Tuesday, December 31, 2019

somethng from nothing

Around this time of year, we see and hear words like happiness and joy tossed around and although I recognize the sentiment in which they’re used, I wonder if we understand the difference anymore. It reminds me of a conversation I had with a co-worker a while back while looking at a photo of a fish that I had caught the previous weekend.


A comment was made, more in the form of a question than an assertion, that I “must find happiness in fly fishing.” I began to respond in the affirmative and then paused, revising my response to say that I “receive joy” from the process of fly fishing but that the end result, catch or no catch, really has nothing to do with it. My co-worker seemed perplexed and asked why I would spend so much time doing something if I was not concerned with some form of a” prize” at the end. I dug way back in the memory bank to the psychology and philosophy classes I took in college and the study sessions we had over cheap beer. I explained happiness is corporeal, based on an attachment to an expected reward of doing or receiving something. It usually accompanies a successful completion of whatever is being done.  Joy is ethereal, connected more to the spiritual side or reason for doing something. The joy of doing something, if we’re lucky, is always present regardless of the outcome.

I know, a little deep. And while it is New Year’s Eve, no, I have not opened the tequila. Not yet.      

I went on to explain the events, the process if you will, behind the fish in the photograph. I had spent an hour fishing one section of water along an edge of an oyster bar that dropped off into a deeper channel. There were fish moving up on to the bar from the channel but were being selective. I had a few follows but none would commit and take the fly. I had considered changing the fly but the one I was using is my go-to pattern and I knew eventually it would get taken. I explained it’s like the twenty-dollar Casio that’s been on my wrist for almost as long as I can remember. It’s beat to hell, isn’t fancy and just keeps working. Even when the battery runs out, it’s still correct twice a day.

I kept casting at those fish, watching them follow the fly, relying on the strong sense of confidence that years of the ebb and flow of trial and error impart. It is still life’s greatest teacher, earned and then learned. Eventually one fish followed the fly and turned off it and paused. I water-hauled the fly and put it back out in front of him off to his left. I knew he was going to take it before he did. Two strips into the retrieve he turned on it and ate it. I felt “happy” as the line went tight, but it lasted only for as long as it took it to release him. I have no immediate recollection of that “happiness” today. The joy from the process of working those fish, staying with that one fly, watching the take and then seeing him swim away afterward…I feel that as I write this today as I do the blood in my veins.

So, in the final hours of 2019, I bid all a Happy New Year and hope that in that happiness, whether you fish or not, we all find joy in 2020.

See you on the other side.

South River, MA

31 December 2019

Friday, November 8, 2019

four days from my island

Today began without last night ever ending. Wide awake for most of it, I greeted the orange rumbling of dawn with a second cup of coffee on the front porch. The kitchen thermometer read thirty-seven, a clear sign the season is over but something inside me said, "Wait, not yet." Weighing the idea of beginning the fall clean up against floating the river one last time I walked through the leaves in the backyard and pulled the kayak off the rack. Ten minutes later I was paddling downriver as the sun finally made its way into the sky to my right. The river, empty, quiet and smooth as glass, reflected my thoughts back at me as I went from spot to spot searching for one fish to end the season on. Three hours of wet wading the mud and grass at the lower end of my tolerance of hypothermia. With no sign of any straggling striped bass, I turned and made my way for home making one final stop to throw a Hail Mary at my personal Last Ditch Gulch. There was no gold to be found but after two or three dozen "last cast's" the line went tight and I touched silver stripes one more time.

Cold and wet but feeling alive and happy, I sat on the sand wrapped around my coffee bottle as the sun finally created some warmth. I watched the light on the water and thought about the season, the people who drifted through it and the world on the dry side of the water's edge I sometimes don't see so clearly.  In the here-today-gone-tomorrow, who-am-I-today, swipe left or right instant world, it's easy to overlook the heart of a moment and the soul of those in it. The truth in a personal or shared experience gets edited, filtered and defined by awareness, engagement, conversion and consumer metrics while we get lost in the "climb" with the herd. I find myself retreating from all that more and more, surrounding myself with fewer personae, less "stuff" and replacing screen time with listening to "Peace of Mind" by Boston over and over.  Comfortable with where I am, I just don't care if I get left behind.  I was recently at a cocktail party where an old acquaintance brought this up. After giving me his review of my personal and business social media pages and activity, he favored me with several suggestions to increase my "market presence" based on what other people in the fly tying / fly fishing world do. Turning away to visit the bar, I responded by paraphrasing Thoreau and asserting that fools stand on their own island of opportunity and look toward another land losing sight of their own existence.

I sifted these thoughts as I got back in the boat and paddled upriver, carrying my island with me.

In May I spent a morning in the very spots I fished today with my friend and favorite writer, Matt Smythe. Our friendship is one of those where few words are necessary to share a complex conversation and when it comes to fishing, it's about the act of it, and the place that it occurs. Catch or no catch, it's the passion for the next stretch of water, anticipation of the next cast and the suspense of the retrieve we placidly share. It was a privilege to share that time with him as he got in on some early season striped bass action, the serenity of the day outdone only by his statement to me of, "I see why you're where you're at."

Matt Smythe

Somewhere along the way Jill and I were fishing a piece of grass bank when she walked off on her own and set up on a piece of water I had pointed out earlier in the spring while explaining when and how to fish it. In short order she hooked up and released a striper on her own without saying a word. There has been much written about fishing with your significant other. It may not be for everyone but it works for us. Jill and I both cringe when we introduce the other as "girlfriend" or "boyfriend," at our age it just doesn't sound right so we try to be hip and over-fifty cool by employing the term "life partner" when we can. We've looked at our relationship as a partnership from the beginning so it makes sense. It carries whether we're on the water, chasing an image or building a project on our "island." 

Jill Mason

In August Jill, Abby and I traveled to Vermont for the annual Fly Fishing Festival at the American Museum of Fly Fishing. I had the privilege of tying flies in the Tier's Tent with Scott Biron, Greg Brown, Mark Dysinger, Rhey Plumley, Nick Santolucito and Rich Strolis. These guys donated their time to help introduce people to fly tying, share some fishing stories and pass on a few tips. Behind the table, from years of friendship and respect for each other's work, we shared ideas and opinions with no lane changes, branding, influencing or pirating maneuvers. It was reaffirming to spend the day with friends, old and new, there for a shared love of the sport and respect of its history that is contained within the walls of the museum and understanding that what we do now is built on what was done by those before us.

Left to right: Nick Santolucito, Mud Dog, Rich Strolis, Mark Dysinger
Photo: American Museum of Fly Fishing / Alex Ford

The day got away from me. Lost in thought I had paddled farther upriver and out and back more side creeks than I had planned. I turned around and chased the setting sun and this last day of the season  along the edges of my island.

South River, MA
2 November 2019

Thursday, August 15, 2019

avis prede

Behind me I could hear and smell Sunday morning getting started in the summer rentals along the beach. Voices of families planning the day echoed over the smell of bacon and toast as the morning dog walkers, joggers and paddleboarders made their way into the heat and humidity before it got too uncomfortable. Over the beach an ultralight under a red canopy buzzed back and forth.

Across the river in front of me a few schoolies were ambushing bait where the river proper poured itself into a shallow-bottomed creek. They were well out of casting range but I had timed it this way hoping that when the tide turned in a half hour the change in the direction of the river and the push of water out of that creek would deposit the action directly in front of me.

I started blind casting while I waited out the tide, weighing the pros and cons of adding another payment “app” to my fly business. I had spent the previous morning at the bank dealing with the pleasantries of one of my accounts being breached. I remember a time when things of this nature were treated as a major event worthy of investigation and reprisal. Now it seems they are as trivial as getting an oil change or a haircut. I guess I’m showing my age, but the idea of putting my financial information out there in another area of the soulless faceless wireless world was not something that excited me. Recently, I had conversation with a good friend and customer about this. He happens to be from an “older school” than I am but he’s hipper to the “new” ways. He basically told me “you’ve got to adapt to survive.” Great. More usernames and passwords to remember.

An osprey appeared from upriver and began circling the mouth of the creek at about two hundred feet. I’ve become obsessed this summer with watching two pair of these birds and their fledglings who nest near some of my favorite spots. Also known as fish hawks, river hawks or sea hawks, they are amazing to watch and listen to. Like many other species, the osprey was seriously threatened by the effects of DDT and other pesticides in the mid 1900’s. With the ban of these pesticides and other chemicals in the early 1970’s, at least here in the US, the osprey population has rebounded significantly.  The osprey is one species that has adapted to survive, commonly nesting, brooding and raising fledglings on the edges of and within waterfront communities, marinas and urban sprawl. Another reminder that the world continues to get to smaller as society grows larger. I wonder how much more the planet can adapt to survive humankind.

I watched the osprey circle above as I listened to the drone of the ultralight behind us and wondered what the bird thought of it. Has it accepted and adapted to our intrusion into its airspace or does it think “…like, WTF?”  Ironically a party barge happened to be passing by while I contemplated the osprey’s thoughts. There were five children and four adults aboard and all of them, other than the driver of the boat were staring into their devices and tapping away. I thought of the contrast between them and the adult osprey I had watched the previous weekend flying with its two young in and out of their nest and over the marsh communicating in whistles and chirps, fully immersed in the teaching of self-reliance. Yea. I’m pretty sure the osprey watches us in disbelief.  

Suddenly the osprey dropped straight down on the schoolies rolling bait across the river, flared itself to an almost complete stop just above the water before dropping its talons in the water and coming out with a small striper. The bird flew back upriver as I stood there humbled, and, honestly, breathless from what I had just experienced. The timing of the cast and the placement of the fly, particularly when sight fishing a topwater feed, is the difference between “fishing” and “catching.” At that moment it seemed a small feat to master in comparison to what the osprey had just pulled off.

I continued to cast as the tide turned but kept watch for my osprey friend eager to see a repeat performance. As I had predicted, bait began to stack along the grass edge in front of me and it wasn’t long before I had a few follows and a short hit. I opted to change to a smaller fly. The smaller fly didn’t receive any attention, so I went back to the larger pattern and bit off part of the tail and wing to shorten it. A few casts later the line went tight and as I stripped a small schoolie to hand I heard the high-pitched whistle of the osprey as it flew past me. I watched in fascination as it pulled another fish out from along the bank just downriver from me. I released my fish as the osprey flew past me close enough that even with my restricted vision, I thought we made eye contact. For a split second I saw the bird silent and motionless, caught in the balance of its vulnerability to an environment constantly altered and consumed by another species and its innate proficiency at surviving by taking only what it needs from what is available. The silence was broken by an email alert on my phone and I instantly knew the osprey will continue to adapt and survive long after we’re gone.

One fish was enough. I watched the bird disappear around a bend in the river and headed for home to learn about Venmo.

South River, MA
28 July 2019

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

A Life Encountered

The idea for this collection of obscure thoughts and trivial observations from the mud began in early 2010. I was in one of those transitional places that life puts us in and desperate to find something my mind could focus on that didn’t involve lawyers or money. So I bought a ninety-nine cent notebook at Target and started putting words in it.  It took three years of thinking about it, reading every fly fishing blog I could find, blind writing exercises and lots of pages from that notebook being ripped out and thrown away before finding the courage to hit the publish button the first time.

I found a few surviving pages from that first notebook this morning filed away in an old folder in the back of my desk at the office. I had been looking for them since teaching a fly tying class over the winter and talking about a very simple fly that had been shown to me by an older gentleman nine years ago. My encounter with him was brief and random but became part of the underpinning of whatever this thing has become.

It was a Friday night and I had been on a job site in Boston all day. Knowing beforehand that I’d be coming out of the city late in the day and not wanting to sit in Cape traffic on Route 3 I had thrown my gear in the truck with the plan of stopping off in Weymouth and fishing one of my old haunts. It wasn’t until I got there and reached in the back for my waders that I realized they were still sitting in the driveway at home. I knew the water was a little too cool to comfortably wet wade but the sun was still up and the air was warm. So I changed into a pair of shorts I had remembered, laced the Timberland’s back up, walked into the water and started casting.

I was a few fish into the evening when the sun fell from the sky and the air cooled as it met the water. I started to shiver a little and stood there for a few moments watching the skyline of downtown Boston start to light up. That’s when I saw him, off to my right fitted out in hip waders, a flannel shirt and one of those old caps that train engineers used to wear. I walked out of the water, sat on a rock where I had left my gear bag and a jacket and tried to warm up as the old timer hooked up on nearly every cast. He was smoking a cigar as he fished and its sweet smell washed over me bringing back memories of watching Pudge and Yaz from the bleacher seats at Fenway.

I was thinking about heading for home when he looked back, walked out of the water, stopped in front of me and introduced himself as, “Name’s O’Reilly.”

“You lasted longer than I thought you would.”

I laughed and said, “Yeah, I forgot my waders in the driveway this morning. I’m an idiot.”

He took a puff off what was left of the cigar, looked back at the city skyline and said, “Doesn’t make you an idiot. I forget things every day.”

He leaned his rod up against a boulder and sat down on a rock next to me. There was enough light left that I could see it was an old Fenwick rigged with a Pflueger. I liked him immediately. We talked for about twenty minutes…about striped bass in the seventies, the crash of the population and how it had come back, his twenty year hitch in the Navy and how much the world had changed in his seventy-four years.  He pointed to the lights of Boston with the cigar in his hand.

“Life used to be simple but the world got real complicated, real fast. It all goes too fast, no one slows down anymore.”

I nodded in agreement and we sat in silence.

Taking the last puff on his cigar he looked at me and said, “Life is like this cigar, at first you think it’ll last for a long time, you can see it, feel it, taste it, smell it, watch it burn to the very end and then linger in the smoke until it disappears. And then it’s all gone.”

He turned away, looked toward Boston again and quietly said, “I’m in the smoke now.”

He sighed, turned back toward me and reached into his shirt pocket and brought out something rolled up in aluminum foil. I thought it would be another cigar as he unrolled the foil but it turned out to be four flies about five inches long. He held one up, just a simple reverse tied bucktail with some flash in the core, and then handed them all to me.

He pointed at my rod and said, “I don’t know what you’re using, but this is the only fly I ever use. It’s what has worked for me all these years. You take ‘em, kid, I don’t think I’ll be needing them anymore.”

He stood up and pointed to a man not much older than me standing under the trees behind us and said, “Guess it’s time to go. That’s my boy, keeping an eye on me like his mother used to. Used to be I took him to the playground on Friday night, now he brings me out to play.”

I walked back to the parking lot with them and shook hands with my new friend as his son helped him into the car. He broke down the rod and as he put it in the trunk he explained his father had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and that while the days were the hardest, his dad seemed to have more clarity in the evening hours so on good days they would come out to make a few casts. I shook his hand and he thanked me for spending a few minutes with his dad on what was probably his last time out fishing.

I’ve forgotten the fish that I caught that night but I’ll never forget Mr. O’Reilly. I fished those flies he gave me all that season. They caught just as well as other flies I used but a fish on those flies had more meaning. I still build a few of them every season and think of him every time I tie one on to the leader.

The smoke may be gone but the story lives.

From the early pages
15 May 2019

Friday, May 3, 2019


I walked to the water tonight to start the season. I stood in a light rain being driven into my face and studied the water. I had low expectations. The water temperature was still a little low, the sky had rained more often than not for what seemed like weeks leaving the water in front of me the color of iced tea and I had about an hour left of the incoming tide. Not the most favorable conditions but every season needs a starting point and all day long I had that gnawing feeling that if I didn’t go, I’d be missing something.

I paused at the water’s edge before stepping in and watched the rain drops leave little marks on the surface before being almost instantly absorbed. Like the rain drops, this place has absorbed my history. I smiled in the irony. For twenty years I’ve come to this same spot for the first attempt at “getting on the board.” That first fish of the season, what we all think about during the off-season. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it matters, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s the experience that matters, the knowledge gained each time out, history written by volume of sought experience, not volume of created content.

Out of habit, one which I’m trying to break, I reached to my jacket pocket to make sure my phone was there.  In the back of my mind an argument began with the Id demanding that if a fish were to be caught that it be “photographed and immediately posted”, the Ego proclaiming “it’s just fishing” and the Super-ego chirping something about buying in and selling my soul.

It’s just fishing. I stepped into the water thinking about that as I threw line. In fly fishing we try to entice a fish, in this case a striped bass, to eat a cluster (sometimes a Cluster-F.*#) of natural or synthetic materials tied to a sharp piece of metal that we cast at speeds somewhere around 400 to 600 feet per second into water that can be moving, in this instance, about 4 miles per hour, on a planet that rotates on its axis at 1040 miles per hour while circling the sun at just under 67,000 miles per hour. On top of that, while fishing, we can upload images of our catches to social media from our phones nearly instantly at speeds measured by Mbps. I have no idea what that is but it sounds fast. I’m not smart enough to understand the physics of it all, it just seems clear that the world is already moving fast before we try to influence it.

As I continued to stare out at the water and work the rust out of my already marginal casting, I thought of a notable quote from F. Bueller, the preeminent American philosopher of the 1980’s:

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it."

More looking around. Less uploading. Copy that, Ferris.

In the interest of full disclosure, I did go tight to the first stripe of the season and I did take a photo of it before I released it.

And I did post (upload) it as a voice in my head chirped something about buying in and selling out.

From the water
28 April 2019

Wednesday, February 13, 2019


The day was just beginning around me; those few moments that are the best of the day because in the back of your mind, despite what you hope for and what you do to try to advert it, you know it’s probably not going to get any better. I pulled the phone out of my sling and turned it off, a defiant act consciously made in the desire to extend the perfection of the morning just a little longer.

From my perch in a rock garden above a small flat I could see clearly across the Caribbean blue-green sandy bottom in front of me. A bluebird sky above wrapping itself around a rising sun, the water remarkably calm and just enough movement in the air for the smell of the salt and the water to physically brush past my face. In my mind all I could hear was the Piano Exit to Layla. I didn’t just hear it, I felt it.

In the water the bass had pushed one of the largest schools of bait I’d seen in a long time up into the rocks and were gorging themselves on sand eels and silversides. I just stood there, rod in hand, and watched mesmerized in the knowledge that this has been going on far longer than we’ve tried to control the world around us and hoping that it will continue long after we’re gone. I watched as the stripers seemingly worked together to hold the school of bait against the rocks while they all fed. Just back from the flat where the bright blue water turned to a dark green the heads of two seals bobbed along obvious in their attempts to dart in and pick off the bass at the back of the pack. I wondered if farther out behind the seals there were sharks biding their time to take a run at them.

It was a thing of beauty watching the natural order of things play out in front of me. The struggle of each party intrigued me, the bait schooling and moving as one to prevent their demise, the bass doing much the same to both feed and elude the seals behind them. I watched the bass as they corralled and penned the bait and marveled in the idea that they were working together. I remember a time when I thought, perhaps naively, that we, the human race, worked in the same way. I lost myself in that thought for a few minutes. When I looked back in the water, clouds had moved in and just as sudden as it had started, it was over.

I stood there for a few more minutes wondering if I should move on to find more fish or call it a day. I turned to walk back up the beach and stopped to pick up a few remnants of consumerism force fed to us by talking heads, hash tags and influencers; a crushed beer can, a fancy sneaker and a Starbucks mega sized plastic cup. For all that we have gained, I wondered, what have we lost. It’s tragic; something within our grasp yet it’s slipping away.

Don’t let it slip away.

South River, MA
13 February 2019

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