This past year I moved to Upstate New York to be closer to family, and because, well… Boston is an expensive place to live if you’re working with a marine artist who has seasonal hours. If you haven’t, please check out Joe Higgins’ work at fishedimpressions.com.
It was tremendous timing and luck, because just as I arrived back at the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains in Mohawk Valley, Bass Pro Shops was hiring a full-time sales associate in the fishing department.
I applied, was hired, was teased about living in a jeep for my first few months there, but have become a member of an incredible team of people.
If you’re reading this blog, chances are you’ve visited at Bass Pro Shops, and have some familiarity with the nature of the chain. Working behind the scenes is a little different.
During a typical week, we’ll be there between half an hour and an hour and a half before the doors open to the public. We’ll unload and run between one and three trucks ranging from 200-700 pieces. We’ll run the carts of backstock to make sure that every item any hunter or angler might be looking for is available to them. We’ll hold meetings to see what products we can get in that customers are asking for, we’ll field phone calls and questions that can come at a frantic pace, and we’ll help other departments however we can.
On any given day we might be having a fish finder shipped from a nearby store for a customer, sending out a rod for repair, spooling up dozens of reels, giving seminars on how to target local species, or … my favorite part, feeding the largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, sturgeon, crappie and trout that mesmerize visiting kids in the store’s enormous aquarium.
But the most fascinating part about working at the store are the stories. Rarely does a day go by where I don’t hear about incredible fisheries we’re fortunate to have in the Northeast, from Hudson-river stripers to St. Lawrence muskie.
I’ve had anglers invite me fishing, make and frame flies for me, give innumerable suggestions on places to visit, and share their stories about a life spent in pursuit of fish, beauty and adventure.
In all honesty I can say that I love almost every aspect of the job, the constant motion, the daily learning, the feeling of putting a new rod or reel into the hands of a fisherman who worked and saved for something they’ll treasure…
But the most inspiring part is a realization that first occurred to me as a teenager, then again as a twenty-something sleeping in a Jeep to fish the country (or as much of it as I could, thanks to the guys at Outdoor Life, Gerry Bethge specifically), then as a grad student fishing to raise money for melanoma research, and now again as a young adult: the community of anglers that you’ll find in any given location in the United States is a passionate, decent, altruistic and sincere one, and one that I’m grateful to be a part of.
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.
Any 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.
Now, undoubtedly this is going to be a controversial topic, and largely a location-dependent argument (and I’ll stipulate that I’m only discussing the Northeast here), but since the internet was born to, above all other things, spark, fuel and then fan the flames of debate, I’ll go ahead and strike this argumentative match by claiming that May is the greatest month to be an angler. Now at this point you’re either thinking: “Yep, he’s right… for once…” or, “Hold on there buddy!” For those of you in the latter crowd, allow me to make my argument, and keep in mind this is coming from a guy who has spent 28 of his 30 years living in either Massachusetts, New Jersey or Upstate New York. Without further ado, May is the best month because…:
Striped Bass: Yes, it’s true, some stripers arrive to the Northeast in April. Holdover fish become more active in the rivers, and in the latter parts of the month states like New Jersey, where I lived for almost two years, will begin seeing what anglers call “fresh fish,” or migratory fish that, being smarter than the anglers chasing them, spent the winter off the coast of Virginia or North Carolina. But I’d be surprised if any serious striper fisherman considered April a “striper month.” May, however, is a different story. It’s in May that we begin to see those first full-on blitzes off the beach where schools of fish are crashing sand eels or bunker. If you were at a bar discussing the month’s exploits with a bunch of striper guys in the Northeast, and admitted you hadn’t hit the water in April, you might get some cross looks from anglers questioning your commitment. If, however, you said the same thing at the end of May, you’d immediately be shown the door.
Bluefish: Go ahead and curse them all you want, and I won’t even touch on their taste when grilled, but if you can tell me that you’re above bailing bluefish on the beach when they’re blitzing at your feet, then you’re far too good for my social circle. Legend has it that the bluefish show up on Cape Cod on Mother’s Day, and while they’re not always punctual, that’s usually a pretty accurate prediction. I’ve caught a few stripers in the surf, but by far my favorite surf memories are of days when you couldn’t get a plug back to the beach without a bluefish stuck to it.
Largemouth Bass: Here, we have a fish that anglers might not consider a “May” fish, because they’re typically in the Northeast considered more of a summer species. But for all intents and purposes, we’re just seeing the final ice come off the water in April, and May offers the first real shot at spending a comfortable day on the water in pursuit of bass. And show me an angler who doesn’t like largemouth fishing and I’ll show you a liar.
Trout: Here again, April is the month when anglers celebrate this fish, but May is the month we have the best shot at catching them. Don’t get me wrong, April 1 in my native Upstate New York is like a fisherman’s Christmas. The popular trout streams and rivers are as crowded as they’ll ever be. But, if you subjected anyone to a Northeast winter, and especially an Upstate New York one, for as long as we usually get them, it doesn’t take much to get us excited just at the prospect of being outside. When I was about 15, I had an opening day of trout season that might echo the sentiments a lot of my fellow Upstate New Yorkers have about the season’s first weeks. I was wading Nine Mile Creek with two cousins when I took a wrong step, and, in hip waders, took a spill into water that had only recently become something liquid, instead of solid. Drenched and shivering, I sat in a friend’s old station wagon, which couldn’t run too long without overheating, and blasted the heat for 10-minute intervals before killing the engine for as long as I could stand. Whether or not my cousins fished longer than they otherwise might have just to make me tough it out, I’ll never know. But your optimism about the opening of trout season leaves your body a lot faster when your body heat is also escaping through soaked skin, I can tell you that much. In late May, however, I’d wade similar creeks by my house in sandals and a bathing suit, and even be upset when the sun finally sank and I had to retreat home.
So, while every 24 hours we get through after that first snow flies is a blessing bringing us closer to another warm-weather fishing season, it’s May 1 that I really celebrate the season’s beginning. And no matter the excitement that June, July and August might bring, we can’t help but thinking that we’re slowly getting closer to snow with each passing day. May, however, we can steal, savor and soak in. I intend to, and I hope you do too.
Thanks to the people at B.A.S.S., Tyler Wade especially, this past trip had a dual purpose. The first, which I’ve no doubt bored you with to death, was to use the generosity of our sponsors (Get Vicious, Native Eyewear, Sunology, Rick Roth at Mirror Image and our original sponsor, Buff) to deliver a roundhouse kick to melanoma, a disease particularly dangerous to outdoorsmen, and one that unfortunately my family has more experience with than we’ve ever wanted. Thank God the people at the Melanoma Research Foundation are working tirelessly to stop this disease in its tracks.
The second was to go town to town, shop to shop, and try to give future readers a chance for us, together, to build a fishing magazine, by asking them exactly what type of magazine they want to read, what magazine they think is missing. With Emerson’s help, I’ve designed a survey to do just that. I couldn’t hit every town with water, but by God I tried. From Oklahoma to Florida, Georgia to South Carolina, the Outer Banks to Delaware and back to my native Northeast, I tried not to pass by a tackle shop without stopping in.
But before we build something, there’s the essential question of: Why? And it’s one I’ve been asking myself since the notion of my own publication first came into my head, probably more than two years ago… initially just the kind of crazy dream you have that won’t leave you alone.
There are objective reasons. I believe we’ve seen quality, print fishing content become more scarce for a number of reasons. The recession hit boat manufacturers especially hard, and since much of the fishing content we read is supported by ad dollars from boat companies, we did see a lot of the content we loved come close to vanishing.
So, why another fishing magazine? Part of it, certainly, is that I think there’s a type of fishing content that doesn’t get the attention it deserves. We see a lot of great content about trout and salmon fishing in the fly-fishing magazines, bass fishing gets its share of coverage, and magazines like Marlin and Sport Fishing do a great job of depicting the beauty of offshore fishing. But for us inshore, conventional guys, without the money for a boat, and especially those of us who love the southern coastal states like North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia… there’s less content than I think we’d like to see.
But I’d be remiss to leave out the essential factor that is at the heart of this mission. From about age 9 or 10, when our father, or an aunt or uncle, first shows us how to make a tepee out of kindling, stuffed with newspaper, and start a fire, we have an inherent and undeniable desire to create something of our own. This desire is more often attributed to men than it is women, but I think that’s an unfair bias that hopefully we as a society are moving away from. Without women, after all, there wouldn’t be any of us to create anything.
And I’d be lying if I said that the desire to create something of my own accord, from scratch, from the ground up, wasn’t a big part of my motivation for trying to build a fishing magazine for you, because it certainly is.
But here’s the thing about building something, whether that’s a fire when you’re 12 or a magazine when you’re 29…
If you build it alone, and just for yourself, whatever meaning it has will be minimal. Of what value is the warmth of a campfire if not shared? It’ll keep you alive, but that’s about it.
I designed this survey, and went town to town, shop to shop, dropping it off… because I want to build this magazine together. I want to share the beauty of this sport, that I’ve loved my whole life, with new friends who feel the same way. I want to create something they’ll love, yes… but I also want their input so that we might build it together. I don’t want to pave a one-way street where I’m delivering you a product that I hope you’ll like. I want a path that goes both ways, where I listen and use what feedback you’re willing to give so that the warmth of a combined love for the sport is all the greater, and so that it grows. I was reminded of this core ideology today when I heard a phrase that I’d heard before, but one that has a new meaning to us at each stage in our lives: “Nobody wins unless everyone wins.”
No matter how beautiful, poignant or intelligent of a magazine I might start… it’d be nothing without readers who enjoyed it and contributed their unique experience toward my continued effort to improve it. They’d have to love it for me to love making it. I couldn’t win unless they, unless you, won by embracing the content I hope to create.
I’d be honored if you’d help, and as always, thanks for reading.
Alright, we’re all for beating melanoma, and thanks to some great sponsors we are making a serious inroads toward that end, but on a lighter note… we need to have fun. That’s why I’ve gathered some great gear for you guys to have a chance at winning on Catch a Cure.
You ready for the rules? Okay. First, go online and fill out this survey:
Now here’s some added incentive: this survey is designed so that I can build you the EXACT fishing magazine that you’re looking for, the one you want to read. It’s short, it’s easy, and ultimately… if you’re honest, it just might result in you getting a fishing magazine you love.
The next part is a suggested donation to the Melanoma Research Foundation. Now… we are not all Donald-Trump rich, and I get that, believe me. So I’m not going to ask you for a “minimum donation,” to be entered. I trust you’ll give what you have. Maybe that’s $1, maybe it’s $10, and maybe it’s $100. I’ll leave that up to you. Here’s where you can do that:
Honestly, even if you just donated a dollar, that’s not going to affect your ability to win these prizes. And hey, if you don’t want to, or can’t afford to donate… I’ll still use your input and feedback to build the magazine, so don’t let that deter you from filling out the survey. And by that same token, if you donate to the MRF and send me a confirmation of that contribution at firstname.lastname@example.org, you’ll be entered to win the prizes anyway. But if you do BOTH, you could win big and have a say in the next great fishing magazine.
A Catch a Cure T-shirt/Sunscreen Package (value: $35)
So, right now you’ve got a little downtime, you’re fooling around online, and what’s that going to get you? At best a laugh, or a “poke,” on Facebook, whatever the hell that is. But what if you took five minutes to fill out this survey? That… THAT might get you a fishing magazine you helped design, and a chance to win a pair of polarized lenses that quite honestly are some of the best that money could buy (and they will only cost you as much as you want to give to a skin-cancer free future)! I’m not asking for a “purchase,” to be eligible, what I’m looking for is something you’ll feel great about doing anyway. And believe me… I can’t wear four pairs of sunglasses and thanks to Rick Roth at Mirror Image T-Shirts in Rhode Island, I have more shirts than I could wear if I changed into a new one every day for the rest of my life. So these prizes are going to someone, and it might as well be you.
And I’ll be building this fishing magazine either way, so you might as well help me make it one you love. Thanks for reading and keep an eye out for more fish, prizes and chances to win.
I have to say, I’ve been a fisherman my whole life, and I’ve always gotten excited and a little bit nervous the night before a trip. But being at the epicenter of the bass fishing universe is something else entirely.
I was checking out Grand Lake O’ The Cherokees near Tulsa, Oklahoma today, where I’ll be getting on the water tomorrow, and absolutely everything was centering around this one event. No matter what store, tackle shop or gas station you walked into, you could feel a tangible enthusiasm about what will be happening there next weekend.
It was like the Christmas Eve of bass fishing, and it felt as though I were at the North Pole. Everyone that walked into a shop, gas station or by a dock was talking about next weekend’s classic.
And it wouldn’t be Christmas-Eve-Special if it weren’t for a few miracles. I’d reached out to guides, hoping one would want to get on the water for a good cause, and I’d been waiting to hear back when…
And he went on to say, and it almost pains me to repeat this… they were on some fat fish that were feeding heavily. Now as a superstitious guy, I am not… repeat: NOT assuming that that will be the case tomorrow.
Having that said, it was good to hear. So I’ve got five alarms set for bright and early tomorrow, and when you hear from me next, I’ll have taken my crack at fishing the lake that all the best professionals will be competing on this weekend.
The rod is rigged, the stage is set… now if only I can get some sleep before this first trip. A heartfelt thank you to everyone who has read or followed my journey this past summer, and this second go-around this winter.
Every “like,” “Share,” or comment I see on a post, blog or Instagram photo reminds me that I am not alone out here fighting melanoma, that I’m a small part of an army of us that each do it in our own way.
From the bottom of my heart… thank you so much, and I’ll check back in tomorrow. – Rick
One angler's attempt to strike back against skin cancer.