When you think of the popular hunting and fishing brand: Meat Eater, you’re most likely picturing epic hunting, delicious game recipes, and just about anything besides catch and release fly-fishing. However, this year, the fishy crew over at Meat Eater holstered their treble hooks and took on a conservation project out of the pureness of their hearts, and maybe a free fishing trip (their words, not mine). In what is perhaps the most justified “spot burn” that the fly fishing industry has ever seen; Joe Cermele, Miles Nolte, and Off the Grid Studios brings us to Tight Lines Fly Shop and the waters of the Menomoniee River for some world-renowned smallmouth fishing all in the name of conservation.
We had a chance to sit down with Joe Cermele of Meat Eater’s “Bent” Podcast, as well as their installation in this year’s Fly Fishing Film Tour, to get a behind-the-scenes look at creating “Spot Burn”.
FL: Who is Joe Cermele, and what is your role with Meat Eater?
Joe: I head up MeatEater’s East Coast contingent, which makes me the lone full-time editorial staffer based on the Right Coast. I live in Eastern Pennsylvania now, but just across the river from Jersey, otherwise known as the Motherland. I joined the MeatEater team as the senior fishing editor in February of 2020, literally two weeks before the COVID hammer dropped. Prior to that, I was the fishing editor at Field & Stream for a decade, during which time I created a spin-off brand for them called Hook Shots that included a video series and podcast. I also served double duty as the fishing editor of Outdoor Life for a couple of years. I was initially attracted to MeatEater because personality-driven content, particularly podcasts and videos, is such a central part of their program. I’m a writer at heart, but really embraced new forms of media as they shaped the fishing scene and firmly believe modern outdoor media consumers identify with the who before the what. So, when I was offered the opportunity to help define and shape the fishing program at MeatEater, there was no way I wasn’t jumping on that. I was thrilled.
FL: In short, can you explain to us what “Spot Burn” is about?
Joe: “Spot Burn” was born from MeatEater’s Das Boat series. We focused an episode of season two on the Menominee River in Northeast Wisconsin and the threat it was facing from a Canadian Mining company’s proposed open-pit sulfide mine. The film you’re seeing in F3T is an expansion of that story with a fishier twist. “Spot Burn” centers around outfitter Tim Landwehr’s decision to expose the incredible smallmouth fishing on his home water to the masses in hopes that more people will help the locals fight the fight and derail the mine.
But, in a broader sense, I’d be lying if I said “Spot Burn” wasn’t also about poking a little fun at several topics that have become fishing media taboo. These days, you hear the term “spot burn” so often you just roll your eyes. Is it a real thing? Yup. Is it happening? Yup. Will it continue to happen? Absolutely, so why do we still let it suck so much enjoyment out of our sport? I know dudes that spend more time complaining about spot burning on the internet than they do fishing. I’ve been a burn victim, and I don’t like it, but I’m not going to lose sleep over it because what can you do? Those anglers have every right to be there. The spot is not mine. You either adapt and deal with it or quit fishing I guess. Second, there is this ethos in fishing that if you’re doing anything in the name of conservation your content should be automatically placed on a pedestal. Because you’re “doing it for the cause,” you’re nobler. There are loads of respectable anglers out there that have moved mountains for conservation. There’s a lot of people that damn-well should be on that pedestal. But there are also people that treat a cause like a tool to elevate themselves in the fishing scene and in doing so glaze right over the joy of fishing. With this film, we wanted to make something that was both entertaining and shed light on a conservation issue. Fishing is both fun and serious, so why does fishing media need to be one or the other? Why can’t it be both?
FL: Meat Eater is perceived by many to be focused on hunting, and fishing with conventional tackle for food. Can you tell us how you guys are aiming to subvert those understandings and deliver a message more geared towards the fly-fishing audience?
Joe: We’re trying to create a fishing environment that’s all-inclusive. No matter how you fish, why you fish, or what you get out of it, we’re all anglers. We have so much in common and we can learn a ton from each other. As it stands now, the vast majority of fishing media is stuck in these separate silos. Is that because every angler is only interested in his or her faction? Maybe. Or maybe it’s because fishing media lacks a quality home for the angler that fishes multiple methods, targets a wide variety of species, and is interested in a wide array of fishing topics. Quality fishing media tells interesting stories around the thing we all love to do: go fishing. Prior to joining the MeatEater team, I created a pretty successful brand that proved a generalist approach—where we’re flyfishing one week and trolling the next—works and attracts an audience. We’re confident we can do that even bigger and better at MeatEater. So, in regard to fly content, it’s important to us and will be one of the areas we focus on, but it’s just one piece of a larger puzzle. As you know, I’m a hardcore fly guy, but I’m not fly-only. To me, a fly rod is a tool within my broader arsenal, but it’s not a way of life. I’m a much better fly angler because I do a lot of conventional fishing and vise versa. You want to be a great streamer angler? Spend a season throwing swimbaits. You want to be really proficient at dunking worms? Learn about nymphs and how trout feed on them. A lot of what we want to do dives into these connective tissues that many anglers may not think about, but that speak to the fact that we’re all out there trying to get the same bite.
FL: As seen in the opening sequence of the film, there are so many different conservation efforts at the forefront of many anglers’ minds. What was it about this one that really stood out to you guys?
Joe: For me, it was a bit more of a David and Goliath scenario. Lots of people care about Bristol Bay. Lots of people care about the Boundary Waters. These are destinations and their plight is in our faces. But Tim and his crew have something very unique and special in the Menominee. Is that not worth saving because the area doesn’t generate the same money and the interest? We didn’t think so, and I could easily put myself in Tim’s shoes. What would I do if my home water, the Central Delaware River, was under this kind of threat? Matter of fact, it could be in the near future as a result of fracking initiatives. But the Central Delaware isn’t a destination. Few people get hot and bothered unless there’s an issue with the trout sections 200 miles upstream of me. The only people to fight the fight here would be a handful of local anglers. If I could potentially help thwart disaster by sharing more about my piece of the river than I was comfortable with, I’d do it.
FL: When prepping the boat for a warm-water fly fishing mission, what are some of the factors you guys took into consideration?
Joe: One of the things the Das Boat series proved was that contrary to popular opinion, you don’t need some souped-up, snazzy watercraft to fish effectively. In season two, we took an ancient, rickety aluminum Starcraft with a deep-V hull and adapted it to six very different fisheries, from big-lake trolling to floating a tight trout stream. Tim and I got pretty lucky. Our mission was to row this beater down a pretty wide river, albeit a relatively shallow one. So, while other duos in the Das Boat series had to fabricate casting decks, add downriggers, and wire electronics, we just had to strip the boat to bare bones. We needed to make it as light and maneuverable as possible. We tweaked the anchor system a bit and reinforced the oar locks, but other than that, everything—including the motor—came off. While I can’t say it was the easiest boat I’ve ever rowed, it also wasn’t terrible. It performed well and gave us a really spacious, stable platform to fish from. As long as you weren’t forward rowing, you almost forgot you weren’t on a drift boat.
FL: What was it like having the preliminary conversation with Tim when discussing “Blowing up his spot”? Was he hesitant at first? What consequences did he expect?
Joe: Tim was certainly hesitant. In fact, in the very early stages of planning, there was some drama behind the scenes. We negotiated what we could and couldn’t show, but ultimately ironed out the details and got everybody on the same page. Once we all aligned on the same vision and Tim was committed, I don’t think his confidence about this being the right move waivered. He understood we were there to tell a story that needed to be told. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t nervous about how this would be received, but look what happened. As soon as the original Das Boat episode aired, support poured in for The Coalition to Save the Menominee River. While the mine isn’t dead by any means, that organization and the Menominee Tribe were able to win their first court battle and get one of the Environmental Quality Permits rescinded. I got a glorious drunk text from Tim when the news came through. His whole crew was celebrating. There are several more court battles that need to be funded and won, but it was a fantastic first step.
FL: Continuing on the topic of ‘spot burning’, what is your opinion on the matter? Are there other justifications besides saving a river from becoming a stagnant pool of toxic sludge? Should spot burning be chalked up to a militant act of evil, or is it simply a product of time on the water and word of mouth?
Joe: Spot burning is a complex subject because it has so many layers. I actually find it really fascinating from a psychological perspective. I once got a long, F-bomb-riddled email from a fan after posting a video that showed a bridge on a river. He said I was careless, and while he didn’t mind that I was filming on “his” river, there was no need to include a shot of the bridge. My response was, “If this was a bridge on a different river, one you didn’t fish, would you be ripping me apart for potentially burning someone else’s spot?” He didn’t reply, of course, because nobody cares until it’s their spot that’s burned. The fact is, there’s no such as thing as a secret spot anymore, at least not in the lower 48, and that’s only going to get worse. Thanks to the pandemic alone, there are more people out there than ever before trying to wet a line, and if you’re resourceful, you’re going to find places. Does it really matter if you find it through a poorly thought-out social media post that feeds it to you on a silver spoon or Google Maps and boots on the ground? The end result is the same.
In my opinion, spot burning is the most damaging on a local level. If you’re posting on a local forum geared to a local scene, giving detailed info on a spot or bite can create an almost real-time crowding issue. But people have it in their minds that if you share something on a national level to a large audience, every area motel will be booked next week. Ask the thousands of guides and captains that have been featured in magazines and videos and prayed for solid bookings as a result if that’s always how it played out. I’ve had people harass me for highlighting an entire river or giant lake, and that makes very little sense to me.
Just because I’ve shown you a vignette from somewhere doesn’t automatically load your brain Matrix-style with the years of trial and error it took me or a guide to figure the place out or give you a complete working knowledge of the system as a whole. People love to act like you’re giving away a secret simply by showing an audience that there’s a certain fish in a certain body of water, but I can’t think of anything I’ve ever done or anywhere I’ve ever fished where I revealed something completely unknown. It’s all public information. This film is a prime example. There’s nothing we’ve shown you that you couldn’t have figured out if, say, you’re a diehard smallie guy looking for a new place to road trip. You see some great fishing in the film, but to think you’re just going to step into the same conditions and replicate what you saw without time and effort is a fantasy. Real anglers know this, but there are tons of “I-want-it-now” fishermen out there these days. The silver lining I’ve discovered, however, is that while your post or video might prompt some these people to go somewhere new, if it’s not easy, lights-out fishing that provides Instagram fodder during their first visit, they often don’t go back.
FL: Having grown up around, and now residing in the state of PA, as well as having been able to fish for smallies on conventional tackle and on the fly; do you have a favorite method? Why?
Joe: If smallie fishing revolves around deep and slow, I’m not overly excited. I have the utmost respect for the dudes that can shake a hair jig in place in a deep hole in the winter looking for a little tap or crawl a tube in the early spring, it’s just not my jam. Truthfully, I don’t usually focus on bronze until May and I’ll stay after them into the fall, right up to when I have to work too deep and too slow to catch them. Where I live, there’s no shortage of other games in town late and early in the year, so I have other options. But in the perfect scenario, I’ll catch them on popper flies all day. There’s no doubt that’s my favorite method because I love the finesse aspect of it. You’re expecting this explosion but it’s often the gentlest sip, and you often have to earn it. Rare is the day that they’re just crushing a Boogle Bug on every cast, at least on my home waters.
FL: With missions such as these, there is a lot of chatter about what truly incentivizes someone to go and open up a fishing spot to the world. How do you guys go about finding the proper balance between using a cause to get a free fishing trip, and fishing for a cause?
Joe: “Spot Burn” was really the first time in my entire career I’ve been part of a project that was specifically aimed at exposing a major threat and conservation issue to the masses. I keep up with issues locally, nationally, and globally, and I’ve done my share of reporting on them through writing and podcasts, but I’m definitely not the guy seeking them out and using my position to fish cool places under the guise of being there for the cause. The closest I ever came prior to this was filming a web show on a Northeast Pennsylvania river that could use some more love and attention but wasn’t facing a major threat like the Menominee. And it was home water, so I was just burning my own spot and sleeping at home that night, not at a swank lodge. If more people know and care about a fishery that attention certainly can help protect it, look at Pebble Mine, but you also have to pick your battles. I do think “the cause” can easily be turned into a thin excuse to simply justify making content. If that’s your angle, you can find a cause within almost any fishery.
So, to make it effective and lead to action like it did with “Spot Burn,” you have to really study that cause, debate it, and weigh it, because our audience trusts that if we think they need to hear about it, it’s probably worth listening. MeatEater’s reputation is staked in conservation work, but if every other week we’re fishing or hunting somewhere with a half-assed cause and telling you to care, that can easily lead to our motivations being questioned or dilute the bigger, more important messages.
FL: What do you feel was one of the biggest take-aways from working on this project?
Joe: On a personal note, I learned a ton about fly-fishing for smallmouths from Tim and crew. The bugs they use, the kind of water they target, and the presentations were eye-opening. In a way, it almost made me feel dumb for not being tuned into their methods years ago, because nobody I know is doing what they do out East, and I’ve been able to bring that game to my home turf. But the bigger takeaway was that despite all the keyboard commandos that live to bitch and moan about spot burning, when you tell a story the right way with good intentions, it draws out the camaraderie in the greater angling community. After the initial Das Boat episode dropped, The Coalition to Save the Menominee received donations from all over the place, from fly and conventional guys, most of which will never even fish that river. But I think they see themselves and their friends in me, Tim, and his crew in this film. The Menominee can be a thousand different rivers. It can easily be your home river.
FL: How did you and your crew decide you wanted to make a film for F3T? Was it always the goal to have this piece in the film festival?
Joe: It wasn’t an initial goal. As it often goes when you’re filming anything, a lot of really great stuff ends up on the cutting room floor. In many ways, the Das Boat series focused more on the boat itself and the people in each episode than the actual fishing. But in our shoot on the Menominee, a lot of really good fish-porn got left out. We saw an opportunity to reshape the narrative around the mine issue with a more directly fishing-focused angle. We had so much footage that hadn’t been seen, and so many things we either didn’t say in Das Boat or that we felt could be expanded upon, we thought working something up for F3T was a no-brainer. It also helps our ongoing effort to show new audiences that not everything at MeatEater related to fishing ends with a fillet knife in hand.
FL: This film takes a much more comedic/light-hearted approach to address an otherwise serious concern. What was your goal with this?
Joe: Frankly, I never take anything to do with fishing too seriously. That’s always been kind of been my deal, and Miles Nolte, MeatEater’s director of fishing, and I try to bring that attitude to everything we do. That’s not to say we shy away from serious conservation issues and controversial topics, but too many anglers in the public eye fancy themselves crusaders. At the end of the day, it’s just fishing, man. We’re all just trying to fool something with a tiny brain, and at some point, all the crusaders and people that treat fishing like war started doing this because it was fun! I go fishing to have fun whether it’s a work trip or just the weekend, and once you lose that, once you’re only fishing for a cause or only fishing to let people know what an expert you are, you should just hang it up. I’ve always strived to avoid a contrived, on-camera persona. What you see is who I am. And yes, we were there to shed light on a very serious concern, and I think we did that effectively. But you know what? Tim and I weren’t floating down the river crying and moping about the mine. We were fishing, and laughing, and quoting “The Golden Child,” and high-fiving, and ribbing each other when we goofed a hook set. You’re trying to save something that provides fun and enjoyment, and if I’m the guy that gets to tell that story, the vibe I’m going with is NOFX not “Everybody Hurts.”
FL: What is the best way to take action in aiding in the fight against the mining project covered in the film?
Joe: Check out the Coalition to Save the Menominee River. That group is at the forefront of the fight, and they’ve already made great headway in the right direction. This feels a little cliché but it’s true: while we won one battle, the war is not over. I’d also like to add that you can reach out to Tim Landwehr and the crew at Tight Lines Fly Fishing Company directly. Tim and his team are incredible teachers and stewards of this sport. I’ve said thousands of times over the years that I’ve never been in it for the fish. I’m a people person. The coolest part of doing what I do is meeting new people, and I came away with some solid new friends because of this film.
FL: Can the fly-fishing community expect more to come from Meat Eater in terms of fly-fishing-focused and catch and release content in the near future?
Joe: It sure can. I’ll personally be contributing a bunch of it. But I think it’s important to reiterate that our goal is to be welcoming to all anglers. We’re really trying to create conversations and perhaps get fishermen looking at things from other perspectives. So, I think what you’ll see is a bit more explanation and thought put into why we are—or are not—releasing a fish. I love eating fish, but food on the table is not the driver that gets me on the water, and I believe huge amounts of anglers fall into this category. However, the idea that killing a few fish is deplorable and barbaric is false. We certainly won’t be shying away from catch-and-release, because it’s very important to us as conservation-minded anglers, but you’re going to find out why we believe catch-and-release is the answer within the fishery at hand. And time to time, we’re going to tell you why it’s OK to eat one of those 36 stripers you caught in Montauk, or one of those trout you caught on that Insta-worthy Drunk & Disorderly you tied.
Thank you to Joe Cermele and the Meat Eater crew for their words of fishing wisdom. To watch “Spot Burn”, be sure to head over to F3T’s website and grab a ticket while you can. Also, go check out the Coalition to Save the Menominee River to learn more about what you can do to help.