“Fishing was more than fish to him. It was the great occasion when all men were equal.” — Ernest Hemingway, “The Old Man and the Sea.”
FORT PIERCE, Fla. — Zach Foltz said he can’t recall the first fish he plucked from the waters of Charles Mill Lake — likely as a boy in diapers more than three decades ago.
“I really wish I could,” the now 37-year-old Foltz said. “I can take a guess … catfish or bluegill, probably. I wish I could remember.”
You can bet Foltz remembers the two redfish he and his partner, Andy Fantini, caught Jan. 21 to win the Jacksonville stop of the Power-Pole Pro Redfish Tour.
And the $20,000 prize that came with the victory against 67 other two-member teams.
Though the memory of his first fish remains a distant member, the 2004 St. Peter’s High School graduate knows he developed his love for fishing — and the water itself — at Charles Mill Lake.
The Mansfield native has spent the last 20 years doing something rarely achieved — converting his life’s passion into his life’s work.
Look up “man living his best life” in the dictionary. You will likely find a photo of Foltz next to it.
Foltz is now a marine biologist living in Fort Pierce on the east coast of Florida, about two hours north of Miami and more than 1,000 miles south of his boyhood home
“I am one of the few people who grew up knowing what I wanted to do,” said Foltz, who earned his biology degree from James Madison University in central Virginia.
“I knew I wanted to study biology. I grew up fishing, catching crayfish and being in the water and in the outdoors … and that’s what I wanted to do.”
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Consider every box checked thus far in his life.
Foltz is the station manager for the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History’s Caribbean coral reef ecosystems program. He is also the dive safety officer for the Smithsonian Marine Station in Fort Pierce.
In addition, he oversees daily operations for the Smithsonian’s coral reef ecosystems program at its Carrie Bow Cay field station, located on an island less than two acres in size on the Meso-American Barrier Reef, about 15 miles off the coast of Belize.
His primary research interests include coral reef fish identification and monitoring in mangrove, seagrass and coral reef habitats.
The former three-sport athlete (soccer, basketball and tennis) at St. Peter’s, Foltz said he knows he hasn’t done it alone.
“I am incredibly fortunate,” Foltz said. “I have had a lot of support and motivation from my family and friends and I have worked with a lot of really cool people in school and in my career.
“Growing up, I had the lake in my backyard. It was like a giant playground for me as a kid. I would wake up every day in the summer, and if I didn’t have a sports practice or game, I was in the water.
“Catching bluegill (at Charles Mill) was the perfect fish for a kid to learn to catch. They are always biting and there is a lot of them. Kids kind of lack patience and don’t want to spend too much time fishing and not enough time catching,” Foltz said.
His current work came after two years of post-graduate study at the University of Guam, a U.S. territory in the south Pacific, about a 21-hour flight from north central Ohio.
“It was an incredible experience. I had a ton of time to scuba dive and work on research with others,” Foltz said. “There were not a lot of distractions.”
Foltz spends most of his time now in Fort Pierce with his wife of two years, Lorae’ Simpson, a fellow scientist who shares his life’s passions for fishing and the outdoors.
(Above: Zach Foltz and his wife, Lorae’ Simpson, love to explore, joined by Bob, their canine companion.)
Simpson, who earned a doctorate at the University of Florida in soil and water science, is a mangrove ecologist for the Florida Oceanographic Society. The couple met through their work.
“She supports all of my crazy adventures,” Foltz said. “She understands my crazy needs to spend a lot of time fishing and often comes with me.”
The couple has even entered and won fishing tournaments as a team.
Foltz also travels to Carrie Bow Cay for a week or so every two months. He maintains the station and assists researchers who travel there from around the world to study the coral reef and other ocean life.
The flight from Miami to Belize City is about 90 minutes. A 30-minute flight gets him to the coast, followed by a 35- to 40-minute boat ride to the station.
“It’s super remote and that’s kind of the beauty of it,” Foltz said.
In his spare time, Foltz is also a fishing-industry entrepreneur. He builds and sells his own ZF Custom Rods — high end, handmade fishing rods for every style.
“I had been fishing my whole life. When I started inshore fishing around Fort Pierce, I couldn’t find the exact kind of rod I wanted. Either it didn’t have the right grip or it was not long enough or have the right colors,” Foltz said.
He produces the rods himself and sells them through a local tackle shop and also online.
“I am crazy about fishing … any kind of fishing. Anything that gets me on the water, I am happy. I started in the Backcountry Fishing Association (in Fort Pierce) a few years ago. It’s more about getting together and having fun than it is about who wins,” Foltz said.
Even that busy work schedule allows time for fishing tournaments, such as the event in Jacksonville, a series Foltz first said he got into about four years ago.
During the one-day tournament events, teams can bring in two redfish, each of which must be between 18 and 27 inches in length and weigh no more than eight pounds.
“The trick is to find the fattest fish closest to 27 inches without going over,” Foltz said with a laugh. “We had three bites all day and two fish we got ended up being perfect.
“It was a rather slow day that required persistence,” Foltz said. “It doesn’t matter how many fish you catch — just catch the biggest.”
Their fish weighed in at 7.05 and 6.49 pounds. The combined weight of 13.54 topped the second-place finishers of 13.39 pounds and the third-place team that had 12.84 pounds.
“These red drums might remind of you a Midwest carp,” Foltz said. “You can find them in a variety of areas. We tend to go shallow in three feet or less of water. You can find them feeding on baitfish, shrimp and crabs.
“They don’t jump like bass, but they pull harder than about any fish you find in the lakes of the Midwest,” he said.
The win not only earned the $20,000 prize — it also qualified Foltz and his partner for a spot in the Power-Pole Pro Redfish Tour series championship in Louisiana in May.
“We started this tour about four years ago. We entered one tournament that first year and then a little more. Now we are doing the entire series. It has four stops in Florida,” he said.
“We have gotten better and better. We particularly like the Jacksonville area. We feel like we are getting dialed in.”
Regardless how they fare, Foltz said it’s worthwhile.
“It’s kind of funny. I have always known I wanted to be outside — fishing, duck hunting, hiking, camping. It’s what I love to do.”
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