Saturday, November 10, 2018

Home Water

The season is over, at least here in the marsh. Today was one of the few Saturday's I haven't been out there or some other piece of water since late April. Instead of rigging rods I've been making a list of what needs to be done at the house. It's essentially the same list I made at the end of last winter plus about two dozen more tasks I've put off. So, on my way to Lowes I drove out to the point where I could get a look at it one more time before starting on that list.

I've been on this water for nearly two decades. I don't just live on it, it runs through me. I measure time not by the hands of my watch or the calendar on the kitchen wall but by the ebb and flow of the tide running through it, the shift in the seams of its currents and the sound of its waves on the beach. I know it as well as I know myself. I can find my way through it as easily as walking through the house in the dark. It's home.

We all have it. Home water. It might be a series of pools on a stream, a particular rip off a rock pile, miles of water along some tributary or wide open ocean. For some it might be water they grew up on, for others it may be the closest water to where they live. Regardless of where it is or how it came to be known, I'm a firm believer that we don't make it, it makes us. It makes us the angler that we are and that we will become. Flats, backwater, rips, offshore, inshore, structure...we may fish multiple environs but somewhere, in the midst of hours, days and seasons spent there,  we find a connection to a particular piece of water. It becomes a part of us and we become a part of it.

Somewhere in our home water we find those special spots.  The honey hole, the go-to spot, the Location X's; we all have names for a particular place that we've learned over time generally hold fish at a particular stage of tide, hatch or time of year. Some are shared, most are not. They become a very personal place, often for no other reason than they are places we feel completely in our element where we are free to fish for the sake of fishing. Sometimes we don't fish them at all, opting instead to just stand or sit there and observe, study and contemplate. These places remind us that not every day on the water has to be hardcore, badass and epic. It's fishing. That's all it is.

Location X

There is always other water to fish and new stories to find but nothing compares to those found at home.

South River , MA
10 November 2018

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Fair winds and following seas

It took a few days for it to sink in after I heard the news. I just never imagined he’d be gone. Over the years, although we might go a couple of months without talking, he had become family, not just a fishing buddy. No matter how long it had been since we last spoke, we picked up right where we had left things.  

From the first time we met we were tight. We had a lot in common; shared experiences and similar roads made us equals on some levels, time and wisdom made him the teacher and me the student on others. We saw things in the same light. He was one of those friends you could say a hundred words to with just a look. It was the same with him.  It made for conversations short in content but long on meaning.

Our last time fishing together was a great day. He took me around to some of his “spots” telling me in no uncertain terms that it would be to my benefit to keep the locations and access points to myself. We didn’t catch many fish that day but enough to keep talking about at the end of the afternoon as though it had been an extraordinary day.

It was.

I had told him I was going to fish with him in the spring. I didn’t.  I had tied a bunch of flies for him that I said I was sending down. I didn’t.  They’re still sitting in a bag at the corner of my desk. At the end of our last phone call a short time ago I said I’d call the following week. I didn’t.  Time seemed short; I had too much to do or some place to be…now there’s no time.

I should have fished with him in the spring. I could have easily mailed those flies to him. I would have made that phone call if I knew time was running out.

“Should ‘a, could ‘a, would ‘a.” He’d hate that. We talked about those things periodically when discussing opportunities, options and decisions. He’d say, “So do it. Or don’t. It’s up to you.” His point was about not making excuses, about owning whatever you did and living with it, good or bad.

It took me a while to look my guilt in the face and accept it, to find a place to put it and live with it. In living with it, I had to say good-bye, in my own way. Whether it was the right thing or the wrong, I had no idea what else to do or where else to go. So I went. It was tradition, something left over from a previous life. He knew it. He’d understand.

I left the office and stopped at the bar around the corner. I found two seats at the bar, took one and put my coat on the other. I told the bartender my friend would be there in a few minutes and ordered two whiskeys. The bartender set the glasses down and asked if I wanted to start a tab. I paid and told her we were just having one drink and then moving on.

I took a sip and flashed through moments we had shared, conversations we had and images of his cocky smile flooded my memories. I stared in the mirror above the bar and could see him making long effortless casts and splashing around the flats with a fish on. I watched him as I finished my whiskey. He turned and shot me that look that said he knew something that I didn’t and walked out across the flat toward the point where the water meets the sky. Tears were streaming down my face when the bartender brought the change back. She asked me if I was ok. I just nodded, put my glass down and stood up taking one last look at that flat in the mirror. 

“Hey, your friend didn’t show up”, she said holding up the other untouched glass as I turned to leave.

Over my shoulder, I replied, “Yeah, he did.”

Time is short.

Do it, or don’t.

It’s up to you.

I love you, Billy.

From the water
30 October 2018

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

the day the music died

I knew it was a bad idea before I did it. 

I had been into fish as soon as I splashed the kayak. Paddling down river into the tide I had run through pod after pod of schoolies crashing bait on the surface. Conscious of mooring balls and channel markers I tactically fished the edge of the grass and waited to clear the hazards before following the bigger splashes in the channel. It was early, the schoolies were eating on every other cast and other than Wilson Pickett lyrics running through my head I had the water to myself.

Up ahead the tails slapping the surface in the channel were a lot bigger than the rats I had been pulling out of the shallows. I caught sight of a Whaler with two dudes in it both hooked up on fish about a quarter mile in front of me. I wanted to get into those bigger fish before they ran up on me. I cleared the last two mooring balls and a few more paddle strokes put me close to the edge of a pretty good boil. I launched a cast into the middle of it and in a few strips was tight. It was a bigger fish than I expected and let it pull line as I put it on the reel instead of stripping it in. When it went tight on the rod, I started singing “Mustang Sally” out loud with Wilson.

You might ask, “Why is that relevant?” Well, since you asked, I’ll explain. The rod I was fishing was a signature 2018 Cheeky Schoolie Tournament Thomas and Thomas Exocett 8 weight I had won in May. The first day I fished it was one of those days you don’t forget, like one of those days when the sky opens up, the sun shines everywhere and angels sing. It was like a junior high relationship,  like we were made for each other and nothing else existed. We brought a lot of fish to hand that day. I love that rod.
When I fish, I usually have an album or mixed play list from a particular artist or time period playing in my mind. That day The Best of Wilson Pickett was on a continuous loop in my head so I christened the rod “Mustang Sally.” Every time I have looked at that rod or picked up since, all I hear is that song. So I sang and as I brought that fish boat-side I let the chorus rip.
That’s when everything went to shit.

With a few feet of line outside the last guide I reached into my pocket to get the Iphone ready because as we all know; if something isn’t on Instagram it didn’t really happen. While I was trying to open the camera app with one hand and hold the rod in front of me with the other the paddle started to slide and the fish ran to my rear turning the bow of the boat with it. As the bow turned, the Whaler I mentioned before came into view conveniently at the same second the wake it had pushed reached me. It was right about then that I noticed the tide and current had pushed me back to the two mooring balls and I was close to colliding with one of them. I stuffed the phone back in my pocket, wedged the paddle under one arm and tried to get control of the fish, which had managed to pull out enough line to get on the other side of the mooring ball.

That’s when the music went out. Remember what it sounded like when you’d bump the turntable and the needle would run across the record? Well, that’s what I heard as the music ended and a pink Sluggo went flying by my head. And then everything was quiet.

But only for a split second because as I watched the fish turn back and circle around the mooring ball and under the kayak, from somewhere in the back of my mind I heard Neville laughing and yelling at me.

“Oh yeah, you’re in the shit now!”

I tried to paddle with one hand to get up current of the mooring ball but just got pushed up against it. I was fucked. The fish had gotten one good wrap around the mooring line and was going for another. That’s when Nev came into view (self-diagnosed temporary hallucination) bobbing along on his back with a pair of Aqua-Man water wings and a can of Jack’s Abbey Post Shift clutched to his chest.

He took a sip, looked up at me with a very serious expression on his face and said, “You’re going to fucking break my rod!”

Knowing he was a mirage I chose not to respond and leaned into the water to try and unwrap the fish. What I should have done was back off the line, get the rod and line under control and then figure out how to get to that fish or break it off. But I didn’t. I put the butt the rod between my knees and reached down frantically grasping at the line trying to get to the fish and in so doing nearly flipped the kayak. I didn’t go over but somewhere in the blur of a split-second I heard that sound none of us want to hear. Flopping around in the boat had popped the rod from between my knees and the angle and force of the line with the weight of me and the kayak bent the rod and broke the tip just past the last ferrule.

“Noooohhhh, you fucking broke my rod. Damn it. I told you…I can’t believe it.”

Looking at Nev, who wasn’t really there, I raised my hands up in the air and shrugged.

From the Whaler I heard one of the guys yell, “Yeah, that sucks, man. It happens.”

Neville laughed and pointed at me.

“Just send it to us, we’ll fix it.”

He took another sip of beer, eased back on his water-wings and kicked his way out of my view and out of my mind.

I did get the fish released. Then I called Jill, had her meet me on the riverbank with another rod and went back out. There were more fish that day but no music.

Over the last couple of weeks as I’ve looked at that rod sitting in its tube in the corner of my tying  room I’ve heard the lead-in to “Thunderstruck” faintly fade in and out. I’m getting that feeling. I fucking love that rod.

 I may re-name it Malcolm when we get back on the water and make some more music.  

South River, MA
7 August 2018

Friday, July 20, 2018

Turning Tides, Healing Waters

Just before this past Christmas I was at a fishing event in Boston and met Joe Cresta, Program Lead of the Saugus, MA and Bedford, MA Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing (PHWFF) programs.PHWFF is an organization I had wanted to get involved with for a while. Like everything, juggling time to get involved with another program had been holding me back. Talking with Joe that night and hearing stories of injured and disabled veterans making the transition back to civilian life and what PHWFF does to assist them made me realize it was time to make time.

I never served but in my previous vocation I had the privilege and honor of training and working with several elements of the combined services. They all hold a special place in my heart not only for their service to this country and the sacrifices they and their families make, but also for the code that exists between them. Tying a few flies and spending some time with veterans and fly rods is the least I can do for what they have done for the rest of us.

Through Joe I learned about the inaugural PHWFF Narragansett Bay Stars and Stripers fishing event scheduled for this summer and he put me in touch with the organizer, Capt. Keith Tanner. I signed on to provide some flies for the participants and to be there to help in any way I could.

The event was a couple of weeks ago based out of Allen Harbor Marina in North Kingstown, RI. I drove down the night before and as I cranked the tunes and let the work week roll off my mind I thought about the PHWFF mission statement:

“Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, Inc. is dedicated to the physical and emotional rehabilitation of disabled active military service personnel and disabled veterans through fly fishing and associated activities including education and outings.”

There is a phrase, or to stay current, a hashtag I see used in social media all the time: #flyfishingsaveslives. I’m not sure it’s usage is always literal but in my own experience I know it has grounded me when I thought I was lost. It's been there to look forward to when I've had to get through a bad stretch of life. It's brought me peace, chaos, joy, frustration, gratitude and aggravation,  sometimes all within a few seconds of each other. More than anything, it's given me time. Time on my own where I can clear my head and really think about life without distraction. Time shared with old friends and time meeting new ones. All of this has left me with an understanding that there is something received in the catch and something let go in the release. What those things are, that's up to the angler. Fly fishing may or may not save lives but I've learned that somewhere in it, it can help to make life better. That's what I hoped the participants in the event the next day would find. 

The next morning greeted us with near perfect conditions. After gear was rigged, participants were checked in and breakfast was served, Capt. Keith assembled the entire group for a quick briefing on the schedule of the day and the playing of the National Anthem. Standing in front of the flag with a group of people who have given so much of themselves to defend it was humbling.

Anglers were paired up and assigned to their boats and I watched the faces of everyone as the first boats went out. Some were experienced and had their game faces on, some had that excited but unsure look you see in the line at a roller coaster, but smiles were everywhere.

Keith had told me a few days prior that one of the special guests of the day, USMC Lt. Col. Mike Zacchea would be fishing on his boat. I had done a little research on the Colonel.  I jumped at the chance to crew for Keith. The Colonel had brought his son, Colin, and Keith had brought his son Henry so the game plan was for Keith to fish the two boys with spinning gear and I'd help the Colonel on the fly rod.

This is about fishing with new friends so I'm not going to even try to detail the Colonel's service to our country or to our veterans but I will throw a few things in here. He's a third generation Marine, had deployments to Haiti, Somalia and Iraq, received two Bronze Stars, the Purple Heart and Iraq's Order of the Lion of Babylon, was tasked with training and leading the first Iraqi Army battalion trained by the US and was deep in the middle of the Battle of Fallujah and while there was nearly blown up when an RPG exploded just a few feet away from him. Among many other things, the Colonel now advocates for veterans as the Executive Director of the US Veterans Chamber of Commerce, Chairman of the SBA's Advisory Committee on Veterans Affairs and is the Director of the Entrepreneur Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities at UConn. He's also a published author and I recommend his book, The Ragged Edge: A US Marine's Account of Leading the Iraqi Army 5th Battalion.

Keith had some intel on a spot off Newport so we made the run down Narragansett Bay from Allen Harbor. Pulling up to the spot I had a good feeling. I set the anchor and Keith watched the fish finder. We had a lot of bait and were marking fish in forty feet of water. Keith got the boys going on the spinning rods with jigs and I did my best to give the Colonel a casting lesson. Casting a fly rod takes a while to learn. I could sense his frustration in the beginning but the Colonel, having lived a mission-oriented life was getting it faster than most I've coached. I threw a wrench in his progress when Keith and I decided to put a quick-sink leader on to get the fly down deeper. Marines overcome and adapt, he was doing ok with it after a few casts. While he made casts I coached him up a bit and talked about fishing. Knowing a little about what this man has accomplished in his life and been through I felt somewhat awkward trying to explain that he needed to pause a little longer on his backcast or redirecting how he held the line as he stripped it. But the Colonel was very gracious and listened to what I said and would ask a question now and then so as the morning went on that awkward feeling went away.

About an hour into it Colin hooked into what we all hoped was a striped bass on the jig. It turned out to be a dogfish but it didn't matter, the smile on that kid's face was all that was needed.
Col. Zacchea, Colin "Sharkboy" Zacchea, Capt. Keith Tanner

A few minutes later Colin went tight again, this time with a fluke.

I watched the Colonel with Colin. The love that pours out of this man for his son is palpable.  The day wasn't just about introducing the Colonel to fly fishing, it was about time between father and son.
The Colonel and Colin
With two "fish" in the boat and time starting to run out Keith pointed us back toward a spot near the marina where we could finish out the morning before heading back in for lunch. It was here, while the Colonel continued to cast, that I stepped up to the edge and began asking him questions about his transition back to the world, his injuries, PTSD, TBI and his struggles and frustration with the VA system. We shared some personal stories, found some common ground and I think if time had allowed, could have wound up talking all day.

We didn't have much luck fishing-wise in this spot either. I made a few casts and pinned a small bluefish and Keith threw the fly for a few and was bitten off by what we assume was another blue. Just shy of noon we headed back in to meet up with the other boats for lunch and closing remarks from a few guests.

Getting back to the marina we learned that everyone else had experienced the same thing. Most had marked fish but they were really too deep to get to with fly gear. Following lunch and awaiting presentations I made my way back to the Colonel to share the photo's I had taken and listened to him talking with another Marine who had been in Fallujah.  Turns out this other Marine, Col. Todd Desgrosseilliers is also the President and CEO of PHWFF and is practically family. He grew up in Maine a short distance from where I was raised and just happened to go to high school and college with my brother-in-law. Small world.

As I listened to them talk about being in the same firefights, about being wounded and the things they had done for those fighting beside them and vice-versa, I had chills. I mentioned the "code" that exists between warriors. Listening to these two Marines talk and watching their faces I was reminded of a line from the character "Hoot" in the movie Blackhawk Down.

"They won't understand why we do it. They won't understand that it's about the men next to you, and that's it. That's all it is."

It was a powerful moment that brought the day into focus and was reinforced by the closing comments made by Keith, PHWFF New England Regional Coordinator George Draper, Lt. Col. Zacchea and Col. Desgrosseilliers.
We didn't get the Colonel on a fish that day but I hope that in the two his son caught he received something, a memory or a shared moment, and in their release was able to let something else go.

With the Colonel photo: Capt. Keith Tanner
I'll be back for next year's event and I hope the Colonel will as well so that we can continue what we started.
For more information, click the links below:

South River, MA
20 July 2018

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Father's Day

For my daughter,

June 2018. It came faster than I could ever have imagined. It’s been a big month for you. Graduation from high school two weeks ago, college orientation this past week and in a few days you’ll turn eighteen. It’s been a big month for me as well. While I am excited for you to start the next chapter I wrestle with holding on and letting go.

Today is Father’s Day. I’ve never considered it as a day that warrants parades and banquets. In my own way I’ve celebrated every day since you were born as Father’s Day. It has been my greatest joy and privilege being your dad and watching you grow up. I am so proud of what you have accomplished and the young woman you have become.

I know what you're thinking, why am I writing this and putting it out on the blog. Because I can, dude! And because every time I think about shutting this all down you tell me I should keep doing it because it's who I am. You have been the one person who has supported me through all of this.

If you look at the "What" page it says, "In these backwaters life happens, solitude is found, stories are created, friendships are forged and memories are made." My favorite part of the last eighteen years has been seeing the world through your eyes and as you've grown older, listening to you describe how you see the world and experience life.
You've taught me much about life, about what it means to be a father and in the end, about myself.
 You’re about to move on with your life and take the next step to wherever your journey carries you. Other than knowing where you’re going to college the future seems uncertain. It should. You’re at one of those magical places in life that teeters between being exciting and terrifying.

Embrace it. Learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Put yourself out there.  Walk up to the edge and look over it. Never lose your curiosity about what lies over the horizon. Some of the best things in life are those that are unexpected, things that you stumble across or that find you when you're not looking.
I'm not going to bullshit you, life is tough. You'll struggle through failure and success. We all do. Your grandfather once told me, "If you don't make mistakes, you're doing something wrong." Learn from it all. Mistakes are the foundation of getting things right. Strength comes from the struggle.

If she were here, your grandmother would throw this little nugget at you (I heard it a lot over the years), "The same boiling water that softens the potato hardens the egg. It's not the circumstances, it's about what you're made of." You're made of good stuff. Don't forget it.

At the end of the "Why" page I wrote, "In the end, the only thing that any of us really own is our story. I just want to live a good one." 

You are, and always will be, the best part of my "story."

Now start writing yours.

I love you, 

South River, MA
17 June 2018

Friday, May 25, 2018


216 x 2 = 432

Four hundred and thirty-two…that’s how many anglers registered for last week’s Cheeky SchoolieTournament. Think of it this way, between 0600hrs and 1430hrs, just from the tournament participants, there was close to three quarters of a mile of fly rods throwing approximately 8.59 miles of fly line on Cape Cod. At the buzzer over 9000 inches of striped bass were caught, recorded by photo, released and entered into the tournament. Who knows how many total fish/inches of fish were actually caught. Based on what The Beast (the other half of Team Dirt Bag) and I saw, the number  blows my mind.
Cheeky CEO Ted Upton

The rules are simple. Two anglers per team, fly rod only, wade-fishing on Cape Cod only, the largest four fish are recorded by camera with tape measure and photo puck and all are released. The tourney is billed as “a low barrier to entry, grass roots style event designed to encourage the interest and growth of saltwater fly fishing.” What does that mean? It means anyone with a fly rod can enter and stands a chance to be in the group of top rods at the end of the day. All those who fish regardless of whether they are an industry pro, guide, weekend warrior or newbie all start out from the same place, endure the same wind, weather, water and tide conditions and are all subject to the fish either being here in force or not. Off-season intel development, pre-fishing, and rolling the dice on whether to fish one spot hard or keep moving…that’s up to each team. Home-water status by being a Cape resident – that’s just life, man.

This year was the seventh running of the tournament. I’ve been at all of them. The first year there were about thirty of us standing in the dirt parking lot of a beach bar as the sun rose over the Bass River. It started out really as a group of friends going out to catch as many small fish as possible to raise a few bucks for conservation and charity groups. It has evolved into the world’s largest catch-and-release fly fishing only tournament. At this point in history, based on what science tells us, there may be an argument to be made that it has become the largest event of its kind in the universe.

But seriously, the whole thing was created to be a season opener, to bring fly anglers together for a fun day and generate some enthusiasm for our sport over a few beers while raising money and awareness to benefit our fisheries. Judging by the turnout this year, and the joint $3000.00 donation to Stripers Forever by Cheeky and the American Fly Fishing Trade Association at the end of the day, the mission was accomplished again this year and expectations exceeded.

The size of the tournament may have grown, but from the beginning, at its heart, it was about the fish and about each other.

It still is.

Well done.

Cape Cod, MA
25 May 2018