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.
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 was fishing on Fire Island with a friend this past spring, heaving a bucktail into a beautiful churning surf, when… about 50 yards out, the bucktail stopped cold.
“This is it,” I thought. “This is the 20-pound striped bass I’ve been waiting for. This is the fish that I’ve dreamt of, the fish that I’ve driven miles for, the fish that I woke up before sunrise for.”
Seconds after the rod bent, I knew something was wrong. I wasn’t snagged on bottom, but it wasn’t a fighting fish at the end of the line. Whatever I was pulling in was coming in slowly and awkwardly. I thought at first that it must have been a clump of mung or seaweed.
Five minutes later, I had my answer. I’d somehow snagged a skate in the surf and I even brought it to the beach.
At the time I was, as you can imagine, terribly disappointed. We had caught striped bass to 20 pounds on Fire Island, we’d run into bluefish blitzes where we’d caught and released dozens of fish, many more than 10 pounds. But as I look back I can’t help but laugh. What are the odds that, casting from a beach, I’d hit with a bucktail, a skate on the ocean’s floor, hook it, and even manage to bring it to the beach?
As we sat on the back deck of his cabin between tides, we Googled “eating skate,” just to see if there was any precedent for actually targeting, keeping and cooking this species.
When the weekend was over and I returned on the ferry back to mainland Long Island and then back to Boston, the sentiment of disappointment (despite one small bluefish that we killed, kept and ate, I might add) subsided.
I’d snagged a skate in the surf: Something that I’d never done before or even thought was possible. And more importantly, I was out there, hip-deep in the crashing Atlantic, doing something that I loved.
As I prepare to head back down for the annual Fall trip, I’m still hoping we run into a bluefish blitz or that stripers are pushing bait right up onto the beach.
But… I’m not cursing the skate. It was an experience, a story. How lucky was I, how lucky are we, just to be out there, doing something we love, especially in such a beautiful place?
How foolish does it seem to consider a lack of cooperating fish, or the target species in any event, as “bad luck”? Being diagnosed with an incurable illness? Being the victim of the violence that’s sadly becoming more prevalent in our country? That… THAT is “bad luck.”
Roaming a beach, heaving a bucktail into a beautiful sunrise? That’s a winning lottery ticket whether we realize it or not. And fish? Fish will come and go, and if we’re out there enough, we’ll get our share, or more than our share if we’re “lucky.”
But I always wonder: “What if I were brought up in a household where I was never exposed to this stuff, never got an appreciation for it? What if I lived in a country where this type of activity or passion wasn’t even feasible?” “What if I hadn’t met other people who share the same enthusiasm for the sport?”
All of which got me to thinking: Whether it’s a blitz or a seemingly fish-less ocean that you’re dragging a lure through… whether it’s 65 degrees and sunny or 45 degrees and pouring rain… whether you’re using the latest G. Loomis GLX rod and a Van Staal reel or a decade-old, banged-up, Walmart-bought rod and a rusty Penn reel…
If you’re out there, if you’re in it, immersed in the natural beauty of the environment and the excitement of the sport… you’re “lucky.” Damn lucky.
I was having a discussion with a friend about the ways that we’ve seen the sport and the industry change over the years, and there’s seemingly now, more than ever, a push to make fishing “cool.”
Now, ‘cool,’ might be the most ambiguous word in the english language, so I’ll try to clarify: There seems to be a push to illustrate the sport in a certain light where how you look, dress and approach the sport… matters.
If ‘cool,’ is anything, it’s a look, a style and an approach. Without the right glasses, nostalgic band t-shirt, haircut or certain amount of stubble, you could never hope to be ‘cool.’
It got me thinking about the sport and why I love it, and likely why many of us do… And the foremost reason that I came up with was that, because on the water, you don’t have to be anything that you’re not.
I’ll be upfront for the sake of honesty and journalistic integrity here… in high school I was cut from the baseball team. Twice. I didn’t even dare try out for football, and the only basketball games that I played in were held on my driveway with the neighborhood gang and chalk lines drawn to mark the 3-point range. I was on the bowling team, okay? The bowling team did not make cuts.
I was in Honor Society, took A.P. classes and walked our golden retriever every night. Get the picture? ‘Cool,’ I was not.
But once the Upstate New York snow melted in late April, I’d fish every night that I could get a ride to the water. When I turned 16 and got an Uncle’s hand-me-down Chevy Beretta (if you don’t know what that car is, please refrain from telling me so), it was: “Home from school, rods in the back, down to the water.” And it’s probably worth noting here… these weren’t epic adventures to “River-Runs-Through-it” rivers…
I fished primarily in two places. The first was a small creek that ran behind a factory in a nearby town. Sauquoit Creek is never more than 12 feet wide or 7 feet feet deep, but it had enough water to hold stocked trout.
The second place was a golf course pond that was stocked with largemouth bass. Again, the pond was about 100 yards long and 30 yards wide, and if there was a fish in there that weighed more than four pounds, I never caught it. But I loved both places.
When you’re a teenager, high school is either the greatest place in the world, or one of the more difficult ones, and for me it was usually the latter. Don’t get me wrong, I had a handful of friends, and I’m grateful to still be close to most of them to this day, but I wasn’t up for Homecoming King or playing quarterback on the football team… not by a long shot.
On the water, wearing an old pair of swim trunks and sandals, you didn’t have to be anything other than exactly who you were.
You could take in the peace and quiet, admire a few fish if you were lucky, and learn about them slowly over the years and the seasons as you experimented with different baits and approaches during different times of the year.
The best part about the water was for me, and still is, that you can be absolutely who you are. And if you spend enough time there, you’ll even start to become that person everywhere else.
I think one clear and definite sign that we’ve started down the wrong path is when we lose the ability to laugh at ourselves. Don’t get me wrong, I’m serious about my attempt to start a magazine you’ll love, and you can help me here, and I think it’s incumbent upon us all to address the evils (like melanoma) that enter our lives, but if we can’t laugh, then I think we’ve lost something essential. When you’re sleeping in your Jeep in parking lots, attempting to raise money to find a cure for skin cancer, or soliciting help to that end… it’s easy to get lost in your head and become a little more serious than anyone should be. Moments like these, I assume, were God reminding me to slow down, take a breath, and laugh out loud.
Seattle Wader Thief: My first attempt at a far-reaching, country-wide fishing expedition came thanks to Outdoor Life, who got behind my project Fish America. I was in Seattle, fishing with a great angler and artist named Chris Senyohl, and we were putting on waders before casting a few flies into Puget Sound. Chris and a friend had brought a black lab along for the trip, and it stole a wader boot I hadn’t yet put on. If you can picture me half-running and half-hopping, chasing a dog with my boot in his mouth, you might laugh as hard as everyone else was until the dog finally got tired and dropped the boot.
Embarrassed by Clarence: On that same trip I had the amazing, unforgettable opportunity to fish with E-Street Band saxophone player Clarence Clemons in the Florida Keys. Now, this would be an intimidating prospect for anyone… but at the time I was already a Bruce zealot. I’d been to more than ten shows, dragged friends, family and borderline-complete-strangers to shows, and… for better or worse, gotten Springsteen’s now-legendary Fender Esquire guitar tattooed inside of my right arm. Chris Miller, the guide with whom we were fishing, had seen the tattoo. When we finally made it out from Islamorada with Clarence and his brother, a storm came up and forced us inside. Rain beat down on the boat as we sat around waiting for it to pass. Clemons told stories that involved people like Keith Richards, who you constantly had to remind yourself was… yes… “the” Keith Richards, and I for the most part kept my mouth shut. Then, someone remembered the tattoo… Chants of “Show him!” started up as I looked for places in the boat to hide. Finally, I rolled up my long sleeve and Clarence started cracking up, recognizing the image immediately. When he caught his breath, he finally said: “You did that to yourself… you DID THAT TO YOURSELF!”
Have you Seen My Phone?: On that same journey, at the end of the night, if weather allowed, I’d typically climb onto the top of my Jeep Wrangler, in whatever parking lot I was living in, and try to take in a moment to appreciate my good fortune, look at the stars, and call home to assure my family that, yes, I was still alive. I’d then say a prayer that I wasn’t discovered by any law enforcement figures in the middle of the night, crawl into the back of the Jeep, and try to get a few hours sleep. One morning, when I woke up, I couldn’t find my phone anywhere. Frantic, I emptied the Jeep before I drove back to the marina where I’d fished the day before and scoured the parking lot. I asked inside if anyone had found an Android phone. Keep in mind this was my one connection… back home… to guides who I’d hoped would help later on in the journey. It had all my saved numbers and a number of photos from the road. I emptied the entire inside of the Jeep and was frantic and distraught at the prospect of having lost it. I opened my laptop, sent an e-mail back home that I’d lost the phone, drove to the marina where I was set to fish the next day, and tried to sleep that night. When I awoke the next morning I climbed on top of the Jeep to grab a rod from the Thule rack where I’d been keeping them… and there it was. The phone had somehow, despite two trips down different roads, stayed on the top of the Jeep.
Bison Encounter: If you drive through Yellowstone Park in Montana in December, you’ll notice two things. First, you’ll likely be the only human being driving down the one remaining open road, and secondly, bison are a lot, lot larger-looking up close than they appear on television. When you pay to enter the park you’re given a tag to hang on your mirror to show that you’d paid the fee. Driving through the park, I stopped and wondered if it’d be alright to get a little closer to the aforementioned bison for a photo. It was about 0 degrees and there wasn’t another human being in sight. I pulled to the side of the road, grabbed my SLR, and cautiously took a few steps in the direction of a monstrous bison, that stared at me without an ounce of fear or trepidation. I took a few shots and got back in the Jeep and continued through the park. You know where it tells you, EXPLICITLY, not to exit your vehicle in the presence of bison? Yep, on the back of that tag hanging from my windshield.
I’ve been lucky to take two trips since that first adventure, and now they have the purpose, thanks to all of our sponsors, of raising money to find a cure for melanoma. I suppose since those four examples came from the first trip… I might speculate that I’m getting a little…
If you ask 10 different people about tattoos, you’ll likely get ten different answers, ranging from the inked aristocrat who believes that they’re art to the conservative person who believes that they’re a regrettable and passing fad. I’ll not weigh in on where I stand (although it might be obvious) but I’ll share the story of mine, save one, and I’d love to hear yours.
Catch a Cure: I’ll start with my most recent, a fishing hook through the melanoma ribbon on my left hand. Rick Roth is a guy who designed the T-shirts we’ve been selling to raise funds for the Melanoma Research Foundation, and the design he put over the back shoulder was so cool, I decided to have it tattooed on me permanently. I didn’t know when I made that decision that the guys at Miami Ink. would donate half the cost for the tattoo to the MRF, but it was a great addition to the story.
Zane Grey: When I first read the Zane Grey quote, “The lure of the sea is the same strange magic that makes men love what they fear,” I knew it articulated a sentiment about the sea that I’d had for almost my entire life, and better than I ever might.
The Hold Steady: The Hold Steady is a band that I love, and one of their songs contains the lyric: “Heaven is whenever, we can get together.” When I lost my Dad I thought a lot more about what heaven might be like, and came to the conclusion that if… all it was was seeing those who’d gone before us, that’d be as good as it might be.
Bruce: I’ve been a Springsteen fanatic for more than a decade now, and having his Telecaster with the sneakers hanging from the headstock (an image pulled from the back of an album) was a logical decision when it came to choosing the next tattoo.
Pearl Jam (1): I once drove for 14 hours from New Jersey to Wisconsin to see Pearl Jam play their 20th anniversary concert. Suffice it to say, I love Pearl Jam. Perhaps my favorite song is “Given to Fly” and so I had those lyrics, with a feather pen containing the ‘Given to’ and writing ‘Fly’ on my hand, tattooed on me when it became evident I’d be a Pearl Jam fan for life.
Pearl Jam (2): One thing that we learn as we get older, is that try though we might, we can’t control every aspect of our lives. That lesson came hard to me, but it finally did. Pearl Jam’s song ‘Release,’ is about Eddie Vedder losing his father, so the lyrics “I’ll ride this wave where it takes me” around the famous stickman from the Alive single seemed like a logical conclusion for my inner right arm.
Ireland: ‘Bach’ might not sound Irish, but my ancestors are almost all from the Emerald Isle. My mother came from a long line of Gillorens (after Killorglin County, Ireland) and my father’s mother’s side were McCabes. My first tattoo was the Irish words for ‘Hope,’ ‘Love,’ ‘Faith,’ and ‘Strength’ on my right shoulder, around a cross with a shamrock at the center. Muinin, Gra, Dochas and Neart… in case you were wondering.
Striped Bass: When I was an intern at Field & Stream, now-Fishing Editor Joe Cermele helped design my second tattoo, a striped bass over a nautical star. Suffice it to say I’ve loved stripers for the two decades that I’ve been chasing (and sometimes catching) them.
The Red Sox: I got the Boston ‘B’ when I moved to Boston. ‘Nough said, right?
Writing: One of my favorite bands is a group from New Jersey called the Gaslight Anthem. In a song called “Handwritten,” they sing: “From heart to limb to pen, every word handwritten.” I’ve loved to write for as long as I can remember, so having lyrics from a band that I love articulate a sentiment about writing seemed only logical.
Redfish: When I was a kid, we used to vacation in Florida and the house we’d rent was on a saltwater canal. Throwing a shrimp-tipped jig from dawn to dusk might get a hit from any number of species from ladyfish to jacks, but the one that kept me casting was redfish. I’ve been lucky to catch them in every state where they swim, but when I caught a 30-plus-pound red with Emerson classmate and friend James Spica, I knew it was time for a redfish tattoo. I have the redfish tail, with a bit of blue at the tip (a coloration they get from an oyster diet), and the signature black false eye.
Foo Fighters: Again, Dave Grohl has produced some of my favorite music in the past twenty years, but it took me about that long to understand the lyrics “Times like these you learn to live again.” During a period of my life when I was…. learning to live again, I had those lyrics, around the now famous double F, tattooed on my forearm.
One More: My father was a man of few words, but one thing he said to me that I’ll remember forever, whether it was regarding push-ups, hours of work, or attempts at something you cared about… was: “Do as many as you can, and then one more.” When he was diagnosed with melanoma in 2010, I had those words tattooed on my arm. He kept fighting, one more day, week and month, long after doctors predicted the disease would beat him. And I’ll keep fighting, in his memory, to raise one more dollar to beat the disease that took his life, once and for all.
It’s easy to look and someone and pass judgement based on appearance, and we’re all guilty of this at times, but if that’s going to be the case, I’d at least like to share the story and the inspiration underlying the ink. So there it is.
Any fishing, cancer-battling, or musically inspired tattoos out there? I’d love to hear about ’em.
One angler's attempt to strike back against skin cancer.