How Fishing Ruined My Life

John McMurray

What do marine resources mean to you?

Sometimes, a LOT of times, I kinda wish I was a normal person…

That I could be content, happy, or maybe just be okay with, ahem, existing… That I could be good with sitting behind a computer screen all day. That I could find meaning in meaningless tasks. That I could tolerate long phone calls and digital or even in-person meetings without wanting to pull my hair out (yes, I’m aware that I’m bald). Or hell, I wish I could just enjoy chilling out every once in a while, without eventually getting anxious.

I wish I could just be okay on dry land.

But a lot of the time, (most?) I really just can’t.

This has been going on for an awful long time. I suppose I can admit here that it’s only gotten worse. And for sure it’s negatively affected my personal life, and my relationships with those unfortunate enough to exist in it. While I’m sorry for that in a way I couldn’t possibly try and articulate, the truth is that, while I can certainly try and pretend, I really can’t control it.

I Hate the Winter…

John on the water

John on the water

I mean most of the time I do, even though I desperately need the down time to complete needed upgrades, and fix everything I’ve broken on the boats and, ahem, on me. And God knows, I need the sleep and the rest, to avoid running myself into the ground. And… I do need undistracted time spent with family, traveling, etc.

But still, the off-season seems to be getting progressively more uncomfortable.

Especially this one.

I dunno, maybe I’ve had a particularly tough go of it this time. I always start to go sideways once fishing season ends and the reality of winter begins to set in. But, after years of arthritis in my left shoulder, I had gotten to the point where not only was steering a boat painful, but I couldn’t reach the canvas zippers on the boats. So, if I wanted to do stuff like maybe efficiently operate a boat, or continue surfing with my boy, or, uhm, not get my arse kicked by someone because I could no longer throw a left hook, I had to get it fixed. T’was a pretty invasive surgery, so it’s been a crappy, painful, long recovery that began on December 15th.

I am not, and never have been good at just doing nothing. And that’s exactly what’s required, for the first two months anyway. So, recovery has been difficult thus far, although can’t say I ever expected it to be easy. I suppose that losing a second greatly-loved dog this winter (just 4 months after losing another), didn’t help my disposition either.

So, I dunno…maybe circumstances this year were extraordinary, but the truth is that this is just another winter that I’m unable to function like a normal human being. Bum-shoulder/dead-dog, etc., I’d like to say this winter is anomalous, but the reality is that it isn’t.

Cry me a river, right?

I know I’m really lucky to have had a good ten years in a flexible day job that allowed me to build up a fishing business to the point where I could be booked enough to where I didn’t have to suffer through a desk job anymore. I often believe that guys like me, who maybe still have that hunter/gather gene (pretty clear that most people don’t) just aren’t cut out for stuff like that. Honestly, I don’t think that I could EVER go back to that kind of life. If I had to? Well, I don’t even want to think about it.

But all things considered, maybe the deliberate choice to go all-in on the fishing business has and will continue to bite me in the arse.

Because, well, fishing pretty much every day kinda messes you up.

Fishin’ Addiction

Yeah, that’s kinda a popular boat name. It’s cute, I guess. But for some of us, it’s true in the most literal sense.

Because, if you are a full-timer, fishing isn’t just a thing you do, it’s a life you live.

From the moment ya wake up, there’s an intense sense of anticipation. Because fishing is about hope and expectation perhaps more than it is about catching fish. Sure, your heart gets broken, a LOT, but on other days it’s absolutely sublime. And lemme tell ya that anticipation is powerful, man. It releases some chemical into your blood and ya kinda get addicted to it.

And hey, that’s really just the tip of the addiction iceberg. There are amazing sunrises… as well as sunsets, cause believe it or not, you’re still “working” as the sun dips. There are the 40-knot runs on glass calm water, or even the bumpy rides where it’s overcast and you’re kinda getting beat up, which you learn to embrace. Or just being on one of the skiffs, winding though channels in the marsh, on your way to that flat where those big tailing bluefish have been. It’s being in the middle of those near-shore bunker schools as big stripers plow through them…and the whales, man? Holy crap do they get close, sometimes breaching a boat’s length away from ya.

Humpback whale, photo via Brian Doherty

Humpback whale, photo via Brian Doherty

Offshore, it’s being smack in the middle of those crazy sandeel feeds – where massive whales glide right by you, mouths agape, eyes wide open, staring at ya. Sometimes it’s hundreds of dolphin feeding, and there are so many shearwaters it’s hard to just get a line down. And man, you are right in all that stuff…you are part of it!

Really, it’s hard to understand how profoundly meaningful those sorts of things are…until suddenly you don’t have them.

And even that is just a part of the picture. Ultimately, it’s those sorts of extraordinary moments, like when a striper absolutely murders a topwater bait in a couple feet of water. Or that split second when the water explodes as a 200lb class tuna smashes a popper, feet from the boat. And then that sound – perhaps the most beautiful one in the world – as 80lb braid peels off a spinning real with the drag near capacity. It’s the panic as I try and get to the throttle before that entire spool gets dumped, and man, it’s the screaming and yelling…the “beautiful chaos.”

And the endgame should ya get there? When ya get that fish in the boat, or even just see it? It’s not really worth trying to explain it here. Because if you haven’t been there, well, you just won’t get it. But let me tell you, it’s a very, very rare sort of happiness.

But listen, man…if you do it every day it gets bludgeoned into you. To the point that if you don’t get that fix, you get real miserable without it.

It’s not even just that though, man, it’s the smiles, the extraordinary moments and the intense experiences you’re sharing with good people. Things they will NEVER forget. And you know you are helping to create remarkable memories amongst families, friends, etc.

And man, when it’s on? You get to do that stuff EVERY…darn…day! And when you start to realize that you can make a few bucks doing this kind of thing, and maybe eek a living out of it? Well, once you get a taste of that life, it’s hard to even imagine going back to a desk.


And then… some time in December, like a kick in the stones, all that hope, anticipation, the moments, and everything that comes with the fishing business? Gone… You find yourself sitting there staring at a computer screen, thinking, “well, I guess it’s not so bad that I don’t have to wake up at 3am tomorrow.” But the withdrawal…the anxiety, the depression? It may not set in right away, but at some point it always seems to catch up. And even though you’ve been through this year after year, it still seems unexpected.

Maybe this is really far off the mark, but I had a guy on the boat describe it as a mild form of PTSD. Soldiers who are part of extraordinary violence and sensory overload, while they hate it, generally seem to want to go back after they’ve been removed. They find themselves with nothing to do, they don’t fit in with the rest of the world, and they are lost. For sure I don’t want to minimize that sort of thing, or say that my experience on the water is even remotely similar, but perhaps the withdrawals are? The sudden lack of action, and the sudden loss of meaning when you don’t have a mission every day. The inability to relate to other people. Maybe it’s similar…maybe it isn’t? But I know that going from 90 miles an hour all season to zero, from having a clearly defined mission to not having one, can sometimes be really difficult. And if you can’t find a way to cope with that, life in general on land starts to seem soul-sucking and meaningless.

I dunno, maybe it’s just me that goes through this stuff. I mean, most full-time fishermen ain’t gonna put their, ahem, “issues” out for everyone to see, but if you manage to talk to one or two, they will all tell ya they too go through some form of withdrawal when the season ends.

Or, maybe it is just me…Maybe there’s some sort of hole in my life that needs to be filled. But I dunno, man, I think I’ve simply created a hole by fishing hard for 8 or 9 months out of the year. I mean, like anything that makes you feel good, and maybe ya overindulge in, of course you get addicted. And of course when ya gotta quit there are withdrawal symptoms.

The irony is that at a certain point during the season, it turns into a grind. And I certainly can’t say I really enjoy it much of the time. And there are plenty of times where you’re just so darn exhausted you wish it would end. I mean really, it’s a very difficult job, requiring a LOT of hours, without a lot of financial return. But that doesn’t for a minute mean that I’m not incredibly addicted to it. That it doesn’t create a giant hole of despair when I stop cold-turkey. After all these years, you would think it would be easy to make that transition back to normal everyday life… But hey, man, it really isn’t, at least not for me.

It is not a coincidence that most commercial fishermen can’t be bought out of fisheries, even when it would seem to make financial sense to just cash out. They are of course addicted to the life. Because fishing isn’t really just a thing that you do. It’s a lifestyle and if you do it enough, it ultimately becomes who you are. And it sure as heck ain’t that easy to just change that and do something else.

Lights and Tunnels

Yeah man… I’ve built a really good life. “Blessed” is probably as good a word as any to describe it. A smart, attractive wife with a good job (and good health insurance), two really good student athlete teenagers and an awesome house on the water with a few boats behind it. And my job, as a charter boat captain? Living the dream, right?

The intent here certainly isn’t to elicit sympathy. There were the clear choices I’ve made over the years, and I’m good with ’em, and honestly, I would do the same thing if given the chance to do it again. Because lemme tell ya man, my life is FULL… of passion, of adventure, etc. But yeah, it’s often full of despair. The yin and yang, I guess. And maybe you really just can’t have those extraordinarily profound moments, the remarkable sense of happiness, without paying for it on the back end of it. And maybe you really can’t thoroughly appreciate one without the other, right? It is what it is. And somehow, I manage to get through every winter in one piece.

And I know, man…there’s an increasingly bright light at end of every tunnel. And the truth is things are getting a lot better as I write this. I have at least some use of my left arm now, and I’m starting to get some real work done on the boat. And that sort of working towards-an-end is VERY helpful. And maybe this winter has seemed, at times, intolerable because I clearly haven’t been able to do that.

Reckoning the Future

But I guess what I’ve really started to think about lately is what happens if (or when) I simply can’t do this anymore. What happens if/when I get old and things start to not work the way I need them to. I mean, come on man, that’s already started to happen. The truth is that I really don’t know. I have no plan B. Not because I’m stupid, but because I don’t really want one. Run it ‘til the wheels fall off, I suppose…cross that bridge when I have to.

But I guess what I worry about more is what happens if/when it’s just not viable anymore. If certain fisheries just become unavailable to me (i.e., they crash). And that is NOT impossible, in fact I can’t help but think sometimes that it’s inevitable in some fisheries. I mean, if there are no fish around, people certainly aren’t gonna pay me for a boat ride, especially the way I run my boats (really fast or stop).

Last year, I made a conscious choice that I would try and step away from the fishery management side of things. Because frankly, the politics are beyond irritating. The older and presumably wiser I get, the more I understand that I just want to fish and/or take people fishing and forget about that stuff. And, of course, I want to surf more with my kid, be there for my daughter’s soccer games, and my son’s wrestling meets, and I dunno, maybe be a good husband.

But like that classic quote from the Godfather Part III, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!” and I just can’t seem to keep quiet… I’ve come to understand that maybe I have little choice. Because the God’s honest truth is that I don’t…I can’t lose this fishing thing. Because it’s become so ingrained in who/what I am, that it’s almost a physical part of me. However sad and pathetic it might seem, it’s true that I really don’t know that I can live without it.

What Do Marine Resources Mean to You?

I guess the point of all this is that the extraordinary importance of marine resources is often undersold. Because when fisheries crash it’s catastrophic to human lives and to waterfront communities.

I can tell ya for sure that it’d be catastrophic to mine.

And so, the world desperately needs passionate people working to protect ocean resources, to ensure sustainability in the context of growing coastal populations. It needs commercial and recreational fishermen who truly give a crap about conservation and sustainability, and less social media heroes. And while many in the fishing community might disagree with me here, it needs ENGOs.

Because if folks start losing access, well, there will be even less and less advocates for sustainability. And THAT is the truth.

What do marine resources mean to me? Well, they mean everything.

What do they mean to you?

About John McMurray

Capt. John McMurray is a full-time charter boat captain and president of ONE MORE CAST CHARTERS in Oceanside, NY. McMurray spent nine years on the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council and six years as a legislative proxy on the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, and is a founder and past president of the American Saltwater Guides Association.

6 comments on “How Fishing Ruined My Life

  1. A sailor at heart. Very profound piece, and nicely written. At 78, I could relate after a lifetime career in fly fishing. Though not out at sea, the addiction is the same, and once the body wears out, the reality sets in that life as it once was is now gone. If nothing else, we need to thank God for the memories.

  2. Great to hear your side of the story…Love your passion for what you do and how you live life(I don’t agree with all of it ) but enough of it to always be impressed by what you have done and what you do…Hope to see you on the Water this season!!!

  3. “From the moment ya wake up, there’s an intense sense of anticipation. Because fishing is about hope and expectation perhaps more than it is about catching fish”

    This is it for me. Every single time! I get on my boat I’m convinced it will be my best day fishing ever. And the days I don’t catch (more days than I’d like to admit) I’m never ever disappointed or discouraged because I get sooooo much more out of than just the fish.

    Well said Captain

  4. Chuckling, yeah, I get it. As an owner of a multi-day wilderness float fishing operation in Alaska, I can tell you winter sucks. I know many who do what I have done for 30+ years live ‘elsewhere’. Still, some of us live and reside in Alaska year-round, and getting through winter can, at times, be a dark time, be it the lack of daylight or just that the water is frozen hard and It’s months away from reformulation into something one can dip a toe into is just infuriating, so yes I get it. We just suck it up and do that which must be done to make it through awaiting those better days of summer and near 24 hours of daylight and fish on the end of one’s line.

  5. John, Thank you for an honest insight on how you feel about fishing and life.
    I find it all admirable and identify with much of what you say. You have a wonderful family and life. Keep making the most of it!

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