“Please, celebrate me homeâ€¦”
Dateline: Lower Niagara River, Western New York
“Fishing isn’t always about the fish, it’s also about your knucklehead buddies in the boat”
– James Niland (a knucklehead fishing buddy)
There is peace, within the rapids.
There is peace, when the big motor is off, and the hum of the electric trolling motor is only half as loud as the white Terns who glide next to the boat.
There is peace, when you fish the jade colored waters of the Lower Niagara River.
Almost, a month ago, my fishing buddy, Mac, and I climbed into my Tundra and headed east, ( “No West,” according to Mac) on Interstate 84 to around Albany, N.Y. where we jumped off the highway, and travelled the backroads of New York State as we headed to Lewiston, NY, and The Lower Niagara River.
It was our third fishing buddy trip, this time for Steelhead and Lake Trout. We’ve been Salmon fishing on the Miramichi River in New Brunswick, Canada, and we have been fishing for ocean fish out of Puerto Rico.
But now, I was taking Mac to my home.
We spent 16 hours in the truck driving there and back, and 24+ hours on the water for three days.
We fished with two of my brothers-in-law, invited because 7 years ago both, Michael Sullivan and James Niland, were on the same boat, with the same guide, Chris Cinelli, on the same river, for the first story I ever wrote about fishing, about being inside the outside, and to them, and that day, I owe this, my final career.
We also fished with a good friend of mine, Coach Jeffrey Quinn, who had just been let go from his Head Coaching job at my Alma Mater. I invited Jeff because I had been reading the press about what happened, and I knew that the river would offer him, what it offers me â€¦ peace.
And it did.
Mac, James Niland, Michael Sullivan, Chris Cinelli and Coach.
The five guys I wanted in the boat for the first Buddy Fishing trip, that I ever planned on my own.
My Buddy Fishing trip back home once again.
But, this time, this time, it was different.
This time, I knew how special it would be.
“â€¦give me a numberâ€¦”
I want to read you a note, read you the note exactly as I scribbled it down on one of our floats through Devil’s Hole on the Lower Niagara:
“This time I knew as we floated the river, this time is the 1st time that I realized that I was being let into a very special world.
A world of fishing buddies.
A world of respect.
A world of seeing the beauty around us, of love of the outdoors.”
I totally missed that the first time out. Missed all of it.
I went for a story, 1,500 word assignment, thought it would be one-and-done, get some photos, get some quotes, hear stuff about fishing.
Throw a line in, hook something, pull it into the boat, snap a photo, throw it back.
And yep, for outsiders, as I was, that’s what it’s all about.
‘cept, it ain’t.
I can tell you now, having done it several times over the last 7 years, if you think it is just about the fish, you are focusing on the wrong end of the pole.
And it is to those fishing buddies, those men who hold the fishing pole, that I am thankful for.
And for all those anglers who have let me in.
And for the outside letting me in.
And that is one of the things I’m most thankful for on this, the 62nd Thanksgiving of my life.
“â€¦please, celebrate me homeâ€¦”
Lewiston, New York is your typical quaint village of white picket fences, expensive boutiques, micro-brew bars, well kept homes, Inns and B&B’s.
It also has what seems like a bakery on every block.
That alone puts it on my top 3 places to retire to.
Trust me, when I retire I will get ALL the fruit I ever need in a bakery made jelly donut.
The town may ban me for this but I’m thinking it’s better to be rich here, than not.
Including the bakeries, it is the type of town I have wanted to live in all my life, a Main St filled with cool stores (bakeries) and places to eat and gossip with town friends about other town friends not sitting with you at the time, along with beautiful homes on beautiful tree lined streets right behind Main Street.
If you grew up in the ’50’s and watched black and white TV, you know what I mean.
Mac, had never been here before, had in fact never been east or west in the bulk of New York State, Upstate as New York City folks call it, or New York State as we who don’t live in New York City call it.
When we dumped off some highway I drove straight through the village, drove right to the end of the main street, right where it ends at the Lower Niagara River, and as Mac and I got out of the truck and walked up to the railing over the river, and above the dock we would launch from in the morning, both of us heard a huge splash in the river beyond.
Mac: “Did you hear that.”
Mac: “That was a huge fishâ€¦” and as Mac is smiling as fish dreams run through his mind, all I say is:
“Welcome to the Lower Niagara Riverâ€¦”
And in my mind I added, “â€¦and my home.”
Just wait my friend, for tomorrow.
“â€¦play me one more songâ€¦”
It’s Monday, October 27th, 8am, about 40 degrees at the Lewiston Boat Launch.
I have so many layers of clothes on I tell Mac, “Listen man, if I fall over you are going to have to pick me back up like Ralphie’s brother in The Christmas Story.”
Mac is my Fishing Buddy Pick-er-upper.
I’m not alone, all I can see of Mac is his mustache sticking out of his new Guide Pro gear.
As I sort of shuffle myself turning around I see my bud, Coach walking up to us, he being a Coach, doesn’t have half as much stuff on as we do. I know football coaches, I have been in an ESPN fully stuffed feather parka on the sideline in a blizzard interviewing an NFL coach in short sleeves.
The first thing I do is tell Coach how sorry, how embarrassed I am that my Alma Mater, the University at Buffalo fired him saying, “thank you for bringing the entire teams GPA average up while you were here which I think should be the point of the alleged ‘student-athletes’ and for coming to Buffalo when most people run the other way.”
Then I gave him a hug, something I won’t be doing to my Alma Mater any more.
“Thanks db, lets go fishing.”
And so we did.
I have now fished with several guides in the past 7 years, every one save for one, was great; one was a jerk. Mac has taught me his golden rule when it comes to fishing guides: “Make sure THEY have fun, if they are having fun, you will have fun.”
So as we get to Chris Cinelli’s boat, I introduce him to Mac and Coach, they shake hands, and then I give Chris a big hug, not something I normally do with guides, but Chris is not just a guide I use, but a friend.
“db so what is it you want to do today.”
“Two things: I want the guys and I want you to have fun, and I want you to fish as well.”
And then came the Cinelli smile. He looks out at the river, then looks at Mac and says, “What would you like to fish for today.”
Mac: “Whatever it is YOU want to fish for, defer to you, doesn’t matter what we fish for, just fishing, just fishingâ€¦”
It’s what buddy fishing trips are all about.
“First fish landed gets a buck.”
I don’t know who said that, Chris, Mac or Coach. I was sitting up front in the boat, they were sitting in the back, Chris was driving, floating actually, down the river.
“Okay guys, I’ve put the Salmon Egg sacks on your line. Just let the line sink to the bottom. Then raise it some; wait until you feel the “baâ€¦baâ€¦baâ€¦boom.”
Mac and Coach nod yes, I have no idea what he is talking about, all I’m thinking is I’m fishing with a very high source of Omega-3 fat. Maybe I should just throw a One-A-Day vitamin.
Normally I stick to crankbaits. Chris calls it “Roe,” but again I don’t know what he is talking about since I can’t spot any oars on board.
“Watch your rod tip dbâ€¦”
For all of you out there interested in this kind of stuff, my rod tip is stuck on a 10-foot, 6-inch St. Croix, medium-power, fast-action Avid AVS 106MF2 rod, using a Shimano Stradic c14+ 2500FA reel
“â€¦watch the tip do thisâ€¦”
And then Chris takes his index finger and allegedly moves it up and down pretending it is a St. Croix tip. I know he moved it because Coach and Mac are nodding, yep like that, I don’t have my 4.25 reading glasses on so I barely can see his hand.
So I’m sitting up front eating healthy, a Raspberry Scone, which is like a pretend, but healthy donut, with the rod laying across my lap when all of a sudden Chris’ eyes start popping out and he yells out, “Your tip, your tipâ€¦”
And I’m thinking, maybe we should have tipped him at the beginning of the trip when suddenly the rod starts moving across my legs, and that is the moment I became a real fishing buddy because I DROPPED THE ALMOST A DONUT SCONE and picked up the rodâ€¦and caught the first fishâ€¦and $1 of the trip.
This is me holding itâ€¦
â€¦and this is me finding out that Steelheads have teeth. PHOTO 7
db: 1 fish, 0 scone = $3â€¦thank you very much.
It was the beginning of a fish filled day, a good day for us, a good day for the fish as every one was released: Chris “Thank you Don, thank you guys for doing that.”
I wouldn’t have it any other way, except for maybe the fish that bit me, but later that night as Mac and I laughed about that, I told him, “You know, to tell you the truth I think it was just fair play on the fish’s part.”
Some would say that Chris thanked us because the fish, and the abundance of fish, is how he makes his living, and that is true, except you have to watch how he handles the fish, how Mac and Coach handled the fish, I wouldn’t actually touch the fish myself, but when those guys did, it was nothing but respect the way they handled the fish.
Here’s two photos of Coach with a couple of the fish he caught that day.
For me, that smile was the catch of the day.
In one of my first TV reporter jobs, my contract wasn’t renewed, that’s what it is called in the TV News biz, in the real business world it is called, being fired.
When I was fired, the local newspaper did a story about it.
Some on radio talked about it.
When I went grocery shopping, to the gas station, to a restaurant, strangers came up to me and asked me about it.
Asked me about getting fired.
It wasn’t my fault, a news director was hired who thought I sucked, so he got rid of me.
Pretty much the same deal happened to Coach. It was big news in Buffalo. Coaches being fired are easy fodder for the press and for the comments below the press reports.
I knew the hurt.
But now, I knew the healing as well. One of the reasons Coach came to Buffalo in the first place was, “because of all the blue on the map around it, I love to fish, love it, and this is fishing paradise.”
So on my first Fishing Buddy planned trip I knew I wanted to get Coach out in a boat, out away from all the stuff going on land, take him to where I knew peace would be found.
That night at dinner with Mac he was telling me what a great guy Coach was, “I didn’t know what to expect but he was a blast, would fish with him anytime, have him in my boat anytime.”
And as we sat at the table this email came in to my smartphone, from Coach: “db,
Awesome day on the water. Days like today will never be forgotten. It was just what I needed.”
Like I said, my catch of the day.
“â€¦and i can recallâ€¦”
Day two, was for my two brothers-in-law.
Michael and James.
Michael is my wife’s brother, I’ve known him for more than 40 years.
James is married to my wife’s sister, I’ve known him for 20 years or so.
Their fishing trip, as was Coach’s, was on Mac and me.
James caught a fish or two, so did Mac, so did Chris.
Michael did not.
“Mike you okay.”
“You didn’t catch a fish.”
“Doesn’t matter. How do you not love being out here on this river. I had a great time being in the boat, fishing, watching the scenery and just enjoying life.”
And even though I had out fished, pretty much both of my in-laws, that quote, along with the look on Mike’s face was some things that made this trip for me.
Seven years ago, I was there for a story, and the fish, the boat, the people in it were just props, just what’s known in the scriptwriting biz as “Plot-Points.”
But in the seven years since that first trip, I realized that James and Michael, WERE the story.
All of us are as different as you can be, but when we step in that boat, we turn into just knucklehead fishing buddies.
For me, and I hope for Michael and James, these fishing trips have cemented our friendship above and beyond the in-law thing.
Some caught fish, one caught none, but the boat was filled with smiles, with friendship, with respect.
When I think back on this trip, this is one thing I will always hear, “”Doesn’t matter. How do you not love being out here on this river? I had a great time being in the boat, fishing, watching the scenery and just enjoying life.”
That quote on day 2, my catch of the day.
“â€¦whenever i find myselfâ€¦”
And then there is Mac.
Mac, who as a surgeon who operated on wounded and dying GI’s in a goat barn while under fire in Afghanistan, who held death in his hands almost on a daily basis in the most forward base in a war that war torn country, it is Mac who keeps me focused on the miracle of life.
As we floated on a river of jade we went under the Rainbow Bridge which connects this part of America to Canada.
On one of our last passes on the river I looked up at the bridge and saw that the Canadian flag was being flown at half staff, flown that way for the soldier who was gunned down in Canada.
Mac never took his eyes from the flags, he knew exactly why the Canadian flag flew as it did.
For those of you who fish, those of you who fish with buddies on boats, you too have special moments that transcend what happens on the other end of the line.
This photo of Mac and a fish, and me, will be one I cherish for a long, long time.
All the while we were on the water, were driving the back roads of New York State Mac constantly was saying, “This is just great, how can it not be.”
In my seven years now writing about fishing and inside the outside, I have learned, been shown, what the greatness of fishing is all about.
Respect for one another.
Respect for the fish.
Respect for the God-given miracle that is planet earth, this blue bubble in dark space.
Respectâ€¦for this river, that runs through my home.
“â€¦too all alone i can singâ€¦”
The star of this trip though, never stepped foot on the boat.
The star of this trip, is The Lower Niagara River.
Mac: “Don, wow, I have to tell you I never knew it was here, never thought about fishing it, but this is a world class fishery, WORLD CLASS. I can catch everything in this river that I did in Alaska, and I can drive here. World Class db, world class.”
On our last day of fishing, I mainly, did not. I gave the poles, the fish over to Chris and Mac.
I’ll never forget the look on Chris’ face that day on the water when he went from being a fishing guide, to a fishing buddy.
“db I have to tell you, thank you, thank you and Mac for these last three days, it has been like a three day vacation for me, what fun.”
â€¦so as they fished I just sat in one of the back seats and wrote down notes. Notes I usually weave into a story, but on this Thanksgiving I want to just give you the notes as I wrote them.
Let your mind make up your story, if you fish you will understand, if you don’t fish, please give it a try, find some fishing buddies and go out, and then take the time to write notes as well.
Here’s the naked notes as I scribbled them down as we drifted the Lower Niagara River and Mac and Chris caught fish:
“We have to appreciate the gift given all of us of green waters, canyons ablaze with color, and tiny white birds in flight.”
“There is a place in the rapids that soothes, the rocking and the turning of the boat along with the sound of the water brings me back home to where we all came from before birth.”
“The white terns, and the bird drying it’s wings on a rock, the fish below us, all unaware of the power of the state, the Robert Moses Power Plant above, I worry that the state will somehow screw this up, that we will screw it up, but know in my soul, that the terns were here before us, and will be here when we are gone and that makes me smile.”
“I wish in my heart I could have experienced the wonder that the first Native Americans must have had in their heart when they walked out of the woods and saw this river, and the falls above, for the first time.”
“Fishing is a touch of wonder.”
“â€¦I can singâ€¦”
The catch of my trip though, was bringing a good friend who loves the water, to water he had never seen before.
One night, after dinner, we drove over the Rainbow Bridge that we fished under, and I took Mac to see Niagara Falls for the very first time.
When you see it from the Canadian side, the mist of the falls hits you in the face, and for a man of the water, it was a spiritual sight.
I can’t quote what he said, because in the mist, watching the falls as the lights came on, as the falls was illuminated, Mac, said nothing, he just stood, water dripping off his face, just stood looking.
Mac had given me so many gifts throughout the years, now, now it was my turn.
On this Thanksgiving I wish for you this:
Fishing Buddies to share life with.
Fishing buddies, to laugh with.
Fishing buddies, to learn from, as I have done.
I am thankful for the world my fishing buddies opened up for me, be them Michael, James, Chris, Mac, or all those Elite anglers I hand around with.
All my life I have had my feet planted firmly on earth, but it is my fishing buddies who have shown me the water.
It is my fishing buddies who have shown me that I live on the only blue bubble in the darkness of space.
And to them, and you, I say Happy Thanksgiving.
And thank you to the one who created this miracle in spaceâ€¦
â€¦that we call home.
Celebrate Me Home