Until his retirement last year, Paul Hale, 53, was a logging contractor in northeastern Texas. For a while now, his dream has been to visit all 50 of the United States in his lifetime. So when he retired, he told his wife: “I’ve been to 39 of the states, I’d like to go to the rest of them.”
He looked at the other states and thought: “I really don’t have a specific reason to go there.” But Hale “had fishing on his mind” — a lifelong passion that he had put on the back burner while he was running his logging company.
And then it struck him: he would combine his dreams of travel with his favorite activity and make it his goal to go fishing in all 50 states.
In October, Hale made his first fishing foray to Oregon — the 43rd stop on his cross-country adventure. He caught about 20 trout at Lost Creek and called it one of the highlights of his trip.
In California, he caught his first chinook salmon on the Sacramento River. And in the Columbia River, he caught — and released — his first ever white sturgeon.
Hale grew up in Bloomburg, Texas. “My dad had a couple of stock ponds on our farm, and that’s how I learned to fish,” he said.
There are also several great fishing lakes in the area, such as Wright Patman Lake and Caddo Lake, on the border with Louisiana. His dad taught him to catch channel catfish, and he “didn’t need much help after that.”
When he was 18, Hale started working as a logging contractor.
“I loved fishing when I was a kid, but then I started my company and I didn’t have a whole lot of time for fishing anymore.”
Sometimes he would still go fishing, but he couldn’t enjoy it the way he did when he was a child. “There was too much on my mind, the type of business I was in carried a lot of stress and a lot of full-time attachment to the management of it. I probably could have taken more time, but I just didn’t.”
On the flip side, his focus on work gave him the chance to retire earlier and enjoy fishing now.
“I’m 53, and I’m still like a little kid when I catch a fish.”
The idea to fish all 50 U.S. states came to him when he was reading about Devils Lake in North Dakota, one of the prime fishing spots in the Midwest.
“I would’ve probably never gone to North Dakota if it wasn’t for Devils Lake. I just had to go there.”
The main reason for anglers to go to Devils Lake is its bountiful supply of northern pike. Hale always wanted to catch a pike, having heard so much about them over the years.
So he went for it, and it was an incredible experience, he said. For the first time in his life, he reeled in one of those toothy fighters. “When I got him in my boat, I was just so thrilled to catch that for the first time.” Now he says northern pike is his favorite fish to catch. Hale caught his biggest northern pike on East Lost Lake, Minnesota.
Out of the fish he has caught so far, his favorite saltwater species to target is redfish, while the tastiest is sheepshead. Both of these he caught in the Gulf of Mexico during fishing trips from Rockport and Biloxi.
Hale has cast his line in the Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico and Tillamook Bay, as well as many rivers and lakes in between.
He has succeeded in catching fish on each of his stops, although at times he had to improvise (like the time he didn’t catch anything on his shared fishing charter in Hawaii and resorted to Walmart-bought gear and bait to pull fish out of a local canal).
Hale took a break from his fishing travels for the holiday season to spend time with his family in Texas, and in February he went be back on the road with just five more states to fish — Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Pennsylvania and Florida.
He planned to go ice fishing in the first four and aimed to catch burbot, another bucket-list fish. Then in spring he will head to perhaps the most iconic saltwater fishing state, Florida, where he plans to go on several charters and end his tour with a bang.
Will that be the end of Hale’s fishing saga? Almost certainly not. There’s plenty more fish on his bucket list, and there’s plenty more beautiful places both in and outside of the USA. And Hale will always continue to marvel at both natural and man-made grandeur:
“Many times on this trip I was awed and amazed at the natural beauty and the natural resources of this nation, and just as awed at the reservoirs, highways and dams that our forefathers built, carved and constructed in this rugged land.”
Of course, Hale’s travels are about catching fish first and foremost, and he had a list of species he wanted to reel in. Among the firsts that came on his trip are red snapper out of Orange Beach, Alabama, lake sturgeon on the St. Clair River in Michigan, saugeye on Taylorsville Lake in Kentucky, and steelhead on the Clearwater River in Idaho.
Then there are the ones that were not on his bucket list, but were unexpectedly intriguing. In September, on Connecticut’s Niantic Bay, Hale caught false albacore, which he says “may have been false, but he put up a very real fight. He fought like a demon-possessed machine.”
At Sandy Hook in New Jersey, he hooked a cownose ray, a rare fish in those parts. Hale had never even heard of it, but he took it home and prepared it for his friends, to everyone’s great delight. “Man it was special,” he says “It tasted like a cross between veal and premium beef, and all four of us loved it.”
At Chincoteague Island in Virginia, a strong east wind blew his chances of getting fish. So instead, his guide took him clamming, a first for Hale. Walking barefoot, he sank into a sandbar up to his ankles with each step, imagining this is the way clamming has been done for 1,000 years.
“When my feet touched the ‘round rocks’ — that was the clams. I got about 35 of them. In September, on his drive back home to Texas from New England, he stopped in Kentucky and went fishing for muskie on Cave Run Lake.
In the pouring rain, Hale and his guide Tim Barkley hit the lake on a boat without any cover. After 30 minutes, the rain started getting under their (theoretically) rainproof clothes, and after an hour they were completely soaked through.
“The only way I could have been more wet was to jump in the lake. Up until about 10:45 I felt like one big fool. ... That’s when I got him. I have never earned a fish like I earned the 41-poundmuskie I caught that day.”
“I will probably always think of Elvis Presley’s song Kentucky Rain when I think of that day. I sang that song all the way home.”