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.
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.
Now, first let me say that I am by no means an authority on America’s greatest anglers. I’ve been lucky to fish with a lot of men and women who are spectacular at the sport, from Maine down to the Keys out to San Diego and up to Seattle, but I’m only 26 (alright, 30) and it’d take eleven lifetimes to meet the myriad of talented and knowledgable anglers in this nation. Having that said, I have been fortunate to meet a few, and these stood out above the crowd.
Mike Coppola, Montauk, N.Y.: I love striped bass fishing, and the surf is especially endearing. Whether it’s the sun pulling itself form the ocean and turning the night into day, or bluefish pushing bunker up onto the beach with such ferocity that the baitfish are literally leaping onto the sand to escape being eaten, there are so many moments when fishing the surf that just make the entire experience an incredible one. But I am far, far from a great surf fisherman. I’ve been lucky at times, I’ve read enough to have a basic understanding, but grouping me with a guy like Coppola is tantamount to saying a Formula One racer and a Go Cart driver are “about the same.” I got the chance to fish with Mike on Fish America for Outdoor Life, and he had the entire endeavor down to a science. We waded into the Montauk surf at night, fished until sunrise, and he swam out to rocks in a wetsuit through breakers that crushed me back onto the beach when I attempted to hold my ground. I count myself fortunate that I survived but Mike? Mike, of course, landed a 20-plus-pound striped bass right before the sun came up. Gary “The Toad” Stevens, is right up there, too, in the Montauk scene.
Preston Clark, Florida: If you grow up in an area where you do enough largemouth bass fishing, a funny thing happens. You remember, distinctly, the days when you couldn’t get a lure back to the shore or the boat without landing a fish, and you tend to forget the fruitless days on the water. This can lead to the misconception that bass fishing is “relatively” easy, or something that “everyone can do.” Truth be told, if you do anything enough, you’ll succeed at some point, which is exactly the reason I prefer the driving range to playing 18 actual holes of golf. Something about rooting around in the woods for another lost ball is harder to forget than driving a practice shot into the woods for the umpteenth time. For that, and many other reasons, there’s no shortage of people who’d describe themselves as “good,” or even “great” bass fishermen. Clark, however, is the real deal. I was fishing with Clark in 2010, on a million-degree June afternoon when the Florida bass were impossibly hard to fool. Me? I managed one small fish on the afternoon. Clark caught a largemouth that was in the seven-pound-plus range. Think that was “luck”? Nope, me neither. Clark has been both a professional angler and a guide and I’m here to tell you, he’s one of the best.
Chris Senyohl, Seattle: Seattle gets the reputation as a place where it rains all the time and is generally unpleasant. Guess who is responsible for maintaining that reputation? The people in Seattle, who are aware of the amazing outdoor opportunities that they’d like, if they can, to prevent the rest of the country from finding out about. Senyohl guides in and around the Seattle area and is one of the absolute best (not to mention kindest) anglers I’ve ever fished with. Senyohl, in only about a week’s time, put me on a silver salmon, a pink salmon, and his brother even scared the life out of me on a whitewater rafting adventure. If he could hook a novice salmon fisherman like me up, I can only imagine the wonders he could accomplish with a more experienced angler.
Todd Kersey/Brett Isackson/Steve Niemoeller: I’ll group these guys together because all three work for BassOnline, Florida’s largest freshwater guide service. Kersey amazed me with his knowledge of targeting and catching Florida’s favorite invasives, the peacock bass. Isackson actually invented a lure that looks and acts like the snakes that live near Florida’s freshwater ponds and lakes. Isackson noticed that larger bass, looking for a more substantial meal, were eating snakes that either fell from a tree branch or were slithering over lily pads, and designed and crafted a rubber lure to take advantage of that phenomenon. It takes a certain amount of faith to cast a “snake” bait to largemouth bass, but it’s quickly rewarded when the thing gets devoured. Niemoeller is another guy who invented a lure, his Steel Shad, which you can customize to fish exactly the way you’d like to to target finicky bass. All three are absolutely amazing bass fishermen.
Randy Oldfield, Texas: Randy is another bass guy, in another great bass state. If I were to dare speculate that Texas is second to Florida in terms of its ability to produce giant bass, I’d need to change my name and enter witness protection, so I’ll say that the states are about equal as far as producing big bass goes. Oldfield, however, is (in my opinion) without equal in the Lone Star State. He guides on and around Lake Fork, one of Texas’s most prized bass lakes, and he’s another one of those guys that has bass fishing down to an absolute science. While fishing with Oldfield in 2010, it was overwhelmingly evident once again that bass fishing involves about as much luck as most things in life, which is to say, some, but not much.
Chris Robinson, Florida: Now, I’ve told you about the best Florida bass guides that I’ve met, but you can’t mention Florida without talking about the salt. The Robinson Brothers Guide Service is located in my favorite part of Florida: The Panhandle. Miles away from the traditional “Disney” atmosphere that most people picture when they think of Florida, the Panhandle has beautiful white sand beaches, delicious oysters and some great inshore saltwater fishing. Robinson guides out of Apalachicola and his ability to dial in and target big redfish is incredible.
Tommy Scarborough, South Carolina: I have a distinct memory of the first time I ever fished with Scarborough in 2010. Tommy decided it would be fun to see if I could handle a shark on some lighter tackle, and I’d been lucky to hook up. I’d asked him if he’d be willing to film the fight so that I could later document it for Outdoor Life. As the dusky shark peeled drag and I stood there helpless with the rod bent, Tommy howled in his distinct southern accent: “Looks like you’re getting your butt whooped!” Aside from being a great guide, like all of these guys, Tommy is a great human being. He put me up on his couch (to spare me a night in the Jeep), fed me a home-cooked meal, and continued making fun of me even after he’d put me on enough sharks and redfish to make anyone jealous.
Matt Wettish, Connecticut: This wouldn’t be a list if we didn’t have a trout guy, right? But Wettish isn’t just any trout guy. He designed a system that allows conventional spinning-gear anglers to get (almost) as much fun out of trout fishing as the fly guys do. He fishes in and around Connecticut’s trout water with mealworms on ultra-small hooks, using super-light spinning gear. We’re talking about line as light as 2-pound test, used with a six-foot rod. Connecticut might not seem like it deserves to be in the conversation with Vermont and Montana in terms of “Trout” states, but I changed my mind completely about that notion after seeing a 20-plus-inch brown trout caught out of the Farmington River with Wettish in 2010.
(Joe Demalderis: Okay, I have a tattoo that says “One More,” did you really think I could keep it to eight? Demalderis of Cross Current Outfitters guides on the Delaware River and is an absolute trout savant. The man seemingly knows more about targeting trout on the fly than I know about any single thing. His understanding of the river system and his ability to find and target fish is among the best I’ve ever seen from any trout guide, anywhere. Period.)
If you get a chance to fish with any of these guys, take it… and take notes.
Fishing guides, of their nature, are a fascinating type of person, almost all of them. The fishing guides who think: “Oh, I’ll get paid to fish!” are fishing guides for about three days. The good ones realize that fishing doesn’t have a lot to do with it. Yes, you have to be a great angler, but the job is equal parts tour guide, babysitter, PR rep. for the region, knot-untangler, therapist, conversationalist, storyteller, and… well… suffice it to say that if you can’t multitask, you’d be in the wrong line of work. I could never do a guide’s job, for even a single day, but I’ve met some who do it better than you might imagine someone could before you got to fish with them. Because I’ve been lucky enough to fish with guides in almost all of the lower 48, I could never list all the deserving ones who’ve helped in one blog, and this is by no means a “ranking,” of “best guides,” nor is it meant to be. But these guides will always stand out in my memory as fascinating people to have shared the water with.
Brett Isackson, Florida: Isackson is a bass guide with Bassonline, and these guys have the best. From Steve Niemoeller to Todd Kersey, this group is just hands down a crew of top-notch anglers who are fun to share the water with. The amazing thing about Isackson is that he invented a snake bait. Yep, this guy noticed that largemouth bass, and big ones, were eating small snakes at the water’s edge and he set to making a mold that allowed him to replicate the snake to target those big bass. Now, I’m a fishing nut, but I’ve never said to myself “Let me go home and in my garage try to create a bait from plastic that I melt from other baits, which will fool the bass nobody else is catching.” Genius takes many forms, and Isackson is a largemouth savant if ever I’ve met one.
Brook Hidell, Maine: If you cross the border into Maine from Southern New England, you’ll run into all the “Maine” things: a picturesque coast, more lobster restaurants, shacks and shanties than you could shake a stick at, and beautiful coastline. It’s when you keep going that it really gets interesting. Now, Lake Sebago isn’t way up, as far as Grand Lake Stream, but it’s far enough removed where you’re out reach from the day-trippers from Boston. Hidell trolls flies on Lake Sebago (yep, he trolls flies) for the landlocked atlantic salmon and lake trout that inhabit that beautiful part of the country. Again, he’s just one of those guys that took a unique approach to a legendary American fishery, and like Isackson, he couldn’t be nicer to the people he fishes with.
John Kobald, Meeker, Colorado: Now, first I’ll start off with a confession here… I’ve caught fish on the fly, I love fly fishing, but I’m far from great at it. So if a guide can put me on fish on the fly, he’s truly one of the best. Kobald not only got me some of my biggest browns on the fly when I was in Meeker, he even had his son Shane, who could not have been older than 10 at the time, catching 15-inch brown trout on the long rod. Like Isackson, he’s a guy who loves to create, and he is as good of a sculptor as he is an angler.
Matt Wettish, Connecticut: Although Wettish doesn’t guide for a living, he could if he wanted to, and he guided me to one my biggest trout ever.Here’s a guy who really seems to have pioneered a unique way to catch enormous trout. He fishes for them with ultra… UTLRA-light spinning gear (we’re talking 2- and 4-pound test) to almost create a hybrid method between fly and conventional angling. I’ve only caught a few “truly big,” trout in my life, but one was with Wettish, it was all of 18 inches, and the way we caught it had the ultralight drag singing for seemingly endless seconds.
Randy Oldfield, Texas: If all you did, while fishing with Oldfield, was listen to him tell stories about his life before he became a guide, you’d get your money’s worth and then some. But this guy is one of the best bass guides in Texas. He’s truly one of those guys that just has an absolute fascination with, and appreciation for, all the subtleties that make big bass tick, and he puts that knowledge to great use on behalf of his clients.
Chris Senyohl, Seattle: Seattle was one of, by far, the most beautiful parts of the country I got to see, and I have little doubt that it’s because guys like Senyohl took the time to show it to me. Senyohl chases the native species around Puget Sound in a lot of different ways, but backtrolling for chum salmon from a drift boat was about a cool a thing as you could have asked me if i wanted to do at 24, and I’m grateful every day that I did. Letting him talk me into whitewater rafting? That might be a first- and last-time thing for me.
Chris Robinson, Florida: The Robinson Brothers guide service on Florida’s “Forgotten Coast,” are the guys to go to if you’re looking to get away from “Disneyland” Florida for a few days. Robinson is one of the better redfish guides I’ve ever met and a joy to share a day on the water with. He introduced me to oyster rockefeller, a part of Florida I’d fall in love with, and put me on some nonstop redfish action for an entire afternoon.
Tommy Scarborough, South Carolina: This is another one of those guys who, if all you were doing was taking a boat ride with him to hear stories, it’d be worth the money and then some. But Scarborough, who put me up on his couch, hooked me up with a shark and a few redfish in the same week, and managed to even make fun of me while the shark was, in his words “Whupping my butt,” is both a hilarious character and a first-rate angler.
Rob Alderman, North Carolina: Alderman’s specialty, out of the Outer Banks, is kayak fishing. And let me tell you, the OBX is known across the country for its legendary offshore bite, but if you make it to Hatteras and don’t fish from a Kayak, you’re missing something truly special. Again, I’m no kayak expert, but Alderman had me launch in the surf, put me on a few fish, and even made sure I got back to shore in one piece. When, trying to execute a surf landing with the kayak, I flipped the kayak in the wash (waves were breaking hard on the beach) and snapped one of my rods, he said: “At least it wasn’t your neck.” I’ve never felt so good about a broken rod in my life.
Dan Harrison, Massachusetts: I bet there’s a lot of people from the greater Boston area who, in an attempt to see beautiful wilderness, catch wild trout and drift scenic rivers, drive about 40 hours farther than they’d need to. The Deerfield River in Western Mass. is truly one of the most unique bodies of trout water I’ve fished, and when you’re on it you have to keep reminding yourself: “I’m smack dab between New York City and Boston.” The Harrison Brothers guide the Deerfield the way they did out West, and even in Chile, and they bring all that knowledge and experience to bear on a body of water you won’t need to fly back from if you’re a Northeast angler.
(One More) Joe Demalderis: I have the words ‘one more’ tattooed on my arm, you didn’t really think I could stop at ten, did you? Demalderis guides on the Delaware River in Pennsylvania and New York and is one of the more experienced and accomplished trout guides I’ve ever had the pleasure of fishing with. Again, he’s one of those guys who is a wealth of information to share the water with, and will send you home laughing with stories to tell regardless of how the fishing is… although I can’t imagine for the life of me this guy floating a body of water without getting his clients on at least a few trout.
Now, it goes almost without saying that I’ve been luckier than most, and I’ve fished with some amazing guides who I didn’t get the chance to list here, because… well, these blogs are supposed to be relatively short, right? But some day I’ll make a list of the best 100 guides in America, although even then I doubt I’d get to list as many amazing anglers as have helped me on my journey and… anglers who… you should definitely make a part of yours.
Alright, I might try to feign being some sophisticated academic at times here, quoting Hemingway and Harrison, but in all honesty, I’m a tattooed, country-music-loving, college basketball fan like most of the rest of you.
In that spirit, I’m creating the “Final Four,” of “Teams,” who have helped this effort more than most. This is in part inspired by the fact my Syracuse Orange are in the Final Four, so I’m paying more attention to the bracket than usual, but also because… well… it sounded fun. Without further ado…
#4: Emerson College: (Key Player: Gian Lombardo): When I executed the first Catch a Cure, I did it during the summer, between semesters at Emerson, where I’m pursuing my graduate degree in Publishing and Writing. In part I was hoping it would serve as a platform for a repeat, with greater sponsorship, but I knew working toward my degree had to come first. Prof. Lombardo, a fisherman himself, helped me build an academic project that would function with, and around, the fundraising project, and the school got behind my effort. Professor Bill Buettler, the Department Chair, and Emerson’s Dean of Graduate Studies, Jan Roberts-Breslin, were key players in getting behind this project, the function of which, in case you forgot, is to build you a magazine by asking what you want to read.
#3: Sponsors (Key Player: Get Vicious Fishing): When I decided to attempt a Catch a Cure repeat, after Buff so generously supported the first installment, I e-mailed everyone in the iCast directory (every company even remotely related to fishing) to solicit support. I sent out more than 100 e-mails detailing my project and my ambition to beat melanoma. Get Vicious, Native Eyewear,Sunology Sunscreen and Hanes and Rick Roth at Mirror Image all responded and got on board. It’s not fair to compare these companies, because some have more resources than others, and they all gave what they could, but Get Vicious agreed to donate up to $500 and contributed prizes for readers to win as well. So, although it’s close, they’re leading the charge from this group.
#2: BassOnline/BassMaster (Key Player: Tyler Wade and Steve Niemoeller): These are the people in the fishing community who came out of the WaterWork to help this project. The guys at Bassonline, almost every one of them, gave this project an essential element that it’d be nothing without: The Fish. It’s a nice idea to “Go try to catch bass on your own from shore,” as some suggested, but when pounds of fish are dollars, put plainly: you need guides. And I had some of the best on this effort. Tyler Wade and the people at B.A.S.S. gave the project a home, a place to live online, and for that I’m forever grateful. Steve Niemoeller, Todd Kersey, and all the guides at BassOnline made sure I had the means to put fish in this project, time and again.
#1: The Joneses (Key Player: Marilyn Jones): No, this isn’t a cliched phrase. My Grandmother, Marilyn Jones, getting back on her feet (literally, in a rehab center) is the old…er… wisest of the Jones family of which I’m the oldest grandson, but she embodies the spirit that exists through my large, Irish-Catholic, loving family. My cousins, Joe and Chris Critelli and Everett Lockwood are some of my best and oldest fishing friends. And my Mom, the oldest Jones daughter, is (and it’s true I’m biased) one of the kindest, most giving and outgoing people you’ll ever want to meet. Throughout this project, my family and extended family have come out of the woodwork to share my project on social media, support my effort and give me hope and faith in my attempt even when things looked bleak. This makes them the far-and-away favorite of the final four.
I was fortunate enough today to catch the tail end of a youth fishing tournament that in part the guys at Bass Online helped put on, that got young anglers fishing (for prizes and the sheer joy of it, too).
I watched as the host called up the young fishermen, some of whom looked barely old enough to bait a hook, and handed them prizes provided by sponsors like Okuma.
When I was told about the tournament, I wondered if the kids would be paired with an adult running a boat, or they’d be fishing an especially stocked pond with more and larger fish than they might catch anywhere else.
But what I forgot was that these were kids. The young fishermen, from reports, landed everything from catfish to sunfish on a day on the bank, and although a few walked away with more prizes than the rest, it was clear that nobody lost.
It served as a poignant reminder to me, and hopefully to anyone reading this and looking at these elated young anglers, that the size of the fish or how frequently they’re caught doesn’t have as much to do with our sport as an outsider might suspect.
They were “Standing On (or near) A River Waving a Stick,” to once again borrow a phrase from a fishing writer from whom we can all learn a thing or two, John Gierach.
I’d initially gone thinking that photographing some young anglers with bigger bass might be a great way to put our sport in the limelight and for a good cause. As I was driving home, I realized that photos like these were more important. These kids were just fishing to fish, and that, regardless of their “success,” on the water throughout their lives, will sustain them and their love for the sport regardless of everything else.
One angler's attempt to strike back against skin cancer.