Gifts of the Wild: Great Fishing Stories
Anglers are always looking for ways to express their passion for water and to catch the fish that swim in...
Anglers are always looking for ways to express their passion for water and to catch the fish that swim in it. Whether you prefer saltwater or fresh, casting plugs or flies, or simply enjoy the taste of a riverside beer, these stories from Joe Cermele, Bill Heavey, Colin Kearns, and renown author Thomas McIntyre will make you think back to days on the water with good friends, screaming drags, and jumping fish.
Sweet Smell of Success
How I transformed from a bass brute into a conservationist
By John B. Snow
My family moved from the West to southern New England in the 1970s, and we bought a house next to an old ice pond. The pond was maybe 5 acres, formed by a small impoundment, and was shallow and silted in. As a swimming hole, it was terrible. But it held fish—bluegills galore, some crappies down by the little dam, an occasional bullhead, and largemouth bass, which became my obsession.
I knew nothing about fishing seasons, regulations, or licenses as a kid, but I quickly learned how to handle a spinning rod and rig up a purple Mann’s Jelly Worm with more hooks than a meat locker.
Somehow, I got it in my head that every bass under 12 inches went back into the pond—those that were larger got the billy club and the fillet knife. I’d cocoon my latest haul of foot-long largemouths in plastic wrap and stick them in the stand-up freezer in our basement, where they stayed.
My parents didn’t share in my bloodlust and certainly had no interest in defrosting and eating my decapitated and descaled bass, so after a while, that freezer was stuffed to the gills. Keeping my fish company was a 50-pound bag of chicken livers that we bought from a family friend who had developed a tremendous affinity for cocaine and had started running around with some local mafiosi who were hijacking 18-wheelers along the I-95 corridor. Every now and then, Paul would show up at our house and ask if we needed a case of Dictaphones or a shower surround that had “fallen” off a truck. In a moment of weakness, we purchased that 50-pound bag of chicken livers, and into the freezer of forgotten meat it went.
Every summer, we’d go to Cape Cod for a week or two of vacation. I’d saved my allowance and bought a couple of surf-casting rods and tried my luck on stripers and bluefish, casting large Pencil Poppers or soaking chunks of cut bunker, but I never caught much from the beach by our rental cottage on the bay.
During one of these trips, New England was hit by an incredible heat wave. The temperatures soared into the 90s, with humidity to match. The breezes on the beach brought us a bit of relief, and we counted our blessings that we weren’t back home with the mosquitoes that came off our pond in thick clouds.
Little did we know that the heat wave had knocked out the power in our town.
The smell hit us as soon as we opened the back door. It was bad upstairs, but heading down the unfinished steps that led to the basement was the stuff of nightmares. I doubt I’ll ever know what it is like to experience the zombie apocalypse firsthand, but the warm liquefied ooze that our freezer now contained was as close as I ever care to come. Retching, I ran back upstairs a changed young man.
It wasn’t a conscious decision—at least not that I recall—but in that moment, I became a catch-and-release fisherman, and the bass in my pond no longer had reason to fear the butt end of the sawed-off pool cue that had served as my executioner’s club.
I continued to fish the pond nearly every day while I was growing up. Before school, after school, all summer long, and even through ice in the winter. The bass got bigger, and every now and then my rod would double over and I’d haul up a 5-pounder.
Was this because I had become a better fisherman? Yeah, to some degree. But the gift of that heat wave, and its disgusting aftermath, is what planted the seeds of conservation in my thick juvenile skull and put me on the path to becoming a true sportsman.
The Stranger of Old Barnegat
An angler shared a secret spot that nurtured an obsession
By Joe Cermele
We had scratched again. Six hours of throwing plugs and metals in the New Jersey surf that began in the cold, pre-dawn dark—and not a tap. This wasn’t the first time my friend Chris Foster and I had failed to beach a striper. Out of sheer frustration, we decided to take a walk along Barnegat Inlet back toward the bay in search of new surf.
We walked and cast for more than an hour, and at some point I realized just how far we’d gotten from the truck. We were about to start the long walk back when Foster noticed him. About 200 yards away, a lone angler was standing on a tiny spit of land jutting into the bay. His rod was bowed, and suddenly he began waving his arm, signaling us to come over.
Fall 2000: I had just gotten my driver’s license and a ’93 GMC Jimmy to go with it. I couldn’t slap an Island Beach State Park 4×4 driving permit on its bumper fast enough. For Foster and me, that pass was a golden ticket. He and I had the desire to catch stripers; what we lacked was the patience or knowledge to catch them. During our first handful of trips, we came home skunked.
The day we took that long walk along the inlet, we hustled when that distant angler began waving us down. We got there just in time to see the final tail kick and trailing wake of the 20-pound striper he had just released. He was an older, portly gent with a thick rope tied around his waist. “Good cut here, boys,” he said. “Lots of fish.” With that he removed the rope and ran it through the gills of another 20-pounder already on the sand. “Good luck,” he said just before he left.
Foster and I bulldozed into the water and started casting. I got it in my head that the bite would be instant. But with each passing hour, that anticipation devolved into rage. We gave up after dark. Foster and I barely spoke on the entire walk back.
Despite skunking in the mystery man’s spot, Foster and I still felt it was the best striper spot we had. Three nights after that first visit, we were back. I might have cast 10 times when I felt a bump. I swung back on the rod and heard the striper thrashing on the surface somewhere in the darkness. I had never been so nervous fighting a fish. When Foster finally dragged the 37-incher onto the sand, I think we hugged. That was my first striper worthy of a Polaroid for the counter at the local shop. It was also only the beginning.
During the next four years, over countless days and nights at the Point, as we came to call that spot, Foster and I gradually acquired the patience and knowledge that we once lacked to catch stripers. We learned how wind direction affected the bite. We learned how to pattern the tide—when to slow-crank a diving plug, and when to fast-hop a rubber shad. We learned the importance of fresh bait and keeping your headlamp beam off the water. We learned so much at the Point. Eventually, the spot would give me my biggest surf-caught striper, a 35-pounder.
One last thing we learned at the Point is that nothing good lasts. In April 2005, Foster and I arrived at the north jetty to see a commercial dredger anchored in the inlet. With my binocular, I followed its giant pump-out hose west along the shoreline. It ended at the Point. We made the walk hoping for the best—only to find our cut filled in with fresh sand. I wanted to cry, not only because I knew it was over, but also because I never said thank you to the stranger who led us to years of unbelievable fishing. In the modern surf-casting world obsessed with spot-burning and keeping secrets, it’s nice to think he’s still out there. Maybe someday I’ll find the next Point and get to wave a kid down.
A simple spinning outfit, given as a birthday present, opens the door to a parallel universe
By Bill Heavey
Had the world been my oyster at 21, I’d have asked the waiter to take it back. In nostalgic hindsight, youth becomes Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, full of possibility and adventure. In reality, mine was more like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, an endless struggle against despair and confusion. I probably seemed normal enough on the outside—a senior in college, living in a group house, waiting tables. Inside, I was just trying to keep from drowning.
I knew I wanted to be some sort of writer. But lacking a reporter’s devotion to the facts or a novelist’s power to birth a whole new world, I could see no future in it. I wrote a kind of experimental nonfiction, based on my own experience but pushed further into what might have happened. “You’re a cooler guy in your stories than in real life,” a friend told me. Damn straight. I needed some place where I could be in control.
For my 21st birthday, I invited a few friends over. Of that night, only a couple of memories survive. One is of the bunch of us—how do I put this?—whooping it up in Adam’s frozen yogurt truck as we flew madly down a local road infamous for crashes involving young men, like us, with more testosterone than sense. The other is of my friend Charlie presenting me with a spinning outfit: a 5-foot Ugly Stik Lite matched with a tiny Penn reel with a gold spool and handle. I remember how the bobbin pulsed up and down like a hornet’s stinger, the line guard whirring around it with impossible precision. I remember how it felt, balanced and purposeful, like a fencer’s foil. I had no idea it would change my life.
At 21, one of the few things I did understand was that I needed to get out of my own head. Charlie said the nearby Potomac was full of smallmouth bass. I bought some lures and went to the river.
It wasn’t a magic bullet, not right away at least. The jolt of my first strike actually frightened me. Whatever was on the other end of my line was so savage, so urgent. I stared, stunned, at the 9-inch smallmouth I eventually brought to hand. How could anything this small be so wild? Later I learned that the Algonquin Indians called the fish achigan, which means “ferocious.” Somehow, a door was opened to a parallel universe that made sense and seemed to welcome me.
Fishing the river, reading the water, thinking only of the next cast and the one after that, I would sometimes look up and see that the light had changed, and I would realize that for 90 minutes the barking critic in my head had been quiet. Maybe everything wasn’t my fault, and I wasn’t a bad person. Maybe I wouldn’t be swallowed alive by a grief I couldn’t name. Maybe some kind of grace was possible even for me.
I started writing freelance travel articles, one for The Washington Post about fishing the rivers around D.C. for smallmouths. I sent it to Field & Stream, and editor Slaton White helped me turn it into my first article for the magazine: “The Middle Ground,” which ran in November 1993.
I noticed that almost everyone else who wrote for Field & Stream was an expert, someone who could catch a 200-pound tarpon on a car antenna and some dental floss or calmly repair a light-striking firing pin while an enraged elephant bore down on him. I figured that meant there was room for someone who was the opposite of an expert. “Isn’t failure a more universal human experience than success?” I asked one editor.
That was 25 years ago. Somewhere along the way, I took up hunting, figuring that I’d have twice as many areas in which to fail. The joke was on me when I became as obsessed with whitetails as smallmouths. Somewhere along the way, I was offered a shot at writing the back page. Somehow, I’ve held on to it.
Charlie and I are still friends 40 years later. He was on a plane to Wyoming a few years back when he met some fellow anglers. By chance, my name came up.
“I told them I knew you, and they said, ‘Seriously? You mean, like, personally?’” Charlie told me. “I laughed so hard, they thought there was something wrong with me.” “Well, you kind of created that monster when you gave me that spinning outfit,” I said.
“I did,” he said, turning mock serious. “You owe me big time for that. More than you can ever pay back.”
We laughed. But, of course, he was right.
A rare friendship remembered in the glimmering moments of time spent together outdoors
By Thomas McIntyre
Leroy grew up a sheepman under a snaking line of buttes 40 miles south of Gillette, Wyoming. By the time I knew him, he had sold off the sheep, leased the ranchland, collected petroleum royalties, pack-trained into the mountains for outfitters, and hunted and fished as much as he liked while living as a divorced bachelor with grown children. If you called him a gun nut, Leroy would scarcely object, working by window light at the bench in his second-floor reloading room, then testing the handloads from that same window on the 100-yard range he’d built behind the house.
Leroy hunted everything from prairie dogs to grizzlies. What he loved most was calling coyotes, wolves, even cougars. It was the direct link to the animal that drew him to the imitation of its voice, the vanishing into the being of the predator, the becoming of it.
I made friends with Leroy in midlife, he a decade older. We hunted and fished the fringes together—smaller, impromptu game mostly, and more road trips than expeditions, usually the outgrowths of whim. He’d call, and we’d float the Yellowstone on a November day when the water ran faceted in the riffles. We grounded the drift boat on a gravel bar and somehow got separated while pushing off, me carried away like Moses in the bulrushes, unable to get back upriver, while Leroy, in water up to the knees of his Levis, stood staring, having to summon the sheriff’s jet boat to rescue us.
True friendships in middle age are seldom, the capacity somehow growing sclerotic. So, we take them less for granted. They merit signifiers, and Leroy’s signifiers were light, like that on those riffles.
When I think of Leroy, tall and lank in a stained cowboy hat, I remember him in his relationship to kinds of light, like a dusk filled with bull bats in the cottonwoods on the bank of the Wind River as we fished. Or the mineral-dull winter light of the shrub steppe, hunting chukars on rocky hillsides. The kinds of light I remember best with Leroy were arguably the most environmentally minor—not panoramic light over mountain crests, or vistas on the horizon, but glints and sparks.
There was, of course, Leroy, cup on knee, seated behind a scrim of winking embers ascending from the fire ring. Asterisms in the August sun along the jeweled flanks of cutthroat trout, fish almost too deep for Leroy’s hand to hold as he slid them back into the lake over the side of the Lund. Or the gleam in the tall-set black eyes of pronghorns, when Leroy and I knew we’d stalked into range.
There was also the glimmer of light in Leroy’s eyes that I saw fade. The wonderfully rambling phone messages, prefaced by a basso “Tom, Tom, this is ol’ Leroy,” grew more disjointed. Walking became hampered, then impossible. The diagnosis was a human type of the disease that consumed the brains of sheep, that moved with terrible, but ultimately lenient, swiftness.
The last day I saw Leroy, there was no glimmer. After a time, staying on with even no words to say, I got up to leave, taking his hand; and for a moment he looked into me, straight and clear and present. Then, leaving me with that last instant of light, he departed once more.
So, I remember Leroy now in gifts of lights we once shared, in the sheen of a deer’s hide in October, fall sunlight through yellow leaves clattering beside a creek, and the milky blaze of a galaxy under a domed ceiling of night. All the places and things, beyond walls and doors and windows, in which, together, we saw the light.
A broken bamboo fly rod leads to a stronger bond between father and son
By Will Ryan
When I graduated from college in 1973, my father, who’d grown up in a Depression-era mining town, presented me with an Orvis Battenkill bamboo fly rod. It was more rod than he had ever owned.
We had always fished and hunted together, but our bond became strained by my embrace of the counterculture and my conviction that he knew very little about anything. My only-child upbringing had been comfy, with material things readily available. I treated the rod like crap. The Battenkill came with two tips, and within a year I had broken both. I traded the butt and fragments to a friend for a bag of weed.
I kept the reel that came with the outfit and taped it to the handle of a spinning rod. I loved turning anything precious or traditional on its head. I caught fish with the makeshift rig too, which made it even cooler.
Later that year, my dad and I went trout fishing on the Bouquet River in the Adirondacks, where we had always fished. He eyed my glass rod. “Where’s your new outfit?” he asked.
“Well, the reel is here,” I said, pointing to the tape job.
“I can see that. What about the rod?”
“Getting fixed. One of the tips broke, and they needed the whole rod to fit things right.”
He looked at the ground. As a longtime high-school teacher, he knew a lie when he heard one. He never asked about the rod again.
A year later, we were back on the Bouquet. This time a couple of friends came with me. My dad fit right in—fishing, joking, sitting around the fire. For the first time, I saw him as not only my father, but also as part of my group. And I gave a thought to what it must have been like for him to see the fly reel still taped to that cheap spinning rod and my friends laughing about it.
He and I went on to hunt and fish for the next 30 years, and we even worked together on some magazine projects. Once, I caught him unawares by publishing a photo of him on a magazine cover with one of his Brittanys. When it came in the mail, I handed it to him. “Do you know this guy?” I asked. His eyes got big, and he smiled and sputtered, and I could see that he was genuinely touched.
I like to think that those moments made up for stupid mistakes like the rod, that maybe some things needed to break so that a more solid replacement could grow. That might be true for me. My dad? He never really let the bond break in the first place. His silence had seen to that. He’d been there all along.
Drink It In
By Colin Kearns
The summer I spent in Montana, working on the Missouri River, I tended to fish alone. I enjoyed learning the water on my own and having stretches all to myself. But there was one week when I met another angler, Tom, who had beaten me to my go-to spot. At first his company annoyed me, but as the week went on, we became pals.
Because of work, I could only join Tom for the evening caddis hatch, but at the end of the week I had a day off, and I told him that I’d arrive early to lock down our spot. That proved to be a smart move, because the dry-fly fishing was remarkable—the best I’d experienced all summer. Tricos and PMDs raged till the afternoon. Tom and I each must’ve released 20 trout. When the bite finally slowed, Tom waded toward the bank. “You want a beer?” he asked.
Back at his car, Tom handed me an Olympia. The beer was bland, but it was also ice-cold, and on a hot July day, what more do you need? What was best about that beer, though, was that it forced me to slow down. My time in Montana was limited, and all summer I’d been in a frenzy to fish, fish, fish. Had I been alone on that day, I wouldn’t have taken a break. I would’ve just pushed through the late-afternoon lull, likely getting frustrated that the fish weren’t biting and consequently forgetting how perfect the fishing had been earlier. Thankfully, for a change, I wasn’t alone. I had a fishing buddy who gave me a beer—and with that beer, the chance to pause and appreciate where I was.
After a few sips, Tom broke the silence with a burp. “Good beer.”
It really was.
An Exceptional Fly
By Colin Kearns
I have a hat onto which I retire flies that’ve caught memorable fish. There’s the Crazy Charlie that duped my first bonefish next to a Chernobyl Ant from a float down the Green River, where that iconic bug was invented. There’s a Prince Nymph that caught a trout on a day when I really needed to catch a trout, a frayed egg pattern, and a bunch of hoppers. In all, there are 13 flies, and of that baker’s dozen, there’s one, a streamer, that stands out—partly because of its shiny materials, but mostly because of who gave it to me.
The pattern is a Cold Medicine, and after an hour of swinging it through a run on the Deschutes River, it caught the biggest steelhead of my life. When the line came tight, my guide, Joe, screamed, “STEELHEAD ON!” I’ve never heard someone yell so loud. Later on in the day, Joe changed my rig and gave me the Cold Medicine. “You should keep that,” he said. He and I got along well, and even though the Deschutes was a brutally punishing river, I wanted to come back and fish with Joe again—not as his client, but as a friend. That reunion never happened, though. A year after our float, Joe committed suicide.
When I add a fly to my hat, the idea is that it’ll stay there, safe, for good. But if I ever get back to the Deschutes, I think I’ll make an exception. I’ll tie that Cold Medicine back on and swing it through one more run. For Joe.
The Highlight Reel
By Joe Cermele
My daughter, Charlotte, was born in 2015. She was our first, and with your first comes a mountain of gifts. Being an angler, I was not surprised that a lot of those gifts were fishy. We got the My Dad Will Outfish Your Dad onesie. We got the plush striped bass. We got the Crawl, Walk, Fish bib.
I loved all of them, but none were as special as the purple Nautilus fly reel with Charlotte’s name engraved on the frame, from my good friends Kirk Deeter and Tim Romano. I let baby Charlotte crank away, drool on it, and bat it around in her crib. Eventually, though, I stuck the reel on the shelf in my office, where it’s been sitting for almost two years, waiting patiently for its turn in her fishing evolution. Charlotte, now 31⁄2 years old, is my bluegill slayer, deadly with her My Little Pony push-button combo. I know that Nautilus will sit for several more years, but I look at it often, wondering what milestone fish it might catch and what waters it will travel to in her hands.
Or perhaps that reel will never travel farther than our home waters. And that’s fine. I know those precious years when she’s excited to tag along with me may not last forever, and while I hope my addiction to the sport rubs off on my kids, I’d never expect it. Yet I have a hunch that no matter how much or how little Charlotte uses that Nautilus, she will always hold it dear. And maybe it’ll catch a first trout for one of her grandchildren, long after I’m in the dirt.
By Tom Davis
Grandpa Davis knew everybody, and everybody knew him. Or at least it seemed that way when I was 7 and he took me to the sports show in Sioux City, Iowa. One exhibitor was an old friend named Cap, who had a friendly mien.
“Are you a fisherman, Tom?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. “When I’m 8, my dad’s going to take me to Lake of the Woods.”
“That wonderful,” Cap said. Then, reaching beneath the booth, he handed me a small plastic box. “When you go, give these a try.” The box held six hand-tied jigs. After the show, I learned that Cap Kennedy was a legendary angler whose jigs, marketed under the trade name Rock-a-Roos, had a reputation for being phenomenal fish-catchers.
Years later, on my first fly-in trip, I used one of those jigs to catch the biggest fish of my life, an 18-pound northern pike that qualified for the Manitoba Master Angler award. I felt like I could fly back to Winnipeg whether the floatplane picked us up or not.
The memory of that pike still brings a smile to my face, as does the memory of being handed a box of pretty jigs by one of Gramps’ legion of friends—a gift that for years, thanks to that fish, shone with an almost blinding luster.
It was a long time before I was able to see past that shine and realize that the real gift was my grandfather.