PUYALLUP, Wash. - There’s no mistaking the look in his eyes as 15-year-old Jake Nelson begins to open the tackle tray that he’s brought to the Wild Country Lounge at the Washington Sportsmen’s Show in Puyallup. There is pride in those eyes. There is enthusiasm. There is an eagerness to share.
There is, in short, passion. Such passion that, quite honestly, it gives me goosebumps.
Jake has sought out Nick Petosa and I to show us one of the youngster’s prized possessions: this tackle tray.
“You guys, check this out,” says his dad, Keith, as Jake pops the top and shows us what’s inside.
He gets the reaction he’s looking for: Both Nick and I raise our eyebrows and chuckle a little in delight. We “Ooooh” and we “Ahhhh” as we absorb the contents of Jake’s tray. It’s loaded with Okie drifters – the ORIGINAL old-school Okie drifters that Wild Country listeners and viewers have heard Bill Herzog speak so fondly of the past two years.
Turns out that young Jake Nelson has a thing for Okies. He’s listened to Herzog go on and on and on about the iridescent nail-polish-colored drift bobber, seen the pictures we’ve posted on the Wild Country Facebook page of big, beautiful Olympic Peninsula fish caught on lures that are twice his age.
And he’s sought them out: eBay, his grandfather’s old tackle stash, etc.
His collection is pretty damn impressive, too, as Herzog so enthusiastically tells him when he shows the tray to The General.
Jake has promised to let Bill and I fish out of that Okie box for a day, but on one condition: We have to go on one of Zog’s legendary upper, upper, upper, upper, upper-Peninsula hikes, where the fish of legends live. That’s the trade, and Jake isn’t budging: one day out of the tray, one day hiking with Herzog.
We shake hands. Done deal.
The legacy lives on
It’s hard, frankly, to be a sunshiny Nation at times. It can feel like we’re losing our heritage, along with our opportunities.
But, I assure you, we are not.
Just ask young Jake Nelson. Or 15-year-old Joey LeFebvre down in Southern Oregon, whose 22-plus-pounder earned "Steelhead of the Day" honors in mid-January. Or 12-year-old Sal Passantino, Jr., who shows up in the Wild Country Lounge at the Puyallup show, decked out head-to-toe in Pautzke Bait Co. red.
Flying the flag of the young Steelhead Nation
Sal Jr. is a delight – he and his dad, Sal Sr., were the very first members of the Wild Country listening family to ever sit in on a show on the Wild Country fan couch. And Sal Jr. has the fishing bug in a bad, bad way. It shows when the youngster starts to talk about fish - any fish. His eyes get a little wider, his expressions get a little more animated, his voice picks up speed.
He is, without a doubt, a member of Steelhead Nation for life.
Carrying it forward
Throughout the course of that Puyallup show, I can’t tell you how many 12- to 16-year-old kids and their parents stopped by the Wild Country Lounge to chat. And I can’t tell you how many of those parents smiled and rolled their eyes a little, and said: “Oh yeah, he/she is CRAZY over this stuff.”
And it also struck me that the Nation generation up – the 20somethings – is represented admirably as well. Look no further than Nicky P. Or at our Canadian karaoke buddy April Vokey. Or at Steelhead University Girl Bryanna Zimmerman. Or at frequent Nation participant Austin Hoesley. Or at future guide Brianna Bruce.
I could go on and on and on about the young people – yes, the Facebook Generation – who have seized upon the sport of steelhead fishing as though there is nothing else in the world. It’s damn awesome to see, and it gives me hope.
It also reminds me that we all need to do a better job of delivering the message to our young steelheaders, because, they’re receptive to it.
I salute you, young Nation
“Hey Joel, I got back last night from fishing the OP,” he says. “I have some pics from the weekend. Nail polish Okie and lots of big fish!”
He sends me his pictures, and as I open them, my reaction is almost the same as when he showed Nick and I the Okie box: “Ooooooh. Aaaaaaah.” Sure as heck, there’s Jake, cradling a big ol’ Olympic Peninsula buck, nail-polish Okie in its mouth.
And maybe the coolest part: He’s wearing a hat signed by Bill Herzog and Gary Loomis.
There is no denying you, Young Steelhead Nation. We will be in good hands.
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