Stephen Gussler – Coach, Teacher, Inspiration

Tarpon Steve Rowe

Fighting A Big Florida Keys Tarpon


Fighting fish such as the unseen tarpon in the photograph above is fun. In the whole scheme of life, however, I fully understand that fishing is recreation and a passion for only a handful of people.

For the last sixteen years, I have been blessed to know Coach Stephen Gussler whose passions are far broader and more important than fishing. His unquenchable fire for coaching young men the game of baseball is unsurpassed. His grasp of how to embrace the moments of each day and his dogged determination to be the best person he can be even when besieged by illness has inspired not only his players and the kids he teaches at Thomas Worthington High school but all the rest of us who have been given the opportunity by his example to learn how critical it is to cherish every day and live it to the fullest dimension our health allows.

For me, an angler and baseball coach, there are undeniable parallels between the experience of fighting a great fish with the fabulous guides of the Florida Keys and my personal experiences with Coach Gussler both before and after he began his fight with colon cancer.

For a fisherman, a fabulous fish fight begins with the hunt for a fish to which the angler can cast. When fishing the flats of the Florida Keys for bonefish, permit, or tarpon, I slowly scan back and forth across the water ahead and to the side of the skiff. I thrust my vision through the surface to the sand, turtle grass or coral bottom looking for signs of fish. Perhaps the water surface appears nervous, moving in the wrong direction. Sometimes a puff of sand known as a mud streams down current indicating that a fish is feeding somewhere ahead of the milky colored water. Occasionally, a moving shadow or the sun glinting off the tail of the fish probing the bottom for food in very skinny water provides a clue to the presence of the quarry. The hunt is a time of observation with no direct connection.

A Sign - The Tail Of A Bonefish

A Sign – The Tail Of A Bonefish

Similarly, I observed Coach Gussler with no direct connection before I met him. While coaching as an assistant for Worthington Post 123 Legion baseball team, I observed this young, handsome, smiling, passionate baseball man while he stood in the third-base coaching box managing the Southway Legion team. As I observed his coaching style, Coach gave signs which made it clear to me that this was a man with worth knowing. His spirited yet friendly style demonstrated his passion for the game of baseball and enthusiasm for young people.

I chuckled to myself as I observed the lanyard of the stopwatch sticking out of his back pocket indicating an attention to detail which in this case was his attempt to determine the precise time it took for a catcher to receive the baseball from the pitcher and release it while throwing to second attempting to nail a stealing base runner.

When I performed the eye test on his players, it seemed that the performance of his team outstripped the athleticism of his kids. These and many other signs made it clear that a connection with this fine young coach would be worthwhile.

When fishing the flats, once a worthy fish is observed, it is time to cast a bait or fly in front of the fish so connection can be made. One learns quickly that being timid or hesitant does not produce results. Because we fish in very shallow water, there is an irresistible temptation to baby the shrimp or fly as you cast so as not to spook the fish. If I had a dollar for every time Guide Steve Huff shouted “don’t baby it, chunk it in there”, I would not need to head to work on Monday. Do not hesitate, get the bait in front of the fish is the rule.

As my son, Pete, was beginning his senior year at Thomas Worthington, I knew the athletic director was looking for a new baseball coach. I did not hesitate! I picked up the phone and fired a verbal cast at then athletic director, Rich Seils. I asked Rich if he had a resume from a young coach named Stephen Gussler. I could hear him rustling papers on his desk. He replied that he did. “Have you interviewed him?” I asked. “No”, was the reply. “Well, I know he’s young, but I have seen him coach. You should interview him.” Apparently, the interview went well because Rich Seils bit and Coach Gussler was the new TWHS baseball coach.

One of the keys to fishing the flats of the Florida Keys is patience. As I often say to my law partner, Michael, as he bemoans the effort it takes to catch walleye on Lake Erie, “Even I do not eat 24 hours a day.” Patience is rewarded when fishing the flats. If you put a shrimp,crab or good-looking fly in front of a feeding fish you will be rewarded with a bite. But you must be patient. Not every encountered fish is hungry.

Coach Gussler’s first team wasn’t very good. He was frequently called upon to demonstrate patience throughout that first year and often since. His patience was memorably demonstrated to our family in a most startling way in the second game of a doubleheader at Marion Harding High School. On a brisk but clear spring Saturday afternoon, the mighty Cardinals managed to lose two ball games. Both by the score of 13 to 12. Pitching and defense were in short supply.

Our son, Pete, was playing left field as a Marion Harding batter lofted a lazy fly ball in his direction. As he settled under the ball, Pete raised his glove in perfect position to make the catch. Just as the ball arrived, Pete stepped in a shallow depression in the outfield grass. His body went down, his glove went down, and the ball hit him square on the top of his large head giving off a resounding thud that sounded as if an observant shopper was thumping a watermelon in the grocery before deciding to buy it for a family picnic.

Pete shouted a familiar profanity which was no doubt heard in Worthington some 40 miles away. Patience? Oh yes. The rookie Coach Gussler did not cause any bodily harm to his startled and embarrassed leftfielder as the parents and players from both teams laughed.

Throughout my 23 years of fishing flats of the Florida Keys, I gradually through observation and trial and error became a little better at my craft. The title of my blog “Front Yard Fishing” is taken from one of the steps which I took to become a better angler. I practiced my casting on dry land in my front yard.

Similarly, Coach Gussler’s teams gradually became better. Through his relentless efforts to teach, encourage, and support his athletes, his teams went from a collection of players who did not want to be in the field to make the last defensive play, or at the plate to knock in the big run, or on the mound to get the last out to teams that expect to win ball games with players who want to be on the field with the game on the line.

Coach Gussler has demonstrated the uncanny ability of creating an atmosphere in which a young baseball player can begin his freshman year as a project and complete his senior year as an accomplished baseball player with the character and ability to contribute to a memorable and rewarding team experience.

Stephen Gussler

Pregame Speech – No One Did It Better


Just as my experiences in the Florida Keys have been made remarkable by the quality of the guides who helped make fishing memories for me and my buddies, Coach Gussler has surrounded himself with people who love baseball and care about one another. He has developed a remarkable coaching staff comprised primarily of young people who have played for him. They love the program, they love him.

Stephen Gussler Nick Pauley

Nick Pauley Chats Up Coach


Just as a fishing guide in the Keys must permit his angler to catch the fish while providing quality instruction and support, Coach Gussler has developed the willingness and ability to delegate responsibility and allow those who coach with him to take responsibility for various areas of the program. I know there are times when Stephen would coach or instruct a skill in a different fashion than his assistant. However, he has the wisdom to allow the assistant do it his way without interference knowing the team will be better off if he trusts his assistants to deliver the message.

Steven Gussler

TWHS In St. Pete’s For Spring Trip


All anglers who have had the privilege of fighting a hooked bonefish, permit, or tarpon should appreciate the experience as a connection to a wild creature of nature willing to do anything to live another day.

Fighting Tarpon

Fighting Tarpon

Coach Gussler has that same irrepressible determination to live. His fight against cancer has been waged during a time when his teams have had their most on field success. Two league championships in a row. Two district championships in a row. State Coach of the year in 2013. Winning has been fun. But learning from Coach Gussler about living, loving, and passion has been more rewarding than championships.

Remarkably, the most fun I had in my many years of coaching at both the youth and high school level came after our regional semifinal defeat last year. We lost to Hilliard Darby 15 to 13. It was a terrible baseball game. We made six errors. We could not get anybody out. The game lasted a draining three plus hours. Dreams of going to the state tournament were unfulfilled.

The ride home on the dreaded hard seated yellow school bus although short in distance seemed like it would never end. The silence on the bus was thick with disappointment. Once the bus parked in front of the well-worn batting cages adjacent to the ball diamond, Coach Gussler and his assistants hugged and thanked the players as they trudged down the steps of the bus and headed off for the last time in 2013.

Coach Gussler was not well that day. He was in pain and clearly exhausted. Regardless, he sat down on an island of grass in the parking lot as the rest of us gathered around him. Within minutes, the defeated varsity coaches were revisiting how terrible the team played despite how “great’ we were as coaches. Smiles emerged.

Stephen Gussler Eric Gussler

Sometimes The Battle Was Exhausting


And then we began to talk of the future. Coach Gussler spoke of the starting lineup for next year’s team. He demonstrated for those of us who assisted him a most important human quality, the ability to hope. Coach put down his physical pain and the anguish of a lost opportunity for his team and cast his gaze to the future with optimism and excited anticipation. We joined him with the joy of a future worth contemplating in our minds.

In two weeks, that future becomes the present. Practice begins, games will be played, and Coach Gussler will be our leader.

Water, Water Everywhere – But Of What Quality In The Florida Keys?

Egret Hunting The Flat At Low Tide Islamorada, Florida Keys

Egret Hunting The Flat At Low Tide
Islamorada, Florida Keys

In ninth grade, I first studied poetry. My imagination was stirred by the images and words contained in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. I was required to read and memorize portions of this poem first published in 1798 by the English poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

The poem relates the experiences of a sailor referred to as the Mariner who has returned from a long sea voyage with a tale to tell. He tells his story to a man who is on his way to a wedding ceremony. The wedding guest’s reaction starts with amusement but quickly moves through fear and fascination as the story progresses.

The Mariner’s tale begins with his ship departing on a journey to the south. Although the trip begins well, the ship is driven off course by storm eventually reaching Antarctica. An albatross appears and leads the troubled ship away from the ice but as the albatross is being praised by the ship’s crew, the Mariner shoots the bird. The crew is angry believing the bird had brought the South wind which gently blew their ship out of the icy Antarctic.

The sailors change their minds, however, as the weather warms and the mist disappears “Twas right, said they, such bird to slay/that bring the fog and mist”. However, shooting the bird was a grave mistake. The unnecessary killing arouses the wrath of spirits who pursued the ship “from the land of mist and snow”. The South wind which had initially led them from the land of ice sends the ship into uncharted waters where the wind dies and the water falls deathly still. The poet writes:

Day after day, day after day
We stopped, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,
nor any drop to drink.

The sailors blame the Mariner for the torment of their thirst. As a result, the crew forces the Mariner to wear the dead albatross about his neck to illustrate the burden he must suffer for killing it. Eventually, after encountering a ship of death, all the crewmembers die. The Mariner lives on but he is cursed. For seven days and seven nights the Mariner sees the last expression on the face of each dead crew member. The curse is partially lifted only as he begins to appreciate the sea creatures swimming in the water. Despite his cursing them as “slimy things” earlier in the poem, “Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs / upon the slimy sea”, he suddenly sees their true beauty and blesses them. As he manages to pray, the albatross falls from his neck and his guilt is partially forgiven. The bodies of the crew possessed by good spirits rise again and steer the ship back home, where it sinks in a whirlpool, leaving only the Mariner behind. The Mariner is saved by a hermit but as penance for his killing of the Albatross, he is forced to wander the earth telling his story to each individual he meets.

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.

Pondering those words, I can only conclude that God loves water. Water is necessary for human beings to live and for fish to swim. As a fundamental requirement of being a human being living in this marvelous world each of us should recognize and take responsibility for protecting as best we can the essential elements of life. The water we consume and in which the bonefish swim is such an element.

As I began this series of blog notes concerning the plight of the Florida Keys bonefish, I raised the question of what an individual angler could do to make a difference. The words “water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink” have run through my mind like a broken record. Without habitat, including seawater, of appropriate quality, the bonefish will disappear. That bonefish and other species thrive in healthy saltwater and provide anglers with unparalleled opportunities to catch remarkable fish and make memories that last for a lifetime, can be seen in the pictures below which tell the story about the need for life giving salt water in which bonefish can thrive.

The parallels with the tale of the Ancient Mariner are clear. Our Albatross is water itself. If the actions of human beings kill the quality of water, there will not only be no water to drink, there will be no life. And so the question of caring for the resource extends far beyond an anglers hope that bonefish will have water habitat in which they will swim, spawn, and thrive.

And the bonuses anglers will receive from sustaining the quality of saltwater are profound. When we fish, we experience the uncanny beauty of nature and stories of great friends and fish.

A double on permit with a great friend, Bob Hamilton.

Double On Permit 100 Permit Bank Marathon, Florida Keys

Double On Permit
100 Permit Bank
Marathon, Florida Keys

Tranquility as calm sea meets gray sky creating an infinitely distant horizon.

Horizon Disappears Water, Water Everywhere

Horizon Disappears
Water, Water Everywhere

Mangrove islands caressed with bright rays of sun reflect off life-giving seawater.

Mud Key Channel Keys

Mud Key Channel


Vistas from singular highways and bridges within sight of schools of daisy chaining Tarpon.

Daisy Chain of Tarpon Seven Mile Bridge Marathon, Florida

Daisy Chain of Tarpon
Seven Mile Bridge
Marathon, Florida

Mirrors of sand in shallow water reflecting the beauty of a sharply blue sky and providing avenues of travel for healthy fish.

Sandy Highway For Fish Key West

Sandy Highway For Fish
Key West

A wild Tarpon.

Tarpon On Schooner Bank, Flroida Keys

Tarpon On Schooner Bank, Flroida Keys

So what can I do? Here is my plan and promise.

Even though I live in Ohio and have not visited the Florida Keys for two and half years, I will treat water wherever I am as if it represents the sea creatures which the Ancient Mariner begins to appreciate which appreciation causes the albatross to fall from his neck.

The salt water in which the bonefish swims is a resource. The water I use in my daily living is the same resource. I will demonstrate my commitment to the bonefish, by conserving the resource in which it swims. Regardless of where that resource is located. And here is how I have begun.

Perhaps you agree there is nothing better than a hot shower. Personally, I favor long, long hot showers. In fact, after a day fishing on the flats of the Florida Keys, there is nothing more pleasurable than a long hot shower which rinses away the speckles of salt which cling to your body as a result of boat spray, fish slime, and the perspiration of an angler standing on the bow of the skiff for eight hours in a hot benevolent tropical sun.

Despite my love of long hot showers, for the last three weeks I have been taking “Navy showers”. They are simple enough. Turn the water on. Get wet. Turn the water off. Shampoo your hair. Soap your body. Turn the water on. Rinse off. Turn the water off again. I have no idea how much water is saved by a Navy shower but the commitment to the resource is more important than the quantity. I am convinced that if we all do just a little bit better with whatever resource we care about, the resource will make exponential gains because many people care enough to do a little.

When I shave, I turn the water on and off. When I brush my teeth, I turn the water on and off. When I do dishes, I turn the water on and off. Before, I let the water run while each of those simple daily tasks were completed.

My wife and I have had our first conversation about what kind of chemicals we will put on our lawn when the snow melts and the sun angle rises high enough in the sky to grow grass. I hope we can come to an agreement that whatever chemicals we use, if any, will not do damage to the water flowing in the Olentangy River where I fish for smallmouth bass not 300 yards from my home.

The Senators and Representatives from Ohio will receive letters from me. These letters will request that they explain why the subsidies continue for Big Sugar which uses fertilizers to grow sugarcane in Florida. These fertilizers release their chemical components into the groundwater that ultimately flows through the Everglades attacking water quality in Florida Bay. Florida Bay is the astounding but besieged estuary which provides life to bonefish and an infinite variety of saltwater creatures. Of course, I confess to a high level of skepticism about whether or not a letter from an individual citizen will make any difference. On the other hand, what harm can it do? Clearly, it is not realistic to expect Congress to have the necessary political will to make changes for the better of the country unless I have sufficient political will as a citizen to stay informed and express my opinion in a constructive way to those who can make a decision and a difference.

And so I pledge to continue to take steps to conserve on the amount of water I use as a human being. I also pledge to refrain from putting chemicals in places where water will carry those contaminants to rivers, streams, lakes, and oceans.

I have also resolved to take the time to become informed about water quality issues and to ask my political representatives to make decisions based upon a fair balance between the needs of the citizens of our country and the reality that our water resources are limited and tainted.

Finally, I urge you to conserve any resource about which you deeply care. If not water, then something else. I also ask that you keep yourself informed about issues which will affect all of us now and our families and nation in the future.

The Ancient Mariner bore a curse generated by a mindless disregard for the value of the albatross. His shipmates bore a terrible price. The poet concludes that the penance of the Ancient Mariner was eternal.

Let us be mindful of the natural consequences of our choices as we care for the water we use so that neither we nor future generations will have an albatross of responsibility hanging from our neck.

Sunset Bonefish Alley

Sunset Bonefish Alley

Grandma Rowe Was Wrong : God Did Not Create Bonefish To Eat

Catch and Release I Must Grandma

Grandma Mary Ella Rowe

Grandma Rowe Loved To Fish Even If He She Had To Use Her Wheelchair

My Grandma Rowe was the most beloved member of our family. She died at 102 years of age and is missed by all who knew her. A preacher’s wife, her life’s mantra was serving others. As a young child, I struggled being able to imagine Grandma chasing chickens around the barn yard of a family with a new baby. The story went that she caught the chicken, wrung it’s neck, scalded the carcass, plucked the feathers, prepared a fried chicken dinner, served the family, then did a kitchen full of dirty dishes which had accumulated as the new mother recovered.

Grandma broke my heart when she told me as I unleashed my early teenage attitude, “Steve, you have become quite a smart aleck haven’t you?” But forgiveness quickly granted was her style.

All of her Grandkids loved spending time with her even if it meant losing a game of Aggravation to this highly competitive woman.

As I began fishing we had an activity we loved in common in addition to the bond of love which kept us close. Every year before heading to the Keys to fish I believed it would be good luck if I called Grandma to tell her I was headed to Florida to go bonefishing.

Steve Rowe Tom Blake

Grandma Gave Me Her White Hair

She would always ask, ” Are they good to eat?”

” I don’t know”, I would reply.

“Why not? What do you do with them if you catch one?”

“Release them,” I would sheepishly respond.

Tarpon release (00045371)

Andy Rowe’s Tarpon Released

“God, put fish on Earth to eat you know.”

Grandma, you may well be right about the grand creation plan of God, but when it comes to bonefish, I release what I catch. All who love any aspect of this earth should enjoy the resource while at the same time treating it with respect. The term “catch and release” is not new to the fishing world. I can honestly say that I do not know of any bonefish kept by my fishing buddies in Florida. Every bonefish we caught since 1988 was released. As of September 1, 2013 bonefish caught in Florida must be released which is a measure long over due.

Chuck's large bonefish (00045556)

Captain Dale Perez Before Releasing Possible World record Bonefish

Releasing a caught bonefish is only part of the battle. The whole process of catching the fish affects chances of survival. A few tips.

Fight the fish with appropriate tackle. Fisherman seem to thrive on bragging rights. It goes something like this. “I caught a 10 lb bonefish on 4 lb test mono or tippet!” So what? Use sufficient line or tippet strength as well as an appropriate rod and reel to land the fish quickly. The shorter the fight, the higher the survival rate.

On many occasions while in the Keys my buddies would return to share stories of a bonefish being eaten by a shark or barracuda. Trust me, it is hard to want to break off a hooked bonefish when a shark is in the area. Why? Ego, the heat of the battle, focus on the catch…no matter. If you see a predator start to chase your bonefish, break it off immediately. Or if an already streaking hooked bonefish suddenly accelerates as it peels line of a smoking drag, clamp down on the line and bust him off. A shark or cuda is surely chasing the fish whether the angler sees the predator or not. Or if you have landed the fish with sharks in the area, move to another location before releasing the fish.

Once you have a fish at the boat there is a simple equation. The math works like this. The less exposure, the less handling equals the best release. I have many pictures of bonefish. Some of these fish were out of the water too long. And handling the fish for a picture will inevitably remove some of protective slime of the bone. The slime is the coat of armor of the fish so leave the fish armed. Take the picture while the fish is in the water or do not take it at all.

As you release the bonefish hold it by the tail in an upright position and be patient. Keep the bone upright and when it has sufficiently revived from the fight you will feel a surge as the fish is prepared to swim off. Only then should you release the fish. If the fish falters as it swims off retrieve it and start over.

Fly fisherman should use barbless hooks and bait fisherman should use circle hooks.

There is much more but the point is this. If you care about a fish, a plant, a pet, a forest, a beach…or anything in this marvelous creation, you have a duty to protect what you claim to love!

And so Grandma Rowe, I must say again. I do not eat bonefish. Yes, some creatures may exist to provide food. But God put some creatures on this earth to remind of us of the pure joy of the wild! Bonefish are just such creatures.