I believe that the life of any fisherman is really just one big fishing trip. That trip, or journey, is unique to each fisherman. And, each fisherman’s personal trip and journey is molded and formed through the totality of their fishing experiences. I also believe that every fisherman is, to some degree, in a constant state of evolution. Fishing is and has always been part of who I am. Fishing has also been similar to any other sport. Take baseball for example. A baseball player starts off playing T-ball, then moves up to little league, then to high school baseball, then to college baseball, then to AAA or AA or perhaps even the major leagues. In general, the goal is always to evolve and it would be uncharacteristic and somewhat strange for a college baseball player to want to go back to playing T-ball.
I can’t even remember my childhood memories without remembering fishing. I spent entire days sitting on the rocks with sand worms, squid and clams fishing for anything and everything that would bite. While getting pretty good at that I looked out at the ocean dreaming of the next level and thinking, “I wonder what kind of monsters I could catch if I could get on a boat and fish those rock piles that I can’t reach from shore?” Well years would pass and I would get many opportunities to fish those rock piles on friends boats and even my own little boat. I got pretty good at that and soon grew bored with catching fish on bait and switched to artificial lures. I got pretty good at that and after a few more years I thought to myself, “I wonder what kind of monsters I could catch if I could get far away from land?” I knew that in order to get where I wanted to go, there wasn’t a recreational fisherman who could bring me there and fish to the degree that I wanted to. I needed to find out what went on way offshore where sport and recreational fisherman don’t go. I wanted to go, for weeks and even months at a time, where those big rusty fishing ships went. I wanted to see and experience first hand, professional (commercial) fishing. So, that’s what I did. I walked the docks begging captains to take me on as a greenhorn. I told every captain that I would be willing to clean decks, clean dishes, pick through piles of fish, mend nets and do whatever I had to do – If they would just give me a shot. I was only 17 years old at that time and most captains laughed me off the dock, except for one.
One captain, of a 125 ft commercial dragger (The Trinity) out of Point Judith, Rhode Island (that eventually ended up sinking at sea), gave me a shot. He said, “We are switching over all of our fishing gear and doing an engine rebuild on dry dock for the next two weeks. If you show up and work for free from sunrise to sunset – you can come out to sea and work as a deck hand on the next trip.” So, that’s what I did. I ended up getting experience as a deckhand and part of an 8 person fishing crew and learning how to cut scallops, cut cod, set nets, read navigational charts, etc. I got pretty good at spending 2 weeks at a time at sea, fishing 24 hours per day and hauling in upwards of 30,000 pounds of fish every shift. My mind began to wonder and I couldn’t help but think, “Where are the really big fish? Where are the swordfish, sharks, marlin etc..?” I knew that I had seen all that was possible to see from dragging nets across the ocean floor. So, I took my skill sets and in a relatively easy fashion landed a job on an offshore commercial long-lining fishing boat.
Because we had to go so far offshore; these trips lasted 4 weeks rather than 2 weeks at sea. I learned how to work with mono and cut and splice all mono line using all sorts knots. I learned how to bait 1,200 hooks every night for swordfish, yellowfin tuna, bigeye tuna and mako sharks. I learned about water temperatures and warm water eddies and current breaks and much more. I learned how to troll for fish while the long-lines were set. And, I saw things and caught fish that I will never forget. Thousands of pounds of swordfish, tuna, sharks, mahi and various other species grade A fish that we would sell for top dollar. We also caught all sorts of fish such as marlin, tiger sharks, giant rays etc.. as by-catch. I got pretty good at that and made some great money, but I was bored with that now. I now had all sorts of fishing skills and experience on various commercial fishing boats and getting jobs on fishing boats was pretty easy. So, I went to Alaska and gillnetted for Salmon and caught thousands of pounds of every kind of Salmon worth catching.
Eventually, I got bored with all of it and then realized there wasn’t much to wonder about and I had reached a place where I was bored with fishing. I had, for all practical purposes, done it all and caught everything there was to catch. There was nothing left to do. I certainly had no interest in reverting back to fishing for fun or sport fishing with rods and reels on weekends. I never have personally liked fish to eat but I had no problem making money by catching literally tons and tons of all kinds of fish that were shipped worldwide for other people to eat. I had caught all of the biggest fish in the world and more fish than an entire fleet of recreational sport fisherman could catch in a lifetime. And, for a period of about 5 years my fishing journey was over.
During that time, I actually blocked out fishing because not only did I not like it; I was haunted by some of the things I had done. Through all of my fishing experiences and fishing “accomplishments”; I realized how small the oceans are and how delicate and finite its resources are. I didn’t like to think about the fact that we would drag up 30,000 pounds of fish, dump it on deck, pick out the fish that we could sell and then shovel 20,000 pounds of dead fish back into the ocean. I didn’t like to think about all of “worthless” fish and animals such as marlin, dolphins, bluesharks, hammerhead sharks, seals, rays etc.., that met their fate by getting tangled in our long-lines and gillnets. Fishing became something that, in many respects, I wish I had never done.
Then, I was introduced to fly fishing. It re-ignited the connection between me and fish by widening the gap and increasing the challenge. I was once again able to enjoy the ocean and all of its elements and fish in a manner that seemed like fair chase. Catching a fish, any fish, with bait or plugs was like playing T-ball. Fly fishing though, that was a different story. It was hard! Infact, it was nearly impossible for me to catch a fish when I first started. I vividly remember how hard it was to catch my first striped bass on a fly, my first trout on a fly, my first albie on a fly etc.. I also remember how cool it was, and how cool it is to this day, to be able to catch a fish with a fly that has a single hook and release it and watch it swim away. Once again, my passion for fishing was re-ignited, my fishing journey continued where it had left off and I continued to evolve as a fisherman.
Well, after some time and experience I got pretty good at certain types of fly fishing for certain species of fish. For example, it became fairly common and relatively easy to be able to catch 30 striped bass in one session on flies. So, the rewards and sense of accomplishment doing that became less. And, for that species of fish I needed to widen the gap between fisherman and fish and make the challenge greater; in order to feel a sense of accomplishment. I was at a point where I would much rather catch a couple very meaningful rewarding fish than 100 fish the “same old” way. Now, I fully understand that the fisherman who just converted to fly fishing gets great satisfaction, just as I did, from catching his very first striped bass on the fly, regardless of how it was caught. I am simply suggesting that, through time, he too might find that in order to feel the same sense of accomplishment – he will have to widen the gap between fisherman and fish and make the challenge greater.
A few weeks ago, I got an opportunity to go sight fishing for striped bass with Amanda Switzer. I had never truly sight fished for striped bass. Amanda poled me around on her flats boat as I looked down in crystal clear water and saw hundreds of fish. Yes, we could have blind casted into rock piles or off deep edges and probably caught unlimited fish on flies – but that was not “the game” we were playing. We were trying to find one fish in shallow clear water, present our fly to that one fish and catch that one fish. Over the course of 3 days, I ended up catching only 1 small striped bass – but it was one of the most rewarding striped bass that I have caught in a very long time. By many fishing standards, one small striped bass over the course of three full days would be a terrible fishing trip. But, in relation to where I am at in my personal fishing journey, it was an incredibly successful and rewarding fly fishing trip.
So, I fully appreciate every form of fishing and I fully appreciate that every fisherman is on a personal journey that is unique. I recently took my youngest son bobber fishing with a worm and he caught his first fish ever. A perch. He was enormously proud of that accomplishment. It is my hope that he will continue to evolve as a fisherman and instead of seeking out huge numbers of fish in the “same-old-same-old” fashion; he will seek out the sense of accomplishment that is felt when the gap and the challenge between fish and fisherman is where it should be. Thanks Amanda, for a great fly fishing trip and for helping me evolve as a fisherman and for being part of my personal fishing journey.