By Bill Sterling, Submitted Photo
I met Nathan Bradford three years ago — or about nine inches and several thousand fish ago.
Now 16 and having shot up to slightly over 6 feet, Nathan is as dedicated to fishing as anyone I’ve ever met. No, make that he is as dedicated to fishing as anyone is dedicated to anything.
When I first did a story on Nathan in early 2016, he had just surpassed his goal of catching 800 fish the previous year by a whopping margin — finishing with 1,569 fish.
On Christmas Eve he reached his goal of catching 3,000 fish in one year and then added a baker’s dozen to reach 3,013 in 2018. He now has caught slightly over 10,000 fish in his lifetime. Nathan doesn’t just catch the fish; he photographs each fish he catches and records the length, weight, date it was caught, and what lure or bait he used. He did not count in his total sharks, stingrays, or the five oyster toads he caught last year.
He caught virtually all the fish from a yellow kayak often seen by motorists crossing Shields Bridge on Occohannock Creek. He released all but about a dozen fish he gave to his grandparents, who, unlike his parents, enjoy eating fish. But Nathan’s love and knowledge of fishing are only part of his story.
He is an extremely modest young man raised by loving parents, Dan and Wendy Bradford of Belle Haven, and carries a 3.5 grade point average in his homeschool curriculum. He is now taking a class at Eastern Shore Community College and will begin dual enrollment college level classes next September.
Fishing on Sunday mornings is not an option since the family is always at church services at His Way Fellowship, an Assembly of God church now worshipping in Melfa under the direction of Nathan’s grandfather, Pastor Richard Bradford. Catching 3,000 fish did not come with-out its challenges, either.
Nathan worked full time at Tankard’s Nursery last summer and now works eight hours a week at the Eastern Shore Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Painter.
Last summer, he would leave home at 6:30 a.m. and put in eight hours at the nursery, come home and eat a snack, and go out and fish. Every single weekday, rain or shine. Early on, he would fish until 8 or even 9 p.m., but then his mother gave him a 7 p.m. curfew. “After all, we wanted to see him sometime during the day,” she said last week.
The weather was also a challenge. Nathan missed his 3,000 fish goal in 2017 by only 30 fish when a hard freeze hit the Shore in late December and continued through all of January. He didn’t catch his first fish until Feb. 9 last year. By comparison, he caught 17 fish in the first four days of 2019, including two largemouth bass that weighed over 5 pounds.
But the biggest challenge of all came in September of last year when Hurricane Michael blew out the road leading to his Hillsborough community and emptied the pond there. Nathan, whose catch is split about 60-40 between freshwater and saltwater species, could drag his kayak to the pond and spent many an hour there.
“I was shocked that morning when I first saw the road washed away and knew there would be no fishing there for a long time or maybe ever again,” he said. “The water came so high that many fish were carried out of the pond or stranded in the marsh. I was catching largemouth bass and bluegill in the creek for a while after that, but they can’t last long in salt water.”
Residents in the Hillsborough community are still using a back road out of the development. Local residents who have been in contact with authorities say the pond likely will not be restored. The plan is to build a causeway with pipes running through it, leaving a saltwater gut beyond the road. No contract has been awarded, so it will be probably at least six months before the road is restored, according to two local residents.
But Nathan quickly adapted and now has permission to fish about 25 ponds in the nearby area. This past fall, he often rode his bike 3 miles or more to fish from the bank of farm ponds. Once, he paddled his kayak to the very end of Occohannock Creek until it was little more than a ditch and then dragged his kayak over fallen trees hundreds of yards to the pond at the Research Station. “When I got there,” said Nathan, “there was a lot of traffic going by, so I looked at the culvert under the road and thought, ‘I can make it through here.’ So I crawled with my kayak behind me. It was hard work, but I caught a bass that weighed over six pounds,” said Nathan with a broad smile.
Happy days were here for the entire Bradford family in November when Nathan bought his first vehicle with money he had saved from his summer job. He also purchased his kayak about five years ago with his own money made from cutting lawns in the neighborhood.
Now he can load his kayak on his 1999 Rav4 SUV and drive to nearby ponds, where he catches bass, bluegill, and crappie.
According to his father, Nathan doesn’t just fish any pond where there might be fish. “We’ve told Nathan he must ask permission from the landowner and be respectful of the property. He’s always been very well behaved, but we just have to mention ‘fishing’ and that takes care of any issues.”
Nathan will even beg his younger sister, Hannah, 14, to join him on some fishing trips. She rarely does, preferring to shape handmade jewelry. Still, Nathan estimated she caught about 30 fish last year, far more than his father.
“I never did any fishing and still don’t know much about it,” said Dan Bradford. “Nathan certainly didn’t get his love of fishing from me.”
Nathan recalled fishing with his grandfather last year, telling him to cast his lure to a certain spot on Occohannock Creek. “On his second cast, he caught a 30-inch rockfish, bigger than any I’ve caught in that creek,” said Nathan, who also often fishes with his best friend, Jacob Cuff, and sometimes his great uncle, Tom Bradford. Monte Penny, a neighbor who would sometimes take Nathan in the bay, where as a 12-year-old he caught and released a 40-inch, 27-pound, 14-ounce red drum, has moved out of the area.
Now that is he older and his parents have extended his boundaries, Nathan has paddled the length of Occohannock Creek to the Chesapeake Bay, a round trip of at least 10 miles from where he drops his kayak.
Nathan’s best outing in 2018 was the day he caught 128 stripers in Occohannock Creek. Most were undersized, but 12 reached the 20-inch legal minimum. On Memorial Day last year, he caught 101 fish in a pond with the bag made up of largemouth bass, bluegill, and crappie.
Nathan caught 21 species among his 3,013 fish, with two personal firsts, a Spanish mackerel and a golden shiner. It is interesting to note that in 2018 Nathan did not catch a single puppy drum, grey trout, sand mullet, or croaker, all species he had caught in decent numbers in previous years. As for speckled trout, highly prized by most anglers, Nathan caught about 40 that reached the 14-inch minimum and scores and scores of undersized specks.
“I only used bait once last year, and that was when I was in a tournament and trying to catch certain fish,” added Nathan, who casts or trolls but almost never bounces a sinker off the bottom. Nathan has his favorite lures, but like any good fisherman, he’s not giving away his secrets.
But the secret to his success is that he is not afraid to try something different. “Sometimes a slight change in the conditions can make a huge difference,” said Nathan. “I will change the lure or experiment with a new setup if the fish are not biting.”
Nathan does not use a fish finder nor is he or his family keen on technology. His phone only takes photos and does not have service or even a number attached to it. According to Dan Bradford, no family member has a smart phone, adding he has never texted. There is no cable TV or dish for the television, which gets only local channels. Nathan said that outside of trying a video game at a friend’s house a couple of times, he does not play video games. He does take online classes, but other than that, he mainly uses the computer to search for nearby ponds on AccuMap.
His father said he is discovering that maybe some people think the Bradfords are “weird” but added, “I think being outside fishing is a lot better way for Nathan to spend his time than staring at some screen.”
Nathan said he has been warned that now that he is 16, girls will soon enter his life and affect his fishing. He thought for a second and added, “I think I would rather fish.”
Lest one think Nathan is all about numbers and reaching a goal, he explained why he continues to fish day after day. “I am not much for surprises except when it comes to fishing. No matter how many fish you catch, you wonder what the next one will be. It could be a new species or the largest fish you have ever caught. You might be exploring a new location, seeing something for the first time. Fishing is one great big mystery, and you never know what to expect.”
Nathan, who three years ago declared he is going to be a professional fisherman when he grows up, is not so sure now what livelihood he will pursue. But fishing is and always will be a major part of his life, so much so he wrote about it for a recent English assignment.
The Boy and the Fish
I woke up at seven, Feeling like I was in Fishing Heaven.
Viewing the body of water from my front window pane,
I could easily spot fish in the crystal clear water, as if they were tame. Billy, the Behemoth, Bad, Bigmouth Bass peered into my soul, Clearly spotted in the Caribbean blue water as if he were in a fish bowl.
Seeing my favorite lure broken off in his mouth, continued to haunt, His smug looking face with my lure hanging down continued to daunt.
The boy with that look over yonder; His one shot at catching me, he did squander.
Once did he fool me, branded for life, Fooling me twice would be quite the vice.
This hook stuck in my face, What a disgrace!
And the recurring thought of the event hurts my pride like the spray of mace.