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When you are young, the world is your private pond. It’s stocked with fat fish and they bite every lure you throw.  You can sit on the bank and eat chips, sleep and dream of adventures you had and will never have. You can wake up and dive in the pond or chase your friends around the banks until the wind gets winded. Youth is a fork and the world is your mussel.

Before you know it, you are tired, stressed and it’s all gone. If you are lucky, you have a job and your health. If you are really fortunate you still sneak out to fish sometimes and forget your troubles. The mussels aren’t quite as abundant and they cost more, but they still taste really good.

We are closing a historic decade in the artful sport of fishing. It will forever be known as the decade during which kayak tournament fishing went from a local hobby to national and international stature. The sport’s business side has blossomed, the media have portrayed us in a good light and there are more tournament options than one can count. There are kayaks on every lake, many with rods sticking out of them and looking like antennae farms floating on some extra-terrestrial settlement. In only a few short years, it appears a viable model for the sport has emerged: the technology has improved, state wildlife agencies have noticed us, competition formats have settled into some degree of normalcy and people are out there fishing and having fun, whether in tournaments or otherwise. Hell, even the venerated B.A.S.S. organization has adopted us. Who saw that coming?

Looking back over this decade when kayak fishing entered my life, I can’t help but admit that I’m immensely grateful. I participated in nearly every landmark event in the sport. I’ve made friends across the country and world, I’ve won money and I’ve watched a new generation of anglers of all races and ages take to the water. If the world were managed by some of those folks, we would all be better off. The good our sport does for friends and fellow anglers is indisputable: it is truly good. What’s better is that it is affordable and nearly anyone can do it – it is popular in the true sense of the word, in that it belongs to the people. What is best of all, I’ve watched my own kids take to the water to paddle and fish.

And so I want to end the year on a note of gratitude for all the sport has done and take a moment to appreciate it all. I’m going to do so at the end of a wonderful season. I’ve told this story before, but it deserves a final account.

At the start of the 2019 fishing season, I was going through the motions, and not in a good way. I made a costly mental error at the KBF National Championship, I was over-thinking my approach to the sport and I was overworked, tired and unfocused. By mid-April, I was considering taking a break, as I did in 2014 when I fished a half-season and quit for a while. And then something remarkable happened.

I was on the water in early May, fishing with my old friend Shelly Efird. We were catching fish and scouting for a tournament. On tournament day, I had a plan but conditions changed and I didn’t adapt well. I lost a good fish early and started falling into my rut, the local boat traffic was annoying and a few anglers in the event had shown a lack of basic civility while on the water. It was mid-morning and I ran into Shelly. We fished down a bank together when a loud boat passed us, blaring a catchy pop song. I turned to make a remark, and there was Shelly, standing on his Hobie, busting a dance move that would have sent Olympic judges for their 10 cards.

I froze and watched him get lost in the beat. And then it hit me: I’d been doing everything wrong. I’d fallen into a routine, become predictable. Suddenly, I realized it wasn’t Shelly: my vanished joy was over there, twerking in a kayak.

The next day, I started on a tear the likes of which I had never imagined. I placed in the money in 12 of the next 15 tournaments, winning 4 overall, stacked points toward an eventual victory in the KBF Challenge North Carolina state championship and qualified for the KBF-FLW Cup. I went to Arkansas with Shelly, shared a house with my friends Cory, Jody, George and Dwayne, and did one of the best things I have ever done in my life.

No, I’m not referring to the fish photos I accidentally submitted with my fly unzipped. When I learned I placed in the money, I rolled over to the FLW main stage with the other anglers in the top 10. I was wearing nothing but a smelly t shirt, shorts and a smile. When my number was called, I went on stage with a speech in mind but something else happened. A great swell of gratitude surged from my heart. I thanked the event hosts and then it happened: I rubbed my belly and thanked the Sunshine Country Store and Cafe that had fed us all week. Later that evening, the restaurant owners showered us with hugs and biscuits.

That’s the moral of the photo in this post, and the story of this year. A few months ago I couldn’t explain the point well to a friend who had asked, and so I scribbled on the picture and sent it to her. It wasn’t the first time I was at a loss for words around her, or the last. Scrolling back through photos, I saw the scribble and realized – that’s it. That’s the story of the decade.

Kayak fishing is about walking away from mediocrity and routine. It’s about having the willingness to take a chance. It’s about admitting you were wrong and then turning that wrong into a right. It’s about saying yes instead of no, offering praise instead of scorn, and remembering that if you’re going to live, you have to be grateful for all of it, embrace the challenge and work to do better with love in your heart. It’s about dancing in your boat, rubbing your belly and laughing. It’s about not fussing over what you don’t have and taking satisfaction from what you do have and making things better for everyone. It isn’t just “fun” – it’s the satisfaction you take from opening yourself to the world.

It’s about diving into the pond.

I’m grateful for you all. I can’t name everyone, but a few deserve notice. I want to thank Will Cimino for first mentioning fishing kayaks over one decade ago, my friend Joe Angelcyk for letting me fish from his Jackson Coosa in those skeptical early days, and I want to thank Joel Elliott for selling me his Tarpon 120. My friends Rick Rowland and Shelly Efird, thank you for making me a better angler through your generosity and expertise. I want to thank Bob Dainton and Joey Sullivan for running the old Carolina Yakfish series, which folded in 2013 but where many lasting memories and friendships were made.

I want to thank Cory Dreyer, Wayne Butler and Garret Phillips for founding CKA, and Will Seely and Get:Outdoors for being there for us all. Larry Anderson for keeping me Jersey strong, Eric Nelson for being a yin to the yang, and all my other fellow directors past and present. To all the hundreds of Carolina anglers, thank you.

Chad Hoover and KBF have achieved more than any of us had ever dreamed possible for the sport and we all owe them our thanks; personally, I’ve owed to Chad, Joe, Richard, Kristy, Amanda and the KBF staff some of the more memorable adventures and memories of my adult life. Casey Reed – thank you for being who you are. To Jody, Vicki and Brian in West Virginia, I am grateful for bringing me into your world at Gary Bowling’s House of Art. To all the KBF folks – yes.

Thanks to Get:Outdoors and Ketch Company for their support of my fishing and thanks to my family for understanding why I had to go and do it. To Brandon for the lures and Dave for the moral support, grazie.

And to the friends I made in random encounters or happened to fish near over the years, exchanging words and tips on the water or a ramp – Dave Ruckdeschel at Kentucky Lake, Vincent Soliz at Toledo Bend, Jesse Halverson in Louisiana, Tricia and Brian and the New York Italians, Ken and Jason and Joe representing New England, Kristine Fischer just about everywhere at every event, Jason Adams in Arkansas, and our departed friend Rebecca Golden in West Virginia – those memories are the rarest jewels.

To the lake wardens and wildlife officers, the magazine writers and journalists, the photographers and engineers, the tackle shops and launch operators, the chefs and waitresses, the waiters and bartenders, the mechanic who fixed my car in Monroe, the fish and the fishers – thank you.

And most of all, thank you to the chefs and staff at the Sunshine Country Store and Cafe in Sunshine, Arkansas.

You never fish the old pond again, but that doesn’t mean new waters don’t await. It’s been a great year and a magical decade. We have been the kids of the sport – we are fortunate to be part of this moment, and no one can take that away from us. We all made history, together. Be thankful for every second you spend on the water, on land or in the air. Appreciate the time we have with each other, win, lose or draw.

To quote an old song – it’s called gratitude, and that’s right.