Top photo: Menhaden off Montauk. Credit Captain John McMurray
Editor’s note: Captain John McMurray’s piece first appeared on FISSUES.org. We are sharing it today because we believe it reflects what many of us are also thankful for.
2017 was a good year, but in the end, it can all go away pretty easily
Let me be clear about something… I’m not done by any means.
The stripers are still going, and for sure I’ll get a few, hopefully more than a few, more cracks at them. And, I’m pretty sure, or at least I’m hoping hard, that we’ll get another run of December bluefin in my neck of the woods.
But it’s a hard truth that I’m sitting here today, in front of an almost uncomfortably hot fire, typing away, rather than searching the horizon for birds…
That sure as hell ain’t by choice. Weather windows are few, and getting fewer by the week. And… While I don’t even want to acknowledge what I’m seeing, it’s snowing a little bit right now.
I’d like to believe that this isn’t the beginning of the end for me, but as the number of fishable days progressively shrink, it probably is.
So… I’m feeling a bit introspective (read, sorry for myself), and, with Thanksgiving coming up in a few days, and the prospect of spending several days with my wonderful in-laws (no sarcasm there, really!), well, I’d have to admit that I’m also feeling unusually thankful… For all the good things that went down this year.
Indulge me while I reflect… Because in the end, there’s a point to all of this.
At the ripe age of 46, I’m done, for all intents and purposes, with the desk-jockey stuff. This year, well, last year really, I decided I was going all in. Fishing full time. To hell with everything else. On the back 9, this is it. This is what I’m going to do, till I physically can’t do it anymore.
This was not altogether by choice. I ran the grants program for a small family foundation for a good 16 years. ‘Twas a good job by any standard. I (we) got to give an awful lot of money to an awful lot of deserving groups. Land trusts, land conservation orgs, riparian/watershed conservation orgs… and yes, we made grants to quite a few marine conservation groups.
But the truth is that going to the city a few days a week, sometimes more than just a few days, sitting next to loud-mouthed Long Island Rail Road riders, packing into a subway car with the rest of the sheep, then sitting at a desk, and reading mind-numbing grant requests from dry land trusts was a soul-sucking process. Let me make it perfectly clear again here… I’m no tree-hugger. Never have been. In hind-sight, I was out of sorts doing that stuff.
Let me be honest… It was a real bummer when I got let go. Kinda like getting dumped by that girlfriend you thought would always be faithful. And there was a long-lasting period of sleepless nights and pure panic about what I was gonna do moving forward.
I know I risk the prospect of hearing “I told you so,” but all those knuckleheads who said, “just you watch, this is for the best,” were dead on.
I’m certain that getting a forced pass from such depressing, tedious days wasn’t just a blessing in disguise, it was a God-darn liberation! A shedding of 16 years of shackles.
While there are certainly tradeoffs (i.e. I have to work much harder, much longer, have less time to spend with the family, etc.), I am hugely thankful for this!
While I still have my “office” days (when it’s blowing hard), I’m doing what I truly believe I’m supposed to be doing, every darn day the weather allows it. My head, my heart (ahem, but not my body sometimes) tell me that this is “right.”
Maybe this should go without saying… But I’m really darn thankful for the fish.
I don’t know if there have simply been more of them around, or if doing this stuff every day has just made me better at finding them.
For sure, I feel like I have my finger on the pulse of things now that I’m fishing pretty much every day rather than a few days a week. I can see patterns developing and I can follow them, day by day. Rarely do I fish “cold.” And having a lot of good “regulars” I have the leeway to look around and try new places, new things, new techniques. But while I’d like to wax about how awesome of a guide I am (said in jest), there have indeed been good conditions these last two years… because of the bait.
Inshore we’ve had unusually good concentrations of menhaden. Such aggregations have driven specific time and area striped bass bites, which I’ve been able to take full advantage of. To put it simply, the bunker made me look good… often, really good. Thank you menhaden… No really… THANK YOU!
I could make the same case for the sandeels offshore. If I could find them outside of 20 fathoms, and most of the time I could, it was game-on for both the bluefin and yellowfin. And this year, the halfbeaks created some extraordinary mahi fishing.
I can’t tell you how important the bait is. Or how important it is to protect it. But you’ve likely heard that from me here more than once.
But thank you sandeels just the same… And of course, thank you striped bass. Thank you bluefin and yellowfin tuna. And thank you mahi.
I don’t want to leave out the whales. For the last few years, with those bunker aggregations, we’ve had insane whale shows. Sometimes right off the beach. I’m talking about stuff that, before recently, you only saw on TV. Fifty-foot animals lunging completely out of the water.
Recently, I had my 8-year-old boy out… Not ten minutes after we got on a bunker school did the water start boiling 20’ away from the boat. I knew what was coming. My son did not.
A dozen or so menhaden sprayed out of the water, a giant head exploded from the surface, mouth open-wide as bunker fell out the side. And my boy… He rips out what was maybe his first ever curse word ever. I couldn’t be mad. It was indeed “bleeping” awesome!
To be able to share that kind of thing, not just with my son, but with paying clients, it can’t be quantified.
Again… Thank you menhaden… But just the same, thank you humpback whales! I really hope we didn’t screw this one up.
The fish junkies
I am of course thankful for the people who fish with me. It is rare that I get someone on the boat that I don’t like.
Generally, the kind of clientele I attract are not the fish-killing/limiting-out types. They are good, passionate anglers who get just as excited about a surface strike as me. Thoughtful people who for the most part understand the value of leaving a few fish in the water. I am privileged to have shared time-on-the water with each and every one of them.
And my “regulars”? You know who you are. You are regular for a reason. Don’t ever expect a hug from me, but I love you guys. Thank you for giving me your money. There are times out there I feel like I should be paying you. But thank, you… Really, thank you.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention all the other guides. Yes, we’re sometimes competitive, but there is a level of mutual respect in this business that’s hard to articulate. And it ain’t just the guides. There are a handful of hard-core good anglers that I/we stay in touch with, share info, etc.
To all of you kindred fish-junkies… Guides, clients and just flat out anglers… Thanks!
There were some, many actually, who helped me cram for meetings, so that I was well informed and could make a good argument for my/our position.
While it may sound counterintuitive, I am also thankful for what were often opponents.
Having completed three terms (nine years) on the Council in August, the one thing that I really took away was the importance of hearing and understanding the other side of things. And of course, working toward some middle ground. There is great truth to the saying that “politics is the art of the possible.”
Perhaps what I’m most thankful for is my family. Living with/tolerating a full-time fish-junky is not an easy thing.
I am simply not around a lot from April through December, especially during those weekends that I really should be. And when I am around, sometimes it’s hard for me to be “there” instead of on my phone trying to reschedule a blow-out day, or behind a laptop trying to finish a blog, cram for a meeting, etc.
I’m afraid that comes with the territory. But I’m doing the best that I can, and I know you are too. It was never easy sailing. And I’m sorry that it likely never will be.
Thank you for not saying “I quit” a long time ago.
Of course, I love you guys to death.
Lastly, I am thankful for the writing.
While it may sound silly, the act of sharing is often cathartic. It offers a way to articulate my love for being part of the marine environment, to share the excitement, to share the migration and bait patterns that I live by and have become part of my very existence, and lastly to share crucial conservation issues that all of us should be aware of and, in many cases, act on.
As a good friend and accomplished writer once told me, “Writing is sometimes like carving off a piece of your soul and sharing it with the world.” I am perhaps a full-on exhibitionist.
And so, I am thankful for the readers. Thank you… Thank you for reading my stuff, however whack it might be sometimes. Thank you for occasionally allowing me to expose the soul, from under the seedy overcoat.
House of Cards
In the end, I can wrap all of this up by claiming this year as one of liberation.
This year, I just let go. I let what has always been somewhat of an unhealthy obsession take over my life. And I feel good about it. Really good. I dunno if it’s a stretch to say I’m, ahem, “happy” for the first time. Or maybe not happy, but just satisfied. Like, okay, this is where I’m supposed to be.
Yet, despite this, I can’t help but feel a nagging sense of dread buried underneath it all… However hard I push back on it and say, everything is fine… everything is gonna be fine. It still comes bubbling up, usually at 2 or 3 am when I’m trying desperately to sleep. Certainly last week’s Commission Meeting inflamed that feeling.
I’ve created a life around these fish. I went all in. Yet, like a house of cards, I can’t help but feel like it can all come tumbling down if some dummy kicks one. Not just for me, but for everyone involved in this stuff… for the next generation.
The threat of non-compliance at ASMFC, the numerous bills in Congress that threaten to rip the conservation provisions out of fishery management law, the complete and utter 180 from those organizations that used to represent us. I’m the first one to admit that I’m a worrier. But hell, given what’s gone down in the last several months, it’s become impossible not to worry.
Yes… I’m thankful for this year. Really darn thankful! But the truth is that I’m also terrified… because as far as marine resource management goes, it often seems we are on the brink of chaos. It’s tough for me to believe that the conservation gains we’ve made over the last two decades can be so easily undone, but they certainly can.
One thing I’m certain of though. I will fight… with every darn resource that I have. Not “like my life depends on it,” but because my “life” does depend on it.
“We” will fight… for ourselves, for our sons and daughters and their generation…
We cannot let the ship go down.