“It’s broken man, my finger is fucking broken.” I look up from my swollen, shades of purple, middle finger to the face of my friend James, who stares at me and responds how a fishing buddy should, a laugh and a sarcastic “aww”. “Who the hell brakes a bone fishing?” I ask. It was rhetorical, I knew the answer, me that’s who. As I pulled off my soaking wet clothes with my broken finger and broken pride. The surprise swim in the icy Salmon River on a 20 degree day in early March fresh in my mind. The dejected trudge though the snow on my river beaten legs, while cursing my finger, still arching my body. I uttered the words I would think and say after so many fishing trips before and to come “I’m done”.
I’m about to tell you something I am not proud of, nor do I like to talk about it. I’ll lay it out here right in the beginning. I’ll just say it so it’s out of the way. If I don’t say it this isn’t going to be much of a story, it is the story, so here it goes. For the past 5 years I have been, on average, on 3 fishing trips a year for salmon and steelhead to New York State’s Salmon River in Pulaski, NY. In those 5 years I have caught exactly ZERO fish. Zero. Say it with me Zero. I don’t think I can truly put into words the shame I feel in that, but I’ll try.
That’s 15 trips. It’s 232 miles from my house to the Salmon River, so that’s 6,960 miles to and from. If I were to add up the gear, gas, food, drinks, licence, places I’ve stayed… well I won’t do that. Let’s just say it’d be a lot. A smart man would have quit at 5 trips, an idiot would have stopped tortuing himself and his bank account at about 10. It takes a speical kind of money pissing sadomasaccist to make it to 15. That’s why when September 2017 came around and the Salmon started running, I took a good long hard look at myself in the mirror smiled and said “why quit now?”.
I wasn’t always a bad fisherman. I come from New Jersey, from north Jersey to be exact. It’s not your “Saprano’s” New Jersey or your “Jersey Shore” New Jersey. I grew up fishing rivers like the Delaware and Wallkill. I like every dude I knew growing up hunted in the fall and winter and fished in the spring and summer. At 16 fishing gear with a gold Mepps spinner I’d limit out on trout in 15 minutes. A gear set up is your typical, not traditional fly rods came first, rod and reel you find in any sporting goods store. It’s the spinning reel that most people graduate to once they’ve proven to grand dad they have mastered the Mickey Mouse pole. Why it’s called “gear fishing”? I have no idea. No matter the nomenclature, with that set up I was deadly. Even fish with lock jaw would bite. It was so deadly and easy to catch fish in fact at 18 years old I walk into a fly shop to basically handicap myself.
I know I know I can hear my fly fishing friends screaming their woolly buggers off “It’s not handicapping! Its just a different kind of fishing which requires more skill and….” yeah yeah pipe down. Look is gear fishing easier then fly fishing? Of course it is. I know fly fishing isn’t just about catching fish, that may sound weird to a non fly fishermen. Fly fishing is casting, reading water, presenting the fly, the drift, the swing, the hatch, and so much more. Believe me I know the feeling of catching a Rainbow Trout on the swing is unexplainable, but the bottom line is when it comes down to numbers and time, gear fishing is easier. There is a reason most people start with gear, if you started with a fly rod you’d be so broke and frustrated you’d be reading a golfing blog right now.
I chased small trout on small rivers for the most part. Until I met James. When describing your fishing buddy it feels foreign to be complimentary. Like you don’t stand in a river with a dude and say “great cast” when he makes a great cast, you say “great cast” when he sends his favorite fly into a maple tree. You don’t say “what a great fish” as he’s holding a fish and taking a picture, you say “what a great fish” after his 20 min fight ends with a snapped line and the fish swimming away. That said James DeFrank is the best fishermen I’ve ever met. I once made a joke over beers with a few guys, that when his toe hits the water he yells “fish on”, the next morning he had a fish on with his first step in the water. He has been with me on almost all of my Salmon River trips, and on every trip that I caught zero fish, he caught fish, multiple fish, many multiple fish. Even when I would look up and down the river and no other fishermen were catching fish, he would catch fish. On his first fish I am genuinely excited “awesome there are fish in the river” I think. Now James isn’t the gloating type and I’m not the jealous type, but somewhere around his 10th fish and my of course 0th, I would have to fight myself not to get distracted with jealousy. I’d walk down river and try and figure it out, in my head I repeat the same thing time after time, “what the fuck am I doing wrong?”. I was using the same flies, leader length, weight, depth, I mean it was the same water. Sometimes the same exact water. I would fish a hole for awhile and nothing, I’d walk away, he’d step in and on his first cast “Fish on!”
At first it would truly piss me off, I’ll admit it, but I once heard the coach of the New England Patriots Bill Belichick say after a game where the Patriots ran the score up on another team, that it wasn’t the Patriots job to stop themselves. You may say “but it’s a dick move” well is running the score up a dick move or is letting someone or a team not know how truly bad they are a dick move? I’ll bring this back to fishing. It’s not James’ job to catch less fish to make me feel better about myself. He let me see how many fish I was really missing out on. When I walked away from the hole I’d say “well no fish there I guess that’s why I’m not catching fish” when he would walk in and catch one, it showed me I was doing something wrong. Don’t get my words confused those lessons are painful and made me angry at times. More then once I’d whisper “you son of a bitch” under my breath. If my fly rod didn’t cost so much it would have been smashed across a tree. Losing sucks but if you’re not learning from losing, you’re just losing. That may sound like fishing is competitive, and that’s because, it is. You’re damn right it is. I get it, it’s you against the fish, you against nature, the elements, your own head, and everything else. That’s all well and good if you are fishing alone, but add a fishing buddy and it’s you against him. Now I don’t want to put words in James’ mouth but I’m almost certain he would say “Duuuude I’m not competing with you” and he’d be right, it was no competition, but if you’re the one not catching fish, you keep track of the other guys numbers pretty well.
I should clarify. It’s not that you don’t want your friend to catch fish. I know James was cheering for me to catch one the whole time, probably as much as I was. You want everyone to catch fish, but you want to catch the most, or the biggest, or at least catch something. Hell it’s why every fishing trip from a high mountain trout stream to an ocean day boat trip starts with a bet, first fish, biggest fish, smallest, most, prettiest, whatever. Fishing is competitive even if it’s just for fun.
It wasn’t just that I wasn’t catching fish on these trips. It felt like the universe was against me from the start. On my very first trip to the river we ate dinner at one of my favorite bars. I’d name it here but I’d like to go back to this bar one day, and the following words may affect my reception. It’s kind of a biker/redneck bar. It’s rough around the edges but when you get enough drinks in you to feel comfortable in joining the conversation, the people are great and funny as hell. I’ve witnessed some truly epic ball busting while slamming an ice cold beer after a hard day of not catching fish. The food is great too they serve a chicken sandwich that’s the size of a turkey, a mountain of spaghetti that is just that a mountain, but my favorite is the chicken wings. Here I will say I’ve had the chicken wings since this story. James doesn’t stop for lunch. You hit the river before sun rise and you leave at dark. If you need a drink you better have one on you. Food? Don’t be a pussy. We were exhausted and starving, I didn’t taste my first or second beer. When the wings I ordered came out medium rare, like a starving fool with a dehydration buzz on, I dove right in. Again I’ve had the wings there since, but you don’t know fear until you are standing in a river, wearing fishing waders, shoulder to shoulder with other fishermen and last night’s rare chicken wings open fire on your bowels. I ran from the river yelling “I got to go”. There was a port a John in the parking lot near the river, food poisoning wasn’t enough to make me use a port a john used by salty fishermen for months. I would have shit in my cooler before that thing. I drove back to town and locked myself in the Dunkin Dounuts bathroom so long people were knocking on the door asking if I was okay in there. I was pretty far from okay, my first trip was over. I grabbed my stuff and hit every fast food bathroom back to New Jersey.
There have been cut palms from reels spinning at the rate of a running fish, hooks and lead weights to the back of my head, twisted ankles, broken spirits, broken lines and of course broken fingers. I consider it my rock bottom, literally my ass was on the rocks. That Steelhead trip started like all the others except it was cold and snowy. The eastern shore of lake Ontario where the Salmon River empties after it runs through the town of Pulaski, NY gets snow measured in feet not inches. Honestly they could probably measure it in yards. On that trip I got a taste of what we were in for coming up interstate 81, total white out snow after driving 3 hours . The snow seemed to instantly cover the highway. I put my truck in 4 wheel drive as I was passed by a sideways 80’s era Oldsmobile. I slid into Fat Nancy’s the first bait and tackle shop off the exit and our traditional first stop. I met James took a deep breath and we were ready to fish.
The fishing was tough even for James. We had to cover a lot of the river to find fish, he found them, I didn’t. The river was running high, the air temperature was low, about 20 degrees. The winters snow pack was melting even as fresh snow was falling. Cold and wet are to words that with ensure any trip, fishing or not, will be terrible. At the close of day one James had landed 3 fish to my 0. We checked into our room already physically drained. I suppose you could call it a room, I mean it had walls, but when they gave us a space heater with the key I wondered if we would be sleeping in a shed out back . That night as trains or trucks roared by, I couldn’t see out of the plywood covered window to be sure, and I zipped up my sleeping bag to protect me from whatever creatures lurked in the bed, I thought “I’m never letting James book a room for me again” my second thought was “this can’t get any worse”.
We walked on what we guessed to be a 6 foot snow pack to the river. With the river running fast I stopped to judge the crossing. James jumped right in and crossed with ease. I should mention James has the best of the best equipment, while he’ll pinch pennies on a room he spares no expense on fishing gear. His fishing room in his house is like a fly shop, but in case his wife ever reads this I’m sure he bought it all on sale. When James crosses the river here his nearly new spiked wading boots grip the river bottom and steadies him like two anchors. My boots are missing spikes, they are missing a lot of spikes. My first unsteady step is followed by two more. Somewhere near the middle of the river I stop as I hit the faster deeper water. My left foot is moved slightly down river with the current. I try and move my right foot down river to catch up, but it’s to late and the water is to fast. My left foot is swept out and my right finally catches up. My bottom hits bottom and I’m floating down river. James sees me floating in the relatively shallow water and laughs as he says “just stand up dude”. His smile lets me know that if I truly need help it won’t be coming from him. I finally stand and feel a sharp pain in my finger but I have no idea why. James looks at me in disbelief “you ok?” his laughter subsides realizing I’m now soaking wet in 20 degree air. We finally get to wear we wanted to fish, he fishes and I start a fire to stop the hypothermia that I think is sure to follow. The worst time to start a fire is when you desperately need to start a fire. My hands won’t work my wet lighter won’t work and why the fuck is my finger swelling? I tell James I’m heading back to warm up. On my way I slip and fall again, instinctively my hand goes back to break my fall. I then realize why my finger hurts and is swelling. My first fall may have snapped my finger on the rocks below my second fall confirmed it and didn’t help.
Broken broke and dejected that pretty much describes me perfectly after every trip. Financially, emotionally, or physically take your pick it applied. So why go back? why beat my body, my mind, my wallet and my pride? Do you know what it’s like to return from 15 fishing trips saying you didn’t catch a single fish? So why trip 16? Because I refuse to be beaten. Not by the river, not by a friend out fishing me or the cold or the snow, I refuse to be beaten by myself. So September 2017 came and an epic run of salmon came with it. I packed my bags jumped in my truck and headed north. If this losing steak was going to end this was the year to end it or end my fishing trips.
I pulled into Fat Nancy’s at about 7 am. I wasn’t meeting anyone this time it was a solo trip. I hit the bathroom, grabbed some gear, and put on my fishing waders. My first stop was a hole we call “the Paper Mill”. Fish were moving like crazy, single file, small pods and large groups. It was non stop, but the problem was it was non stop. As in the fish wouldn’t stop. A salmon would come into the hole and another would bump it out of the hole an so on. When they did stop I would cast up river, drift to them and right over them. “More weight” I thought. I’d cast up river drift to them and snag the bottom. 7 am turned into 10 am. I changed flies the fish kept coming. 12 noon no fish. I changed leaders but I didn’t change holes. I once heard a fly fisherman say “don’t go looking for fish when you have fish in front of you”. For the most part this is true, but when the fish are in water you can’t figure out, move. I should have moved. I was panicking, 2 pm.
Earlier in the day 5 younger guys walked by, I knew they wanted to fish the hole I was in. They stopped and watched me. There’s a dance fellow fishermen do when they want to fish the water you’re fishing. Most will stop and watch, some make small talk, until you say “do you want in?”. Younger guys will watch from a far, whisper amongst themselves most certainly telling each other you don’t know what you’re doing and they can’t believe you aren’t catching fish. They grow louder passive aggressively letting you hear them talk. Eventually they move on and you keep fishing. I kept fishing. 3:30 pm. I walked up river to a hole we call “Coffin Rock” it’s a small hole and you can only stand in one spot a rock shaped like a coffin, fishermen aren’t creative with names. The 5 younger guys were there. I watched from a far, thought they were fishing it wrong and I moved back down to where I was all day.
4:30 pm… maybe it was 5. I was losing hope, it was still the first day and I felt myself giving up. I left the river early, it was a long drive up that morning, I had to set camp and I seriously needed a beer or two. I grabbed some wings at the bar, pitched my tent, started my fire and pounded some beers. I made a call to James basically telling him I think I’m retiring, trip 16 was it he’ll need a new fishing buddy.
The next morning I was up early. I hit the “Sportsmans Hole” its kind of a touristy fishing spot. It’s elbow to elbow almost every time I go there, but I like the water just below the main hole and just above. No luck below but I watched a few snaggers score fish. Snaggers are dudes that spot a fish and like the name says snag their hook in the fish. This is an illegal mean of take but it doesn’t stop people from doing it. I made the decision to head to the no kill area. In the no kill area all fish are catch and release. I thought if there is one spot I could end this losing streak it’d be the no kill. I mean even fish that were caught were still in the water. I thought wrong.
It was almost noon on the second day and I was almost done. Before packing it in I walked down river out of the no kill, below the bridge that makes the border for fish that live to spawn and fish that go home in a cooler. The first hole below the line was packed. I had already excepted the idea that my streak would continue. In my head I was already asking myself if I was coming back. At first I just watched the guys fish but I thought if I’m going to be standing in the water I might as well have a line in the water. With no room to fish I stood in the tailwater just down from the big hole. The river bends and narrows a bit here, the water is fast, it’s hard to stand. Just to my left as I look down stream is a small hole, three guys are fishing it but I see room for one more. I fish it for a bit snagging bottom twice, I retie my fly on and say that’s it when I lose this one I’m done. The guy at the head of the hole hooks up “Fish on!” and he ‘s off down river. Fish are coming! Instantly the next guy up from him hooks up “Fish on!” he too is ripped down river to fight a King Salmon. The guy across from me looks at me and I at him. We silently say “who’s next?”. He may have been saying why is that guy staring at me, but I was saying it. Just then he hooks up. His fight isn’t long the fish snaps him off quick and the first guy returns fishless at the same time. My guess is he lost his battle as well. I can’t wonder about them it’s my turn right? Where’s my fish? I’d gladly hook up and lose it anything just please anything. Right on que the fishing gods answer me with a snag on the bottom. I let out every curse word I know and put ones together that don’t even make sense. I’m done, I yank hard trying to break my line I wanted to put the last nail in my fishing coffin. The line comes free, I yank it from the river and slam it back down in anger. Then it happens ,my line goes tight, I see the bright shine of a King on my hook, I set the hook and I’m off down river. “Fish on!” I pass fisherman after fisherman “coming down!” they move I keep going letting the fish take me where he wants. This fish is coming home with me, I don’t care if he pulls me all the way to lake Ontario I’m winning this one. I’m not muscling it, my mistake on so many lost fish. I’m letting him fight my reel and holding on. He comes close to me at times and bursts away back to fast water. I’ll do this all day I think to myself. Then I remember the bottom snag just before this fish hit and I think what damage did I do to my line with that aggressive yank from the rocks, a panic sets in. Come on fish, come on just give up, because I can’t, I won’t, I never will. Then he does, he gives in, and gives up I step close and sink my hand in his gills. It’s over. The fight was over. I raised the fish up and brought it home. Trip 16 was over and so was my losing streak.
The Streak Breaker.
P.S. A week later I returned to the Salmon River and knocked the shit of of them. Here’s some pics.