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One day last summer, at the height of the best topwater and deepwater bites of the year, I received the call asking me to attend a photo shoot and to be a representative kayak angler for an article in Wildlife in North Carolina magazine. My first thought was “I’m gonna stick a state record at the shoot.” It was a selfish impulse, but an honest one. Who wouldn’t have it? I could lie and tell you I smashed ’em, or that I lost a big one, or that as soon as it was over I went to another spot and landed a biggun. All anglers are liars, anyway, but there are witnesses in this case. Here’s what really happened at the big photo shoot: I caught a skunk. Zero bites. Not even a wayward Bluegill.

Maybe I’ve been fishing for too long and the sun’s worn through my skull, but I just don’t care if I don’t catch fish. I’m just grateful to be alive and that’s usually enough to make my day. But the article attached to the cover shot in this post represents our sport so well that it made me grateful for something far more important, something much bigger than the little thrill of seeing my grizzled mug on a magazine cover or the disappointment one might assume when looking at a cover that is, in some way, a reminder of a bad day of fishing. I’ll come back to that point…

Back to the big photo shoot: when I woke up that August morning, there was a light fog. I was sure I was gonna catch fish. The photo-shoot’s location was also ideal. My hubris only expanded:  “Perfect – I know it well. It’s on now” At first light, the lake was slick and there was fog on the water. After discussing where I should paddle and fish, I launched and went to work.

I started to worry after the first cast. Nature often tells us what kind of fishing day it well be. On this day the only birds around were some fat turkey vultures ominously perched in a tree, and they were unusually lazy. I didn’t see a single duck or kingfisher, not even an egret. The birds, let alone the squirrels, were quiet in the trees. After fishing around the first cove, I noticed that, despite the muggy air temperature, the bugs were few and fish weren’t rising. The reptiles and amphibians also took the day off. It quickly became apparent that we humans were the only animals in an active mood.

I reasoned moving water may help, so I left the quiet cove and paddled  for the channel, where I finally spotted a rising fish. It could be a carp or a brim, but it was movement. There too, nothing. I fished a grass line and something followed my lure for a moment, but I may have been having hallucinations. Can this be happening – it’s my big photo shoot, and I can’t catch a fish? And then I gave myself false hope: “keep doing what you are doing,” I told myself, “the universe is saving its best for last. You’ll finish with a bang.”

A few hours later, and still without a bite, I told the journalist and photographer to follow me down the road a ways. I had a back-up plan, an ace in the hole.

It didn’t work.

Back to my earlier point: being featured in a great publication creates the illusion that you are the big fish, when in fact it was an editor or a journalist or both who did the work of getting you in there. If you look at the history of our sport, it was writers who made it. From Izaak Walton writing the first famous book about fly fishing (1653), to Dr. Henshall writing the first book about bass fishing, to Zane Grey, Ernest Hemingway and Francesca LaMonte co-founding the IGFA, it’s a sport that lives and grows by stories told with words and images.

And so the honors for the cover and article don’t really go to me or Jerry, the other featured angler.  They go to outdoors writer Mike Zlotnicki and the photographer Thomas Harvey. Mike is an expert journalist with a gift for picking up the bits and words of our lives into a story. He seeks out characters. He listens for the cadence of their speech, and hears the story beneath the quotes, luring it out like an angler who persuades a fish to come out and take the bait. The cover photo of the magazine is also a work of art, with many of the same decisions about perspective and tone behind it. Thomas is a professional who will do whatever is necessary to get the shot: following me up and down the lake, he climbed rocks and waded into the soup to get these great photos. He’s an expert not only with his equipment but with the craft: light, composition, angle, etc. Where a journalist can record and review the moment, ask follow-up questions and dig a bit more, a photographer only has one chance to get the shot. If the cast isn’t perfect, the fish won’t take.

And also to Wildlife in North Carolina magazine, one of the best outdoors publications in the country. There were many purchases I could have made as soon as I moved to North Carolina, but one of my first was a fishing license. When I bought the license, the store clerk handed me the printed regulations booklet, and I read it front to back. It was well-organized, well-illustrated and well-written, and I remember thinking “these folks have their act together.” Not long after that, I subscribed to the magazine, and I’ve even gone to the library and read through back issues I didn’t have.

You might be thinking “Old Hank is rationalizing a bad day on the water.” I’ve been fishing for nearly a half century and a bad day of fishing is about as troublesome to me as a broken cookie in the box – I don’t count them and I’m still gonna eat them. Looking back, I realize that I spent a good deal of time admiring Mike and Thomas as they did their work, and we talked quite a bit on the lake. Maybe that’s why I didn’t have much success, but it was worth it because in the end the article wasn’t about me. It was about our sport and our country’s great fisheries and the people who run them. Most of all, it’s about the people like Mike and Thomas who tell the great stories about them.

Support your local wildlife commission in its work. Every state has one and most publish a magazine. To subscribe to Wildlife in North Carolina, click here.

All text by Henry Veggian © 2019

Photo by Thomas Harvey, © 2019Courtesy of Wildlife in NC