Category Archives: Heroes

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.

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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.

 

 

 

In Memory of Tolkien

TolkienSome research revealed that on this day in 1973, at age 81, the world lost one of its greatest writers, J.R.R. Tolkien. What, one might ask, does this have to do with fishing or curing cancer?

Any number of fantasy-inspired stories have been written or told over the ages, but Lord of the Rings has survived and thrived better than almost any other. In fact, as of 2010, the Lord of the Rings has sold more than 150 million copies. The few books that have topped that on the all-time list are ones like… The Bible.

When Peter Jackson brought the epic adventure to the big screen, the final installment, The Return of the King, grossed more than 1.1 billion in worldwide box-office sales.

Tolkien lost his father at only 3 years old and while he spent his earliest years living in Africa, he’d later return to England, where he’s most known and loved.

I fell in love with Tolkien, and all things Lord of the Rings, in middle school. I even feigned illness and skipped a class one day to finish reading The Return of the King. 

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve thought about his work more, and why it has become such a universally endearing, seemingly timeless story in our culture.

Scholars have poured over his life and work, and anything I might write about the man and his stories has almost certainly been written before. But as a fan, a reader and a writer, I’ll do my best to remember him on the day the world lost him.

I think, more than any other single factor, it was the nature of his epic adventures that made them so universally endearing. Yes, he had an incredible imagination, he was a fantastic writer and his ability to weave poems and songs into his work is almost unparalleled.

But he did something that perhaps only a man who lived through his era could: He set before his heroes a task of seemingly insurmountable difficulty. Tolkien was a Second Lieutenant in 1915 in the First World War, so the type of evil he wrote into his stories isn’t something he had to create wholly from his imagination, he saw plenty of it on the battlefield.

During his time fighting he endured everything from trench warfare to lice-delivered disease, but unlike many of his friends, he survived to return home.

I have no doubt that the evil of war that he encountered served as a great inspiration in the works he’d go on to create.

What I loved and love most about the Lord of the Rings was the nature of the quest set before the heroes. There’s not a page in the books where you feel, for a second, that a hobbit has a chance at completing the task set before him. From the minute Frodo leaves the Shire, you can’t help but think that he’s undertaken a journey without a hint of hope. But a journey he must undertake nevertheless.

Even, for his part, Frodo never seems to see his task as a possible one. He understands, however, that it’s not a burden he can pass along or a responsibility he can neglect.

Tolkien’s ability to instill the nature of the mission into the reader, his talent at conveying the sheer hopelessness of the mission, is what makes the entire ordeal so inspiring in the first place. No task, mission or journey is more admirable than one taken on without a hint of hope, one born of obligation that necessitates sacrifice.

And perhaps there’s even some inspiration to be drawn from type of mission.

It is impossible, and unthinkable, that any one person might undertake or attempt any journey that would end with cancer’s eradication. The very notion that any of us might attempt this is laughable.

But for all of us affected by its evil, the journey is one, each in our own way, we must undertake. If Frodo passed along the ring, or gave it up, or threw it away, he’d be relieved of the burdensome task put before him. Tolkien, too, could have found a way to avoid the war. Neither did.

Both fictional and historical figures understood that whatever stand we can make against an evil that exists in our lifetimes, that threatens to affect our lives and the lives of loved ones, is one that we must make.

If we say that a growing evil on the horizon, whether it’s cancer, Sauron’s armies,  or a threatening enemy, is “not our problem,” then we allow all those around us to do the same with our example.

And evil, disease and death will exist as long as humanity does, but the only truly dangerous thing for any and all of us is complacency, is indifference.

On my best day I will never be the writer that Tolkien was on his worst, so I’ll leave you with his words rather than mine: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

Image: Huffington Post

The Guys at BassOnline: The Best

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Steve Niemoeller of BassOnline shows off the trip’s biggest fish no the St. Johns River in Florida.

I’ve tagged on Facebook, thanked and thanked again the guys at BassOnline in Florida for their help with both Catch a Cure I and II, and still every day I find myself thinking: “What more can I do? How can I demonstrate how much of a difference these guys made in this project and in my life?”

When I set out on the second Catch a Cure, after sending e-mails to everyone in the iCast catalog to see what sponsorship or contributions I could solicit for the Melanoma Research Foundation, truthfully I had no idea if it’d work. For all of our planning, effort and hope, a lot of any attempt or endeavor boils down to faith, luck and persistence.

I knew that I could crash in the Jeep or find the most “interesting” (see: cheap) possible motels on the road. In South Carolina it came down to grabbing every card from nearby tackle shops and just dialing number after number until I finally found Brian Roberts, an incredibly kind and cool guy who helped me explore the freshwater rivers flowing into Winyah Bay. Roberts is an aspiring entrepreneur himself and is trying to get his “Keeper Reeper Jigs” on the market.

In Oklahoma it was still February when I arrived before the Bassmaster Classic, and while I’m used to freezing temperatures in my native Upstate New York and adopted home of Boston, fishing on open water in February in Oklahoma was a new experience for me.

But when I got to Florida to pre-fish the tournament on the St. Johns River, the BassOnline crew, for the second time that year, were more helpful than I ever could have imagined or asked them to be.

These guys had almost single-handedly made Catch a Cure I possible, and for a second time, they saved the trip.

A great deal of this effort is done behind the scenes, e-mailing potential sponsors like the great people at Native Eyewear, Get Vicious Fishing and Sunology Sunscreen to get backing. For every sponsor that gets on board, there are a dozen who, understandably, can’t. And it just takes faith and persistence to keep reaching out until you find the people who can help.

The guys at Bassonline, though, didn’t hesitate for a second to help this trip and effort in every way that they could. Steve Niemoeller is a combination of one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met and one of the best anglers, too. He is completely responsible for the largest fish (a bass of about 4 pounds) that I encountered anywhere on either journey. While we fished he offered several insightful ideas on how, if the project was repeated, it could garner even more support.

Brett Isackson understands the Florida fishery so well, he even invented a snake-like rubber lure to take advantage of the biggest bass that were feasting on snakes in the Sunshine State.

Todd Kersey will absolutely amaze you with Florida’s (relatively) newfound peacock bass fishery if you give him the chance. I’ll never forget Todd and his wife putting me on an incredible peacock bass bite on Catch a Cure I.

All of which is to say, if you ever get the chance, please do yourself a favor and fish with these guys. There are no guarantees in fishing, but I’d bet everything I’ve got that you’ll have a fantastic time, catch more than a few fish, and… like I am now… you’ll be wondering how quickly you can return to give it another shot.

Best of All He Loved the Fall

Hemingway's Grave.
Blood from scraped knuckles digging up Hemingway’s grave in Idaho in 2010.

In today’s world, we’re inundated with the emotions, and everyday thoughts, of almost everyone in our “social network,” which is becoming a term that’s less and less clearly defined.

As August fades into September, we’re bound to see those people who are mourning summer’s end. Kids will shuffle back to the bus stops, the sunsets will come a little earlier every day.

One of my favorite passages that I’ve ever read came from a eulogy that Ernest Hemingway gave for a friend, Gene Van Guilder. Everything that Hemingway has ever said or written has been analyzed to death, and this one is no exception. Some scholars speculate that the words that he spoke were ones that he intended as much for himself as he did the late Van Guilder. Hemingway was only 40 at the time he delivered the eulogy. He still had a Nobel and Pulitzer-Prize winning novel to write (The Old Man and the Sea). He still had a plane crash to survive in 1954, a crash that some have speculated caused him a pain that made writing (the one constant throughout his life) more difficult to do than it was ordinarily for him.

He still had marlin to chase in the Gulf Stream, lions to hunt in Africa and characters and places to immortalize with words.

But there is an underlying sense both of hope and enormous, perhaps even insurmountable, struggle in almost everything Hemingway has written. The one defines, and necessitates, the other.

What made him, in my opinion, such an important, memorable and significant writer in American history was his ability to have a feeling for what defined masculinity, strength and courage, all without losing his sensitivity to the simple, yet beautiful parts of life that hide in the details.

I don’t know that there’s a passage of his that combines those two elements better than his words for Van Guilder did, and as we head down the home stretch of summer, I thought I’d share them with those of you who haven’t already found them yourselves:

“Best of all he loved the fall… The fall with the tawny and grey, leaves yellow on the cottonwoods, leaves floating on the trout streams, and above the hills the high blue windless skies. He loved to shoot, and he loved to ride and he loved to fish.”

Top Five Fish Moments… Ever

249672_10100122227052856_2624335_nAny day you get to spend on the water, especially with family or friends, deserves to be among some of your best when all is said and done. But for most of us, a few stand out above the rest, these are mine, and here’s why.

The Summer Before the Real World Started: It was my last summer of college at Syracuse University. I’d worked all year completing a triple-major while covering Syracuse sports for a website and working as a manager at the Fund for Syracuse. After that it’d be down to New York City for an internship with Field & Stream, up to On The Water to copy edit, a trip for Outdoor Life that entailed sleeping in a Jeep and fishing 36 of the lower 48, and a year-plus of full-time content creation for a site called GoFISHn. On the final day of that vacation I did what I’d done for most every day prior, when the weather allowed: I waded the Brewster flats. The day prior a car door had severed the 7’6″ G. Loomis rod I’d typically used to fish the flats, so I was toting a 6’6″ freshwater spinning rod. I couldn’t sit out the last day. Casting a pink Slug-Go over a 20-foot-deep channel almost a mile off the  beach, I hooked and landed a 17-pound striped bass on 14-pound-test braided line. The way in which everything came together perfectly made for a moment that I’ll never forget.

Bluefish Blitz: I’ve written about how fortunate I’ve been to fish with long-time friend and former college roommate Curt Dircks on Fire Island almost every Spring and Fall. But in 2011, we stumbled into a dawn bluefish blitz the likes of which I haven’t seen since. Blues to 13 pounds were crushing anything that hit the water. Seeing my then-girlfriend land her biggest bluefish from the surf was a moment I’ll never forget. We couldn’t bring a plug back to the sand without a giant bluefish attached, and the blitz lasted for almost an hour. We released most of them, kept a few for the grill, and felt like we were on cloud 9 for the rest of the day.

40 Pounds of Striped Bass: Fishing with F&S Fishing Editor Joe Cermele in 2011, live-lining bunker, we hooked and landed a striped bass that weighed all of 40 pounds. It was a slow day with a heavy fog on the water until that fish started peeling line, but the minute it did, everything changed. Just this past year I finally had a replica of the fish made, which I can’t wait to hang in my tiny apartment.

Passing the Torch: On those same Brewster flats, I saw my younger cousin, Dylan Wheelock, catch his first striper when he was barely 13. We’d both grown up in Upstate New York, a landlocked place that makes saltwater seem all the more magical. Dylan and his mom were sharing a summer vacation with our family on Cape Cod, and he got the hang of striper fishing right away, despite being barely older than I was when I started wading the flats. Catching a fish in a perfect situation is the second-best thing you can hope for when you hit the water. Seeing a friend or family member discover the magic of a place or a species is the first.

Largemouth Magic: On weekend evenings after he’d get home from the office, my father and I would head to the golf course when I was in high school. The course had a pond that, thanks to a fellow fisherman who was a member, was stocked with largemouth bass for a few years. My Dad would play the 13th hole, a short Par 3 over the water, on repeat to work on his short game while I cast Jitterbugs, Texas-rigged soft plastics and stickbaits into the adjacent pond. The hole and the pond were just far enough apart where he might not hear me hollering with delight, so it took some convincing, one night, when fading summer light forced us back into the car, to get him to believe that I’d caught and released more than 40 fish… but he finally did.

I’ll always remember that car ride home. It was perfect.

A Life Story: Told in Tattoos

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The guys at Miami Ink in Florida donated the cost of this tattoo to the Melanoma Research Foundation.

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.

“Bruuuuce!”: Inspired by the Boss

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Fishing with Clarence Clemons in 2010.

I recently purchased two tickets to see Bruce Springsteen at Gillette Stadium in September. They’re the kind of seats that… well, let’s just say we’ll be in the same zip code as Mr. Sprinsgteen, and I’ll leave it at that.

I’ve been friends with some great Springsteen fans along the way. My roommate from Syracuse University and one of my best friends from childhood, Andrew Fillipponi, turned me onto Springsteen originally. Gerry Bethge is the fishing editor at Outdoor Life who afforded me an opportunity many would kill for, fishing the entire country, and he’s the kind of Springsteen fan that I’m sure knows things about Bruce’s music that Bruce doesn’t even know.

My half-brother, Raymond Bach, was with me at Clarence Clemons’ last show in Buffalo, New York, and has fanned the flames of my Springsteen dedication over the years with thoughts of his own on everything Springsteen (like most educated music fans, he prefers the early stuff). He knows music, too… he’s a lyricist in his own right.

I’ve tried to turn a Springsteen concert into a date, an anniversary present for a significant other, a birthday present… you name it, I’ve used every excuse in the book to see Bruce.

I’ve even had the chance to fish with Bruce’s late saxophone player, Clarence Clemons. We were off the Keys, fishing for snapper and grouper when a thunderstorm snuck up, waves rocked the boat, Clarence tipped and I held him up. That’s one of those surreal moments that has you muttering “If I never do anything else for the rest of my life…”

Of the 13 Springsteeen shows I’ve been blessed to attend, I’ve gone with six different people, but this time I’m taking the person who has shared my Bruce fanaticism more than anyone since the beginning.

In one of Springsteen’s lesser known songs, The Wish, he sings about someone who we don’t often hear about in Rock n’ Roll songs.

There’s plenty of songs about future girlfriends, former girlfriends, a few about fathers, some about bosses, and a handful about crazy friends.

But if we’re honest, there’s one person to whom we owe everything that we’ve got in this world, and if you’ve got two tickets to Bruce, she’s the one you should ask first.

Despite sleeping in a Jeep for 200 nights, getting tattooed from neck to knuckle, fishing with a rock star, and getting paid to do what most people only dream about, I still owe everything I’ve got to two people, and only one is still with us: My Mom.

So we’ll be in attendance come September, to see Bruce one more time.