Superstition typically isn’t an impactful element in our everyday lives. Sure, we might notice if a black cat walks by, and we might not walk under a latter, but for the most part most of us believe in cause and effect. It helps us navigate an unpredictable world to believe that, with a few exceptions, things happen because other things have happened in the past that set a series of events in motion that caused them.
This belief, however, stops immediately where the water meets the land. I have never met an angler who was not, to some degree, superstitious. And anglers, for the most part, I’ve found, are more superstitious than most. I’ve never met a fisherman who wasn’t aware that bananas are bad luck on boats, but that’s only the most commonly held belief, and there are countless others that vary by region, body of water and individual angler.
I’ll share a few of my good-luck tricks (tactics?) but I’m honestly more interested in hearing about yours.
First and foremost, I always carry two things in the pocket of any pair of pants or shorts that I’m wearing. The first is my father’s watch. It’s a gold Bulova that he wore for decades. My father wasn’t a man who who cared much for flashy attire or stylish clothes, but the watch was a gift that my mother and I gave him when the one he wore finally gave out. He treasured it, and so do I.
My aunt, Bridget Roberts, collects all sorts of antiques, and she has an incredible collection of antique marbles of all sizes and colors. She selected a half-dozen for me a few years back, placed them in a velvet case, and gave them to me. Of course the running joke about “losing your marbles,” has followed me ever since, so I’m sure to keep the physical ones on hand for luck, and to remember that I have a wonderfully crazy family that cares about me.
I have two rings that I’ve found to be relatively lucky: One is a hand-carved ring with ocean waves from the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island, and the other is from a Harley Davidson store in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
This past year I was fishing Fire Island with former college roommate and long-time friend Curt Dircks, and was wearing a new hat I’d bought at a Brian Fallon concert (Fallon is an incredibly talented singer/songwriter if you’re interested in finding some more great music). We’d fished all morning, and most of the evening, without landing a keeper striped bass. The six that I’d caught, despite being undersized, might very well have convinced me that the hat was good luck anyway… but when I caught a 33-inch, 11-pound striper right after last light… any and all doubt about the hat’s powers were erased.
So, whether I’m on the water or not, I’ll typically have the hat, marbles and watch for good luck. What do you carry, and why?
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’ve been fortunate to help out local Salem artist and angler Joe Higgins in his North Shore shop, Tomo’s Tackle this past year, and every time I’m in the shop, I can’t help but think: More people need to know about this beautiful artwork.
Higgins practices an ancient Japanese art form known as gyotaku, where he takes a recently caught fish, places a special type of ink on it, and creates an impression on rice paper. On many, he paints in detail to finish the impression and make it as lifelike as possible.
I don’t speak Japanese, but research suggests that the word ‘gyotaku’ translates literally to something like ‘Fish Reclamation.’ Records show that this art form dates at least back to the 7th century and is probably much older than that.
Before anglers had cameras to capture and share the story of a catch, they had to be slightly more creative. By placing ink on the fish and carefully pressing paper over it, they were able to create a lasting impression to remember their catch after it had been sold or eaten.
Higgins has given this ancient art a new life, and he creates and sells “fish prints” out of Tomo’s Tackle in Salem. His prints are on display and sold in various places throughout Massachusetts, and you can find more information about seeing and perhaps purchasing some prints near you on his site.
The stunning and memorable thing about a gyotaku print is how it almost brings the fish back to life in front of your eyes. With each carefully added detail, Higgins creates an image that is in many ways is more beautiful, alive and unique than a picture of the same fish might be.
Higgins has printed everything from squid to swordfish, and he’s seemingly up for any challenge. I’ve seen prints of false albacore, flounder and even a few redfish come through the shop, and each is fascinating in its own right.
It’s a constant reminder that as fishermen, we’re exposed to more beauty than most, and we shouldn’t take any of it for granted.
I did not, at the time… “plan” to live out of my vehicle when I left. I was working a great job that I was lucky to have, but couldn’t shake the feeling that… there’s an entire country out there of drop-dead gorgeous stuff that… I might never see. I was dealing with some problems that I’ll not get into, but suffice it to say… I felt an urge to move, go, escape, travel… anywhere.
With a bare-bones budget and nothing but a road map full of places that I’d been dreaming about for the better part of 20 years, I put everything that I owned in storage and headed for Maine in late May.
Now… I’d set up trip itinerary of places to fish, things to see and friends I’d had that I wanted to visit, but planning an itinerary for a cross-country road trip is like making a plan for what you’d do if your house caught on fire: It might ease some anxiety prior to the actual event… but rarely is it something you can execute in practice when the time comes.
Prior to that trip, I was a quiet, soft-spoken guy with a lot of anxieties about the little things in life (‘Did I wear this shirt already this week?’ ‘Am I coming down with a cold?’) and to some degree I still am.
But on that trip, more people helped me than I ever could have imagined would prior to undertaking it. Anglers from Maine down to Florida and out to California and up to Oregon had me stay at their houses, introduced me to their families, and took me fishing.
I’ve always been a religious person, although I’ve come up short of that definition more times than I can count… but I’ve always believed in God.
What that trip did, the way it changed me… was that it gave me a faith in other people that I’d not had before then. It also reassured me that you don’t need to know how something is going to work, you just need to keep trying everything and believe that it will. My idea of Divinity changed from some all-powerful master on high watching our every action… to a collection of souls down here on earth that, more often than not, want what is best for not only them… but for all of us as a group, together.
That’s what I brought back from the road, and I carry it with me wherever I go today. It has been a saving grace in the days that were to follow.
I’ve been thinking more, as of late, how fortunate I’ve been to have fallen in love with this sport at a young age, and how grateful I am to have been able to keep at it, albeit to varying degrees, for more than two decades. I’ve thought about how my perception of the water, the time we get to spend on it, and what it means to us, changes over time. I’d like to share that idea with you, and get your thoughts and feedback if you’d be kind enough to share them with me. Here, in my opinion, are the nine stages of becoming a fisherman:
1. That first Fish: No, I’m not talking about the first fish you catch, I’m talking about the first fish that you see caught. Maybe you’re three or four years old, and perhaps it’s an uncle or a cousin or an older friend, but all of a sudden… someone pulls a living thing above the water’s surface. This, for all intents and purposes, can be a life-changing moment. You’re young enough to still believe in magic, and if you have the right pre-disposition, you’ll continue to believe in this particular type of magic for the rest of your life. The idea starts generating in your young mind that, beneath the water’s surface, there’s another world entirely, and with a rod and reel, you might be able to gain access to it.
2. Your First Fish: Some time after that spell is cast, you will put things like a rod, a reel, line, lures… and eventually an 8-foot Pond Prowler, on every birthday or Christmas list for the rest of your life. But first there is that first fish, usually a perch or sunfish or maybe, if you’re lucky, a largemouth bass. But when you first feel connected to that resistance, the tail-shaking, wiggling life at the other end of a line… you’re connected to something that will never let go. It’ll hold onto you inside of office cubicles, in classrooms, in church pews and even while you’re trying to sleep, study or concentrate.
3. Driving your Family Crazy: After that first fish, there’s usually one thing that you want to do after school, during vacations, before school or even on lunch hours in your early years of adolescence. You want to fish. You want to fish all the time. You will call aunts and uncles who you’ve not spoken with in weeks or months to see if they’d like to “Go fishing with you” (see: Take you fishing, because you can’t drive). You will ask parents to drop you off, and leave you for as long as is possible, at ponds, creeks and lakes.
4. The Life-changing Species: We all have a certain species of fish that changed our lives, and for me it was striped bass, caught while taking family vacations to Cape Cod, but this species is different for everyone. For many it’s America’s favorite fish, the largemouth bass, and for others it’s redfish, snook, tarpon or steelhead. But at some point, relatively early on in our progression as a fisherman, we find that species that will be our species for the rest of our lives. We will continue to chase all manner of fish, but this species will always be special.
5. Wheels: We all remember our first car, and mine was a hand-me-down, 1996 Chevrolet Beretta from an Uncle, who, ironically loved to fish himself. If you’re younger than 30, you might not remember the Beretta, which was retired in that very year. It was a sports car for people who didn’t have the budget for a sports car. It was a two-door coupe, and if it wasn’t the least ideal fishing vehicle, it was second on that list only to a bicycle. But you can, if you’re careful, fit one-piece, six-foot rods between the backseat and the windshield, and that’s all that mattered. When you first have a driver’s license, it’s almost incomprehensible to you how much you might fish now, as compared to that same capability in your life prior to that point. Every vehicle you own for the rest of your life will smell something like either bait, low tide or Gulp lures.
6. A Fishing Vehicle: Unless you’re very fortunate, your first vehicle will not be an ideal one for a fishing life. Your second vehicle, however, will almost certainly be. My first fishing truck was a used regular cab Dodge Dakota. The very notion that I now had a six-foot bed that could hold coolers, rods, waders, and tackle was something almost too incredible for a 17-year-old to imagine.
7. Everywhere: After you’ve explored and fished your immediate surroundings, you suddenly develop the urge to fish every body of water on the planet that might harbor any type of life. This desire was born in me when I was 23, and thanks to Outdoor Life Magazine, I had the chance to attempt to fish all of the lower 48. A certain combination of youth, an idealistic outlook, and if you’re lucky, eternal optimism, will make life seem, for you, too short to not fish everywhere as soon as humanly possible.
8. Passing the Torch: One of my favorite fishing memories, of all time, is of a day when I didn’t catch a thing. I was about 20, fishing the Brewster flats on Cape Cod with my cousin, who was then about 13 years old. Dylan Wheelock, at 13, hooked and landed a schoolie striped bass on the flats, after wading out with me almost a mile, and that picture is hanging, still, in his family’s house. If you’ve been lucky, and you try to stay humble, eventually seeing others fall in love with the sport, in the way you did in those first seven steps, will become your favorite part of being on the water.
9. Enjoying Every Moment: Once you get through those eight stages, a funny thing happens: You become grateful for every opportunity you have to get on the water, regardless of the outcome. You realize that these stolen moments will always be some of your favorite, and that while the fish might bring us to the water’s edge, they don’t have much to do with the logic behind our loving it.
You realize, finally, that the true luck in fishing is just in the mere fact that you’re doing it, that you have this opportunity, and that you’re at least wise enough to appreciate that.
It’s undeniable that the story is part of the reason that we love this sport. So much goes into a day on the water, whether it’s preparation, anticipation, travel or any host of “good-luck” rituals that most of us have… that no picture, series of pictures, or one-sentence anecdote can truly describe any day on the water or fishing trip. Every trip, every fish and perhaps even every cast is part of a story most of us enjoy sharing or hearing almost as much as we love the fishing itself. I am by no means an expert on every fishing story ever written or told, but I do read as much about the water as I possibly can, and here are a few of my favorites. I’d be interested to hear some of yours.
The Life Ahead: C.J. Chivers Teaches his Children to Fish: Chivers, a New York Times correspondent, is a master with words. They don’t just give a Pulitzer Prize to anyone. In this story he touches on something that is essential to the outdoor experience: Handing down knowledge, passion and patience to another generation. Chivers describes fishing with his sons in a way that only a father could, and the last line is perfect and then some: “None of us spoke. We were fishing partners now.”
Lilyfish: Bill Heavey: Heavey is a writer who reminds you that writing is work, that writing takes effort, and that yes… writing takes courage. If Field & Stream were written completely in a language that I didn’t understand, and only Heavey’s column were in english, I’d still buy it every month. He’s that good. Very few writers could quote Pete Townsend, bring me to edge of tears, and still leave me with hope at the end, but Heavey is one of them. Here again, Heavey, describing the loss of a daughter, the type of pain I can’t even begin to imagine, delivers perhaps the most emotional line at the very end: “Take your grief one day at a time, someone had told me. I hadn’t known what he meant at the time, but I did now. This had been a good day. Lily, you are always in my heart.”
On The Run: An Angler’s Journey Down the Striper Coast, David DiBenedetto: This book holds a special place in my heart. It was a gift to me for my 18th birthday, from my grandmother, who has a grandmother’s eye for perfect gifts. I have tried, and I’ll continue to try, but I am not a good enough writer to explain to you the magic of fishing the fall run for striped bass. I could, I have, and I will in the future, ramble on about it in this blog, but for right now let it suffice to say that DiBenedetto is that good of a writer. If you’re in love with striped bass, read this book. If you’re not, and you decide to read it anyway… prepare to fall in love. Had I not read this book, I don’t know that the idea of a 36-state, 7-month fishing trip would have found its way into my consciousness. And I’m terribly glad that I don’t have to wonder.
The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway: If you’re an angler, and this isn’t on your list… well, I’ll stop there. The book’s perfection is its brevity. Hemingway spent a lifetime learning how to write a book this short. Santiago falls on the beach three times carrying the mast, in the same way Christ fell three times carrying the cross. His left hand cramps when fighting the marlin, he wonders how he compares to “The Great DiMaggio,” he talks to himself, to the fish, and even, for a moment, to a small bird. Every word is chosen with great care, and if the entire book isn’t perfect, it’s about as close as a mere mortal can get with words.
Islands in The Stream, Ernest Hemingway: If you’ve read the blog, you had to guess that Hemingway would make this list twice. Islands in the Stream is my favorite Hemingway book, ever. The description of Thomas Hudson’s son, David, fighting a large broadbill swordfish, is perhaps my favorite sequence in any book that I’ve ever read. David is exhausted and nearly physically defeated before he finally loses the fish.
“But please know that I would have stopped this long ago except that I know that if David catches this fish he’ll have something inside of him for all of his life and it will make everything else easier.”
I got back this weekend from fishing the surf on Fire Island with former college roommate and longtime friend Curt Dircks. There were fish, but that, in my mind, wasn’t the important part.
Every year we make it a point, no matter what we are doing in our lives, to take a weekend and hit the surf on Fire Island, a small barrier island south of Bayshore, New York.
The tradition started at Syracuse University where we were undergraduate students from 2004-2008. It doesn’t take long, in any setting, for two fishermen to start talking about the sport and it didn’t take us long, after being placed in the same residence hall, to start planning a trip.
On that first fateful trip in 2005, we caught two fish, drifting eels, that weighed more than 15 pounds each. That’s all it takes. A tradition was born.
We’d make the annual pilgrimage each fall for those four years. After graduation, life took us in different directions. I’d wind up first in New York City, interning with Field & Stream, then at On The Water Magazine, as a copy editor, then I’d fish the country from the back of a Jeep for Outdoor Life before landing an online gig creating fishing content for a website. Curt would work in New York City, then go on to continue studying in San Diego before moving back to the East Coast where he’s currently the Director of Admissions at the College of Mount St. Vincent.
Suffice it to say, many things have changed, but the tradition has stayed the same. Like any anglers will, we discussed the weather, the presence of bait, local reports and trip timing as October approached.
Driving through New York City, after visiting my grandmother in Upstate New York for her birthday (today, actually), I ran into more city traffic than I’d anticipated, and nearly missed the 4:30 p.m. ferry I’d promised to catch. I grabbed my gear and ran through the parking lot as the boat was readying to leave Bayshore, N.Y.
But, by a matter of minutes, I made the boat. We fished until sundown Friday night and were in the surf before sunrise the next morning.
The allure of the surf is magical. Sealed from head to toe with a dry top and waders, you can almost completely immerse yourself in the waves crashing on the sand. You can scan the beach in both directions searching for feeding birds, signs of bait, or fish pushing baitfish up onto the beach.
The casting, moving and searching becomes rhythmic, and everything else in your mind fades into the background. There’s just the rod in your hand, connected to a bucktail that you’re working through ocean, hoping to imitate a wounded baitfish.
Waves pound the beach as the sun pulls itself higher into the sky, and you’re completely and wholly immersed in the beauty of it. The clouds shift and change shape and color, birds fly low over the waves and the wind moves the sand over the beach.
Between tides we’d discuss the plight of the Red Sox, women, rehash old college stories, and talk about… of course… fish.
On Saturday night, after catching a few smaller fish in the surf earlier in the day, the sun was sinking into the ocean. I promised myself that I’d keep casting until last light. I’d been working the beach for hours, and had caught and released a few smaller stripers between 20 and 25 inches.
Right at last light, in that magical moment of twilight, the bucktail I was retrieving stopped cold about 30 yards from the beach and started going the other way. As the rod bent and I stepped back out of the surf, I could only think: “This is perfect.”
The fish turned out to be an eleven-pound striped bass, measuring 33 inches. I’m all for catch-and-release, but some fish, in keeping with tradition, are meant for the grill.
We filleted the fish on the back deck as the autumn chill started to sink in. I had to run my hands beneath warm water for a few minutes to get them to the point where they’d properly operate a fillet knife.
Watching playoff baseball with freshly grilled striped bass, I couldn’t help thinking: It’s not the fish that keeps us in love with the sport, however much fun they might be to hook, land, fillet and eat…
It’s everything that leads up to that moment. Christmas Eve is always more exciting than Christmas Day itself, and until that first fish is on the beach, we are all, in some sense, our inner kid staring at wrapped presents… staring at waves crashing on the beach…
Dreaming of the incredible possibility.
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