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SHERIDAN — He’d sat on a dock by Alcova Lake near Casper for six hours, casting, cranking and casting again. Then, in the heat of that summer day, Joey Puettman felt a jiggle, then a tug, then a pull.
Could it be?
He gripped his fishing pole tighter and turned the crank.
“I sat on that dock for six hours just cranking that lure through the water. Man, when that first tug…man, it was just exhilarating,” Joey’s Foundation Founder and Program Director Puettman said. “I knew there was something big on the end of the line. I went running up to the trailer house with that, and my whole family and all the kids in the trailer park were so excited, everybody went down with their fishing poles. There was such an accomplishment and an overwhelming happiness that came over me, and I was hooked from there on.”
It was Puettman’s first fish, and it changed his life.
The photo of him holding that fish high and proud as an 8-year-old is framed on a shelf behind his desk in the office of the nonprofit organization he’s operated for seven years. Other fish photos surround it, evidence of how far fish can take someone. There is a king fish in Australia, a bonefish in Belize and countless trout from the waters of Wyoming.
But the photo of his first fish is his favorite. He shows it to youth who participate in Joey’s Foundation programs, youth who receive lasting relationships and positive learning experiences with qualified mentors through the art of flyfishing, youth who need someone to pull out a camera or an iPhone and take a picture of them with their first fish, their proud accomplishment.
“I’d have to say a lot of it is out of respect for the sport, and for the fish. I catch and release, so a lot of it’s about the memory, too, the memories of that photo and that fish. They always say a picture tells a thousand words,” Puettman said.
A thousand words can mean the day a girl learned she could do anything in life because she caught a fish, and she pulled the hook out of its mouth all by herself.
A thousand words can mean the day a boy became a man and the day a man was able to feel like a little boy again.
And, yes, sometimes a thousand words can mean a fish story about a fish this big. Sometimes it is a “Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah” and a little dance in the general direction of your fishing buddy who has remained fishless that day. Sometimes it is bragging rights.
“The kids we work with are so proud of that fish. Flyfishing and fishing in general, it’s not easy. It can be very difficult at times. So when you finally do hook into your fish, certain kiddos we work with, they’re so proud, they worked so hard to catch that,” Puettman said. “It’s funny now, with technology, there’s been times where the kids have been like, ‘Can you take a photo of that with your phone and send it to my mom?’ I’ve done that, and the response from the parent is just thrilled, like, ‘Wow, he really caught one!’”
From that first fish caught as a child to that 1,000th fish caught last week as an adult, fish photos tell each story of each day on the water.
Beau Bolton, shop manager at Fly Shop of the Big Horns, said many of his customers still take photos. They may be fewer and farther between, showcasing the bigger and more beautiful catches, but they remain an important part of the art and fun of fishing.
Lower lakes and reservoirs in the area are already teeming with fish, and there’s more to be had as snows melt higher into the Bighorn Mountains, so Bolton encouraged everyone, even those who haven’t fished since they were 12, to get out on the water and enjoy.
“There’s a reason you were out there to begin with,” Bolton said. “You just need to take time — most people it’s a time factor — if there’s not time, you need to make time. There’s always a way to do it. A lot of us work six, seven days a week and still find time to get out.”
So get out, grab a camera and make a memory.
As Puettman said: “It doesn’t always have to be the biggest fish. Some fish are so beautiful with their different vibrant colors that you have to capture that. It’s like God painted them, and you want to be able to show everybody.”