When I arrived in Jacksonville back in 2010, I couldn’t gain admission to a state school. I’d barely made it through high school with a passing grade let alone the prerequisites for secondary education, and when I did make it to Florida State College, my only real ambition was to become a respected surfer. But there in Jacksonville, I like to think that my life was remade, and in no small part, the city saved me. Out in the nexus of Spartina and cordgrass that fans out north of the St. Johns and in a squat building off Beach Avenue is where that change took shape or rather where my life did.
When I first got to college, I was fascinated by fly-fishing, so I went into the local fly shops looking for a job, and while I never made payroll, Brian “Ruby” Struebing, took note and began to teach me, taking me fishing nearly every weekend. He and his mentor, Jerry Hoey, taught me how to cast and how to find fish—but what occurred during those long periods of silence sliding around the back country north of the river was another lesson entirely; one I wouldn’t honestly come to understand—even in part—until putting down this very sentence.
But back on land, there was another type of shift happening in my life, too. At FSCJ, my plan was to bide my time in community college, maybe spend a year across the street at the University of North Florida then transfer to a film school. In the meantime, I enrolled in drawing, and in drawing, I met Patrick Miko—a professor who changed the course of my life.
On the boat, Ruby taught me patience with the pursuit of redfish, the nuances bound up in the quiet act of stalking fish, and in the studio, Patrick taught me how to see and how to make an image. At the backends of tidal creeks and late at night in the printmaking studio, I started to gain a sense of the person I’d like to become and the life I’d try to pursue. They were bookends for me. And in the following years, I’d start to fill out the shelf between them.
Two years after moving to Jacksonville in 2010, I moved to New York City for school—where my parents had lived three decades prior when they moved to America. There, I became an artist, and I let surfing and fishing take a backseat for years. But later when I turned toward the page as a green writer, I found myself reporting stories about places inextricable to my childhood in the Everglades, in the Lower Keys, and in southwest Florida. And while reporting my first “serious” feature in the central Everglades back in 2016, I felt a sense of purpose maybe for the first time in my entire life. This thing I was doing was leading me home, back to my roots.
Then down in Key West about early 2017, I found myself in the Marquesas with Will Benson, a longtime hero of mine who made countless films about fly fishing and specifically the pursuit of permit—the most challenging saltwater species to catch on a fly. And there at the confluence of the Florida Straits and the Gulf of Mexico, Benson and I talked story. And between those two bodies of water, I formed yet another relationship that would alter the arc of my life. And looking today, I see how that kind of pursuit, that sort of urge, started with Ruby and Patrick in Jacksonville, where two passions met and formed a life—my life.
A little later that year, I found myself on the bow of Flip Pallot’s boat in Mosquito Lagoon—the creator of the most inimitable and influential television show about saltwater fly-fishing, “The Walker’s Cay Chronicles.” And then in July of 2018 I found myself in the middle of the Gulf Stream with Pallot in the dead of night returning to the island that charted the course of his life and gave way to the lifestyle so centripetal to my own. It was the first time Pallot had returned in 15 years, and I had the pleasure of witnessing his return.
Much has been said about the merits of angling. Much of it has been said by men like me, those of immense or substantial privilege—those who could afford a fly rod or to hire a guide, which is something I could never afford. And the same goes for art or literature. These are worlds composed mostly of affluent, well-off people, and unfortunately, I believe those inescapable pitfalls that undergird them make them less vital. Ruby, who worked at UPS, and Patrick, who taught at FSCJ, ushered me into these worlds, leading me down the path, bend by bend, which is to say that they extended that privilege to me. Without their generosity, my life would be entirely different, and I truly believe less alive. That goodwill began for me in Jacksonville—much of it on the bow of a boat—and for that, I have no summations nor string of words; I simply have an urge to share that with you.
In December, I reconnected with an old high school friend, Thanh, at dinner, and a few days later, we found ourselves in his skiff running out the Manatee River into the Gulf of Mexico. This was the same stretch of coast where we grew up, wading the shorelines, hoping that one day we <could> own a boat. Once we cleared the throat of the river, we hooked north as pink spilled into the troposphere with the sunrise. Through a dense fogbank, we carved our way far away from the stucco mansions and cookie-cutter cul-de-sacs marching up the coast to a remote basin. When we threaded the serpentine channel that spills into this pseudo-archipelago, the world’s intricate trappings fell away. Along the back bays encircled by red mangrove and centuries-old slash pine, those long periods of silence I first encountered in Jacksonville washed over us.
Rounding one corner, a fecund stretch of flats came into view, and Thanh came tight on a pretty redfish. Soon after, we caught up on all that had happened in the past decade. I thought back on Ruby and Patrick and Jacksonville. Hell, I was once an intern at this very magazine in college.
In October, 2018, I’d finally left New York City after six years hemming myself into that place. And three years earlier, after my father died in 2015, my life fell apart, reassembled itself, then crumbled again. Last year, I moved back to Vienna, Austria, where my mother is from, and for a time, I lived out of a suitcase and made my way from Portland to Vienna to Bilbao to Biarritz to the Bahamas to New Orleans and a few others, too.
And now sitting at the back end of this basin in Florida with Thanh as 2018 neared its end, things felt settled, just perfectly out of place. Ruby, Patrick, and the city of Jacksonville led me here. It was a strange concoction of curiosity and a peripatetic thirst those three things lent me—the thing that helped me glomb onto some sense of belonging. And after we poled deeper into the bay, falling deeper into a conversation retracing our footsteps, we picked up, ran back out the channel and headed South toward home. By morning, we were due elsewhere.
This Bound by Water column originally appeared under the title “The City and its Byways as my Mentor” in Void Magazine, Vol. 9, Issue 10. ”Bound By Water” is a monthly column focused on all things water in the state of Florida from fisheries to conservation to the people who affect it. Come on in; the water’s wet.