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 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.
Perhaps the greatest thing about fishing, as a sport we can get into while we’re young, is that our fortune or fate insofar as the fishing is concerned is always dependent upon, and only upon, ourselves.
If we get into basketball or baseball and are cut from the team, we can choose to blame a host of different factors. Maybe we can say “The coach was biased and kept his favorite kids,” or “I’m just not tall enough.”
In many other arenas in life we can choose to blame a variety of factors if we don’t have the success we’d hoped we might.
A pond or a lake, on a very calm, windless summer day, will almost look like a mirror from above. So when the results of our efforts don’t meet our expectations… the water’s there to remind us exactly what went wrong… which isn’t to say that we were doing anything wrong, per se.
Maybe we were, maybe we timed the bite wrong, were on the wrong part of the lake or the river, maybe we didn’t imitate the forage well enough or get up early enough in the morning.
I was having a discussion with a friend about the ways that we’ve seen the sport and the industry change over the years, and there’s seemingly now, more than ever, a push to make fishing “cool.”
Now, ‘cool,’ might be the most ambiguous word in the english language, so I’ll try to clarify: There seems to be a push to illustrate the sport in a certain light where how you look, dress and approach the sport… matters.
If ‘cool,’ is anything, it’s a look, a style and an approach. Without the right glasses, nostalgic band t-shirt, haircut or certain amount of stubble, you could never hope to be ‘cool.’
It got me thinking about the sport and why I love it, and likely why many of us do… And the foremost reason that I came up with was that, because on the water, you don’t have to be anything that you’re not.
I’ll be upfront for the sake of honesty and journalistic integrity here… in high school I was cut from the baseball team. Twice. I didn’t even dare try out for football, and the only basketball games that I played in were held on my driveway with the neighborhood gang and chalk lines drawn to mark the 3-point range. I was on the bowling team, okay? The bowling team did not make cuts.
I was in Honor Society, took A.P. classes and walked our golden retriever every night. Get the picture? ‘Cool,’ I was not.
But once the Upstate New York snow melted in late April, I’d fish every night that I could get a ride to the water. When I turned 16 and got an Uncle’s hand-me-down Chevy Beretta (if you don’t know what that car is, please refrain from telling me so), it was: “Home from school, rods in the back, down to the water.” And it’s probably worth noting here… these weren’t epic adventures to “River-Runs-Through-it” rivers…
I fished primarily in two places. The first was a small creek that ran behind a factory in a nearby town. Sauquoit Creek is never more than 12 feet wide or 7 feet feet deep, but it had enough water to hold stocked trout.
The second place was a golf course pond that was stocked with largemouth bass. Again, the pond was about 100 yards long and 30 yards wide, and if there was a fish in there that weighed more than four pounds, I never caught it. But I loved both places.
When you’re a teenager, high school is either the greatest place in the world, or one of the more difficult ones, and for me it was usually the latter. Don’t get me wrong, I had a handful of friends, and I’m grateful to still be close to most of them to this day, but I wasn’t up for Homecoming King or playing quarterback on the football team… not by a long shot.
On the water, wearing an old pair of swim trunks and sandals, you didn’t have to be anything other than exactly who you were.
You could take in the peace and quiet, admire a few fish if you were lucky, and learn about them slowly over the years and the seasons as you experimented with different baits and approaches during different times of the year.
The best part about the water was for me, and still is, that you can be absolutely who you are. And if you spend enough time there, you’ll even start to become that person everywhere else.
Out here on the road, immersed in everything angling, you can’t help but wonder what it is about the sport that has and continues to draw people from all walks of life to it, and I’ll be the first to admit I don’t know any more than the next guy, so I’m certainly not here to preach any wisdom from on high some throne of experience.
I have been fortunate enough to fish a great many places, from the northern reaches of Maine down through the wonderful beaches of New Jersey (that were beautiful and fishy enough that I called them home for a while) to the blissful Outer Banks to the slooowed dooown, methodical and graceful backwaters of Georgia, out to the wide-open amazing expanses of Montana and Wyoming and into the bass-crazy havens hidden in California, and especially here in Florida, where you’d be hard pressed to find a place that’s not fishy in some sense. Thanks to guys at Bass Online, I’m experiencing the bass capital in a whole new way.
And I know what I love most about the sport, and what I think draws so many of us to it, is that there’s simply no “faking it.” In so many arenas in life, whether it’s testing our intelligence, strength or courage, there are shortcuts and trapdoors and loopholes that might make us appear greater than we truly are.
But with fishing, there’s only the fish, the true test of our abilities and our understanding of the world in which they live and the measure of our capacity to bring them, if only briefly, into ours… even if just for a picture.
And in fishing we find this genuine, “can’t-fake-it” arena where there’s some hard-sought but rarely found legitimacy that’s sorely lacking in other parts of our lives.
The water and the fish are the measure of everything about us in this one small slice of life.
And as a writer, if you’ve something to say, in time you’ll learn someone has likely captured the sentiment better than you possibly could and the best you can do is find him and quote him.
As a fishing writer, you’ll find that that someone is often John Gierach. In his book No Shortage of Good Days, he writes: “Life is an unruly mess and ideals are hard to hold onto, but fishing is an isolated enough slice of it that there’s the hope we can do this one small thing perfectly.”
And being absolutely unable to improve upon or add to that sentiment, I’ll leave you with it.
One angler's attempt to strike back against skin cancer.