I’m darn lucky to be doing this, but how long can I keep doing it?
As I’m writing this, I’m on my way to Vermont to spend Thanksgiving with my parents. My wife is driving, snow is falling. And in a rare moment, my kids are quiet, heads down in laptops.
But me… my mind is racing, frantically. Since I put my head down on the pillow last night and tried to sleep, it hasn’t let up.
Yesterday was fraught with the characteristic rush to blow water out of pipes, to push antifreeze through engines and pour remaining half gallons into bilges. I know it’s coming, but I’m never prepared. Too tempting to believe that we’ll get “a few more” good weeks before it all goes to hell. But here we are, teen temps tomorrow. Like a punch in the face, winter is suddenly here. I plan on squeezing as many days on the water as I can, when the weather allows it, but my season is, for all intents and purposes, ending… abruptly.
Thanksgiving always gives me pause. Whether it’s the end or not, it’s always the beginning of the end. A sudden, unasked-for break from what’s been an 8-month sprint. An unwelcome chance to look back and look forward, even if I don’t like what I see. This year I’m having a difficult time being optimistic.
Yet, in the tradition of Thanksgiving, let me first get off what I’m thankful for.
I’m a full-time charter boat captain/small business owner, meaning I’m a part time mechanic, secretary, accountant, business manager, etc. Jack of all trades – haven’t mastered any. Yes, I do other things to make ends meet, but for eight months of the year, it’s all about trying to squeeze a living out of putting people on fish.
Hell yeah, I love this job. It is not really “my job”; the job is me. All of it. Almost 20 years ago I began to build a life around the ocean and fishing. Today, for eight full months it’s hard freak’n work. I sleep half the amount of time most people do, and work probably double the hours. My hands are always beat up and swollen, and my back and shoulders often beg for rest. None of this is a game for me, but it’s still freak’n awesome. I’ve tried a couple of conventional jobs. I can’t do that again. I won’t. I would rather… Well, let’s move on.
I don’t believe there’s such a thing as total contentment or happiness. But those moments on the water, when you look out over the ocean or an estuary and are inexplicably overcome, or when you experience the extraordinary adrenaline dump that occurs when a tuna explodes on a popper, such things are enough for me. And I am certain they always will be. Yes, sometimes it’s a grind, and it’s darn stressful on those days when the fish don’t cooperate, but I am incredibly thankful that after a long road I’ve ended up here. This is where I belong.
I fully admit that I am a glass-is-half-empty type, but it is not lost on me that there are very few people who can say that about their “job,” their life.
For that, I am extraordinarily grateful.
The clients, the friends, the fish-junkies
I still have a hard time believing that people, enough people, pay me to do this. I mean, I get it. It’s way more expensive and time-consuming to get your own boat and try and figure all this stuff out on your own. There are so many variables, and they change rapidly. If you’re not out on the water every day, well, then it’s mostly just luck. And I’m not gonna get into what it takes to maintain one boat, let alone three.
Without a doubt, it’s smarter to pay the morons who’ve already blown life savings and kids’ college funds and ignored their loved ones for most of their lives to spend every possible day on the water to figure it out for you, so you can actually enjoy it.
Man, I’ve met so many super-cool people doing this. I don’t know if I’m allowed to call them “friends” because I take their money, but darn if they don’t feel like friends, good friends a lot of ’em.
Sure, I get a jerk now and then, but it is SO rare. Generally, the folks I encounter are good conservation-minded people who, just like me, love and appreciate this stuff; people who understand that if you kill too many things, they aren’t there next year; people who get just as out-of-their-heads excited as I do when line zings off a reel.
I am so stoked that such folks put up their hard-earned dough to experience often mind-blowing stuff with me. You guys rock!
Maybe it ain’t true at all, but it’s nice to think that by exposing people to all of this natural awesomeness that maybe I’m doing some good. That maybe, by having some skin in the game, those folks will help us keep it all around a little longer. That maybe blowing my entire life fishing isn’t some shallow, self-gratifying act. Or I dunno, maybe it is? But everyone that steps on the boat, in some form or another, gets the conservation lecture from me. Sometimes it’s a buzz-kill on a good day. But darn if it isn’t necessary.
I’d be remiss if I left out all those other guys who were dumb enough to buy their own boats, or actually become pro captains/guides. Sure, we talk smack all the time, but we’re all brothers. Because we all get it – we get “all of it” – from the awesomeness of it all, to the immense need to protect it from greed and shortsightedness. There’s a sense of comradery in this business that’s hard to articulate.
I’m thankful for all of the fish junkies out there. Like me, none of you are right-in-the-head, and that’s a gift. Don’t let anyone tell you it isn’t. Because of you all, I know for sure that I am NEVER alone… not just at sea, but in life.
Saltwater guides banding together
On that note, I am hugely thankful for the creation this year of the American Saltwater Guides Association. A group of us finally realized that if we don’t get together to do something, we will lose it all.
It’s no secret that fisheries management debates have been dominated by the shortsighted part of the angling community. That needs to change. It will change.
Having an economically relevant industry-based group consistently making the point that conservation is good for jobs could be a game changer. Currently there are close to 100 unique guides and charter businesses signed up. And plenty of “associate-member” tackle shops and plain old anglers are joining every day.
I am super-stoked that this is going down. Hoping to have a website up and the ball rolling early in 2019. Stay tuned.
I am thankful that there has been, there is, and will continue to be a core group of conservation-advocates who have and will continue to fight, tooth-and-nail, to keep this fishing thing going.
You guys know who you are. While it may not seem like it sometimes, the entire light-tackle fishing community appreciates the work. However futile it may seem, you (we) MUST keep it up. Continued engagement is important. Not just important. It’s critical.
Without you guys, who knows where we would be.
I am perhaps most thankful for the infrastructure that allows me to do what I do. By that I mean family.
None of this would be possible without my, ahem, “understanding” wife, who has a “real” job, with real health insurance. I’d be lying if I said she was stoked about my way of life, and that it doesn’t seriously encroach on hers. It’s damn hard to make plans around weather forecasts. And she’s the one who has to deal with entertaining two 9-year-olds on most weekends, and that sure ain’t easy. And I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a constant struggle. But I know for sure that in the end, she’s got my back. And that she’ll stick with this, with me… for better or worse.
I’m thankful for my 9-year-old twins who still think I’m “cool,” although I’m fully aware that won’t last. They get that I can’t make every weekend soccer or football game, and that I’m often gone for several days at a time at stupid fishery management meetings banging my head against the wall. That part of things will likely stop in 2019, or it’ll get ramped way down, mostly because I don’t sit on the Mid-Atlantic Council or Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission anymore (long story).
In 2019, I’m going to try to spend my time where it’s worth the most, with family, particularly my boy. That kid can fish. And the time we spend on the boat is sublime.
During parent-teacher conference night this year I stumbled across a “Meet my hero” display that 4th graders had put together. Under my boy’s drawing of a bald dude with a stupid smile on his face, stubble on his head, bad facial hair and superhero arms, read, “My Dad is my hero, because he is strong and kind, and takes me fishing all the time.”
I had to take a quick walk down the hall, ahem, cause my allergies were acting up – watery eyes and all ya know?
To make a go of this guiding thing, you’ve got to fish EVERY day someone is going to pay you to, so I don’t get to take him much. I understand that this sort of depravation is probably why he’s into it. And man, he’s into it. He’s intuitively good, knows things that I haven’t taught him, has no problem leaping out of bed at 4:30am, and gets soooo stoked when it’s on. So fun to watch it. I don’t know if I really believe that it’s in his blood, but it’s fun to think that maybe it is.
The days I got him out this year are the ones I remember most, and thinking back, they were hands-down THE most enjoyable. It is during those trips that we connect on a way different level than the day-to-day. We talk, I mean really talk, we laugh, and we crush fish, hi-fiving, hooting and hollering. We’re not just father/son on those trips – we’re bros. And it is freak’n awesome. I love that kid.
I’ve made a promise, not to him, but to myself, to block off every other Sunday in 2019 to take him out. Yeah, it’ll likely cost me well over 10k a year. But I figure I’ll save that one day in therapy bills. Not necessarily his, but mine.
Admittedly, maintaining a level of sanity ain’t easy for McMurrays. Maybe, like me, he’ll learn that this is a good way to do it. And maybe, when I’m gone, he’ll remember all of this. Or maybe he’ll just think I’m an a-hole. Who knows…
Oh, and my daughter, while not near as into the fishing thing as my boy, she can fish pretty well too, and she’s way cool, for so many reasons. To be clear, I love her just as much!
What I’m not thankful for
Darn if it doesn’t seem to me that I am/we are failing those kids. Not just them, but their entire generation.
Because, from where I sit, from where I’ve sat, not only from behind the helm, but also at the management table, things are NOT okay.
Let me start by saying I had a pretty difficult striped bass season. Most of us did. There’s inevitably been a chorus of the kill-more folk who, every time a fleeting body of fish shows up in a certain area, says, “look how many fish are around, everything is fine.” But those of us who’ve been in this fishery a long time understand what a “healthy” striped bass resource looks like. And it ain’t just condensed geographically-isolated periods of good fishing.
I don’t see things getting better. I know I can’t expect to have every season be a good one. But it’s clear to me what’s going on with this fishery. Having attended EVERY Striped Bass Board meeting in the last two years, there’s been plenty of talk about a declining stock, but I haven’t heard the Board once seriously talk about further constraining the fishery. Recently it’s all been about “increasing access.” Most notably in the form of opening up federal waters and tweaking reference points.
And menhaden (the thing that really drives the striped bass fishery)? One Canadian owned company, from one state, which still harvests 75% of the coastal quota, seems to be running the show. Let’s be honest, we didn’t get much of a menhaden run his year, did we? I do hope I’m wrong, but I suspect that will be a continuing trend.
And the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council? Sure, a champion or two remain, but certainly no conservation majority is there anymore. Seems like most of the discussions revolve around ways to get around federal conservation requirements.
There’s also the extremely disturbing trend of recreational fishing organizations endorsing legislation that will open all sorts of doors to overfishing, seemingly so a relatively small portion of the angling community can kill more red snapper. No matter how it’s being spun, it’s hard not to look at this as a betrayal of future generations.
To want to keep fish in the water, to drive opportunity, to drive participation, but more importantly to allow other generations to have what we’ve had, that’s somehow become “elitist” in some circles. How silly is that?
In the end
I suppose even the glass-is-half-empty side of me can say I had a good season.
We were really lucky to have a body of big bluefish prowling the flats close to home this spring, which was notable in that they were conspicuously absent from just about everywhere else. Indeed, we had two months of uncharacteristically good false albacore fishing this fall, although I suspect we’ll find a way to screw false albacore up too in my lifetime. And, I’ve worked my ass off to get the topwater tuna thing wired. But it’s a two and a half, maybe three-month window. And getting offshore is VERY weather dependent. Not something that can carry a season.
Absolutely I’m thankful I was able to squeeze out another “successful” season, but, the striped bass fishery – my bread-and-butter? I hope to God it gets better in the coming years. It may. Sometimes, inexplicably it does. But unless there are big changes at the Commission, all indications are that it won’t.
I can’t help but think we’re headed in a bad direction with all this stuff. While it might seem silly to fret over fish, well, this is my life. I can’t just shake my head and walk away. It’s not simply a phrase when I say it “keeps me up at night,” because the reality is that it does.
It is absolutely my fault for choosing this line of “work.” I’m not blaming that on anyone, even if the truth is that it chose me. But I’ve been in it long enough to know how precarious it is. If I lose one part of the season, and, well, people stop going out with me in the spring and fall for striped bass, or for anything at any time, I simply can’t make it work. And given the position I’ve put myself in, that’s pretty darn scary.
But the truth is that what scares me more is my kid. I constantly find myself thinking, what’s gonna be left for him? I’ve spent so much time around this stuff that I may just be super-sensitive, but given the direction, I’m almost certain he won’t have the same opportunities. And that REALLY bums me out. Will I, will we, be that guy who says, “Ya shoulda seen how it used to be kid”?
For now, the only thing I can do is to keep plugging away, keep trying to put in the time, keep showing up when it matters, and keep fishing.
I will continue drag my rear out of bed every fishable day, and I’ll do my absolute best to show up to every management meeting that matters… until one of two things happens: I physically can’t get out of bed anymore, or there aren’t enough fish around to make a go of it. While it may sound perverse, I do hope it’s the former.
Let me be clear that I haven’t lost hope… I will not lose hope. I can’t afford to lose hope.
I am inextricably tied to the ocean. While it may sound cliché, I am “of the sea.” That will never change. And if the ship goes down… Well, I’m likely going down with it.
So, I’ll keep bailing water man. I have to – we all have to. Not simply for us, but for the kids. For the future generations. We owe it to them, to ourselves, we owe it to humanity.