If we’re lucky enough to be fishermen, we’ll likely cover a lot of water in our lifetimes, and I’ve been luckier than most. Some fish, however, stand out above the rest in our memories, and for good reason. Some fish define a place, a relationship or an experience for us in a way others don’t. These are the fish that I’m most grateful to have seen caught:
Chris Critelli: There’s an area off of Brewster, Mass., where you can wade out for almost a mile to a channel that flows between two sandbars. For more than a decade, cousins and I were lucky to wade those flats almost every day for the three weeks that we’d vacation on Cape Cod every summer. I caught my share of striped bass on the Brewster Flats, but seeing my younger cousin, Chris Critelli, catch an 11-pound fish at sunset on one of our last days of vacation in 2005 was one of my favorite memories of all-time. Chris is a tremendous fisherman, and an even better human being. He didn’t have the chances to fish saltwater as often as I did growing up, so it meant more to him than it might have to me. Seeing him catch it, though, meant the world to an older cousin.
Shane Kobald: While doing a project called Fish America for Outdoor Life, I was fishing the White River in Colorado with John Kobald and his son Shane. After fishing the White in the morning, we picked Shane up after school and he caught a 20-inch brown trout that evening. Seeing that little guy (who is probably in high school now) land the trout of a lifetime was an inspiring and incredible experience, for John and I both. Oh, and Shane seemed to enjoy it too.
Mike Coppola: When I was on that same trip, I got the chance to fish with one of the best surf fishermen in Montauk, Mike Coppola. Mike took me rock-hopping under the cover of darkness to chase stripers before the sun came up, and caught more than one fish in the 30-pound range. To watch an expert fish the surf in the complete darkness, suited up from head to toe in a dry top, and do it successfully, was incredible.
Steve Niemoeller: If Mike is one of the best when it comes to surf fishing, Steve is the king of largemouth bass. Steve Niemoeller helped me more than almost anyone on this past Catch a Cure, and one fish stands out in my memory. He was casting toward lily pads on the St. Johns River when he hooked, and landed, a bass of more than four pounds. It was the largest fish that I’d see caught on the trip. Steve knew exactly where it’d be, and he targeted it and caught it in expert fashion.
Dylan Wheelock: Dylan is another cousin of mine, even younger than Chris. I dragged them all out on the Brewster Flats when they’d join us for vacations on Cape Cod, and Dylan caught his first striped bass on those flats when he was about 15. It wasn’t an enormous fish, but we have the photo proof. He’s still got the picture hanging up in the family’s house in Upstate New York.
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.
Alright, I undertook the ambitious attempt last week of naming the eight (okay, nine) best anglers I’ve had the pleasure of fishing with. As soon as I started the list, I knew immediately that it’d require a sequel. There are far too many amazing anglers who have helped me along this journey to name them, or rank them, in a single blog. The following anglers deserve every bit as much credit for being incredible fishermen and great human beings.
Brooke Hidell, Maine: I had the pleasure of fishing with Hidell in 2010 on Maine’s Sebago Lake system, and it was not only a great time, but it was a fantastic learning experience. Hidell fishes in a number of ways, but one of the more interesting ones is trolling flies around the perimeter of Sebago Lake. Now you’re saying: “Trolling flies? What?” But that’s not a typo. Hidell has mastered an art of dragging flies at just the right depth, depending on the season, to target the landlocked Atlantic salmon and lake trout that populate those bodies of water. It’s truly a unique experience because unlike traditional trolling, where you’re fighting the fish on a stout rod, wrenching it up from the depths of the lake, with Hidell’s system the fight is every bit as much fun as if you’d hooked the fish on the fly.
Gary “The Toad” Stevens: I first met Gary when Field & Stream sent me, as an intern, out to Montauk to cover the Fall Surf Classic. Stevens is without a doubt, a hilarious character. The nickname “The Toad,” I believe, came from stunts in his younger days when he used to attempt to jump over an entire car in one bound. It’s that kind of crazy courage that makes him great in the surf. He seemingly has no fear and will chase stripers in any conditions and at all hours of the night. He’s definitely one of the characters that gives Montauk it’s unique and wonderful charm, and fishing with him is an unforgettable experience.
Rom Whitaker, OBX: Whitaker and his son fish one of the most abundant offshore grounds off any coast, the Outer Banks off North Carolina. Whittaker was a master at devising and setting a trolling spread to target the yellowfin tuna and mahi that we were going after in 2010. Finding and catching offshore species like yellowfin can be a difficult task, requiring a tremendous understanding of the climate, the ecosystem, and how even a few degrees in water temperature can make a world of difference in finding fish. If you need proof that Whitaker has it down to a science, click here.
Clay Cunningham, Georgia: Cunningham targets striped bass on Georgia’s Lake Lanier, one of the best striper lakes in the South. Cunningham is a master at finding the exact depth that the freshwater stripers will be holding at, and targeting them with a specific approach dependent upon the season. One of the coolest parts about fishing with Cunningham was seeing these fish actually “blitz,” almost like saltwater stripers, forcing bait into shallow areas and going to town. And if website-name creativity counted for bonus points, this guy would get it with catchingnotfishing.com.
Mickey Delamar, Texas: The first thing Mickey would say if I told him I was including him on this list, is that he doesn’t belong. He was one of the kindest, most humble people I met on my journey across the country. One look at the wall inside his house, however, would prove him wrong. He’s got a trophy wall of largemouth bass mounts, the largest of which, the last time I checked, was 11 pounds. He lives near Texas’s bass-famous Lake Fork, and is hands down one of the best anglers on it.
Kevin Shaw, Texas: Shaw is another Texan, but he’s a master of the saltier side of the state. Shaw targets redfish off the Texas coast and he’s one of the best I’ve ever met. It takes a certain amount of toughness to take to the water either as a guide or in a competitive arena. Sure, you get those bluebird days where the weather’s perfect, but more often than not, something goes wrong. When I fished with Shaw in 2010, it rained. And let me tell you, rain is like everything else in Texas: Bigger. I mean… it poured. But we stayed out on the water, waited through the storm, and kept chasing redfish.
Gregg Arnold, Louisiana: Nope, that’s not a typo, Arnold spells his name with two ‘g’s. Arnold is an absolute master of one of the most famous redfish areas in the world: New Orleans. Arnold is known throughout the state as one of the best redfish guides, and with good reason. When we fished in 2010, he met me first for breakfast. I was a little taken aback at the relaxed start to the day, but when I got in the boat, he started tearing to the nearest flat so fast that I tipped over and nearly flew over the side. Suffice it to say that Arnold might seem laid back and relaxed, but he takes targeting giant redfish very seriously, and he’s great at it.
Jimmy Fee, Cape Cod: Jimmy Fee is by far one of the best surfcasters I have ever met. I’ll share one anecdote, and that should be sufficient evidence to back up the claim. Fee timed the dropping tide on a saltwater pond in Cape Cod one evening, and thought that bigger bass would be pushing bait back near the shore. We crept up near an empty area by a saltwater pond without another fisherman in sight, and we each caught and released bass in the 20-pound range in a matter of hours. That type of understanding of the species and the fishery is what sets him apart from so many other anglers in and around the Cape Cod area, all chasing the striped bass that have made the place famous.
The 22-pound striped bass that I caught that night is one of my favorite fish of all time.
Perhaps the best thing about our sport is that there is so much more than simply the size, weight or species of a fish that goes into its “value,” to us as anglers. Don’t get me wrong, I prefer larger fish to smaller ones, and some species (striped bass, bluefish) over others (rocks, docks and bottom).
But it’s the story behind a fish, the effort that went into catching it, and maybe even the odds against it being caught at all… that give it so much personal value to us.
Growing up, I was fortunate in that my extended Irish family all chipped in and rented a house on Cape Cod for a couple weeks every summer, and at about age 12 I fell in love with the Brewster Flats.
On the flats, at low tide, an angler can wade out 3/4 of a mile and fish a deep channel that runs between two sandbars for a period of time before the tide returns.
When I was 21, it seemed like, for all intents and purposes, it would be our last family outing on the Cape. I’d be off to intern at Field & Stream in the Fall, and the real world would start.
I’d waded the flats every day for those three weeks that weather would allow, walking the mile and a half round-trip to fish during low tide. On some days I was lucky, and I’d catch and release a few schoolie stripers or small bluefish on the circle-hooked sand eels we’d use, but on many I was skunked. The walk alone is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever taken, so there’s no wasted trip on the Flats. The hermit crabs, sand eels and horseshoe crabs remind you of the You who came to the ocean for the first time, the You who was fascinated endlessly by all of these small wonders.
As luck would have it on the last day of our vacation, the local Brewster tackle shops were out of fresh sand eels, and I’d busted my 7’6″ G. Loomis Greenwater rod the day before.
All of which meant that I’d be fishing with artificials and using a 6’6″ spinning rod meant for freshwater.
Just as the tide was about to push me off the flat, as it rose to a level that would prevent safely walking the distance back to the beach, a 17-pound striped bass hit a Texas-rigged pink Hogy I was skipping over the top of the channel. At the time I was more “relishing” a last few casts than I was actively trying to catch a fish, which of course made it all the sweeter when the Hogy exploded from underneath.
On our last day of family vacation, on one of my final casts, after running out of bait, the largest striper I’d caught in more than seven years of wading those flats every summer religiously… decided to eat.
I’m fairly confident that, no matter what I do for the rest of my life, that fish will always hold a special place for me, because of all the circumstances that surrounded its being caught. I know we all have that fish, for us, and I’d suspect that yours is neither your first or your biggest, or even your most exotic.
I’ve loved fishing magazines for as long as I can remember, and I want to start one with your help, for that reason as much as, if not more than, any other: It’s the stories that matter.
If you get the chance to travel and see the American landscape while you’re young, especially in today’s social-media driven, share-everything culture, you’ll have one beautiful difficulty. I can almost guarantee it. And if you’ve aspired to wrap words around ideas, places, or experiences to keep the heat on, this will become especially vexing.
Because for some places… There are not words.
I could rattle off a few just sitting here: The Florida Keys, The Grand Canyon, the Montana landscape, the Maine Coast, the Outer Banks… but there are too many to list in a blog, a Facebook post or any online list that you’ll read, if we’re being honest.
And what happens when you stand before these natural monuments is something that’s hard to describe, but I’ll try. With most every other experience in life, no matter how far-fetched or absurd, we experience it by sharing it. If we are crossing the street and a car runs a red light and nearly hits us… we share this story, others recognize its absurdity and agree. We get it out, we see our estimation of it mirrored in the reaction of others, and we move on.
When we experience love in the way of marriage, there’s a church full of onlookers to share in our excitement and gratitude and congratulate us. When we experience loss, there’s a church full of loved ones to console us.
These experiences are defined by our sharing them, describing them, and having some type of community around us to verify and reflect their worth and value. If a man lived and died alone in a forest, would he have ever “lived,” in any real sense? Would his death be a “loss,” in the way we typically understand a death to be? It’s hard to say.
But when we stand in front of the Pacific crashing on the beaches of Cape Flattery, Wash., or see the ocean lapping on the shores of Islamorada, Florida, or see the sun light up the sky in the Outer Banks in North Carolina a thousand shades of fluorescent orange, that’s not necessarily an experience that’s defined through sharing, but rather internalizing.
Sure, in today’s social-media driven culture we’re bound to photograph, hashtag, and post images of these places and landscapes… but truthfully we could just as easily sit in an apartment, download a .JPG, and upload it to our timeline. Sharing the experience doesn’t define it, but absorbing it does.
When you see these places that defy description, you can’t help but absorb them. Somehow that beauty that could only exist in nature, could only be manifested by some divinely inspired creator, becomes part of us when we witness it. “We are what we eat,” has become a cultural slogan, but a more realistic and accurate one might be: “We are what we’ve witnessed. We are what we’ve seen.”
Because when this life’s done and we ultimately leave this place for another, we’ll take only the things that we can hold onto, and fortunately material things don’t fall into that category. “You can’t take it with you,” is right. Except for the waves crashing on beaches, the sunrises over forests, the last shades of silver on the clouds from a setting moon, or the afternoon shadows playing on a meandering river. Those, when we absorb, we keep. And we carry. For today, tomorrow and forever.
When my cousin, Everett Lockwood and I, were in high school, we were lucky to spend a few weeks on Cape Cod every summer, and of course our foremost priority was chasing fish. Since we lacked a boat, we eventually discovered the Brewster Flats, which offer a rare and unique opportunity for anglers to wade out almost a mile during low tide and fish a deep drop-off where a channel cuts about 17 feet deep through two sandbars and flows out to deeper water. Baitfish leaving with the dropping tide push through this channel and set up a virtual buffet line for waiting striped bass, bluefish and flounder.
If we stayed on the Cape for three weeks, we’d fish those flats 20 times if weather allowed. We lived for it. I learned a great many things from that experience as an angler and a young man, about safety, respecting the resource (we got good enough to catch keepers, and then smart enough to release them) and appreciating the little things in life, like the incredible ecosystem we got to witness on the walks out and back.
If I had to tell you how many striped bass, bluefish or flounder we caught in the ten years we spent wading the flats, I couldn’t even wager a guess, but one I do remember.
I’m from a large Irish Catholic family, and have more than a dozen cousins. A few would drop in for a week or a weekend during the summers and fish the flats with us, but I remember Dylan Wheelock’s first flats striper specifically.
Dylan is almost ten years my junior, which would have made him 12 or 13 the first time he waded the flats with us. As luck would have it, he caught a striped bass. It wasn’t big enough to keep, even had we wanted to, but I can still picture him, a young guy who, like me, had grown up mostly landlocked in Upstate New York, a mile from dry land, holding up a striped bass.
I was over at his mother’s house this winter and saw that she still had that picture hanging up in their house. It’s not a great photo, photo-wise: He’s off in the distance and the fish is barely discernible as a striper. It was probably taken with a disposable camera that we somehow kept dry.
But there’s a 13-year-old kid from Upstate New York holding a striped bass on the Brewster Flats, grinning ear to ear. I remember that fish, because it meant more to me to share that experience than it ever did to keep it all to myself. What, in this world, is worth anything if experienced or enjoyed alone?
That fish, a decade ago now, was probably the first wave of realization coming over me that there was something even more gratifying in this sport than anything we might attain from it of our own accord, alone: Sharing it with others.
Since then I’ve been blessed to have caught more fish than I ever dreamt I might in my entire life at that age, but I find increasingly that it’s the ones I see others catch that are meaning more and more.
If you’re an angler who grew up in North America, it’s almost guaranteed that your first love was largemouth bass. For some, it might have been trout, instead, but largemouth bass are almost undoubtedly “America’s Fish.” And for that reason they’ll always hold a special place in our hearts and be tough to top. Your first fish was probably a largemouth, you most likely catch up with your oldest friends while targeting them, and those really old pictures that your mom breaks out, where you’re wearing a Batman bathing suit and have a bowl cut… you’re probably holding a bass in those pictures.
I’d never question or challenge the lore of the largemouth in my, or any American’s, personal past. It’s been an honor, a privilege and a pleasure to target them from Oklahoma to Florida to South Carolina following the B.A.S.S. trail and I certainly learned how much there was that I didn’t know about catching them in the process.
But you know what makes that place you went on family vacations as a kid so special? Perhaps a bunch of things, but foremost among them was that you had to come back, you had to return, it was a limited-time, expiring offer which made every second seemingly more magical.
And I believe that all of us have that fish that, if not first in our book of sacred species, is a close second, and that fish for me is the striped bass.
I was lucky to target stripers from a young age, because our enormous Irish-Catholic family (six aunts, one uncle and a dozen-plus cousins) rented and shared a house on Cape Cod since 1989. Later I’d live on the Cape, then New Jersey and now Boston, and continue to fall in love with them, but it was those first stripers that were caught before I could even drive that endeared them to me more than anything.
And I’ve asked myself repeatedly what it is about these fish that makes them so utterly lovable. Sure, they’re beautiful, they taste great (should you decide to eat one), they fight hard and grow to pretty impressive sizes, but that’s true of a lot of inshore species. And claiming an undying allegiance just because Field & Stream Fishing Editor Joe Cermele designed me a striper tattoo when I interned at F&S seems like a cop-out. There was a reason I was so willing to have a striped bass on my shoulder forever, and it was formed in my soul long before the tattoo artist left the image of a striper on my skin.
I think the thing that is so endearing about stripers is that they bring the mystery of the Atlantic right to our wader boots. These fish, which swim enormous distances from Maine to North Carolina, and range far offshore beyond any angler’s cast, have the curiosity, the decency and the courage to come right within casting distance of any angler with a rod and good timing.
For that moment while we’re connected with one, we’re connected with something more: everything the fish represents, the beauty of the migration, the mystery of the Atlantic, the incredible ability for the species to survive and thrive despite hardship imposed upon it by human beings, and we are connected by the thinnest of possible measures, only a line. When a striper hits a bucktail or a bait, it is almost like hearing a faint whisper on the wind in response to a prayer. We cast, and we pray, with almost certain knowledge that it matters, but that does not change the fact that every surf striper, like every answered prayer, still feels like a miracle come true. And it, I believe, is for one simple reason. No matter how strong our faith in God, we must rationally allow for the possibility that he does not exist, that we are animals, products of evolution, and nothing more.
And along those same lines, every cast we make into the surf is one that might very well be into a portion of ocean empty of striped bass. They may have migrated further down the coast, or be offshore, out of casting distance. On a lake or pond, the body of water is finite enough that it stands to reason that bass must be somewhere, and if we fail to catch them, it’s a reflection upon our inability to do so, not their presence or lack thereof. But with striped bass, no matter how resolute our faith, our rational brain must admit that our attempt might be an exercise in futility. So, every time that it’s not, is though a miracle has transpired before our eyes.
One angler's attempt to strike back against skin cancer.