What Have We Become?

TJ Cheek Fishing Reports, General 5 Comments

When I was a kid my dad would take me fishing all the time. We weren’t rich. We didn’t have a nice boat. Hell… at times when didn’t even have a boat at all. We fished in anything ranging from neighborhood ponds to rivers and creeks. We didn’t have smart phones and we didn’t bring cameras to document each and every catch in order to provide proof of a successful day.

In the summer time I would always spend a couple of weeks with my grandparents at their house on Hickory Bluff where they had a dock on Field Creek. You will still find a graveyard of ruined cast nets below that dock from the many hours I spent catching mullet and shrimp every time I deemed that the tide was “just right”. I spent so much time out there that my grandparents would send my cousin out with food and drinks for me out of fear that I would dehydrate or starve to death.

As I got a little older I would fish from docks with my cousins and friends. Some days we would catch Trout and Redfish while other days it was Sharks or Black Drum. We would even fish for Yellow Tail and had no idea that we should consider them trash fish. Once again, no smart phones, no social media, no cameras. Just pure fishing enjoyment.

Back then, we didn’t fish for bragging rights or to elevate our social media profiles. We didn’t fish to attract sponsors or gain some small form of fame or glory. A day of catching Whiting or Butter Cats was no less memorable than a day of catching more “prestigious” fish. I don’t remember what brand of rods or reels we were using. I don’t remember having any fancy electronics. What I do have are countless memories and lessons learned. No one that wasn’t there knows what happened but that makes it no less enjoyable to look back on.

Lately I have been troubled by what the sport of fishing has become. Like everyone else I’m on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Vine and I’m still trying to figure out what in hell SnapChat does. As a fishing guide in today’s age I have to promote through social media and the internet. I do it out of necessity.

I have sponsors and some bias about what gear is the best to use in certain situations. I have favorite baits and “go to” rigs. I have expensive boats and gadgets. I wear clothing that identifies me as an angler and which “angler tribes” I fit best in.

What troubles me is that I see kids doing what I do. They’re on social media documenting every aspect of their fishing trips, promoting brands, and asking for sponsorships. I see them being seduced by the commercialization of fishing and wanting to buy the fancy gear and expensive boats. It’s easy to say that it’s just “kids these days” but at the same time I wonder if it’s not our fault.

I hate what fishing has become. It’s a circus with clever marketing and a never ending onslaught of product pimping. We’ve driven kids to the point of thinking that they have to act like the pros and promote themselves and their favorite gear. It’s become like NASCAR with everyone belonging to “team Yamaha, team Penn, team Mercury, team Shimano, team Ugly Stik, team Garmin, team this or that”.

Does anyone remember when a fishing shirt was just any shirt that you didn’t mind getting blood on? Does anyone remember when you didn’t have to have $5,000 worth of rods in a $50,000+ bay boat to go spend a day catching Trout? Do you remember the last time you went fishing and didn’t take any pictures?

This year I experienced the most severe case of burnout that I’ve ever had. It was to the point that I didn’t even want to be a guide anymore. I started the year fishing tournaments and acquiring sponsors. I had every intention of playing the game. What I learned is that with few exceptions, most companies don’t care anything about you. They care in the sense that they want to keep you happy enough to continue to buy their products, but they aren’t loyal to you in the way that you are loyal to them. They’re not wearing YOUR shirt when THEY go fishing. You’re nothing more than customer number 36437421.

Seeing the inside of the industry in a way that I never had before made me angry. You can look back through the pictures of me at weigh-ins and see that later in the year I even stopped wearing my jersey. I realized that I’m out here saying “buy these $80 shirts that I wear, buy this $90,000 boat I have, buy these $200 rods, buy these $250 sunglasses, buy this $500 cooler, buy this, buy that.” Meanwhile, these companies don’t care if I’m a good fisherman or if their products are right for you. They care about how many social media followers I have, how many articles I was in, how many radio interviews I did, how many times I was on TV, how many speaking appearances I made, and so on. That’s not why I became a fisherman, that’s not why I became a fishing guide, and that’s not what I want my life’s work to be.

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, anglers of all ages, let me make this clear; you don’t need all of this stuff. You don’t have to interrupt your day of fishing to make a Facebook post. You don’t have to prove anything to anyone.

Kids, would you rather spend your money to have the most expensive boat you can afford or would you rather buy the cheapest boat that works and have a whole bunch of gas money?  I see people with expensive boats and I’m not the least bit impressed. The guy that impresses me is the one that puts his ragged out boat in every weekend and fishes with his one and only rod that looks like it could snap at any time, and comes back with fish every time. He’s not stressed with boat payments and he’s not looking at Bass Pro catalogs (do those exist anymore?) for the latest and greatest gear. He probably doesn’t have a GPS or a Facebook account.

If you look up to us pros and envy our lives I completely understand. It’s a romantic concept, fishing for a living. Just know that many of us envy your life. You can fish when the weather is just right. You can wait for the tides to be perfect. No one will judge you when you fail. You can fish with no other motive but the pure love of the sport. You don’t have to keep your boat spotless. Your rod is your rod and you can leave the handle on whatever side of the reel you prefer. If you’re done in an hour you can head on in. If you want to stay all day you can do that too. You can spend all day trying new things that might work but no one will be crossed with you if it doesn’t. You can explore new areas with no pressure to find fish.

Don’t get me wrong, being a guide is a wonderful way to make a living. Having a nice boat does not suck. Having nice rods and reels does not suck. This isn’t a “poor me, I have this awesome job and cool stuff and it makes me sad” kind of post. I just feel that I have the responsibility to tell the young people that follow me that you don’t need this stuff.

What I want to convey is that you don’t have to have what I have to catch fish or enjoy fishing. If you’re one of the young people that read my fishing reports I want you to know that the single best thing you can do is fish as much as you can and enjoy every minute of it. Learn as much as you can. Don’t worry about trying to impress people on social media. One day you might be behind a desk wishing that you had time to go fishing again. One day you might be a fishing guide and miss the purity that the sport once had. Don’t let companies fool you into thinking that they’re your friends. They love the free advertising you give them but I think you’ll find the relationship to be one sided.

Enjoy the silence and the peace on the water. Don’t take pictures of every fish you catch. Some stories are best when the only ones that know them are you and the fish.


Comments 5

  1. This is a very, very well-written article. I say that as a forty-five year veteran of the language arts classroom. Fishing certainly has changed over the years. When I was a child growing up and fishing every day of my young life on an intracoastal island in South Florida, I can only remember two reel companies, Shakespeare and Orvis. The only three plugs we had then were Creek Chub pikies, zara spooks, and mirrolures. Now, there are literally dozens of reel companies, probably a thousand different plugs, as well as soft baits. Like TJ, none of us had a boat. We caught huge trout and snook from the shore where I lived and today I cherish every golden-tailed snook that would slide on its side through the shallow depths of the oyster bar up to my feet after a drag-screaming, three to four jump battle and every giant trout that would blast my zara spook out of the water. Yes, the fishing of today is quite different; yet, the beauty of it does lie in the mind and memory of the beholder. We should all be thankful for the golden marshes and the mud-banked creeks fraught with crab, shrimp, wading birds, fish, and how could we forget the gnats when the wind is calm! We might not be so thankful for them. I consider myself blessed to fish those marshes and my wish is for them to remain the same and not be destroyed by any means. Thank you for this article young man!

  2. Captain TJ,

    I hate to hear that it came to this point for you. I love fishing and the memories made doing it worth my child. We don’t catch much but it’s still a blast. Last year we took our first goofed trip with you and could not have been more impressed. Not by the fish we caught or the knowledge you poured out, but by your love for fishing. Keep your head up and know that your interaction with your customers is exactly what you want it to be. I hope things look up for you and we will see this summer.

  3. that story was awesome,i,m 55 and i really enjoyed that article,i got freinds my age always raggin me about my boat and the reel and rods i use,my son passed away a 5 years ago and it’s his reel and rods i use,just seems a part of him is with me,cause he loved going fishing,new isn’t always the most satisfying.but i think fishing is it all,not just catching a lot of fish and competing.thank you james

  4. Very well-said, TJ. Your thoughts on your experience are a reminder to us all about enjoying life’s simple pleasures and not getting caught up in the commercial aspect of things.

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