This fish might not look like much, and by all accounts, it isn’t. It’s a small brown trout that the state stocked in Nine Mile Creek, about an hour from where I live in Upstate New York. I did some research before heading out, and it turns out the state tells you how many fish they stock, and where, if you’re interested. As you can tell, Nine Mile gets more trout than most places, so I decided to give it a try.
I’ve never been much of a trout fisherman, truth be told, although there’s some tremendous trout water right around where I grew up. Our early April outings were usually, as kids, a desperate attempt to escape the mind-numbing cabin fever that had set in by the time trout season finally opened (sound familiar, my housebound brethren)? We were happy to be outside doing anything that wasn’t snow-related. In Upstate New York, April 1 isn’t necessarily the end of winter, per se. I can remember a few years when we didn’t have at least one April snowstorm, but there aren’t many. So, although in other parts of the country the month might be a 30-day segue into summer, around here it feels more like a month where you wait, and hold your breath for winter’s last punch.
I don’t have anything against trout, mind you. It’s just that, by the time we could realistically target them, I was so focused on getting ready to take a shot at striped bass on Cape Cod vacations, or chase largemouth bass from a pond prowler in local ponds, that they were kind of an afterthought for me.
I have friends, and cousins (like Chris Crittelli, pictured to the left) who are much better trout fishermen than I’ll ever be.
That’s not to say that I’m dismissing the species altogether. If anything, the behavior of larger, wild trout seemed so intimidating to me that I never thought I could realistically dial in the fishery with much success (and I certainly haven’t yet). I’ve read (almost) every book and story that John Gierach has ever written, and there are a slew of similarly intelligent, talented fishermen who have waxed poetic about trout. I have had the chance to fish with a few anglers, like Matt Wettish, who are masters at catching gigantic browns in Connecticut.
But on Nine Mile Creek this past week I discovered something about trout fishing that I’d forgotten. On a pond or lake, you’re probably moving around looking for structure that’s likely to hold bass. Cast under a dock, or a weedline enough times without success, and it stands to reason there aren’t a ton of fish holding there (or feeding ones, anyway). On a trout stream, like in the surf, the water is always moving, so it’s possible, at any given moment, your quarry might just come to you. And to stand in a body of water that is changing around you by the minute, presenting new opportunity where none existed only a few casts ago, is kind of an exciting thing.
Now, yes — those larger trout will likely be holding, like bass, in deeper pools, and around structure. But if you’re a novice enough trout fisherman to be excited with a small stockie like the one pictured above, then every new hour presents, at the very least, possibility.
I realized two things while holding the small (alright, tiny) trout for a photo before releasing it: 1. I have a lot to learn about targeting and catching a species that my home state is famous for and that 2. If the circumstances are right, and you were going stir crazy enough between reading about mortality rates (my heart goes out if you or a loved one are fighting this #@$%ing disease), washing your hands, and putting on a hazmat suite to get orange juice, then even one, very small stocked trout can make you feel as jubilant as a kid again on an April afternoon.
And if there’s one reason that we’ve kept at this sport well into adulthood, it’s because the feeling, that feeling, hasn’t changed all that much since those first few fish, even if — especially now — almost everything else has.
“There are people in my life who sometimes worry about me when I go off into the fields and streams, not realizing that the country is a calm, gracious, forgiving place and that the real dangers are found in the civilization you have to pass through to get there.” – John Gierach
When you turn on the television, there’s incessant updates: A news line runs along the bottom of local channels updating you on death counts, hotlines for people who suspect that they’re infected, and warnings about not leaving your home for anything but necessities.
The government is scrambling, taking unprecedented measures, in an attempt to help the millions of recently unemployed Americans looking for answers. Restaurants are closing, or offering takeout only, and in places like the Post Office, there are shoe-shaped stickers on the floor showing customers how far apart they should stand.
You’d feel ridiculous wearing a face mask and gloves to get orange juice, soda, peanut butter and bread, except for the fact that everyone else is, too.
And whenever you start thinking that these are stressful times, and you can’t wait until they’re over, you just think: “Thank God the people I love are okay…”
And if there were ever a time when a stream, river, pond or beach offered a welcome escape from the stress of everyday life to a greater degree than it does during this Coronavirus epidemic, I haven’t lived through it.
The trout weren’t cooperating (or, more likely, since I’ve never fished the Moose before this year, I was working the wrong stretch), but I can remember few times in my life when it felt better to just cast into moving water.
Perhaps it’s because the post office, grocery store, supermarket, and highways are either empty or sparsely populated with terrified neighbors, and it’s a disconcerting reminder of our global predicament.
But an empty trout stream looks exactly as it’s supposed to: It’s the one thing that still feels normal, right now.
I want you to know that if you’re behind a glass barricade so that we can get our groceries, if you’re working in an ambulance, at a police office, a post office or a restaurant so we can maintain some semblance of normality in our own lives, I’m grateful for you and saying a prayer for you.
And if you’re on the water, whether it’s after trout, those first migratory stripers that will be showing up in New Jersey, pike, pickerel or panfish, I hope that you have more luck than I did this past week, and I hope you’re reminded that being a fisherman is a gift, a truth that is perhaps more evident now than it ever has been in the past.
Now, first let me say that I am by no means an authority on America’s greatest anglers. I’ve been lucky to fish with a lot of men and women who are spectacular at the sport, from Maine down to the Keys out to San Diego and up to Seattle, but I’m only 26 (alright, 30) and it’d take eleven lifetimes to meet the myriad of talented and knowledgable anglers in this nation. Having that said, I have been fortunate to meet a few, and these stood out above the crowd.
Mike Coppola, Montauk, N.Y.: I love striped bass fishing, and the surf is especially endearing. Whether it’s the sun pulling itself form the ocean and turning the night into day, or bluefish pushing bunker up onto the beach with such ferocity that the baitfish are literally leaping onto the sand to escape being eaten, there are so many moments when fishing the surf that just make the entire experience an incredible one. But I am far, far from a great surf fisherman. I’ve been lucky at times, I’ve read enough to have a basic understanding, but grouping me with a guy like Coppola is tantamount to saying a Formula One racer and a Go Cart driver are “about the same.” I got the chance to fish with Mike on Fish America for Outdoor Life, and he had the entire endeavor down to a science. We waded into the Montauk surf at night, fished until sunrise, and he swam out to rocks in a wetsuit through breakers that crushed me back onto the beach when I attempted to hold my ground. I count myself fortunate that I survived but Mike? Mike, of course, landed a 20-plus-pound striped bass right before the sun came up. Gary “The Toad” Stevens, is right up there, too, in the Montauk scene.
Preston Clark, Florida: If you grow up in an area where you do enough largemouth bass fishing, a funny thing happens. You remember, distinctly, the days when you couldn’t get a lure back to the shore or the boat without landing a fish, and you tend to forget the fruitless days on the water. This can lead to the misconception that bass fishing is “relatively” easy, or something that “everyone can do.” Truth be told, if you do anything enough, you’ll succeed at some point, which is exactly the reason I prefer the driving range to playing 18 actual holes of golf. Something about rooting around in the woods for another lost ball is harder to forget than driving a practice shot into the woods for the umpteenth time. For that, and many other reasons, there’s no shortage of people who’d describe themselves as “good,” or even “great” bass fishermen. Clark, however, is the real deal. I was fishing with Clark in 2010, on a million-degree June afternoon when the Florida bass were impossibly hard to fool. Me? I managed one small fish on the afternoon. Clark caught a largemouth that was in the seven-pound-plus range. Think that was “luck”? Nope, me neither. Clark has been both a professional angler and a guide and I’m here to tell you, he’s one of the best.
Chris Senyohl, Seattle: Seattle gets the reputation as a place where it rains all the time and is generally unpleasant. Guess who is responsible for maintaining that reputation? The people in Seattle, who are aware of the amazing outdoor opportunities that they’d like, if they can, to prevent the rest of the country from finding out about. Senyohl guides in and around the Seattle area and is one of the absolute best (not to mention kindest) anglers I’ve ever fished with. Senyohl, in only about a week’s time, put me on a silver salmon, a pink salmon, and his brother even scared the life out of me on a whitewater rafting adventure. If he could hook a novice salmon fisherman like me up, I can only imagine the wonders he could accomplish with a more experienced angler.
Todd Kersey/Brett Isackson/Steve Niemoeller: I’ll group these guys together because all three work for BassOnline, Florida’s largest freshwater guide service. Kersey amazed me with his knowledge of targeting and catching Florida’s favorite invasives, the peacock bass. Isackson actually invented a lure that looks and acts like the snakes that live near Florida’s freshwater ponds and lakes. Isackson noticed that larger bass, looking for a more substantial meal, were eating snakes that either fell from a tree branch or were slithering over lily pads, and designed and crafted a rubber lure to take advantage of that phenomenon. It takes a certain amount of faith to cast a “snake” bait to largemouth bass, but it’s quickly rewarded when the thing gets devoured. Niemoeller is another guy who invented a lure, his Steel Shad, which you can customize to fish exactly the way you’d like to to target finicky bass. All three are absolutely amazing bass fishermen.
Randy Oldfield, Texas: Randy is another bass guy, in another great bass state. If I were to dare speculate that Texas is second to Florida in terms of its ability to produce giant bass, I’d need to change my name and enter witness protection, so I’ll say that the states are about equal as far as producing big bass goes. Oldfield, however, is (in my opinion) without equal in the Lone Star State. He guides on and around Lake Fork, one of Texas’s most prized bass lakes, and he’s another one of those guys that has bass fishing down to an absolute science. While fishing with Oldfield in 2010, it was overwhelmingly evident once again that bass fishing involves about as much luck as most things in life, which is to say, some, but not much.
Chris Robinson, Florida: Now, I’ve told you about the best Florida bass guides that I’ve met, but you can’t mention Florida without talking about the salt. The Robinson Brothers Guide Service is located in my favorite part of Florida: The Panhandle. Miles away from the traditional “Disney” atmosphere that most people picture when they think of Florida, the Panhandle has beautiful white sand beaches, delicious oysters and some great inshore saltwater fishing. Robinson guides out of Apalachicola and his ability to dial in and target big redfish is incredible.
Tommy Scarborough, South Carolina: I have a distinct memory of the first time I ever fished with Scarborough in 2010. Tommy decided it would be fun to see if I could handle a shark on some lighter tackle, and I’d been lucky to hook up. I’d asked him if he’d be willing to film the fight so that I could later document it for Outdoor Life. As the dusky shark peeled drag and I stood there helpless with the rod bent, Tommy howled in his distinct southern accent: “Looks like you’re getting your butt whooped!” Aside from being a great guide, like all of these guys, Tommy is a great human being. He put me up on his couch (to spare me a night in the Jeep), fed me a home-cooked meal, and continued making fun of me even after he’d put me on enough sharks and redfish to make anyone jealous.
Matt Wettish, Connecticut: This wouldn’t be a list if we didn’t have a trout guy, right? But Wettish isn’t just any trout guy. He designed a system that allows conventional spinning-gear anglers to get (almost) as much fun out of trout fishing as the fly guys do. He fishes in and around Connecticut’s trout water with mealworms on ultra-small hooks, using super-light spinning gear. We’re talking about line as light as 2-pound test, used with a six-foot rod. Connecticut might not seem like it deserves to be in the conversation with Vermont and Montana in terms of “Trout” states, but I changed my mind completely about that notion after seeing a 20-plus-inch brown trout caught out of the Farmington River with Wettish in 2010.
(Joe Demalderis: Okay, I have a tattoo that says “One More,” did you really think I could keep it to eight? Demalderis of Cross Current Outfitters guides on the Delaware River and is an absolute trout savant. The man seemingly knows more about targeting trout on the fly than I know about any single thing. His understanding of the river system and his ability to find and target fish is among the best I’ve ever seen from any trout guide, anywhere. Period.)
If you get a chance to fish with any of these guys, take it… and take notes.
Now, undoubtedly this is going to be a controversial topic, and largely a location-dependent argument (and I’ll stipulate that I’m only discussing the Northeast here), but since the internet was born to, above all other things, spark, fuel and then fan the flames of debate, I’ll go ahead and strike this argumentative match by claiming that May is the greatest month to be an angler. Now at this point you’re either thinking: “Yep, he’s right… for once…” or, “Hold on there buddy!” For those of you in the latter crowd, allow me to make my argument, and keep in mind this is coming from a guy who has spent 28 of his 30 years living in either Massachusetts, New Jersey or Upstate New York. Without further ado, May is the best month because…:
Striped Bass: Yes, it’s true, some stripers arrive to the Northeast in April. Holdover fish become more active in the rivers, and in the latter parts of the month states like New Jersey, where I lived for almost two years, will begin seeing what anglers call “fresh fish,” or migratory fish that, being smarter than the anglers chasing them, spent the winter off the coast of Virginia or North Carolina. But I’d be surprised if any serious striper fisherman considered April a “striper month.” May, however, is a different story. It’s in May that we begin to see those first full-on blitzes off the beach where schools of fish are crashing sand eels or bunker. If you were at a bar discussing the month’s exploits with a bunch of striper guys in the Northeast, and admitted you hadn’t hit the water in April, you might get some cross looks from anglers questioning your commitment. If, however, you said the same thing at the end of May, you’d immediately be shown the door.
Bluefish: Go ahead and curse them all you want, and I won’t even touch on their taste when grilled, but if you can tell me that you’re above bailing bluefish on the beach when they’re blitzing at your feet, then you’re far too good for my social circle. Legend has it that the bluefish show up on Cape Cod on Mother’s Day, and while they’re not always punctual, that’s usually a pretty accurate prediction. I’ve caught a few stripers in the surf, but by far my favorite surf memories are of days when you couldn’t get a plug back to the beach without a bluefish stuck to it.
Largemouth Bass: Here, we have a fish that anglers might not consider a “May” fish, because they’re typically in the Northeast considered more of a summer species. But for all intents and purposes, we’re just seeing the final ice come off the water in April, and May offers the first real shot at spending a comfortable day on the water in pursuit of bass. And show me an angler who doesn’t like largemouth fishing and I’ll show you a liar.
Trout: Here again, April is the month when anglers celebrate this fish, but May is the month we have the best shot at catching them. Don’t get me wrong, April 1 in my native Upstate New York is like a fisherman’s Christmas. The popular trout streams and rivers are as crowded as they’ll ever be. But, if you subjected anyone to a Northeast winter, and especially an Upstate New York one, for as long as we usually get them, it doesn’t take much to get us excited just at the prospect of being outside. When I was about 15, I had an opening day of trout season that might echo the sentiments a lot of my fellow Upstate New Yorkers have about the season’s first weeks. I was wading Nine Mile Creek with two cousins when I took a wrong step, and, in hip waders, took a spill into water that had only recently become something liquid, instead of solid. Drenched and shivering, I sat in a friend’s old station wagon, which couldn’t run too long without overheating, and blasted the heat for 10-minute intervals before killing the engine for as long as I could stand. Whether or not my cousins fished longer than they otherwise might have just to make me tough it out, I’ll never know. But your optimism about the opening of trout season leaves your body a lot faster when your body heat is also escaping through soaked skin, I can tell you that much. In late May, however, I’d wade similar creeks by my house in sandals and a bathing suit, and even be upset when the sun finally sank and I had to retreat home.
So, while every 24 hours we get through after that first snow flies is a blessing bringing us closer to another warm-weather fishing season, it’s May 1 that I really celebrate the season’s beginning. And no matter the excitement that June, July and August might bring, we can’t help but thinking that we’re slowly getting closer to snow with each passing day. May, however, we can steal, savor and soak in. I intend to, and I hope you do too.
Fishing guides, of their nature, are a fascinating type of person, almost all of them. The fishing guides who think: “Oh, I’ll get paid to fish!” are fishing guides for about three days. The good ones realize that fishing doesn’t have a lot to do with it. Yes, you have to be a great angler, but the job is equal parts tour guide, babysitter, PR rep. for the region, knot-untangler, therapist, conversationalist, storyteller, and… well… suffice it to say that if you can’t multitask, you’d be in the wrong line of work. I could never do a guide’s job, for even a single day, but I’ve met some who do it better than you might imagine someone could before you got to fish with them. Because I’ve been lucky enough to fish with guides in almost all of the lower 48, I could never list all the deserving ones who’ve helped in one blog, and this is by no means a “ranking,” of “best guides,” nor is it meant to be. But these guides will always stand out in my memory as fascinating people to have shared the water with.
Brett Isackson, Florida: Isackson is a bass guide with Bassonline, and these guys have the best. From Steve Niemoeller to Todd Kersey, this group is just hands down a crew of top-notch anglers who are fun to share the water with. The amazing thing about Isackson is that he invented a snake bait. Yep, this guy noticed that largemouth bass, and big ones, were eating small snakes at the water’s edge and he set to making a mold that allowed him to replicate the snake to target those big bass. Now, I’m a fishing nut, but I’ve never said to myself “Let me go home and in my garage try to create a bait from plastic that I melt from other baits, which will fool the bass nobody else is catching.” Genius takes many forms, and Isackson is a largemouth savant if ever I’ve met one.
Brook Hidell, Maine: If you cross the border into Maine from Southern New England, you’ll run into all the “Maine” things: a picturesque coast, more lobster restaurants, shacks and shanties than you could shake a stick at, and beautiful coastline. It’s when you keep going that it really gets interesting. Now, Lake Sebago isn’t way up, as far as Grand Lake Stream, but it’s far enough removed where you’re out reach from the day-trippers from Boston. Hidell trolls flies on Lake Sebago (yep, he trolls flies) for the landlocked atlantic salmon and lake trout that inhabit that beautiful part of the country. Again, he’s just one of those guys that took a unique approach to a legendary American fishery, and like Isackson, he couldn’t be nicer to the people he fishes with.
John Kobald, Meeker, Colorado: Now, first I’ll start off with a confession here… I’ve caught fish on the fly, I love fly fishing, but I’m far from great at it. So if a guide can put me on fish on the fly, he’s truly one of the best. Kobald not only got me some of my biggest browns on the fly when I was in Meeker, he even had his son Shane, who could not have been older than 10 at the time, catching 15-inch brown trout on the long rod. Like Isackson, he’s a guy who loves to create, and he is as good of a sculptor as he is an angler.
Matt Wettish, Connecticut: Although Wettish doesn’t guide for a living, he could if he wanted to, and he guided me to one my biggest trout ever.Here’s a guy who really seems to have pioneered a unique way to catch enormous trout. He fishes for them with ultra… UTLRA-light spinning gear (we’re talking 2- and 4-pound test) to almost create a hybrid method between fly and conventional angling. I’ve only caught a few “truly big,” trout in my life, but one was with Wettish, it was all of 18 inches, and the way we caught it had the ultralight drag singing for seemingly endless seconds.
Randy Oldfield, Texas: If all you did, while fishing with Oldfield, was listen to him tell stories about his life before he became a guide, you’d get your money’s worth and then some. But this guy is one of the best bass guides in Texas. He’s truly one of those guys that just has an absolute fascination with, and appreciation for, all the subtleties that make big bass tick, and he puts that knowledge to great use on behalf of his clients.
Chris Senyohl, Seattle: Seattle was one of, by far, the most beautiful parts of the country I got to see, and I have little doubt that it’s because guys like Senyohl took the time to show it to me. Senyohl chases the native species around Puget Sound in a lot of different ways, but backtrolling for chum salmon from a drift boat was about a cool a thing as you could have asked me if i wanted to do at 24, and I’m grateful every day that I did. Letting him talk me into whitewater rafting? That might be a first- and last-time thing for me.
Chris Robinson, Florida: The Robinson Brothers guide service on Florida’s “Forgotten Coast,” are the guys to go to if you’re looking to get away from “Disneyland” Florida for a few days. Robinson is one of the better redfish guides I’ve ever met and a joy to share a day on the water with. He introduced me to oyster rockefeller, a part of Florida I’d fall in love with, and put me on some nonstop redfish action for an entire afternoon.
Tommy Scarborough, South Carolina: This is another one of those guys who, if all you were doing was taking a boat ride with him to hear stories, it’d be worth the money and then some. But Scarborough, who put me up on his couch, hooked me up with a shark and a few redfish in the same week, and managed to even make fun of me while the shark was, in his words “Whupping my butt,” is both a hilarious character and a first-rate angler.
Rob Alderman, North Carolina: Alderman’s specialty, out of the Outer Banks, is kayak fishing. And let me tell you, the OBX is known across the country for its legendary offshore bite, but if you make it to Hatteras and don’t fish from a Kayak, you’re missing something truly special. Again, I’m no kayak expert, but Alderman had me launch in the surf, put me on a few fish, and even made sure I got back to shore in one piece. When, trying to execute a surf landing with the kayak, I flipped the kayak in the wash (waves were breaking hard on the beach) and snapped one of my rods, he said: “At least it wasn’t your neck.” I’ve never felt so good about a broken rod in my life.
Dan Harrison, Massachusetts: I bet there’s a lot of people from the greater Boston area who, in an attempt to see beautiful wilderness, catch wild trout and drift scenic rivers, drive about 40 hours farther than they’d need to. The Deerfield River in Western Mass. is truly one of the most unique bodies of trout water I’ve fished, and when you’re on it you have to keep reminding yourself: “I’m smack dab between New York City and Boston.” The Harrison Brothers guide the Deerfield the way they did out West, and even in Chile, and they bring all that knowledge and experience to bear on a body of water you won’t need to fly back from if you’re a Northeast angler.
(One More) Joe Demalderis: I have the words ‘one more’ tattooed on my arm, you didn’t really think I could stop at ten, did you? Demalderis guides on the Delaware River in Pennsylvania and New York and is one of the more experienced and accomplished trout guides I’ve ever had the pleasure of fishing with. Again, he’s one of those guys who is a wealth of information to share the water with, and will send you home laughing with stories to tell regardless of how the fishing is… although I can’t imagine for the life of me this guy floating a body of water without getting his clients on at least a few trout.
Now, it goes almost without saying that I’ve been luckier than most, and I’ve fished with some amazing guides who I didn’t get the chance to list here, because… well, these blogs are supposed to be relatively short, right? But some day I’ll make a list of the best 100 guides in America, although even then I doubt I’d get to list as many amazing anglers as have helped me on my journey and… anglers who… you should definitely make a part of yours.
One angler's attempt to strike back against skin cancer.