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.
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.
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.
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