I’ve tried to figure out all the details that go along with a fundraising project like this one.
In truth, I’m kind of a shy young man. I don’t particularly relish being on camera to film these videos, or seeing myself in pictures with fish. I became a writer because… it seemed a preferable alternative to having to talk.
But when this disease came into my life, and my family’s life, I couldn’t help but see that as a challenge, to see it as having some purpose necessitating a response. Maybe I needed to see it that way, because UV rays causing malignant cells to spread throughout a loved one’s body and take his life, without any greater meaning in the grand scheme of things, is is somewhat hard to stomach.
And maybe life isn’t as complicated as we’d like to think, and things have a greater meaning if and when we decide that they do, for us, during that point in our lives.
But I know that the people who’ve come into my life through this effort, whether that’s the sponsors who’ve gotten on board, the people at Emerson who’ve encouraged the effort, the guides from Oklahoma to Florida who’ve helped… it has meant more to me than I can articulate. It has been a profound difference in my life at a time when I needed one. Their humility, kindness and help will stay with me forever. And most importantly, perhaps, when we as a species finally find the cure for this cancer, we can all say we had a small hand in that effort.
“Don’t take for granted the love this life gives you.” I’m certainly not.
“Simple exchange of values. You give them money, they give you a stuffed dog.” – Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises
Reading The Sun Also Rises during my first year at Syracuse University changed my life, and I became a devoted Hemingway disciple. It was this line, more than any other, that endeared me to the story. Jake Barnes, Hemingway’s main character, has suffered a traumatic injury in the war, and he’s come to hold one simple truth in life: You get what you pay for. In typical Hemingway fashion, the concept is illustrated with a blunt and simple metaphor when Barnes considers buying a stuffed dog.
I sacrificed a great many of the things we are taught to work for throughout much of our youth: a full-time job, a steady income, security…
I gained… well, I saw almost everything in lower 48. I spent 200 nights, exactly, sleeping in that Jeep and fished my way from remote northern Maine down to the Keys, out to San Diego and up to Seattle. That was my “stuffed dog.” A simple exchange of values.
This morning I met a woman near Palatka, Florida named Jackie Bliss. Jackie’s husband lost his father to melanoma, and Jackie keeps the bait shop she works in, Bob’s Bait and Tackle in St. Augustine, stocked with strong sunscreen. I gave Ms. Bliss a Catch a Cure shirt, and a few surveys to hand out for the magazine I’m hoping to build.
I’m hoping to create a beautiful publication, showcasing a side of the sport that all of us appreciate but perhaps we find hard to articulate. I’m hoping I can find writers and photographers to wrap words and images around the beauty that draws us all back to the water. But most importantly, I’m hoping to build a magazine that you’re looking for, that you want to read, and you can help me do that here.
I spoke with Jackie for a moment, and we smiled and exchanged stories. I told her about my father, and she shared some stories about her father in law. She said the T-shirt was her favorite color, and with that I was back on the road.
We’d both lost something essential in our lives, a loved one. But now we shared this appreciation for the time that we do have, and a fight for a better future. A simple exchange of values. What was never traded, sacrificed or given up, is the one thing that I believe, above all else, defines us as a species: Hope.
Where can you go when you leave Okeechobee that might even hold a candle to that kind of bass fervor? Rodman Reservoir might just be the one place in Florida that could top Okeechobee for big bass notoriety. If there’s a new record largemouth that’s going to come out of Florida, it might very well come from Rodman. So many enormous fish have been taken here, it’s hard to believe that there’s not one that could top the current record swimming somewhere.
I’ll admit that I got a little sidetracked exploring the “Forest Roads” that surround Rodman, looking for some limited-access fishing. The “roads,” which are about as road-like as a hamster is dog-like, can get hairy in some spots where the sand is deeper your tires can’t gain purchase. But I kept my foot easy on the gas and remembered all the advice ever given to me about staying un-stuck. “Don’t stop, don’t floor it, don’t worry.”
The advice is worth noting too, if you’re say, trying to raise money to find a cure for skin cancer. I arrived late and didn’t get a chance to do much fishing, but on the 4th I’ll be fishing one of the world’s best bass lakes, and hey, is there a better way to celebrate?
It’s admittedly been a slow start to the trip and the fish pictures aren’t pouring in as fast as I’d hoped. I’m re-thinking my game plan and how best to get at bass every minute. The words of a fellow Irishman are echoing in my mind.
If that approach could win Samuel Beckett a Nobel Prize, it might be worth applying to these deep-water, finicky Florida largemouths in the summer. And if the Irish are good at anything, it’s romanticizing failure. My mother’s side of the family are Gillorens (after county Killorglin in Ireland) and on my father’s mother’s side it’s McCabes so I must have some of that poetry somewhere.
And bringing what we can offer and contributing it on a larger scale to be a part of a sum total is what this country’s all about. But more about that on the 4th… and hopefully bass.
So, although the road’s bumpier and darker than I expected it to be at the outset, I’m plugging along, foot softly on the gas. If I don’t stop or put the pedal down, if I keep crawling forward, despite failure, as Mr. Beckett would say… I’ll eventually get where I’m going. And then, if nothing else, at least I’ll know where that is. And next time I’m on Rodman, I’ll for sure contact the guys at Bass Online so that these pictures are of fish, not just dirt.
One angler's attempt to strike back against skin cancer.