This past year I moved to Upstate New York to be closer to family, and because, well… Boston is an expensive place to live if you’re working with a marine artist who has seasonal hours. If you haven’t, please check out Joe Higgins’ work at fishedimpressions.com.
It was tremendous timing and luck, because just as I arrived back at the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains in Mohawk Valley, Bass Pro Shops was hiring a full-time sales associate in the fishing department.
I applied, was hired, was teased about living in a jeep for my first few months there, but have become a member of an incredible team of people.
If you’re reading this blog, chances are you’ve visited at Bass Pro Shops, and have some familiarity with the nature of the chain. Working behind the scenes is a little different.
During a typical week, we’ll be there between half an hour and an hour and a half before the doors open to the public. We’ll unload and run between one and three trucks ranging from 200-700 pieces. We’ll run the carts of backstock to make sure that every item any hunter or angler might be looking for is available to them. We’ll hold meetings to see what products we can get in that customers are asking for, we’ll field phone calls and questions that can come at a frantic pace, and we’ll help other departments however we can.
On any given day we might be having a fish finder shipped from a nearby store for a customer, sending out a rod for repair, spooling up dozens of reels, giving seminars on how to target local species, or … my favorite part, feeding the largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, sturgeon, crappie and trout that mesmerize visiting kids in the store’s enormous aquarium.
But the most fascinating part about working at the store are the stories. Rarely does a day go by where I don’t hear about incredible fisheries we’re fortunate to have in the Northeast, from Hudson-river stripers to St. Lawrence muskie.
I’ve had anglers invite me fishing, make and frame flies for me, give innumerable suggestions on places to visit, and share their stories about a life spent in pursuit of fish, beauty and adventure.
In all honesty I can say that I love almost every aspect of the job, the constant motion, the daily learning, the feeling of putting a new rod or reel into the hands of a fisherman who worked and saved for something they’ll treasure…
But the most inspiring part is a realization that first occurred to me as a teenager, then again as a twenty-something sleeping in a Jeep to fish the country (or as much of it as I could, thanks to the guys at Outdoor Life, Gerry Bethge specifically), then as a grad student fishing to raise money for melanoma research, and now again as a young adult: the community of anglers that you’ll find in any given location in the United States is a passionate, decent, altruistic and sincere one, and one that I’m grateful to be a part of.
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.
Superstition typically isn’t an impactful element in our everyday lives. Sure, we might notice if a black cat walks by, and we might not walk under a latter, but for the most part most of us believe in cause and effect. It helps us navigate an unpredictable world to believe that, with a few exceptions, things happen because other things have happened in the past that set a series of events in motion that caused them.
This belief, however, stops immediately where the water meets the land. I have never met an angler who was not, to some degree, superstitious. And anglers, for the most part, I’ve found, are more superstitious than most. I’ve never met a fisherman who wasn’t aware that bananas are bad luck on boats, but that’s only the most commonly held belief, and there are countless others that vary by region, body of water and individual angler.
I’ll share a few of my good-luck tricks (tactics?) but I’m honestly more interested in hearing about yours.
First and foremost, I always carry two things in the pocket of any pair of pants or shorts that I’m wearing. The first is my father’s watch. It’s a gold Bulova that he wore for decades. My father wasn’t a man who who cared much for flashy attire or stylish clothes, but the watch was a gift that my mother and I gave him when the one he wore finally gave out. He treasured it, and so do I.
My aunt, Bridget Roberts, collects all sorts of antiques, and she has an incredible collection of antique marbles of all sizes and colors. She selected a half-dozen for me a few years back, placed them in a velvet case, and gave them to me. Of course the running joke about “losing your marbles,” has followed me ever since, so I’m sure to keep the physical ones on hand for luck, and to remember that I have a wonderfully crazy family that cares about me.
I have two rings that I’ve found to be relatively lucky: One is a hand-carved ring with ocean waves from the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island, and the other is from a Harley Davidson store in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
This past year I was fishing Fire Island with former college roommate and long-time friend Curt Dircks, and was wearing a new hat I’d bought at a Brian Fallon concert (Fallon is an incredibly talented singer/songwriter if you’re interested in finding some more great music). We’d fished all morning, and most of the evening, without landing a keeper striped bass. The six that I’d caught, despite being undersized, might very well have convinced me that the hat was good luck anyway… but when I caught a 33-inch, 11-pound striper right after last light… any and all doubt about the hat’s powers were erased.
So, whether I’m on the water or not, I’ll typically have the hat, marbles and watch for good luck. What do you carry, and why?
The guides at Bassonline were so incredibly helpful, that I could not envision this project having taken place without them.
The people at the Melanoma Research Foundation are the ones truly doing the important work, and I’m so thankful to have those organizations who are working daily to cure this disease once and for all.
To everyone who has helped, whether it was through a day on the water, contributing money or gear, reading or sharing the effort, or even just an encouraging word on Social Media, I just want you to know what a profoundly positive impact you’ve collectively had on my life, and the lives of the people in my family.
I sincerely hope you have an incredible holiday season, and I’m so thankful for the ways in which you’ve lifted me up along this road.
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.
It’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.”
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.