Editor’s Note: This series is dedicated to those people who penned the many articles we read in order to learn more about our sport and become better anglers. Sure it may have been the anglers who developed the techniques, lures and equipment we use today, but it was the writers’ job to make sure these bits of information got to the masses. Without the writers to communicate this, the world of bass fishing would be very different today. In today’s edition, we bring you The Writers – Rich Zaleski.
Over the course of time there have been a number of writers who have helped advance the sport of bass fishing not by just communicating what well-known anglers were doing but by applying the scientific approach to their own bass fishing and relating their observations to the masses. Names like Al and Ron Lindner, Doug Stange and Steve Quinn all come to mind when one thinks of the scientific approach to fishing. Another name that falls into this category is Rich Zaleski.
Rich has spent a lifetime studying and writing about the sport – in that order. During the interview for this article I asked him what he liked to write about most and his answer was, “I like to write about what I learn bass fishing. I don’t like to write someone else’s story, I want to write about my studies on the water and how they’ve made me a better angler.”
Rich has been published in magazines such as Bassmaster, In-Fisherman, Fishing Facts, Bass Fishing and numerous other publications. He’s recognized as one of the best scientific writers in the industry and one who has dedicated his life to the advancement of the sport through his work. He was also a co-founder and first president of the Connecticut BASS Federation.
This is his story.
Marriage, a Lake House and Summer Doldrums
Zaleski, like many, started fishing as a young boy. Although his father wasn’t a fisherman, his uncles introduced him and the other kids in his family to fishing. Although he dabbled in both, proximity to Steeplechase Island (Pleasure Beach) in Bridgeport, CT led him to concentrate mostly on saltwater fishing as a youth. He fished whenever he could through his teen years, but notably less often after he discovered girls, cars, girls and basketball. Soon after getting married, he purchased a home near a lake and it was only natural for him to pick up his fishing rod again – this time he wouldn’t put it down. He and his wife still live in the same home, by the way, going on 54 years later.
“That first spring in 1966 I picked up fishing again and caught a lot of bass,” he said. “Then summer rolled around and the fish got hard to catch. The lake I live next to had, and still has a well-deserved reputation as a tough bass lake. The tough fishing made me determined to learn how to fish better. By the late 60s and early 70s I’d become pretty good at it.”
At this same time, he was working full time as the service manager for an office equipment company. His English teacher in high school had always encouraged him to write though, so he decided to try his hand at writing about bass fishing. “I submitted my first effort to the house mag of a New England based organization called All American Bass Casters (AABC), and they published it! They paid me all of $15 for it. Keep in mind that in ’72 that was about half the cost of a new Abu 5000!
“I sent a copy of that first published article to the teacher who had encouraged me to write. He sent it back a few weeks later with errors highlighted and a C grade on it. Not too bad, when you consider he also graded all the other articles in the magazine, and there was only one B- that he scored higher.
“I wrote another short piece or two for AABC, and soon they asked for something a little meatier. I went to work on something longer, with a lot more detail. Just about the time I was finishing it, AABC went belly up. I was too heavily invested in writing now to let that setback put it to an end. I did a little rework on the longer article and sent it to what was at the time, my favorite magazine – Fishing Facts.
“When Spence Petros accepted it and scheduled it for publication, I was ecstatic. When I got the check, I was even more ecstatic, and really started to take this writing thing seriously. At that time, as far as I was concerned, it was all about content, and almost no thought was given to style. Encouraged by the early success, I became even more involved in the learning and research aspect of the sport,” he said. “I entered the details of every trip I made in fishing logs and was able to keep track of changes and started to develop patterns over the years.
“Through the mid-to-late-seventies, I wrote 8 to 10 articles a year for Fishing Facts, and I started selling some pieces to regional publications in the northeast was well. Then I added Bassmaster and other magazines more specifically directed at the burgeoning bass fishing market.”
Bob Cobb and the Lindners
“Bassmaster editor Bob Cobb and I developed a pretty strong working friendship,” Zaleski said. “Bob was instrumental in my career as a writer. Unlike most of my other contacts, he was a journalist first, and an angler second. He helped me learn the nuts and bolts of writing; not to waste too much in one article, how to write a magazine article, the importance of a good lead-in, and to be verbally economical. His encouragement led me to spend a lot more time in the library, studying writing and grammar in addition to the limnology and aquatic biology texts I’d been devouring to help me develop subject matter.
“Bob had his ‘Rules of the Can.’ The first one was, ‘Bubba’s legs fall asleep on the can after 1300 words so keep it short.’ Another one was, ‘Bubba doesn’t have a dictionary in the can so don’t use words he’ll need a dictionary for.’ And yet another was, ‘There’s no place for a semicolon in the can. If comma won’t work, use a period and start a new sentence.’ He always had an ‘in-the-can’ anecdote when he had a criticism for me. It was really important in my development as a writer. [Ed’s note: this piece does not conform to Cobb’s “Rules of the Can”]
“As much as I enjoyed writing for Bob, and as much as I learned about the craft of writing from him, I really found my center as an outdoor writer when Al Lindner asked me to write a couple pieces for In-Fisherman. While I still applied a lot of the tenets I’d picked up from Bob Cobb, writing for In-Fish was different. Very different. There was no detail about a topic that was too small to be included. While we may not have achieved it, every article was approached as an attempt to bring everything about the subject at hand to light.
“My relationship with the Lindners and their crew blossomed into a long running and very busy partnership. Al and Ron, along with the other great fishing minds they brought in over the years, encouraged me to write in as much depth as possible, and pretty much gave me free reign as far as topics I was interested in covering. The Lindners loved theory and detail. While paying attention to tight prose was still important, we never shortened anything at the expense of clarity or detail. Instead of being chopped, tangential details often developed into sidebars, and many of my article submissions ended up becoming multi-part series.
“For quite a few years, I was about as close to a staff writer at In-Fish as you could be, without actually moving to Minnesota and working there full time. My deep involvement with the In-Fisherman organization led to other contacts and helped me develop additional markets, like the Hunting & Fishing Library, which in turn helped me secure a book contract with North American Fishing.
“With my regular stable of magazine markets and a weekly newspaper column I wrote for 25 years beginning in ‘82, along with writing and producing the Northeast edition of In-Fisherman Radio, by the late ‘80s, I was making a full time income at what was supposed to be my part-time occupation. The money might not have been quite as good or as stable as my service manager job, but with our mortgage paid off and everything we owned pretty much free and clear, I decided it was time to ‘retire’ from the working world and concentrate on writing full time. I even started writing about topics other than fishing that I had interest and a degree of expertise in.
“A series of health problems in the mid-to-late 90s ate away too much of the nest egg we were relying on, and brought a premature end to my time as a full time writer. I was back in the work force by the late 90s. Fortunately, I’ve been able to work in the fishing industry from then until my (second?) retirement in early 2012.”
Knowing that Rich covered the Classic and the Red Man All American as a member of the press corps for many years, I asked who was the best of the many big names he fished with.
“I covered 15 or 16 Classics between 1980 and 2000, when the feel of the event changed, after ESPN bought BASS. Probably 10 or 12 All Americans too. I got to fish with – and later ride with and observe after they stopped letting the press anglers fish — an awful lot of really good pros, and a few not-so-good ones as well. But the best and most intuitive – the quickest-to-the-solution-of-the-day’s-fishing-puzzle – angler I’ve ever been in the boat with is still Al Lindner.”
Now and Then
“I’ve maintained a presence in the writing arena over the interim with an occasional magazine piece, internet published article, and of course my blog. Writing today though, is so much different than it was during my most prolific period,” Zaleski said. “There’s so much more information easily and readily available today. Anglers can go to the internet and learn how to fish a certain technique on You Tube or from a website. I never want to write the same thing that’s been written by someone else. I’ve always tried to not write about something I hadn’t worked with enough to have a real feel for. Until I know a topic in enough depth to actually contribute to the knowledge pool rather than just rehashing what every other angler with access to a keyboard has already written about it, I’m not writing about it.
“I think there’s also a downside to all this information. I feel it’s hurt the angler – they don’t have to think as much as we used to. It’s all there for the taking without having to work for it or understand why something works one day and doesn’t the next.
“If you don’t pay attention to nature, not just the bass, you don’t get a good feel for what’s happening – you need a connection to the natural world — and especially the aquatic world surrounding you. I’m not sure that today’s fishing media helps with that.
“On the other hand, fishing is really exciting now,” he said. “There are so many new things coming out. It’s almost impossible to compare the old days with today. Sometimes I think there have been too many advances in the technology. I even contemplated writing a book about how the advancements in technology have diminished the mental game in fishing and how we should get away from it. Then I realized I couldn’t do it because I love all that new technology myself [laugh].”
The Bryan Kerchal Connection
Many people probably don’t realize that Zaleski was a close friend of the late Bassmaster Classic winner Bryan Kerchal. He was one of the last people to talk with Kerchal before he left on the trip that ended in his passing and wrote about him often in his newspaper column as Kerchal fished his way toward his goal of becoming a standard name on the Bassmaster Tour.
“A lot of people don’t know that Bryan fished his first bass club tourney only a year before qualifying to fish his first Federation Nationals,” he said. “Then he made it to the Classic two years in a row through the Federation. He really did burst onto the scene virtually out of nowhere.
“When I covered local Connecticut events and talked with him he was charismatic, easy to talk to and easy to like. We became friends and fished a few times together before his first Classic. Unfortunately I missed that event but I was there for his second Classic.
“I fished with him on the second day of the ’94 Classic, the day he essentially won the event,” he said. “Watching him fish I realized how good he’d become in such a short amount of time. His mechanics were fluent and he could pitch-skip a jig under a dock like I’ve never seen before.
“Also, while he was a very emotional guy, he didn’t let his emotions get to him. He went about fishing in a very even-keeled and business like way.
“A couple months after his Classic win, Bryan called to ask me to help him with a project. He’d been inundated with companies trying to sign him up to endorse their tackle, boats and all the other fishing-related stuff. He said, ‘Everyone has a lure named after them, I want to produce the fish whistle.’ He wanted my help marketing it.
“He then told me he was going to Mexico to fish before stopping in North Carolina for a sponsor commitment, following which, he was going to England with his fiancé for a couple weeks. After he got home from his trip, we’d get together to work on it. He never made it back. I eventually helped Bryan’s dad with the Memorial Fish Whistle and a series of cards, all of which raised the initial capital to set up the Bryan Kerchal Memorial Fund.
What’s Done and Still To Do
Over the course of his career Zaleski has written one book on his own, contributed to numerous others, wrote a column for a newspaper and has written for nearly all bass and outdoor magazines that have existed, not to mention the In-Fisherman Radio show. So what’s he proud of from his past and what does his future hold?
“I’m proud of the vast majority of what I’ve written over the years, but there are a few articles that really stand out for me,” he said. “The first one was a piece on finesse fishing I wrote for In-Fisherman in 1987. That piece generated more reader response than any other article I’ve ever written. The second one would be a treatise on the effects of fishing pressure I also wrote for In-Fisherman in the mid 80s. That turned out to be a four-part series and was considered by the Lindners as a milestone article on the subject.
“The third most important to me was an article I did for Fishing Facts in ’74 or ’75 on how to map a lake where no map exists. After that, I guess the next-most influential article I’ve written would be the original article on Herb Reed’s Slug-Go in the April, 1990 In-Fisherman. I introduced a technique to the rest of the nation and it became an overnight sensation and helped make Herb’s garage-based business a national company. Finally, there was an article on drop shotting that I wrote for my own website back in the days that the technique was first starting to gain popularity. That article is still available as a permanent page on my blog. [Ed’s Note: I wrote an article on drop-shotting, the first of its kind, in January, 2001 for Inside Line. A short while after it was published, I got an email from Rich that had an attachment. The attachment showed a piece he penned for Fishing Facts in the mid 70s on essentially the same subject. Evidently I wasn’t the first person to write about the technique.]
“Another thing I’m proud of is the many people who have contacted me over the years to tell me I helped them with their fishing. Today with Google and such, it’s easy to locate someone. But back in the 70s and 80s when a reader contacted you, you knew they had to go through some effort to track you down. When people go to that kind of trouble just to say thanks, it kind of validates your efforts and makes you feel pretty good.”
So what’s on the horizon for Zaleski?
“I still have another book in me,” he said. “Maybe two. I have every log book I’ve ever written [Ed’s Note: He still keeps records of every trip he makes, albeit not in quite as much detail as in his formative years] and I’d like to go through them and write a book based on those findings. Because I went through the ritual of committing details to paper or hard disk as I learned them, they’ve been ingrained in my head and my actions on the water have become second nature to me. Maybe by putting them in book form they’ll help others to become better anglers too.
Plus I always strive for my next article to be my most important piece. I have that to look forward to also.
Rich still does freelance work and recently retired from Lunker City Fishing Specialties where he’s been involved with the operation since 1996. His book, called “Advanced Bass Techniques,” published in 1993 and contracted by the North American Fishing Club is out of print but still available through Amazon. He’s also co-author on many of the In-Fisherman series of books and wrote several chapters of a book called “Hooked”, along with contributors like Roland Martin and Doug Hannon. You can also find him at his website, www.richz.com or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/richz.fishes.