Fishing with the Turtleman

Every time we hit the water, we’re working our way, one cast at a time, to our final, last cast.

Bass fishing is a fast-paced sport. It involves fast boats with anglers fishing efficiently to fill a five-fish limit as quickly as they can. In tournament bass fishing, the clock is always ticking.

Of course, that’s true of every fishing trip, tournament or not. Every time we hit the water, we’re working our way, one cast at a time, to our final, last cast. While that revelation might make you want to drive the boat a little faster, fish a little more manically, an outing in the spring of 2023 taught me, surprisingly, that the opposite is often true.

I was fishing the Quabbin Reservoir in May 2023 with local legend Dave “Turtleman” Riley. Dave has been a fixture at the Quabbin’s Gate 31 access point for two decades, where he enjoys the spectacular beauty and excellent bass fishing of Massachusetts’ largest freshwater body.

On one of his early trips to the reservoir, he found a massive snapping turtle shell that had been scraped clean by a black bear, but was otherwise pristine. One of the rules of the Quabbin has long been, “Take only memories, leave only footprints,” so Dave didn’t want to take the shell home, but he thought it would make an excellent decoration for the shack at Gate 31. He brought the shell to the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) workers at the shack, and they agreed it would make a fine decoration, promising to varnish it and hang it up.

Over the next month, Dave, in his words, “pestered” the DCR employees about the status of the turtle shell, leading folks to affectionately call him “Turtleman.”

Dave emailed me in February 2023, introducing himself and inviting me to fish and film with him on the Quabbin. As we corresponded over the following weeks, I learned he had been diagnosed with cancer in 2022.  It had spread to his lungs, and, while he was mitigating its effects with chemotherapy, it wasn’t curable. This, I learned, had changed his relationship with fishing.

As we scanned the shorelines for smallmouth beds that day, Dave explained that the Quabbin had become like church to him because it was the only place left where he could go, and for a little while, forget that he was sick. “If these are the last memories I’m going to make, then I’m going to make them here.”

It was an important reminder for me to slow down because I can let a busy schedule, between work, home, and a growing number of grandchildren, get in the way. I need to remember to disconnect and take the time to notice my surroundings while fishing, whether it’s a chattering kingfisher, a diving loon, or a perfectly preserved turtle shell resting along the shoreline.

Watch our video on fishing Quabbin Reservoir with Dave “Turtleman” Riley


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