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?
I’ve been fortunate to help out local Salem artist and angler Joe Higgins in his North Shore shop, Tomo’s Tackle this past year, and every time I’m in the shop, I can’t help but think: More people need to know about this beautiful artwork.
Higgins practices an ancient Japanese art form known as gyotaku, where he takes a recently caught fish, places a special type of ink on it, and creates an impression on rice paper. On many, he paints in detail to finish the impression and make it as lifelike as possible.
I don’t speak Japanese, but research suggests that the word ‘gyotaku’ translates literally to something like ‘Fish Reclamation.’ Records show that this art form dates at least back to the 7th century and is probably much older than that.
Before anglers had cameras to capture and share the story of a catch, they had to be slightly more creative. By placing ink on the fish and carefully pressing paper over it, they were able to create a lasting impression to remember their catch after it had been sold or eaten.
Higgins has given this ancient art a new life, and he creates and sells “fish prints” out of Tomo’s Tackle in Salem. His prints are on display and sold in various places throughout Massachusetts, and you can find more information about seeing and perhaps purchasing some prints near you on his site.
The stunning and memorable thing about a gyotaku print is how it almost brings the fish back to life in front of your eyes. With each carefully added detail, Higgins creates an image that is in many ways is more beautiful, alive and unique than a picture of the same fish might be.
Higgins has printed everything from squid to swordfish, and he’s seemingly up for any challenge. I’ve seen prints of false albacore, flounder and even a few redfish come through the shop, and each is fascinating in its own right.
It’s a constant reminder that as fishermen, we’re exposed to more beauty than most, and we shouldn’t take any of it for granted.
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.
I got back this weekend from fishing the surf on Fire Island with former college roommate and longtime friend Curt Dircks. There were fish, but that, in my mind, wasn’t the important part.
Every year we make it a point, no matter what we are doing in our lives, to take a weekend and hit the surf on Fire Island, a small barrier island south of Bayshore, New York.
The tradition started at Syracuse University where we were undergraduate students from 2004-2008. It doesn’t take long, in any setting, for two fishermen to start talking about the sport and it didn’t take us long, after being placed in the same residence hall, to start planning a trip.
On that first fateful trip in 2005, we caught two fish, drifting eels, that weighed more than 15 pounds each. That’s all it takes. A tradition was born.
We’d make the annual pilgrimage each fall for those four years. After graduation, life took us in different directions. I’d wind up first in New York City, interning with Field & Stream, then at On The Water Magazine, as a copy editor, then I’d fish the country from the back of a Jeep for Outdoor Life before landing an online gig creating fishing content for a website. Curt would work in New York City, then go on to continue studying in San Diego before moving back to the East Coast where he’s currently the Director of Admissions at the College of Mount St. Vincent.
Suffice it to say, many things have changed, but the tradition has stayed the same. Like any anglers will, we discussed the weather, the presence of bait, local reports and trip timing as October approached.
Driving through New York City, after visiting my grandmother in Upstate New York for her birthday (today, actually), I ran into more city traffic than I’d anticipated, and nearly missed the 4:30 p.m. ferry I’d promised to catch. I grabbed my gear and ran through the parking lot as the boat was readying to leave Bayshore, N.Y.
But, by a matter of minutes, I made the boat. We fished until sundown Friday night and were in the surf before sunrise the next morning.
The allure of the surf is magical. Sealed from head to toe with a dry top and waders, you can almost completely immerse yourself in the waves crashing on the sand. You can scan the beach in both directions searching for feeding birds, signs of bait, or fish pushing baitfish up onto the beach.
The casting, moving and searching becomes rhythmic, and everything else in your mind fades into the background. There’s just the rod in your hand, connected to a bucktail that you’re working through ocean, hoping to imitate a wounded baitfish.
Waves pound the beach as the sun pulls itself higher into the sky, and you’re completely and wholly immersed in the beauty of it. The clouds shift and change shape and color, birds fly low over the waves and the wind moves the sand over the beach.
Between tides we’d discuss the plight of the Red Sox, women, rehash old college stories, and talk about… of course… fish.
On Saturday night, after catching a few smaller fish in the surf earlier in the day, the sun was sinking into the ocean. I promised myself that I’d keep casting until last light. I’d been working the beach for hours, and had caught and released a few smaller stripers between 20 and 25 inches.
Right at last light, in that magical moment of twilight, the bucktail I was retrieving stopped cold about 30 yards from the beach and started going the other way. As the rod bent and I stepped back out of the surf, I could only think: “This is perfect.”
The fish turned out to be an eleven-pound striped bass, measuring 33 inches. I’m all for catch-and-release, but some fish, in keeping with tradition, are meant for the grill.
We filleted the fish on the back deck as the autumn chill started to sink in. I had to run my hands beneath warm water for a few minutes to get them to the point where they’d properly operate a fillet knife.
Watching playoff baseball with freshly grilled striped bass, I couldn’t help thinking: It’s not the fish that keeps us in love with the sport, however much fun they might be to hook, land, fillet and eat…
It’s everything that leads up to that moment. Christmas Eve is always more exciting than Christmas Day itself, and until that first fish is on the beach, we are all, in some sense, our inner kid staring at wrapped presents… staring at waves crashing on the beach…
I was fishing on Fire Island with a friend this past spring, heaving a bucktail into a beautiful churning surf, when… about 50 yards out, the bucktail stopped cold.
“This is it,” I thought. “This is the 20-pound striped bass I’ve been waiting for. This is the fish that I’ve dreamt of, the fish that I’ve driven miles for, the fish that I woke up before sunrise for.”
Seconds after the rod bent, I knew something was wrong. I wasn’t snagged on bottom, but it wasn’t a fighting fish at the end of the line. Whatever I was pulling in was coming in slowly and awkwardly. I thought at first that it must have been a clump of mung or seaweed.
Five minutes later, I had my answer. I’d somehow snagged a skate in the surf and I even brought it to the beach.
At the time I was, as you can imagine, terribly disappointed. We had caught striped bass to 20 pounds on Fire Island, we’d run into bluefish blitzes where we’d caught and released dozens of fish, many more than 10 pounds. But as I look back I can’t help but laugh. What are the odds that, casting from a beach, I’d hit with a bucktail, a skate on the ocean’s floor, hook it, and even manage to bring it to the beach?
As we sat on the back deck of his cabin between tides, we Googled “eating skate,” just to see if there was any precedent for actually targeting, keeping and cooking this species.
When the weekend was over and I returned on the ferry back to mainland Long Island and then back to Boston, the sentiment of disappointment (despite one small bluefish that we killed, kept and ate, I might add) subsided.
I’d snagged a skate in the surf: Something that I’d never done before or even thought was possible. And more importantly, I was out there, hip-deep in the crashing Atlantic, doing something that I loved.
As I prepare to head back down for the annual Fall trip, I’m still hoping we run into a bluefish blitz or that stripers are pushing bait right up onto the beach.
But… I’m not cursing the skate. It was an experience, a story. How lucky was I, how lucky are we, just to be out there, doing something we love, especially in such a beautiful place?
How foolish does it seem to consider a lack of cooperating fish, or the target species in any event, as “bad luck”? Being diagnosed with an incurable illness? Being the victim of the violence that’s sadly becoming more prevalent in our country? That… THAT is “bad luck.”
Roaming a beach, heaving a bucktail into a beautiful sunrise? That’s a winning lottery ticket whether we realize it or not. And fish? Fish will come and go, and if we’re out there enough, we’ll get our share, or more than our share if we’re “lucky.”
But I always wonder: “What if I were brought up in a household where I was never exposed to this stuff, never got an appreciation for it? What if I lived in a country where this type of activity or passion wasn’t even feasible?” “What if I hadn’t met other people who share the same enthusiasm for the sport?”
All of which got me to thinking: Whether it’s a blitz or a seemingly fish-less ocean that you’re dragging a lure through… whether it’s 65 degrees and sunny or 45 degrees and pouring rain… whether you’re using the latest G. Loomis GLX rod and a Van Staal reel or a decade-old, banged-up, Walmart-bought rod and a rusty Penn reel…
If you’re out there, if you’re in it, immersed in the natural beauty of the environment and the excitement of the sport… you’re “lucky.” Damn lucky.
“What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.” ~ John Steinbeck
There are any number of opinions on summer’s end, it’s transition into fall, and in New England we have more than most. Some relish the cooler temperatures, changing leaves and sweatshirt weather. Others can’t help but mourn summer’s passing.
I’ll tell you that as a fisherman I look forward to the fall, the migration of striped bass that it brings, and the promise of bluefish and stripers pushing bait right onto the beach.
I think looking forward to the fall has more to do with a mindset, an idea, or an ideology: Change is a positive thing.
I think life has a way of sorting people into two camps: Those who embrace change, and those who fear it. There are things that some of us, some of my friends and family, have experienced that have given them every right and reason to fear change and to fear the unknown. Life can be a terribly unfair process.
Change in of its very nature is uncertain, and uncertainty can be terrifying. Whatever our current circumstance, our location or our position… even if it’s not ideal, it’s at least familiar. And with familiarity comes comfort.
And you’ll hear these reasons, and I’ll not discount them, but for me it’s not “changing leaves,” “pumpkins,” or cooler temperatures that make me look forward to, embrace the beginning of a new season.
I’m hoping that I’ll run into a blitz of bluefish that I’ll be rehashing with friends for decades. I’m hoping the Red Sox will make an improbable run to the World Series and I’ll share that moment with all of the Boston fans cheering along, and friends and family too.
But I’m looking forward to the fall because the summer has passed, because I lived it and loved it and it was amazing, but now it’s over.
I’m looking forward to the fall, yes because striped bass and bluefish will be running, campfires will be a little more comforting, the scenery throughout New England and New York will, for however short a time, be stunning…
But mostly I’m looking forward to the fall because it’s in the future, and the future always holds the promise of being the most rewarding and fulfilling period of your existence. And although that optimism requires faith, or some of it at least, which means investing yourself emotionally in in something uncertain… I still believe that the investment is worth it.
One angler's attempt to strike back against skin cancer.