Fire and water. Two things you wouldn’t normally put together. Unless you’re one of these three men. In honor of International Firefighters’ Day, we caught up with three firefighters with a passion for being on the water. Meet Matt Stasiak, of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Fire, Diego Toiran of the Key West Fire Department and Andrew Behnke of the Fond du Lac Fire Department.
What came first for you, firefighting or fishing? How did you get into both?
Matt: Fishing definitely came first. Growing up in Western Pennsylvania, my dad always had me out fishing at our cottage either going after trout in the mountains of the Allegheny National Forest, or out on Pennsylvania's limited horsepower lakes for bass, bluegill or northern pike. When I turned 16 and was able to drive, I always took our 14 ft boat out to try techniques that I read in B.A.S.S magazines and saw on TV. I just had a passion for it. Then I got hooked up with some local clubs and started to do well in them, so I took my fishing skills to the next level and started fishing Bass Fishing League and Costa events.
I got into the Fire Department at the age of 22. I knew it was going to be a dangerous job and I was going to do things most people would never think of doing. It got me excited and made me into the person I am today. Now I've been on the job for 10 years and I look back and say, "It's the best job in the world." This job is what I was supposed to do in my life.
Andrew: Fishing came first for me, I have been fishing since I was three years old. I got into fishing because of family and my mom’s job at Mercury. When my mother got into the competitive angling side of things at Mercury was when I truly became obsessed with the sport of fishing. I traveled with her all over the country to bass and saltwater tournaments. I learned from her friends about fishing and boats by hanging out in the service yard. I started fishing competitive tournaments when I was twelve and took second place in my first tournament with a 27 lb. King Mackerel in the Jolly Mon King Classic out of Ocean Isle Beach, North Carolina.
I started firefighting when I was sixteen. I graduated from medic school in May of 2017 and was hired by the City of Fond du Lac in June of the same year. I grew up in a firefighting family with my father being on the Town of Fond du Lac Fire Department as a volunteer.
Diego: Recreational fishing came first and then firefighting. Ever since I was a young kid, I always wanted to be a firefighter. Presently, I’ve been at the Key West Fire Department for 28 years. Professional fishing only got serious for me after moving to Key West as I later fished commercially and ran fishing charters for 15 years.
Is it hard to find time to fish as a firefighter?
Matt: Our schedule is 24 hours on duty and 72 hours off duty. But within those 72 hours off, we have the option to pick up extra shifts. Is it hard to find time to fish? Yes and no. I always say, "You gotta work hard to play hard." So sometimes I work 100+ hour weeks just so I can have the time to take off and go fish tournaments in other states or spend a couple days away to go fish places the places that I’ve dreamed of.
Andrew: It really isn’t all that hard to find time to go fishing because of the odd schedule that we work. We have some off days that I am able to get out on the water more than most people and the lakes aren’t as crowded because sometimes it’s in the middle of the week while everyone else is at work.
Do you have any boating buddies in the firehouse?
Andrew: I do have a bunch of friends at the firehouse that have boats and go boating, most of them are walleye fishermen, so me being Bass fisherman, I catch a lot of flak from them. It’s all in good fun, and honestly, we all just like being out on the water.
Matt: Unfortunately, I don't have any fishing buddies that I work with. But being a firefighter you have a really big second family. The guys are very supportive and always ask me when my next tournament is, or if I've been out fishing recently. But they are also like brothers and we love to poke each other’s ribs more often than not. That just comes with the job.
How does boating impact your life? Is it another thrill, or more of a way to decompress from the daily grind?
Diego: Back in the day, fishing was a way to disconnect. Also, a way to make a living since I ran charters for years. Boating and fishing impact my life in a positive way, but being able to offer a produced television show to boaters and fishermen brings me a lot of joy.
Andrew: Fishing is my life. Almost everything I do revolves around the sport of fishing. I love it and it definitely is a release for me. I love firefighting too, don’t get me wrong, but there is something about fishing that I just cannot duplicate in anything else. I will say this, it is a true blessing to be able to love my job. The job gives me so many opportunities to get out and fish, it really is a win-win!
Matt: I think fishing is a challenge. Every time I put my boat in the water and fire up my Mercury there is one thing on my mind. How am I going to catch them today? It's an addiction. Something I prepare for days in advance. Even though I love what I do, being in the city is not my ideal situation. I won't miss a chance to see a sunrise or sunset on the water. But when I'm fishing a tournament it’s 100% a thrill. The adrenaline rush of your boat number being called is such a unique feeling that you won’t get anywhere else.
What are three things you don’t get on the boat without?
Matt: Well there are the obvious ones. Life jacket, gas and fishing rods. But what I absolutely can’t leave behind is my camera because you never know what you’re going to catch and you better have proof of your catch. Another thing I can't leave behind is a good lunch. The third and final thing is my coffee. I'm a firefighter and we love our coffee. There have been times I have left it in the truck and was idling out of the marina and had to turn around because there is absolutely no way I was going all day without it.
Diego: Ice, water and a cell phone.
Have any skills you’ve picked up while fishing helped you out in your career? Or vice versa?
Matt: Dedication and lending a helping hand are two skills that have helped me in my career. Being on the fire department absolutely takes dedication. I also put the dedication into the companies I represent and my passion for the sport. I'm always willing to help anyone out. The people that have my number know that they can call me at any time and I'll do what I can to help them out anywhere they might be.
Andrew: I would say one thing that I learned in fishing that has helped me in my career has been the ability to stay level headed when things aren’t going the way that you thought they would (or planned) and staying positive about it.
What’s your proudest moment on the water?
Diego: My proudest moment on the water was seeing a boat anchored up on the reef as a major front moved in. I pulled anchor and turned back around to tell the folks what was coming. As I got closer, I noticed it was an older couple and that their battery was dead. I quickly took out one of my batteries and gave it to them, waited until their boat started, and headed back in. They later brought me the battery and thanked me as they would have been in major trouble when the winds reached 28 to 30 knots that night.
Andrew: I've had so many proud moments on the water! One of best moments on the water has to be when I was fishing on the Preferred Marine Fishing Team in the Greater Jacksonville King Mackerel Tournament and we caught 3 kings that weighed 46 lbs., 44 lbs. and 40 lbs. Overall, we caught 130 lbs. of Kings in a half hour and won the tournament.
What about your proudest moment on duty?
Matt: Being on the Fire Department makes me proud. I can't give a specific event or situation because every day there isn't something that happens, big or small, that doesn't make me proud of what I do.
Andrew: Proudest moment on duty is honestly a tough question. During the floods of March 2019, we were out making rescues in the boats; We all worked as a team and accomplished our mission without any casualties or minor injuries.
Do you have a favorite fish to catch? What about to eat?
Matt: By far, hands down, my favorite fish to catch is a smallmouth bass. I've fished in Florida, Arizona and Alabama just to name a few, but the fight of the northern smallmouth is something everyone needs to experience.
Diego: Yellowtail snapper is my favorite, as well as vertical jigging for tuna. You have to eat, Cobia!
Andrew: My favorite freshwater fish to catch would have to be the smallmouth bass, and saltwater fish would be tarpon. Yellow perch are great table fair, but it’s hard to beat fresh swordfish.
If you could give a piece of advice to your younger self, what would it be?
Matt: The only thing that comes to mind is don't change a thing. Everything happens for a reason. There are going to be mistakes, but they only make you stronger and wiser. Success doesn't come with a trophy, it comes with knowledge and the ability to absorb as much knowledge as you can. Listen more than you speak and turn around and pass it on to the next person. Don't take anything for granted because some things are here one day and gone the next. Live life to the fullest and remember to keep on smiling.
Diego: Follow your dream. If there’s something you want to do in life, go after it.
Andrew: The only thing I would tell my younger self is to never settle. There is always room to get better and improve.