Outdoors: Just go fishing

Photo by Josh CarterJay actually did fish for a few minutes last Saturday and managed to catch this feisty little steelhead on a fly rod.

I’ve been an avid fisherman for all of my adult life and much of my childhood, and for the past 20 years or so I’ve been a fishing guide. It’s safe to say I spend a lot of time on the water.

Fishing is a way of life for me and something I’ve always been pretty good at. I hope I don’t sound arrogant when I say that, but like anything else, practice makes perfect. Though, in my estimation, I am far from perfect.

It has been my observation that many people turn onto the joys of fishing later in life. I’m always impressed when an individual — that for whatever reason — has almost no prior fishing experience and decides at some point that they want to become proficient. These people set goals and regularly utilize fishing guides to achieve them. These individuals are often my fishing “partners” of sorts.

During an initial conversation, it’s quite normal to hear comments along the lines of “I want to catch a steelhead on a fly” or “I want to catch a 20-inch smallmouth.” Of course, without some skills it’s difficult to meet any goals and in particular, lofty ones.

Thankfully, many of these new anglers are committed to learning how to cast and properly present and work a fly or lure. Odds are they will get their chance to check goals off their list at some point, if they stay on task. Given hard work and sacrifice (such as time off work), nothing is impossible.

I had many goals early in my fishing career and I have been fortunate enough to check a lot of them off. Make no mistake, I still have plenty to go. For example, I have never caught a permit on the fly, though I have snorkeled with them off the coast of Belize. I have never landed a 50-inch musky, though I have hooked a couple of them. I have never landed a largemouth bass that weighs over 10 pounds, though I have seen them attempt to eat my lures and flies (and, some much bigger than that). And I have not landed a big Atlantic salmon on the fly, which really bothers me.

Huge tarpon on the fly, check. Giant walleye over 15 pounds, check. Massive steelhead well over 20 pounds on flies and light spinning tackle, check. Huge largemouth and smallmouth bass on everything but the kitchen sink, check. Bonefish and giant trout on the fly…behemoth slab crappie…big bull bluegills, check. The list goes on. I’m not bragging here, just sayin’.

These milestones were not photo-ops for me. They were just me doing what I loved. More often than not they happened when I was by myself and there is no record of it.

Sadly, I haven’t caught anything of serious magnitude for a long time. For that matter I haven’t caught much of anything, of any magnitude, for a long time. Probably close to a decade actually (there was that 30-inch, 10-pound walleye last May, but that’s not a terribly unusual thing in the big scheme of walleye fishing).

I rarely get to fish anymore. Like many guides, I have lived vicariously through my clients for years.

At first it bothered me a little bit. I’d complain about how I never get to fish, but then I wouldn’t go fish when I had the chance. Then it started to drive me crazy and I’d practically yell at friends who asked me to go fishing when I couldn’t.

“Seriously, you’re actually asking me to go fishing? What do you think I do all day? Like, do you really think I care about fishing? I have a life you know and the last thing I want to do is go fishing on my day off.”

The reality of it was I was screaming inside. I wanted to go fishing so bad my arm would jerk a little like I was setting the hook. I’d wear my polarized shades at dinner and scrub my hands with lemon juice to get the fish stink off — that wasn’t really there.

But it just wasn’t in the cards for me. Fishing for fun has largely been a thing of the past for me. I pretend to be numb to it. “I’m over it”, I tell myself. But how do really get over something you love so much when it’s pretty much gone?

The other day I started thinking about what was missing in my life as an outdoorsman and the first thing that came to mind was, you guessed it, fishing. I’m not talking about going to a distant locale to pursue exotic fish. I’m talking about regular guy fishing. Bluegills, perch and crappie. Just plain old fishing.

I know a ton of anglers with lofty fishing goals. They dream of huge king salmon on the Kenai River in Alaska or peacock bass in South America. And there really isn’t anything wrong with that. In fact, I highly encourage anglers to live their dreams and skip a cruise with their wives to pull it off (don’t hate me wives, but guys need to fish).

That said, the same anglers probably don’t realize how many great fishing opportunities they are missing practically in their own backyard. It’s human nature to ignore what is around us.

I have been guiding on Michiana’s St Joseph River system for a couple decades and fun fishing it for much longer. I’m always amazed at how diverse the fishery is. The incredible variety of fish species that swim in the varied flows of the St. Joe annually is astonishing.

Massive runs of salmonids out of Lake Michigan, resident sturgeon, musky and northern pike as well as just about any conceivable species of sunfish, bass, catfish and rough fish can found in this stream that courses along the border of Indiana and Michigan. Furthermore, many of the St. Joe’s tributaries are legitimate trout streams. It’s truly an amazing fishery.

The thing is, there are dozens of rivers around the country just like it. Maybe we should spend more time doting on our local fishing resources instead of constantly wishing we were someplace else.

Fishing is supposed to be relaxing and fun. What’s easier than driving a few minutes and going fishing on a local river or lake?

My goal this year is to not only fish more, but to go back to basics. I want to go sit on the dock and catch bluegill under a bobber and catch catfish at night on chicken livers like I did when I was a kid. More importantly perhaps, I want to take my wife and children fishing more often so they can enjoy the magic that I have taken for granted for too long. And last but not least, I want to tackle more local water as an angler, not as a guide.

Hopefully I can fit that in between British Columbia and the Keys.

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