2018 was a tough year.
I lost my job of seven years. My father-in-law passed away from a slow and agonizing battle with cancer. My yellow lab of twelve years had to be put down in front of me. My seventeen-year-old, 1994 Toyota pickup from high school finally tapped out (the only vehicle I’d ever owned and I’m thirty-one). And to top it all off, we were still stuck with an administration that couldn’t wait to sell off more and more of our hard-earned public lands to the greedy fossil fuel industry. There were countless excuses to lose faith and remain depressed.
To hell with that.
It was just one of those years where you had to dig deep. As in, really deep. Consoling the love of your life as she watches her father slip away in his sleep wasn’t easy to do. And it sure wasn’t easy on our new marriage flying back and forth to his hospital bed every few weeks for the last two years knowing full well that each goodbye could possibly be our last. With all of these heavy emotions, I knew I would have to fight to keep my chin up and stay positive for my wife, Laura, even when I knew deep down the odds weren’t looking good for a cancer recovery miracle.
Late in December 2017, on my home waters in Idaho, my angling buddy Fred and I started talking about the inevitable cock-measuring fishing topic of “Total Days on the Water.” This heated phrase was the subject of much debate, since neither of us wanted to admit that ultimately our wives would have the final say in the matter for the upcoming 2018 season.
After a long roll cast to a deep urban pool, Fred predicted that he would be confidently rounding out 2018 with over seventy-five days on the water. A few river sodas later and we were both silently doing the algebraic calculations in our own heads. Racking our brains on how we’d out-gun the other angler with sneaking out before and after work just to be able to firmly mark a large “F” on our hanging wall calendars, the dark sharpie letter indicating for the history books that the day had indeed been blessed with “Fishing.”
January 2018 came and went with an abounding bundle of cold winter days on the Boise river: filled with frozen guides and waders that stand up on their own, frostbitten and full of crackling wrinkles of snow and icy river water. Large trout were plentiful and so were my days on the water. I had decided that I was silently out to fish 365 consecutive days, and my best buddy had no idea I was gunning for his record. This was going to be the only way I’d survive 2018. I had to just keep my mind occupied on the positive thoughts of fishing. I needed this.
By late March, the conversations turned to concession speeches from each of my angling pals: “We get it man, you proved your damn point. There’s no way you’re gonna continue like this every single day right?”
Wrong. The gate was open and I was off to the races, already concocting the rules in my head. I would have to fish for a minimum of fifteen minutes per day and it had to be on a body of water with fish in it. Sorry, the neighborhood pool or drought-prone canals wouldn’t count. Furthermore, I would set out to try and teach others about the joys of fly fishing along the way. What good was the challenge without spreading the stoke of fishing?
I recently became a mentor in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program and this was also part of my Trump-era idea to help others along the way. My mentee, Brennan, was eagerly awaiting his time on the water. Little did he know he’d get a lot of chances to work on his casting.
In order to achieve this ludicrous goal, I’d have to fish different types of water in drastically different parts of the U.S. You see, I’m a cinematographer, and this means I’m on the road—a lot. With video shoots planned in California, Colorado, and Montana, along with family trips to Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and England, it would mean I’d have to be reading up on a lot of water. What ensued was pure marital suicide: I’d leave my wife on our comfy couch during a Wednesday Netflix night only to go fish right at 11:40 pm just so I could log a day’s fishing. I’d sweat the short five minute drive down to the water while mentally scolding myself on how reckless I was acting by nearly forgetting to fish that day.
6am flights to the Golden State meant I was up and pitching streamers at 4:15am that same morning. Oftentimes, I was hailing a Lyft with my suitcase and fly rod side by side on a dark, city park embankment, much to the driver’s surprise and astonishment. Producers and directors I’d work with on-set oftentimes questioned my sanity as I’d leave a shoot right after the obligatory That’s a wrap folks would leave the director’s mouth. Yeah, there’s no time to hang out for après-surf-and-turf with the client while faking menial small talk. I had to be fly fishing, and fast. I’d wade down to the muddy Napa river with Sperry Topsiders and a cheesy polo shirt, ill-prepared for the tidal rise and fall of this brackish, Striper fishery while mud ruined my only pair of business casual jeans for the next day’s shoot at an expensive vineyard.
By May, I had lost a ton of flies along the way. I’d constantly hook myself in the neck pitching big flies in complete darkness. I’d find myself rushing to quickly tie on a crappy knot, thinking no fish would lie in such a dark run after a late client review session, only to have the trout of a lifetime smash the streamer and snap me off cold.
Dumb move, buddy.
By August, the challenge was forcing me out of my comfort zone—the type of zone where you easily could call out your cast with a Dave Chappelle-era “Kobe!” before watching the indicator bob down, finishing with a confident “Fish on!” as follow-up commentary. I was fishing tougher and tougher water in different and varying conditions: Rain, gale force winds, high-water blow outs, 100+ degree days…it didn’t matter. They all turned into days on the water.
Eventually, I was targeting species I never thought I’d land. Kokanee salmon, Steelhead, six-foot-long Sturgeon, high mountain Golden trout, hard-fighting Bull trout, and even Perch. The list just kept growing. By fall 2018, I had shattered my personal best Brown trout record at 24.5” on Halloween dressed as a 1920’s butler. Adding insult to injury, my buddy Fred was there to witness the nighttime streamer take and he was noticeably depressed by having missed the chance at the Brown himself. He still took my photo with a half smile and a “Nice job bud.”
The truth is, I was becoming a more confident angler. I wasn’t getting better, but I was giving myself more opportunities to fail fast and pick up the pieces by the time the next session on the water would come. With so many chances, I was able to do what most anglers claim they do (but rarely live up to): experimentation. I threw everything in my boxes. When I was out of flies, I’d go to the shop and ask about any other weird patterns I could throw. I wasted every dollar I made on shit flies that had a .00001% chance of working. I didn’t care though. I still made sure that I was pushing the envelope constantly with my days on the water, and it paid handsome dividends.
By the year’s end, my wife’s patience was beginning to wear thin, and understandably so. Comments like, “You’re seriously going fishing right now?” quickly turned to, “God I can’t wait for this challenge to end so I can get my husband back.” These were the comments that threw off my chi the whole next day, resulting in a karma-induced lack of fish after a 14+ hour day on the water. As much as I didn’t want to admit it, I could see that the 365 challenge was wearing on my marriage. It was getting harder and harder to justify getting out on the water.
Time was flying by. One day I checked my phone’s calendar, only to realize that it was Day 335. Unbeknownst to me, Laura had cleverly commissioned a gag trophy with a fish jumping out of the water and a plaque that read: “Stephen T Veals: Fished for 365 consecutive days”. It was such a simple, thoughtful gift that it brought tears to my eyes when she presented it prematurely to me with 30 days remaining in the challenge. She was so excited unveil it. After thanking her for such a rad gift, I quickly pointed out that I hadn’t earned the trophy yet and that it didn’t mean that I would be cutting the challenge short and cheating my way across the finish life. To mark the occasion, we even brought it out on my last day on the water, just in time to hoist it alongside my last fish of the year. Into my net sprang a wily, 13” urban brown trout caught on a swung streamer, my favorite way to close out the quest.
So what did I learn after fishing more than most average-Joes get to fish in an entire lifetime? The lesson here remains the same: Fish. Every. Single. Day.
Who cares how dumb you look bringing a fly rod to a Napa Valley wine tasting room? Let your buddies laugh. Let your boss laugh at you. Let the whole world think you’re crazy. You may even be certifiable, but at least you’re catching fish while you undergo a mental re-evaluation of your life’s goals. We’re on this earth a short time and the sand keeps slipping through the hour glass…
Fight to keep it upright as long as you can…and don’t forget to teach someone to fish along the way.