My son Cooper has Down syndrome. He’s now six years old, and it’s still hard for me to say that, at least some of the time. He’s a sweet boy, at least most of the time, but he does have a strong will and a tendency to want to do things his way. I think that’ll actually serve him well in life, but it can be pretty tough when you’re trying to get him ready for school. The kid knows what he wants and you better not try to give him strawberries when he’s in the mood for grapes.

We have a boat, and we really like to get out on the lake as a family (well, I really like it, more so than the rest of the family). My older son Max has taken to fishing with me and we’ve had some awesome days out on the water just the two of us. Unfortunately, Cooper gets scared on the boat.

But I think that’s changing!

This past weekend we went out as a family. It was my birthday (I’m now 46) and when the fam asked me what I wanted to do, there was only one thing that came to mind: go out on the boat. I got up fairly early and hit the lake by myself. I made my first cast at 7:48 a.m. I love mornings on the lake. It’s quiet. No jet-skis and no wakeboard boats. The water is usually calm and the air is still cool. I worked an elbow-shaped area with a deep dropoff and some grass and pads on the shallows. At about 8:30 the bass started to wake up. I watched them pushing minnows over the grass flats and feeding in big splashes. I caught a few fish and enjoyed my coffee.

At around 10 a.m. my wife called, saying they were over at the neighborhood lake lot, where the launch ramp is, and ready to be picked up. I made my way over and Max and Cooper were super excited to go out on the boat. Especially Cooper, which was a first. He didn’t fight putting on the life jacket. He didn’t yell or try to run when I reached up for him from the boat as he stood on the dock. He did the complete opposite. He kind of leapt into my arms. He sat down where I asked him to. I wouldn’t say he was an angel (he did reach for a lure and almost get impaled), but this is a complete 180 from how he used to act on the boat. He was pretty chill. No tears and no screams. But we still had the speed test.

In the past, Cooper would yell and cower into my wife when I ran the boat at anything more than idle speed. He’d hold his ears and sometimes cry. Not this time. He was a little scared at first, but then he started having fun. We made our way over to a little beach so the kids could play in the water. After a couple of hours at the beach, I shoved off and we used the trolling motor to move up the shoreline. Me and Max fished. I caught two more and Cooper held the bass for the camera. No fear. Just smiles.

Max hadn’t caught a fish (one jumped off) but he finally got his as we were headed back toward home. It was a wonderful day. Cooper is progressing in so many ways and I think there are many more fishing adventures to come.

It’s a new year. A new decade. Time to think back on what 2019 looked like, check the rearview mirror one more time and slide on forward into the next decade. I used to get pretty fired up about new years. Shed my skin and start again. I’m not feeling that way this time around. I guess that means things are pretty good. But they’re not really all good. Some of my loved ones are battling tough health issues. I’m at this midpoint in my career where I’m wondering what exactly I want to do for the next 20 years or so. I’m going to be 45 in May. I haven’t used my boat in months…

But I’m not dwelling on any of that at the moment. I have a deadline that I need to focus on. I want to continue to write and publish articles. I plan to post more on this blog. I plan to lose the holiday weight and start running again. Maybe I will go running after this post… I want to spend more time with my boys. I want to be more patient. I want to help others. I want to focus on good and ride the silver lining. I don’t want to look at the news and get depressed. I don’t want to worry about the future of our nation, but there’s no avoiding that. I aim to look for answers instead of more problems. I plan to get more involved in fisheries issues in 2020. I care a lot about the status of our fish populations and it pains me to see so much litter and habitat destruction on our beaches. So I’m going to do something about that, too.

The year began a bit strangely. We flew out of Las Vegas on New Year’s Eve, so the ball dropped when we were somewhere over the Gulf of Mexico, I presume. As we came in for a landing in Orlando, we could see fireworks going off. People celebrating new beginnings. My wife had a wretched cough. The kids noses were like snot fountains. I was pushed into overtime to get the house situated and the pool cleaned. I spent the first day of the new year battling with the folks at Academy Sports and Outdoors over a bunk bike we bought my son for Hanukkah that broke the first time he put his foot on the pedal. We got it fixed and it broke again the minute he put his foot on it… I won’t bore you with the details but I learned something about customer service; few people like to give the customer the benefit of the doubt. Two stores, two phone calls and three hours later, we got a new bike.

We didn’t have a fancy meal or do much of anything to celebrate the beginning of the new year, we just hung out as a family. Our little Levine unit. And that’s what it’s all about. I know that 2020 will bring many joys as well as some heartache. They all do. My main goal, or resolution, is to ride the silver lining. Find the good. Don’t focus on the bad. Keep an eye out for new opportunities and be ready to seize them.

That’s about it. But my wife wants to go vegan… Not sure I’m ready to climb that mountain.

Charlie Levine

At the Miami Boat Show this past February, I was speaking to one of my mentors, Bill Sisson, who gave me my first opportunity as a writer in this industry. Back when I first met Bill, I was a fresh-faced, recently graduated guy living with his mother in Connecticut. I had an English / journalism degree and a decent resume for someone my age. I had been the editor of my college newspaper, the Top O’ the World, and after graduation I got a gig writing for a small weekly newspaper in Ouray, Colorado. But the grind of community journalism had worn me thin, and I wasn’t making any money. I’d work 60 hours a week at the paper and bus tables at a local burrito joint on the weekends to cover my rent. After about a year of covering school board and city council meetings, an awful thing happened that changed my career trajectory.

In the office of the Ouray Plaindealer, the newspaper where I worked, we kept a police scanner. Once in a while something interesting would crackle out of the little speaker on a shelf above the editor’s desk. On this particular day, a call for emergency responders came to assist with an accident at a local gravel mine. The editor told me to go up the hill to the mine and check it out. I had to take my boss’s truck because it was a 4×4 dirt road. When I got there, I saw someone I knew from the local search-and-rescue team. He told me there was a fatality and I wasn’t allowed in. He didn’t want me taking any photos. I kept asking who was killed. He finally told me that it was one of the County Commissioners, the man who also owned the mine.

In this particular county in western Colorado, the County Commissioners were the highest-ranking government officials, voted in by county residents. And this particular County Commissioner was the nicest guy in the lot. He’d gone to the same college as me and he would always smile at me in meetings and show me respect, even when I asked unfriendly questions. The commissioners were all older white men, wealthy and driven by their own agendas. Most of the issues they tackled revolved around land-use issues, water rights and development.

When I got back to the newspaper office and told the editor what I had found out, and who had passed away, he told me to go to the dead man’s house and get a quote from his family. I really did not want to do that.

I knew this family. It was a small town, only 800 or so residents at the time. I knew just about every family. I told the editor that I thought it would be better to give them a little time. He disagreed and insisted I go. So I did.

The man’s wife answered the door. “Hey Charlie, what’s up?” she said.

“I came to talk to you about Joe,” I said.

“Why?” she said. “What’s going on?” She hadn’t heard. My stomach sank into my shoes.

“Well, there’s been an accident,” I said.

Her hands immediately went to her face.

“What happened?” she said sternly, almost panicked.

“He was crushed by a bucket-loader. He’s dead.”

To this day, I don’t know why I said those words. They just came out. I knew it would crush her, just as that giant steel bucket crushed him. I am more sensitive to people’s feelings than that, but this was my job. This was what I was being paid to do.

She cursed me out. Called me a vulture. Screamed in my face.

I went back to the office and quit my job. This wasn’t what I wanted to do.

I broke my lease, packed my belongings into my 1977 Volkswagen camper mobile and headed down to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where a college buddy was working on a farm. He put me to work as a caretaker. I spent the winter on that farm, trying to figure out who I was and what I wanted to be. I always wanted to be a writer. That much I knew, but my love affair with journalism was over. Or so I thought. I had always envisioned myself as a correspondent, like Hemingway in his war boots. That vision crumbled into a pile of dust the moment I stepped off that woman’s front porch.

With limited funds and limited options, I ended up driving my old bus around the country for a while. I went to Mexico and camped on the beach with my dog Blue. I spent a few weeks in Scottsdale, Arizona, with another college friend, sleeping on her couch and working at a golf course doing odd jobs. I held a microphone boom for ABC sports in the Phoenix Open. It paid $75 a day. I lived off ramen noodles and Natural Light. Many nights I slept in my van. I guess you could say I was homeless, but not in a way you’d picture a homeless person begging for money. I was just wandering. And that got old pretty quick.

When I’d had enough of being broke and lost, I drove to Connecticut and moved in with Mom and my stepdad Corky. I got a job waiting tables at a recently opened, high-end restaurant located on the waterfront in Guilford. It was a beautiful little restaurant with gourmet food. The prices were expensive and I started to make some good money. I pulled myself out of debt and watched the classifieds for potential “real” jobs. And that’s what led me to Soundings. The ad was for a staff writer position at a boating industry magazine that had just launched a website. These were dial-up days… I applied. Having grown up around boats and fishing, it seemed like a perfect fit. I interviewed in their Essex office, and eventually got the gig. That job changed my life. I’ve been writing about boats and fishing ever since.

I didn’t last long at Soundings, just over a year I think, but I always stayed in touch with Bill. We’d see each other at boat shows and media events. He was always kind to me and I always looked up to him. When I saw him at the last Miami Boat Show, I told him about a boat my father had given me that I was fixing up. He asked me to write a column about the boat for Angler’s Journal, which Bill had launched just a few years ago. I’d been dying to write for AJ and I jumped at the opportunity. It’s funny how things go full circle.



Sometimes you just have to jump in, clothes and all…

I like to post cute pictures of my kids. I especially like posting pictures that make me look like a great dad. I sometimes fall victim to wanting to be like all of the ‘perfect’ families on social media. Their kids eating sushi and performing righteous piano recitals. I’ve seen plenty of honor society inductees, athletic scholarships and college announcements. I get you parents. I get why it feels good to post the good news. I also like when fellow parentals go off on a rant about their struggles to keep mountains of laundry from taking out the entire neighborhood, the ongoing dinner dilemmas or the never-stop-screaming two-year-old. We all have our thresholds. We all have a breaking point.

This weekend was another fun-filled, errand-packed two days of nonstop movement. Well, almost nonstop. My wife was at a Down Syndrome Association of Central Florida board retreat on Friday night and Saturday morning. The boys and I watched a bit too much TV but managed to get to Costco, where I discovered I had misplaced my membership card. We were there early so it wasn’t a big deal to get a replacement card, but when you get to Costco right at opening time, you miss out on all of the oddball samples at the end of the aisles. Max was mighty displeased with the lack of frozen raviolis, pimento cheese spread, nut clusters and energy drinks. He took it in stride and I offered to buy him a slice of pizza on our way out.

After shopping and somehow talking Cooper into staying in the cart, the boys chowed down on pizza, sitting on the bright red plastic tables as I fretted about getting all of this protein home without Central Florida’s June heat soiling my meat. It’s damn near triple digits already. When we got to the car, the monster that parked next to us was so close that we couldn’t open the doors on one side of my truck. I had to get in the back seat of the truck from the opposite side with Cooper so I could get him buckled in his carseat. No big deal, but enough of an annoyance to visibly annoy me.

When we got back home I quickly made the boys a snack as I put the provisions away. After eating, we decided to take a swim. Our pool resurfacing project is finally complete. The company we used did a fine job but they somehow managed to get concrete and slurry into the drain at the bottom of the pool, so the project was extended by three weeks plus as they slowly worked the clog free so our pool pump could operate with a normal flow. Cooper, my four-year-old who has Down syndrome, is not very drawn to the pool. He’s downright scared of it, so I don’t worry about him jumping in by himself. However, I was not ready for Max’s callout: “Dad, Cooper fell in!”

I was a good 25 feet away, looking through a storage bin for some goggles when I saw Cooper, all of him in the deep end of the pool, kicking his legs and frantically moving his arms. There was no noise. No screaming like the flailing victims you see in the movies. I ran over to him in a flash. His eyes were as wide as saucers. Pure panic. His eyebrows and the top of his head were above water. Everything else was below. He was right next to the wall, just far enough that his little arms couldn’t reach. I yanked him out and held him as he coughed and screamed. Had I not been there, I think Max would’ve gotten him out. I don’t want to think about what I would be writing if things had gone a different way.

“Dad, I saw him,” Max said. “He was pushing that raft into the pool and he fell over it and into the pool.”

“I know,” I said. “Thank you.”

I held Cooper for a long time, letting him cry. I think I got to him fast enough that he didn’t ingest much water. No liquid came out in his coughs, and he calmed down after 10 minutes or so. He was visibly shaken and he told me he was scared and wanted to go back inside the house. A year ago, I probably would’ve yelled. At him, at someone. That’s my way of displacing my anger toward myself onto someone else, and it’s a useless act that I’m working on fixing. I didn’t yell. I didn’t blame anyone, except maybe myself, but I did that internally. If I was a good parent, I thought to myself, this wouldn’t have happened. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that accidents happen to everyone. The fact that this fall into the pool wasn’t tragic is because my wife and I are good parents, and we were close by. I feel for all of the good parents who deal with tragedy even when they’re close by or doing everything possible to watch out for their kids. That is the heaviest burden to bear.

I think I will see Cooper bobbing in the pool again in my dreams some day.

He starts swim lessons (for the third summer in a row) this week. Hopefully it sticks.

That night we went to see a movie, and it was fun. I posted a cute picture of Cooper hiding amongst a large cardboard marketing display in the theater. That was the post. Not the near drowning. Not the tears. Not the burdens of life. I posted a cute photo of a smiling, happy child. That’s what I want to share most of all. That’s what makes the struggles worth it. To see them smile.

The next day my wife took the kids to the lake lot in our neighborhood so I could prep our pool deck for paint. When I was done, I rode my bike down to meet them. Max was casting his fishing rod on the dock with two young girls, a neighbor’s granddaughters. Cooper was soaked from head to toe from playing in the water. My wife was chatting with a neighbor. I fished with Max for a bit, then took Cooper to the swings. Coop was laughing and having a ball. I didn’t have my phone on me. If I did, I would’ve posted a picture of him on the swing. Smiling. Hair swaying. Sandy fingers and toes. We stayed much longer than we had intended. It was a nice afternoon. We managed to load the kids up in the wagon and head home. About two houses from the lake lot, my wife screamed for me. Cooper had grabbed the fishing rod in the back of the wagon and got stuck by the hook. Luckily it didn’t go in past the barb, but it was a startling scream. If we were good parents, the fishing rod wouldn’t have been there in the first place… And so it goes. But there was no blood and he had a tetanus shot not too long ago. He’ll be fine.

Sometimes living a full life means you’re going to get stuck by a fishing hook or fall out of a tree or cut yourself. It makes you stronger. It teaches you in ways no words can. It means you are living a life worth living.

Many sports have a marquee event that they refer to as the “Super Bowl of…” For largemouth bass fanatics, it’s the Bassmaster Classic. This is the granddaddy of them all. A full-on media blitz built around the sport of competitive bass fishing. And I’ve never been to the dance.

Everyone who goes to the Classic regularly has told me that I have to go and experience it for myself. I did attend a weigh in once, when it was here in Central Florida a number of years ago. The size of the crowds and the amount of companies involved was staggering. Everything is sponsored. (The full name of the tournament is the 2019 GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by DICK’S Sporting Goods.) The expo, the weigh in, the televised coverage, the boats and anglers are covered with sponsor logos. In that way, I’d say the Classic is more Daytona 500 than Super Bowl, but let’s be honest, the sponsorships and advertising attached to the Super Bowl are valued in the billions so I guess I’m cool with that monicker.

So when I was invited to attend the dance, which is held in Knoxville, Tennessee this year, I was pretty stoked. I look forward to seeing if what I am envisioning in my head (a giant bee hive of red necks screaming at guys hoisting 5-pound fish) is in fact true. I have a feeling it isn’t. I have a feeling I will be blown away. In doing a little bit of research, I am already blown away. I’m impressed at the organizers ability to sign on non-endemic companies. I am shocked to see that the accompanying Bassmaster Classic Expo will cover 220,000-square feet across two venues. Combined attendance is expected to topple 100,000 people! Last year’s classic saw 143,000 fans show up. Maybe this really is a Super Bowl?

More than anything, I’m looking forward to just seeing how the event unfolds. I am always fascinated with the logistics involved to host massive events like this. The amount of details that must be addressed is nothing short of staggering and I have mad respect for the people who put these events together. I’m also curious to see how much of the fishing industry I’ve been missing out on. I’ve only ever covered the saltwater side of things. And I really do love freshwater fishing. I love the fact that it’s easier to find freshwater, and while the fish may more closely resemble bait than game fish to a billfish guy, I’m more than happy to fish 8-pound test for a 6-pound trophy.

I’ve always found it interesting that most of the innovation in saltwater fishing comes from the freshwater scene. Soft plastics, braided line, stick baits… There’ve been tons of innovative products that moved from the pond to the ocean. I’m sure I’ll see a lot of new products that find their way into my tackle coffers.

The Classic has a field of 52 anglers. The winner takes home a $300,000 check and if they are savvy, they can easily earn upwards of $1 million in endorsements following their big win. Most of the hype has been surrounded around Jordan Lee, a 27-year-old angler who has been lighting the bass world on fire, winning back-to-back Classics in 2018 and 2017. Will the old dogs come clawing up to take back the big win, or will the young guns continue to move up into the winner’s circle?

I leave for Tennessee tomorrow morning and will be reporting daily on social media and here on the blog. It should be a cool trip!