Originally from Atlanta, Georgia, I admittedly grew up with a love/hate relationship with the south. While I reveled in the humid weather, the southern hospitality, and the fun, artistic culture of the diverse southern city, I also frequently saw living traces of an old south that chilled me to the bone. If there is anything that defines me and many of my lifelong Georgia friends, it is dealing with this dichotomy and struggling with our identity as southerners. This is the undercurrent of all that follows.
As an only child who was forever looking for things to keep me occupied, I fell in love with reading at an early age. In time this would slowly evolve into ambitions of becoming a professional writer, but it also fueled my curiosity and my passion for exploring the world around me. When you are a kid though, there aren’t a lot of options for getting around to explore that world, but there was one that fit the bill perfectly – my bicycle.
By early high school, I was an avid enough cyclist to join local club rides and hang with the faster riders. I remember clearly the day that a cycling friend, Gail Fox, pulled me aside after a ride and informed me that I had been riding with members of the local bike racing team, the North Atlanta Road Club, and that I should join the team. I had no idea that they were bike racers, or even what bike racing in Georgia was, but I was in!
If anything kept me going through my awkward high school years, it was cycling. I would go on from that point to compete as a licensed rider in many USCF and NORBA bicycle races and even won occasionally, including being the USCF Intermediate Georgia State Champion. Later on, in college, I would become one of the founding members of the UGA Cycling Club, one of the University of Georgia’s fastest growing clubs at the time and what today has become the University of Georgia Cycling Team.
Georgia New Wave Music
Being a young kid on a cycling team with the majority of riders in their 20s and 30s had some unexpected perks. Not only did I get to travel with the team to bike races all around the south, but during those long drives I was also introduced to what then was called “New Music” – what we know today as New Wave and Post Punk. What made it all extra special was that I was usually sitting on a cooler full of beer in the back of a van surrounded by bikes and 20 year olds who turned out to be great influences for a young me. Yes they gave me beer, but the point of the adventure was to compete in a race. I learned both fun and responsibility at the same time, while high school classmates were at home sneaking joints and liquor from their parents stashes and getting into all sorts of trouble.
But what was particularly impactful about the music my teammates were playing was that all the bands were from Georgia, and most specifically from Athens, Georgia. This not only blew my conflicted southern mind, but made Athens a sort of mythical utopia, where new wave bands like the B-52s, Pylon, R.E.M., and Love Tractor played on the expansive porches of gothic antebellum mansions, the dancing crowd grinding the dark legacy of the old south into dust beneath their feet. Needless to say, I knew exactly where I wanted to go to college and didn’t even bother applying to any other schools.
While awaiting the end of my highschool prison sentence, I occupied my time exploring the Atlanta music scene. Between sneaking into the famous 688 club and hanging out at the Metroplex, an all ages punk club, I found an odd world of acceptance and rebellion populated by people of all walks of life.
One of my favorite memories was standing in line to get into the Metroplex for the first time. Ahead of me in line was a sea of colorful mohawks and spikey leather jackets with rude epithets spray painted on them and I was admittedly terrified of what was in store for me, dressed as I was in a flannel shirt and jeans. Then, a very tall black man got inline behind me wearing an odd mix of fashion paraphernalia centered around a gold evening gown and earrings. I remember thinking that this guy was the living embodiment of every bad name you could be called in my highschool. But somehow the dude was magnanimous; he glowed with friendliness and humor. I immediately turned to see the punks’ reactions, thinking that they were going to open a can of whoopass on this poor guy. But the opposite happened. They all ran up to greet him enthusiastically with hugs and smiles. I came to learn that this guy went by the name of RuPaul and his band, RuPaul and His Wee Wee Pole, were frequent performers in the local music scene. This was my first taste of the new south where fun, acceptance, inclusivity, and humor reigned supreme.
Athens Georgia – 1985-1999
I started college at UGA during the fall of 1985, and among the things that I am most thankful for in life is having experienced Athens, GA in the 80s. My life was filled with cycling, music, art, and amazing friendships that became lifelong and are as vibrant and meaningful now as they were back then. It’s hard to fit that experience into a paragraph or two and it deserves its own blog. Hopefully I’ll get to that one day.
While in college, I inadvertently picked up another hobby which was to change the course of my life. I was working at Dixon’s Bike Shop and two of my fellow bike mechanics, Frank and Ian, happened to be avid fly fishermen. They would head out after work and fish for bass out of an old jon boat. This sounded like fun and because I only knew how to spin fish, they invited me to join as long as I took the center seat so that they would have room to fly cast from the ends of the boat. This situation worked out great for a few months but all fell apart when I showed up one day with a crappy fly rod I had purchased at a flea market. Three people fly fishing from a jon boat is bad enough, but when the one in the middle doesn’t know how to cast, it’s a total shit show.
Fast forward a few long months of me practicing my casting, and I started to get pretty capable. I still thought I wasn’t very good since I couldn’t cast the entire fly line out of the rod tip like Frank and Ian, but I was catching fish and happy with my progress. One day at the bike shop, during my last year of college, we were talking about what we were going to do afterwards. Frank proclaimed that he was going to fly fish for a living. “Who’s going to pay you to do that?” I asked while laughing. “I’m going to be a fishing guide. It pays pretty well if you are good.” I didn’t realize it at the time, but this conversation would change the course of my life.
After college, I still wasn’t sure yet what I wanted to do with myself but I knew I wanted to write and I wanted to experience living by the ocean. So me and my fiancée packed our things and moved to Fort Myers, Florida – a city Frank recommended for its vast expanses of mangrove shorelines and backcountry fishing.
Moving to Florida
Not long after arriving in Florida, my fiancée and I got married. I worked various jobs while my wife worked in a restaurant and attended college. We had some happy years building a life in the Florida sunshine, but things changed, as they often do, and we eventually divorced. I got a job building flats boats for Action Craft Boats and would spend my newly acquired free time honing my saltwater fly fishing skills in the local waters.
It was about this time that my mother was getting sicker with a mystery illness that doctors couldn’t pin down or find a treatment for. She eventually moved in with me and my girlfriend, and one of my most distinct memories from this time period was coming home from work and sitting with her on the sofa watching the horrors of 9/11 play out on the TV. A little over a year later she would be in intensive care as I finally learned what her mystery illness was – Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis. This was a fatal lung disease without an identifiable cause but was also known to be genetic. She died days later.
I never returned to my job at the boat factory. Not only was I mourning my mother’s death, but I realized that I needed to be away from the unhealthy environment of boat building and out in the fresh air. I saw only one path forward – becoming a fly fishing guide.
Becoming a Fly Fishing Guide
The area I liked to fish, Matlacha Pass, Florida was a fly fishing heaven back then. It was a shallow mangrove backcountry pass with good tidal movement, expansive turtle grass and mud flats, tidal creeks, oyster bars, and abundant sea life – all sheltered from the wind. The village of Matlacha from which I launched my boat was as old Florida as you could get with colorful board and batten silt structures and restaurants like the Mulletville, that had a beaded curtain through which you could spy the local commercial fisherman fresh off the water with strong looking liquor drinks in their hands – as you ate your breakfast.
The Sun and Moon Inn
One obstacle of guiding there was finding the perfect place for my clients to stay that had that Matlacha charm, was on the water, and who would take great care of my clients. One day after launching my boat for a day of fish scouting, I passed The Sun and Moon Inn, an intriguing B&B that I had been meaning to visit to pitch my fledgling guide service. In the backyard of the inn, running around the pool, were two dogs – one dyed pink and the other dyed purple. I burst out laughing and asked the guy who was out back tending to the property if I could dock and talk to someone about the inn. With a huge smile he exclaimed “Oh my god, yes!”
This guy turned out to be one of the owners, Curt Peer, and this meeting led to a lifelong friendship and some of the most fun and hilarious times of my life. The inn sat on a backwater bay where manatees and dolphins were a daily sight, and the fishing right off the sea wall was absolutely stellar. My clients were sold by the view, the pool, and the hot tub, but came back for the hospitality and hilarity. It truly was like a hidden tiny Key West and immediately became the epicenter of my life in Florida.
A sad update for anyone inspired to visit Matlacha: In 2022, Hurricane Ian, a category 4 storm, devastated the tiny fishing village. Many of the historic and colorfully painted, board and batten structures were destroyed. Matlacha was truly one of the last vestiges of old Florida and although it will be rebuilt, the look and charm of the original fishing village can never be replicated.
Becoming a Fly Casting Instructor
During this time, my fly casting continued to improve to the point where I felt my abilities were getting close to the casting I had witnessed my friends Frank and Ian do back on that Georgia bass pond. One day I found out that a fly fishing club to the south of me was hosting a big casting seminar with some of the top Florida Fly Fishing Federation (FFF) Certified fly casters. I was excited about finally getting some saltwater casting instruction and counted down the days to the event.
The day of the seminar I was surprised to see that I could not only cast much farther than all the others who had come to learn, but could also cast farther than some of the instructors. I was a bit dismayed at first, thinking I was going to come away learning nothing new, but one of the instructors came up to me, asked where I had learned to cast so well, and after hearing my answer, he then explained in great detail not only what I was doing right, but also what I was doing wrong. It was the first taste I ever got of the physics behind casting a fly rod and it lit a fire in me. (And it is at this point that I should note that my friend back in Athens, Frank Smethurst, has gone on to become one of the top fly anglers and fly casters in the world.)
From that day forward, my fly casting jumped to a whole new level and I became an FFF Certified Fly Casting Instructor myself. While I may not have picked up a lot of distance, the accuracy and control of my casts were light years better. But in the end, the thing that counted the most was that I could not only clearly explain the physics of fly casting, but teach it as well. I went on from that point to perform fly casting demos and teach fly casting at some of the biggest outdoor shows in Florida – and often shared the billing with some of the biggest names in fly casting.
My Foray into Outdoor Retail
I had been teaching a weekly fly tying class at a local tackle shop for some time, when one day the owners approached me with a deal that was impossible to pass up. The shop was struggling and needed a boost. They offered me a sizable share in the business in turn for my help. Eager to have some productive days off the water and out of the Florida sun, I said yes.
Angler’s Outlet carried mainly spin and bait tackle, live bait, some clothes, and had a decent inventory of fly tying supplies due to my weekly fly tying classes. But there were big holes in the inventory due to cash flow issues and the shop hadn’t been updated in a long time due to there not being enough manpower.
Building up the inventory and fixing up the shop was a lot of fun in the beginning. With a tight budget you have to get clever and be cautious how every dollar is spent. I had a 75 gallon aquarium collecting dust in my garage, so I took it up to the shop and installed it in the wall separating the sales floor and backroom bait tank. We would stock the tank with oddities that would come in with the shrimp deliveries and it was a huge hit with kids. It also gave us a window onto the sales floor while we were scooping shrimp. I developed a deep seated appreciation for the kill two birds with one stone philosophy and the shop began to turn around.
Because I was working so much between my guide service and spending time in the shop, I desperately needed to take a break by doing something new and fun for myself. I decided to finally buy something I had wanted for many, many years – a sea kayak. I had taken a multi-day guided sea kayaking trip with a group of friends to Sapelo Island, Georgia a decade earlier and fell in love with the idea that you could travel so effortlessly, carrying all the gear you wanted, in the sleek boats. So I headed to the local kayak shop, money in hand.
My dreams of sea kayaking got thwarted however when I saw something I had never seen before at the kayak shop – a sit-on-top kayak that was sleek, had a hatch and bow storage, and had a large tankwell behind the seat. I could immediately see this as the perfect stealth conveyance to get into some of the hidden saltwater lakes in Matlacha. These were far up tiny mangrove creeks that were impossible for my boat to access. The fishing guide in me took over my sensibilities and because the sit-on-tops were far cheaper than a sea kayak, I bought two.
What followed was an obsession. I found the kayak to be the perfect fishing platform for the playground of hidden creeks and flats that no boat could possibly get to. I experimented with rigging the kayak, tried different fishing strategies for kayak fishing, and perfected the art of fly casting while seated in the kayak (sit-on-top kayaks at the time were very narrow and difficult to stand in – but they were excellent to paddle and moved quickly through the water). I started cranking out articles about this odd new sport and they were met with enthusiastic responses for readers and editors alike.
Becoming One of the First Professional Kayak Anglers
2004 marked a turning point in my kayak fishing career when I was asked to be a part of the Ocean Kayak Pro Staff – a position that not only would draw from my skills as a kayak angler, fishing guide, and boat builder, but gave me access to some of the top names in the kayak industry in terms of paddling and fishing pros, leading kayak designers, and other iconic figures of the sport. Among these were paddling guru Ken Whiting and kayak fishing legend Jim Sammons, both of whom I had the pleasure of working with for a segment of the first Kayak Fishing: Game On DVD.
Kayak fishing exploded. It was affordable and accessible to practically anyone and I found myself at the very top of the sport. Kayak fishing magazines started appearing and I became a frequent contributor. I also started bringing along my fishing kayak to Outdoor Shows and it started to overshadow my role as a pro fly fishing guide.
The Ocean Kayak Pro Staff began doing pool events around Florida, where myself and several other pro staffers would travel to a kayak shop, set up a huge break down pool, and staff a sales event where curious people could actually try different boats and get a taste of kayaking. These were incredibly fun events and what made them special for us was that we were not a sales team, but rather there to teach people about the sport and make sure they didn’t make a bad decision by choosing a boat that did not fit them or their expectations. Fun, no pressure, and the kayaks sold themselves.
Ocean Kayak was part of Johnson Outdoors that to this day includes many different outdoor brands. Back then it also included Necky Kayaks, one of the most highly regarded sea kayak manufacturers. One year, when I was asked which Ocean Kayak I wanted for the upcoming season, I asked if there was any way that I could get a Necky Chatham 16 instead of an Ocean Kayak sit-on-top since I already had a trailer full for guide trips. The response? “Absolutely!” I had finally gotten my sea kayak.
Green Algae and Red Tide
I imagine every place has its strange dichotomies. In Florida there is a tragic disconnect between the delicate ecosystems that make up the natural beauty of the state and the rather abundant anti-ecology attitudes of the weekend warriors that make those ecosystems their weekend playground. Development and water management has had an even bigger destructive effect on the wondrous nature of Florida.
Following the intense 2005 hurricane season, the constant run off from the storms began to have dire effects and show glaring problems in how the state had reengineered its natural waterways. My guide waters of Matlacha Pass connected to the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River, the primary outflow from the dike encircled Lake Okeechobee. Nutrient rich runoff from Okeechobee would make its way down the Caloosahatchee causing a toxic blue green algae bloom. As the green soupy freshwater met the brackish coastal water, the algae would die off creating a flood of over nutrified fresh water that would kill off the turtle grass flats and turn them into a dead zone of mud and rolling moss. From here the nutrient rich outflow would hit the warm waters of the Gulf where it would explode into a toxic bloom of red tide.
The issues with runoff and cycles of blue green algae and red tide have continued on until today. For me in the mid to late 2000s, it meant a serious degradation of the ecosystem that was both my playground and livelihood. I spoke out about the problems at every opportunity and addressed the issue in quite a few articles, but being a fishing guide with environmental concerns at the time did not always make me popular with sportsmen and other guides. A lot of these attitudes came out of the expansion of manatee zones that limited where weekend warriors and guides could run their boats. Between being a catch and release only guide and my attitudes about ecology, it was a lonely path to walk. Fortunately, attitudes have changed over the years and now guides are spearheading efforts to push the state into cleaning up its act.
Bass Pro Shop and the 2007 Financial Crash
If you’ve never thought about the effects that the opening of a big box store can have on locally owned businesses, I can attest to the fact that it is not good. Bass Pro Shop opened their Fort Myers store a few months before Christmas and almost immediately a half a dozen local tackle shops went belly up. We struggled, but managed to keep our doors open. During a normal Christmas season we would sell upwards to a hundred gift cards. That year I believe we sold seven.
Between Bass Pro’s secret shoppers and their persistent calls asking me to join their staff, my partners and I became hell bent on keeping the shop open or go down in flames trying – and we did survive for a while….
But then came the 2007 Financial Crisis. To say business suddenly dried up would be to put it mildly. And this was both the tackle shop and my guide business. Things got bad and continued to get worse. Between the dying ecosystem and the loss of my businesses, it was time to throw in the towel. My girlfriend at the time was from Sarasota, so looking for greener pastures, I packed up and we headed north.
Sarasota’s Struggling Indie Music Scene
It wasn’t long after relocating to Sarasota that I learned about the underground music scene that was like a mini version of early 80s Athens, GA. While there were practically no venues, band parties and underground shows in warehouses and backyards were frequent occurrences. With some interesting places to go kayaking, the expansive Myakka River State Park to explore, beautiful beaches to enjoy, and now a fun music scene to be a part of, I was really enjoying my new home.
For a while, the music scene was incredible. Bands like Good Graeff, Fancy Rat, The Equines, and Hymn for Her were just the tip of the iceberg. What made it so much like early Athens was that no one had much money and there were very few places to play. This situation forces artists to get creative and where there are creative artists, there is a lot of fun. But there was a bit of a dark side as well. Unlike Athens, this was a tough place to live without much income – especially when it’s common there to see Ferraris and Lamborghinis parked in front of restaurants where a meal cost far more than many of those talented artists could afford. Sarasota claims to be an art town, but from my experience it did very little to encourage its local fledgling artists – that is until they made a name for themselves elsewhere.
Tackling Both a Novel and Screenplay
While starting out in Sarasota, I felt the financial burn as well. I worked some odd jobs and money was incredibly tight – a far cry from my lifestyle during my guiding years. But harkening back to my more creative days in Athens, I saw the opportunity to tighten my belt, live frugally, and take on some bucket list artistic endeavors of my own that I had had since I was a child.
The first of these was finishing a novel that I had started nearly a decade earlier, while taking breaks from writing outdoor articles. The story was pretty clear in my head still, but I needed a way to get the framework quickly down on paper. It dawned on me that writing a screenplay version first would be the perfect solution. I reached out to my friend Eric Lewy, an editor and writer in Hollywood for advice, and got to work.
After some months, the screenplay was done and for fun I sent it off to the BlueCat Screenplay Competition, a prestigious yearly competition where many screenwriters get discovered. I then turned my sights back onto the novel. When I was close to being finished, I got an email for BlueCat – my screenplay had made it to the quarterfinals! I was over the moon since this was a big deal for a first screenplay. I couldn’t imagine anything more becoming of it, so once again I turned my sights back onto the novel. I finished Love’s Naked Nature in 2013 and almost immediately afterwards I heard from BlueCat that I had made it to the semifinals. This would be as far as I would go but I’m incredibly proud of that accomplishment.
The novel I self published on Amazon and it is still available. I should make it clear that writing the novel was purely for the joy of doing it. It’s a quirky adventure novel taking aim at the stereotypes of the 1970s and revolves around a female entomologist and TV show host who inadvertently ends up with two porn filmmakers to shoot an episode of her show. Trying to make decent money on a novel is nearly impossible and I knew that going in. I knew that not many people would be searching Amazon for a quirky novel about bugs and porn, but I knew my friends would enjoy it. Another accomplishment I’m incredibly proud of.
Continuing on in Sarasota
Eventually I got a job with Blink;Tech, a local web development and digital marketing firm and a company I continue to work for to this day. For a few years from that point I felt like I had found a solid well-balanced life. I had a job I really enjoyed, enough free time (which I never had during my guiding years) to go sea kayaking or exploring in Myakka River State Park. I also was surrounded with fun people with whom to go to the beach with or see a music show with. Things were good for a long while.
But there was something eating away at me. My father back in Georgia was getting older and I was getting oddly homesick for Athens. The music scene in Sarasota was waning, but it had left its mark on me: I deeply missed Athens. On top of all of this, I could tell there was something wrong with me healthwise. No matter how much I walked or climbed stairs, it made no difference in my cardiovascular fitness. I actually seemed to be getting worse, but in a barely detectable way. I had blood tests done but nothing stood out. I began to suspect that I had the lung disease that killed my mother – Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis. It was time to go home.
Moving Back to Athens
Returning to Athens and starting a new life, in my mind at least, seemed like climbing Mount Everest. I hadn’t stepped foot in the town in sixteen years, had only one old friend I was still in touch with there (I left long before social media existed), and had no idea if it was still the affordable, fun, quirky, friendly place that I remembered. I definitely needed to go for a visit first and to my great fortune, the Athens Popfest Music Festival was a few weeks away.
I was warned before returning to Athens that it had changed. High rise condos had taken over in many places and, while many of the locally owned restaurants and music venues of my day were still around, there was a lot more corporate presence all over. I steeled myself for the worst, since I had seen firsthand how condos and rampant development had destroyed many of my favorite places in Florida. But as I drove into the city for the first time in all those years the thing that struck me was the trees. They had grown so much since I had been away I hardly could identify where I was. The condo situation had indeed destroyed some of my favorite nooks in the city, but thankfully it wasn’t on the level of the mass condo destruction I was familiar with in Florida. Athens was still the beautiful, odd little southern town that I remembered.
I won’t go into details about Athens Popfest, but it was absolutely the most fantastic music event I will ever experience. The bands and intimacy of the whole event was so top notch, but what really blew my mind was all the old friends I ran into – many of whom I hadn’t seen in over twenty years. The last night of the festival, I was standing up front at the Georgia Theater for the Love Tractor show and happened to turn around. I was shocked to see countless faces in the crowd I recognized, and who recognized me. I was home.
Life in Athens Now
I am so thankful I moved back. I have seen so many great shows, rekindled friendships that have always been so incredibly valuable to me, and I made a ton of new friends. Taking part in the Athens community means being a part of something special. It’s a microcosm filled with creativity, support, kindness, and love. Something that is meaning more and more to me every day.
While I had a handful of years in Athens of okay health, my suspicions about having Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis turned out to be true. I started this website to share that journey with friends, so whether you are someone I know or someone who just stumbled upon this page, I hope you will follow along and spread the word about IPF.
It would mean the world to me.