Wednesday, January 16, 2019

The Shed

We fell in love with our house the first we time we walked into it with our realtor. It had everything we were looking for but there were two “OMFG” items that sold it to us: the kitchen and the shed. The kitchen might be a story for another time. This one starts with the shed.

We opened the door to the shed that day and gave each other the “we could just live out here” look. I thought about moving my fly tying into it. Jill thought about moving her art and woodworking into it. Possibilities began to outgrow the available space. As the dust settled from the move and the volume of power tools we each brought into the relationship and into the shed increased it was clear what should go where. So I set up a work space using a couple of tables on one wall so that she could get going on Jill Mason Art and Photography. 

As we have bounced around the last few years fishing, going to places old and new and taking the occasional “Mike Rice Field Trip” (drive/hike/paddle until you get somewhere that looks cool on a tank of gas and scrounged beer money) the cameras and the notebooks have gone with us capturing images and words of what speaks to us in the heart of a moment, a first look on the approach, something unexpected or in the details of a memory.

In our travels we started talking about combining our pursuits outside the nine-to-five; fly fishing, photography, her artwork and my ramblings in the written word into something that we could do together for no other reason than it’s what we do. These conversations became repetitious and centered on being on the water and in the sun, finding the emotive and unvarnished rather than analytical and manufactured stories and images of people and places outside of the noise and away from the mainstream, regardless of social media metrics.

During a “field trip” last fall to a quiet little bar on Cape Cod we tossed around the idea of a space online where we could combine all of what we do into a format that would interest us and that might interest people like us. After the unpopular discussion of how to do this in between paychecks and tuition bills we agreed there is no good time to start and no reason not to. I opened my notebook and stared into the mirror behind the bar. “Maybe you should have a whiskey,” she said. That’s what started it. From there the rough plans for “Sand, Light and Water” were drawn.

Over the last few weeks I’ve built out the shed to create a work space for both of us. When I started I saw it as a blank page, a new chapter and endless possibility. 

I was reminded of other “work spaces”. The “Tin Shed” where Chouinard started forging climbing gear, the “Hell House” where Lynyrd Skynrd wrote their first two albums and the garage in which Scott Hunter started sewing Vedavoo Gear. I am in no way comparing us to any of them; each has inspired me over the years and is part of the “soundtrack” of my life. All of them took who they were, what they had, found a place and created something with gritty passion. 

That is what we are going to do.

The keel has been laid and the hull is almost done.

We’ve still got some work to do. 

When we launch, we hope you’ll tag along.

The Shed
South River, MA
16 January 2019

Monday, December 24, 2018


I’m drawn to the obscure places when I fish, those places outside the mainstream, unheard-of and often overlooked.  They interest me. I’m curious about what they may or may not hold. I’m the same way when it comes to the people in fly fishing. While I read, watch and listen to a great deal of the ”how-to/when-to/you-should” stuff that’s in-print and online, I’m more interested in what’s between the lines, outside the page edges and behind the images; the blood and guts, if you will, of not only the story but the story teller.  To hijack a line from Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting:

“Personally…I don’t give a shit about all that, because you know what, I can’t learn anything from you I can’t read in some fuckin’ book. Unless you want to talk about you, who you are. Then I’m fascinated. I’m in.”

Everything has a story in it. Everyone has a story in them. Life is a library

About a year and a half ago this kid ordered some flies from me and we started messaging about flies and fishing philosophy. We finally met in person this past spring and put faces to names. A short time ago we had the chance to trade some stories and thoughts over cheap beers in a dingy bar. We told the same tales, different in the details but the same in spirit. So, while Backwater Flats has been my place to vomit out my story and what I’ve seen, I’m taking a year-end breather here to let Nick Jones put his out there.

Why I converted from spin to fly only.

I suppose, like all fishing stories, I should try to get the facts right and to leave the exaggeration out of it, for once. It was at a very young age that I fell in love with this obsession we call fishing. It started like most, with my old man catching bass and pickerel in ponds around my old haunts on the south shore — all memories close to the heart. It wasn’t until my stepfather came into my life that I discovered the salt at age 14. Every season was spent on his boat, throwing plugs and trolling tube and worms. I would spend my summer nights out on the beaches of Scituate throwing mackerel with fish finders, while my mornings were spent surfing and spear fishing. I would chase the last of the schoolies in November and ditch class only to show up for last period covered in bait and smelling like a beer can. I became a “canal rat” through my high school years, waiting for the new moon tides in the hopes of catching a fish in the 40’s. Following in the footsteps of my uncles—who spent their whole lives chasing “the one” at the ditch—I was in love. I would obsess over thoughts like, “Why weren’t they there today?” or “Maybe I’ll try low on the east end tomorrow.” This fishing disease kept me going and was all I thought about.

For all the good fish that I pulled from the ditch, it almost became boring and routine. The etiquette that was once found on the canal had changed and I couldn’t watch people ride off with 40-inch fish on their handle bars anymore. Something was missing and the obsession went dormant. I didn’t fish for 3 years. I’ve lived in Boston since I was 18—well, not technically. A lot of those years were spent on friends’ couches and, although one of those friends happened to be an avid fly fisherman, I never thought much about it. Being so close to Boston Harbor, I would break out the rod when friends weren’t around and go hit some of my favorite spots around town, catching a few schoolies if I was lucky and having a burger at Sully’s. The obsession started to wake up again. I realized, regardless of how bad things got in life, fishing was always there for me.

I fished more and more. My lifelong friend who fly fished came out with me one night. I remember watching him cast; it was like watching an artist and—at the same time—an absolute idiot! I would say, “Dude, a 50-foot cast ain’t gonna get you into any fish.” Much to my dismay, he out-fished me that night and pretty much every night after that. Weeks, maybe even months, later he brought me to Plymouth and we went fishing for trout. He lucked into one and handed me his fly rod; it was like I had just caught my first fish all over again. I felt like I was back on Houghton’s Pond with my old man catching my first bass. Or even like that feeling I’m sure some people get when they see the grass at Fenway Park. I could never express that feeling in words. I dove headfirst into fly fishing. My obsession went from semi-dormant to an explosion.
Photo courtesy of Nick Jones
I find that fly fishing is more enjoyable because of its intimacy. You’re tying your own fly, your casting needs a perfect rhythm and, while you’re getting all your line in order, you’re hoping your technique might be coy enough to trick this fish into eating this fly. There is no better feeling than catching a fish on something that you created. I still have a lot of love for all my Gibbs plugs and my collection of Penn’s, but so much more goes into this side of the sport. This may hurt the ears of my spinner friends—and I don’t take one day I’ve had on a spin rod for granted—but having done both styles, I think it takes a lot more skill to catch fish on the fly. Now, I’m the one who’s hearing, “All you catch is schoolies,” and “Can’t you cast out a little further than that?” The truth is I would rather catch a thousand schoolies on a fly rod than try to catch “the one” at the ditch on a buck tail jig any day. The fly is the only thing that does it for me anymore. I’m a junkie and there are no interventions that will change it. 
Photo courtesy of Nick Jones
There are so many different retrieves to try, so many new flies to tie and my personal best isn’t about the size of my catch. Looking back I don’t think it ever was. Hand-stripping a fish on a fly rod has brought me closer to nature and the fishery as a whole. I feel more connected to the fight and at the end of the brawl we get to shake hands and go our separate ways. When you catch a decent fish on the fly and you’re into your reel, the handle will bust your knuckles up and now you know you’re in it. This is a feeling I never felt on a spin rod. Nobody really understands fly fishing for stripers until you try it for yourself; I’ll gladly do the same thing my friend did for me for anyone who wants to try it. If I hook a fish, I’ll hand the rod over in hopes that they will feel what I did. Watching my fly line and seeing my fly land perfectly flat on the water is a personal best for me every time it happens. I don’t care about a picture of me holding some cow out of the ditch anymore. I just want to watch my fly hit the water, fish or no fish. You learn to appreciate your skunks a lot more because every cast you get a little better and you figure out a little more about yourself. So get out there, bruise your knuckles up, strip that fish in, and watch the best moments of your life between the casts.
Photo courtesy of Nick Jones

Nick Jones
24 December 2018

Monday, December 17, 2018


I followed Matt out of town along Route 30 toward Dorset. Crammed into his rig along with fly rods, wading gear and fly boxes were his wife Amanda, and his sons, Cam and Jonah. We had no clear destination, just some mumbled words from the bar the night before about "...follow the road and you'll see water."

We had been in Manchester, VT at the American Museum of Fly Fishing for the weekend to attend the opening of the "On Fly in the Salt" exhibit and to participate in the annual Fly-Fishing Festival. Saturday night had turned into Sunday morning faster than I had anticipated after finishing a second bottle of Pinot while telling fishing and non-fishing stories with my buddy Alex. Thankfully, as is the case with most New England towns, Dunkin was there and a large regular and an Old Fashioned had muffled the sound of the windshield wipers and brought me back to life. It wasn't raining so much as the air was just saturated with water. But it was August and there was no reason not go for a walk in the woods in the rain
Matt pulled off onto a side road and crept along as we passed over a small stream almost visible through the branches and leaves from the bridge above. We found parking in a clearing just past the stream and I savored the last of my coffee as he geared his family up. He went about rigging rods with flies I could barely see and gave tips to the boys as they forced wading boots on over neoprene socks, his words and tones seemingly dwarfed by the size of the flies he was tying to leaders. I wondered if he was reliving a similar moment with his father as I recalled my own quietly telling me to load my rifle and what to look for as we prepared to enter the woods next to the upper field at the farm. History repeating; different, but the same.
Gearing up.

I had opted not to fish, choosing instead to bring the camera and notebook along. I was looking forward to traipsing around the woods and exploring a new place. It had been a long time since I had followed a stream through the woods. After two decades of walking beaches, sand flats and muddy salt creeks, the art of silently and gracefully walking through understory and windthrow that was once second nature seemed foreign. Stepping into the trees was like stepping back in time, old instincts and reflexes returned without a thought. We made our way down a short ridgeline through broadleaf's and evergreens to a "flat" of sorts, blanketed with ferns and woody shrubs. The gray light penetrating the canopy above cast a metallic-green glow through the air around us and the drops of water falling off the leaves and branches reminding me of bioluminescent phytoplankton in the wake of ships at sea.

Standing at the edge of the stream, Matt had a few words with the boys and then watched them as they headed upstream on their own. The look on his face as they walked off on their own was one of pride and confidence. This was one of the moments I was fishing for that day, watching my friend, as a father, impart some of what he had been taught and learned on his own to his sons and observe history being passed on and made in the same heartbeat.

Matt and Amanda crossed to the far side of the stream and began making their way down to a deep hole in the elbow of a dogleg. I dropped down the other side trying to avoid getting too close to the stream bank and found a small clearing below where I watched Matt pointing out pieces of water and quietly explaining to Amanda what he was seeing.
Matt & Amanda Smythe
This was another moment I had wanted to see. Amanda had just started fly fishing earlier in the year and while this outing was just part of the beginning of her fishing experience, it was becoming part of their history together. I knew what that meant to them both.

They started casting into the hole and working the water around it making rod length casts and mending their lines in the current. I watched mesmerized by the delicacy and precision of their movements laughing to myself in the knowledge that later in the day I would be back in the marsh throwing eighty foot casts into the river with no concern or regard for anything other than getting the line out there believing all the while that I was being delicately precise in my delivery.
Matt & Amanda Smythe

It wasn't long before we heard Jonah shout from upstream. Matt and I made our way to him where he was beaming with a brookie at the end of his line. I looked around the water Jonah had been fishing, no more than ten or twelve inches deep and maybe six feet between the banks. I'm not a trout fisherman so the idea that he had caught a fish in that water was impressive to me. More so was his concern about releasing the fish without injuring it and the maturity he showed about the whole thing. Jonah just quietly told his father he needed help getting the fly out, which Matt did quickly, made up his rod and with a pat on the head took off to his next spot. The look on Matt's face? Pride and confidence.
Jonah's brookie
I decided to follow the boys from there and would circle around them, back and forth, along the stream watching them not only fish but as they would pause every few minutes to look around where they were, standing silent and seem to ponder it all. They continued separately up the stream bed around obstacles and through overgrowth, naturally moving with the innate and acquired skills of woodsmen. In a world where it seems most people, not just kids their ages, are physically and emotionally dependent on some sort of electrical device to navigate their way through an increasingly digital life it was refreshing to see these two boys make their way toward whatever was ahead and yet seen,  fully aware of, and engaged with, the natural world around them.

Jonah Smythe
I even found myself standing silent, immersed in both the mortality and immortality of where we were and what we were doing. Sitting on a boulder at the edge of the stream and watching Cam studying the water in front of him I was reminded of a poem his father had written. Some of the words washed through me and circled my mind like the water flowing over and around the rocks at my feet.

"I run solo but I'm not alone.

It's in my blood. My Blackfoot ancestry. I feel them running with me and the hair on my neck and forearms stands on end. I hear them in the wind off the lake and in the song of leafed branches overhead.

I was given endurance and two legs that respond when I say go.

I was not given excuses.

I run because I can and carry everything on these two feet and shoulders, until I carry nothing."

I don't think he knew I was there but if he had asked me what I was doing, I would have told him I was watching the poet's son living the poet's words.

Cam Smythe
The title of the poem is "Give Me Trails." Matt and his friends Denver Miller and J.R. Kraus put the poetry to film. You can watch it and hear it in Matt's voice HERE.

Eventually we regrouped and made our way back up the ridge to the clearing. We packed up, said our good-byes and began the trek back to our lives.

We came together to celebrate the history held by the American Museum of Fly Fishing. On our walk in the woods, I hope we made some, and found some, of our own.

Manchester, VT
12 August 2018

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