Tag Archives: Ernest Hemingway

If You Build It…

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The finished fillet table, constructed and stained.

To build something, anything, there are two necessary ingredients: You need a careful plan that allows for some error, and determination to create a desired, finished product. This is true of building a friendship, a magazine, or a fillet table.

In 2004, during my freshman year at Syracuse University, I met another freshman named Curt Dircks. The first thing I do, when moving into any type of residence, is put up photographs of fish. Filling an apartment, a dorm room or a house with images of the water reminds me, between trips, of a part of my journey that has brought more joy, excitement and wonder into my life than all other elements combined.

So, as you might imagine, it didn’t take long for Dircks, a fellow freshman and striper nut, and I to strike up a friendship talking about the water and what we love so much about it.

In 2004 we took what would be the first of thirteen years worth of fishing trips to Fire Island, a thin, 32-mile-long barrier island south of Bayshore, New York where his family has owned a small cottage for decades.

During those first years, the conversation went something like: “Do you want to go back this fall?” By now, it has evolved into a short exchange of dates during which we’re both free. “How about the 13th?” “Perfect.”

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Dircks and I holding a pair of bluefish during an incredible blitz in 2011.

Dircks has moved from New Jersey to San Diego and back to New York City, while I’ve moved from New Jersey to Cape Cod, back to New Jersey, down to Florida and finally up to Salem, Massachusetts.

Life had changed for both of us, but the tradition did not.

This past fall we decided to attempt to construct a fillet table. We’re not ‘sharpies’ by any means, but we’d filleted enough striped bass on newspapers on the back deck to realize that there must be a better way.

We discussed table size, placement, stain color, and amenities like a slot to hold a fillet knife, a ruler on a lip at the table’s base to double-check fish length, and a back panel with a wood-burned quote so that something that was utilitarian in function might have a bit of sentiment, a little soul.

I researched fitting quotes for a week prior to first fall trip, and we decided on one, from a hero of mine, Ernest Hemingway. “It is better to be lucky. But I would rather be exact. Then when the luck comes, you are ready.” The quote comes from Santiago, Hemingway’s famous protagonist in The Old Man and the Sea. I borrowed an electric wood-burner from an artistic aunt, Bridget Roberts, and we were set.

I thought the quote was fitting, because a fillet table is about being exact, keeping only fish that are big enough to kill, and attempting to pay homage to the nature of the pursuit by getting every ounce of meat off the striped bass that you are lucky to harvest.

Dircks is pragmatic, punctual and prepared. I, on the other hand, will lose track of time in the surf, walking a few football fields (okay, running) at the sight of dropping birds, and can spend an hour searching for the perfect quote.

A pragmatic person will think, and understandably so, that a fillet table will be a useful tool  when preparing striped bass of legal size that we will catch in the future. A guy who looks for signs and believes in omens will inherently wonder whether that type of hubris would be frowned on by the Fishing Gods. It perhaps warrants mentioning that we’ve never brought a banana on any trip, or even had them the house. There are some superstitions no fisherman in his or her right mind fools with.

I can’t say, in all honesty, that I did ‘half’ the work on the table. When we’re on the island, I’m constantly wondering if there are bass pushing bait right into the beach. It’s hard to drag myself away from the wash to sleep, let alone work on something besides fishing during daylight hours.

I did wood-burn the quote into the table’s back panel, and help with some sanding and staining, but the credit for much of the table’s construction goes to Dircks.

In my mind’s eye, I secretly envisioned the table being taken out and placed on the brackets we’d screwed into the back deck, and being removed at the end of every trip without ever holding a fish. I just couldn’t help but wonder if ‘preparing’ to catch fish you could legally kill wasn’t some kind of bad luck.

Keeper
The first striped bass that made it to the table.

Then, on the second trip of the fall, I hooked into bass that felt slightly larger than the shorter fish we’d been catching earlier that morning.

Throwing a green bucktail with a matching pork-rind trailer, I hooked and landed a 31-inch striped bass, three inches larger than they need to be to legally keep.

There are few things in the world I like as much as the feeling of a bass that you know is slightly larger than the rest you’ve been catching, hitting your bucktail as you hop it along the ocean floor.

We’d just finished the table, and we carefully set it on the rail of the back deck and filleted our first striped bass on it.

There are, undoubtedly, more superstitions involved with the sport of fishing than almost any other pursuit in human history (except, maybe, baseball).

But preparing to catch fish that you might have the chance to bring back to family for dinner, and creating a table that ultimately aids in that effort, is not bad luck. In fact, it might have even helped, as far as I’m concerned now. I guess you’ve got to believe something’s possible, and perhaps even likely, before undertaking a single step toward achieving it.

 

 

 

The Best Fishing Stories That I’ve Ever Read

islandsIt’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.”

Hemingway on Springsteen’s Birthday

screen-shot-2016-09-23-at-9-08-49-pmAs part of a class assignment today, I visited the JFK Library in Boston, which if you’ve never been, is an incredible place to go. The view of the city, alone, from outside the museum is worth the trip.

Inside the museum, through December, they have a section dedicated in memory of Ernest Hemingway, an author whose impact on my life, and the lives of many, cannot be overstated.

As you wander through the exhibit you’ll see handwritten letters and notes from Hemingway, a man whose memory and legend have far surpassed anything one might attain in a mere, mortal existence.

I was lucky, earlier this month, to see a Springsteen concert in Gillette Stadium, and with four-plus hours of music, it was incredible. (I’ve gone to 13 Springsteen shows in the past with friends, girlfriends, and even one solo, but this time I took my Mom, who I blame wholeheartedly for turning me into a Bruce nut in the first place).

But between visiting the memories of Hemingway and seeing Springsteen on stage, I was reminded of something important, and perhaps even necessary for any of us pursuing a career in any artistic field.

If we are able, no matter the sum, to earn some amount of money doing this — this thing, or these things, that we love, that’s fantastic.

But if money were the motivation, we’d never have reason to write at all. Exactly no one, in the history of humanity, has ever said: “You know what I’ll do? I’ll get rich writing!”

But perhaps there’s another kind of wealth to be sought. If we can impact, inspire, or move someone with words or images… if we can affect a life in a positive way with something we create… maybe that’s a reward that has a greater value, or higher purpose.

As I wandered through the JFK museum today looking at handwritten letters from Hemingway, I began to wonder…

And in Gillette Stadium sharing more than 30 songs with my mom, a Springsteen fan from the get-go, I began to wonder…

What is this… “worth?” What is the value of what these men have created, shared and left behind for us?

I will never be so bold or confident to think that I, or any writer, might articulate that value in question.

The music, the words, the books and the albums and the concerts and the novels that we share, that we savor, that become part of our fabric as a human being, are of greater value than any material thing we might exchange here.

Both Hemingway and Springsteen, early in their careers, were faced with critics, doubt and rejection. I can only really, for a moment, begin to imagine their “worth,” as human beings when I consider what my life might be like without their influence.

And if we each take a moment to consider what our lives might be like without our favorite author, without our favorite band… we can almost grasp how important these things are to each of us, and to all of us as a whole.

And how important it is, then, for each of us to continue to strive in our own way to make what contribution we can.

Best of All He Loved the Fall

Hemingway's Grave.
Blood from scraped knuckles digging up Hemingway’s grave in Idaho in 2010.

In today’s world, we’re inundated with the emotions, and everyday thoughts, of almost everyone in our “social network,” which is becoming a term that’s less and less clearly defined.

As August fades into September, we’re bound to see those people who are mourning summer’s end. Kids will shuffle back to the bus stops, the sunsets will come a little earlier every day.

One of my favorite passages that I’ve ever read came from a eulogy that Ernest Hemingway gave for a friend, Gene Van Guilder. Everything that Hemingway has ever said or written has been analyzed to death, and this one is no exception. Some scholars speculate that the words that he spoke were ones that he intended as much for himself as he did the late Van Guilder. Hemingway was only 40 at the time he delivered the eulogy. He still had a Nobel and Pulitzer-Prize winning novel to write (The Old Man and the Sea). He still had a plane crash to survive in 1954, a crash that some have speculated caused him a pain that made writing (the one constant throughout his life) more difficult to do than it was ordinarily for him.

He still had marlin to chase in the Gulf Stream, lions to hunt in Africa and characters and places to immortalize with words.

But there is an underlying sense both of hope and enormous, perhaps even insurmountable, struggle in almost everything Hemingway has written. The one defines, and necessitates, the other.

What made him, in my opinion, such an important, memorable and significant writer in American history was his ability to have a feeling for what defined masculinity, strength and courage, all without losing his sensitivity to the simple, yet beautiful parts of life that hide in the details.

I don’t know that there’s a passage of his that combines those two elements better than his words for Van Guilder did, and as we head down the home stretch of summer, I thought I’d share them with those of you who haven’t already found them yourselves:

“Best of all he loved the fall… The fall with the tawny and grey, leaves yellow on the cottonwoods, leaves floating on the trout streams, and above the hills the high blue windless skies. He loved to shoot, and he loved to ride and he loved to fish.”

Harrison and Hemingway: The Necessity of Heroes

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Lacking a picture of Heaven, I did the best I could.

“It is harder to have heroes as you get older, but it is sort of necessary.” – Ernest Hemingway

I’ve been in love, so to speak, three times in my almost 30 years here, but I’ll only bore you with two of the subjects that stole my heart: Sports and fish, or more specifically, the Red Sox and striped bass. It’s hard to remember which I fell for first. I was probably about four when I first noticed that the time that elapsed between my father’s car pulling in the driveway and his coming inside was longer than it should have taken any man to walk the 20 or so feet to our front door.

When I finally got up the courage to go out to car to see what was taking him so long, I realized that he was listening to a distant radio station broadcasting the Red Sox games from Connecticut. See… Richard N. Bach Sr. was, if nothing else, two things: A workaholic and a Red Sox fan. So, and perhaps this was divine intervention or perhaps it was coincidence: He was usually arriving home between 9:30 and 10 p.m., or, as baseball fans might call it: The bottom of the 8th at Fenway.

My father liked the Red Sox for one reason above all others: He hated the Yankees. A man born into poverty who worked for every cent, he despised the notion that a team could pay for talent and win with it, and he rooted for the Red Sox not like a man rooting for a ream, but like a man rooting against another one. He picked them, not because of what they were, but because of what they weren’t. They weren’t the professional, clean-cut, pinstriped millionaires that were forced down our throats on the Y.E.S. Network every evening growing up in Upstate New York. Pedro spoke broken english, Ortiz wasn’t beating out any ground balls to first and Varitek was more than happy to get in the face of the game’s richest player. I remember my father in a lot of ways: I do push-ups daily like we did together when I was a child, I try not to miss mass, even if I’m late like he usually was, and I always pull for the Sox.

Of the moments that we did steal together, many were on or near the water. He belonged to a Golf Club that had a pond stocked with largemouth bass. That… that is what I call divine intervention. The pond was next to a short Par 3, and he’d play the hole on a loop to work on his short game while I’d work on my subtle presentation of soft plastics to the resident bass.

I’ve been reading a great deal about the late Jim Harrison as of late. He was, it seems, a man larger than life. And it seems that he will be remembered in the great line of writers who have tried to wrap words around water. I say “line,” here, because what I love most about outdoor journalism, or as much as anything else, is that if you get into it… you inherit its history. There are any number of great sports journalists, but it’s unfair to say that there’s a lineage that follows. Some have waxed poetic about Ted Williams and the beauty of baseball and others on the unpredictable beauty of the N.C.A.A. Men’s Basketball tournament that my Syracuse Orange are currently still alive in. Because there are so many different sports (or at least four for our American purposes), it’s harder to carve out a lineage of great sportswriters who inherit the work of those before them and perhaps pass something on to those who will follow.

But in Outdoor Journalism, we inherit a history. Hemingway might be the most famous outdoor writer, but he’s a piece of a puzzle as old as a a hook and a typewriter, or even perhaps the pen.

And that is part of what I love about writing about the outdoors. We can look at all those who have come before us, the mark they’ve made, absorb it, inherit it and then try to make our own. If we are lucky, and I have been, the gatekeepers of the great institutions of outdoor journalism, like the editors at Outdoor Life and Field & Stream, Saltwater Sportsman and Florida Sportsman, the Drake and the Fly Fish Journal let us inside their walls for a moment, and let us carve our thoughts on the paper walls of their storied castles. I’m blessed to have left my mark inside each of these monuments to our love of water… not because of any talent I have, but because editors had faith in me that I’d share something worth sharing. I’ve tried, and I’ll leave it at that.

But in thinking about Harrison, and Hemingway, I’m reminded of why our particular field of writing, of content creation, is a special one: Whenever we pick up a pen, or sit down to a laptop to try to articulate what it is we love about the water, we inherit the history, the obligation, and the beauty of all those who have done so before us, in such profound and impactful ways.

Rest in peace, Mr. Harrison, and thank you for the crucial piece of this great puzzle that you contributed, one that we can only hope to inherit as and wield half as gracefully and beautifully as you did in your time here.