Maybe the recreational fishing experience is more important than we think it is

Let me preface all this by saying that I’m not a great dad. At least I’m not as good of a dad as I always thought/hoped I would be.

I have two 8-year-olds. Yes, twins. A boy and a girl. They are awesome. At least for 30 minute spurts. After that, they can wear you down, quick. Doesn’t matter though. God made kids really freak’n cute for a reason… So you don’t strangle them. Of course, I love’em to death.

From the moment I found out the wife was pregnant, I figured I would be the most awesome dad ever. Taking them fishing all the time, surfing epic waves with them, teaching them to be awesome boxers/grapplers, letting them eat junk-food when mom wasn’t around etc. Up to now, I’ve pretty much failed at all of that, except for the junk-food thing.

Fishing for a living, running a charter fishing/guide service, one would think I’d be taking those kids fishing all the time, among other things. But it’s a hard fact that I don’t. The truth is that making ends meet as a fishing guide means squeezing every penny out of it that you can… Fishing clients every day the weather allows you to, sometimes twice a day, especially on weekends. There are certainly other ways to make money in between it all, but if you don’t hustle, and I mean like really hustle, it just ain’t doable, especially with a family.

The alternative of course is to, gasp, get a real job. I’ve tried that… Not my thing.

Yes, I suppose that’s selfish. But I’m not a “normal” person. I’m kind of a junky… addicted to that daily sense of anticipation, and ultimately the adrenalin rush that comes from something like a predator fish smashing a topwater bait.

I jones for it. I need it… I’ve built a life around it… Not just doing it, but focusing on conserving it and protecting it during most of my non-fishing hours. Because without it, I’m not a good person. Ask anyone who’s had to spend Jan/Feb/March with me.

Maybe I’m trying to justify the unjustifiable, but the point is that my lifestyle choices don’t leave much time for anything else.

And so, I suck at being a dad, sometimes… actually, a lot of the time.

But yesterday… Yesterday was an exception…

Everything came together…

Like any reasonable Captain would have done, I canceled Sunday’s trip due to a tropical force wind/rain forecast. I slept in, and woke up at 8am to a calm, overcast, drizzling perfection.

Yeah, I was bummed for a little bit, but then I grabbed my son and said “Dude, you wanna go striper fishing?”. (note: yes, I call my boy “dude”… further evidence that my fitness as a parent is questionable).

If there’s one thing I may have actually done right with that kid – although it sure as hell wasn’t intentional – is I haven’t pushed fishing on him. And he seems to like it… A LOT. He gets excited about fishing. Likes to talk about it… Get’s stoked on it… Which is awesome…

Thus, there was little hesitation, he was down.

By the time we got underway, the wind was of course cranking. Rain felt like needless as we ran at 30-knots. But once we got to the spot, it was game on! Stripers and bluefish smashing juvie menhaden (aka peanuts) as gulls and terns dove on the bait. A classic fall scene.

It was pretty damn fun. My boy was throwing quick, crisp 70’casts and working his topwater-bait like a pro. We were doubling up on almost every drift with schoolie stripers and/or 5 to 7-pound bluefish. Whoo-hooing, high-fiving, zero whining… It was awesome.

Maybe 45 minutes into it, I racked my rod, because my boy was hooking up literally every cast. Plus, things started to get gnarly… White caps, 2 to 3’ chop etc… “Alight Dude, one more cast and let’s head for the barn”.

Out sailed the popper, landing maybe 10’ past the drop-off. No birds, no bait, no fish in sight. As the kid made his first pull a big deep boil formed behind it. One more pull and a solid striper crushes it, exposing its entire left flank as it turns and tears off line.

Out came the usual, uncontrollable barrage of curse words characteristic of my general reaction to such a strike. His focus was such that I don’t think he even heard them. It’s important to note here that the kid was fishing a pretty darn light set up. Line peel off the reel as I ground my teeth and tried not to shout out instructions. The kid was fighting that fish like he’d been doing it his whole life. And I don’t recall ever even teaching him that stuff.

10 minutes later and I’m lipping a solid 26-pound striper. Pure F’n joy man. This kid is so stoked, I can’t even begin to describe it here. Only person on this earth that might have been more stoked was me.

I gave him a choice whether he wanted to release it, or keep it. He chose to keep it, and that was fine. While I can already hear the cries from the holier-than-thou, believe me, I’ve taught that kid the value of releasing fish. Yet I’ve also taught him there’s nothing wrong with keeping a fish every now and then. In my mind, he earned the right to make that choice.

We brought it home, showed mom and his sister, who were hugely impressed, and I went to work filleting it.

We spent some, maybe a lot of that night reliving it. Regularly we’d check Facebook and Instagram to see how many likes the photo got (ahem, it’s a lot!). He brought the busted-up topwater bait to school today to show all his friends.

Epic, epic day man. One that I am certain I will always remember. And maybe he will too.

And maybe… I don’t suck at being a dad, at least I didn’t yesterday.

So… What’s the point of all this?

Well, other than to share that wonderful day – or perhaps more accurately, brag about it – it became clear to me, in that moment we had landed that fish, that this is what I do, and why I do it.

I try and share that sort of experience… Like every darn day that I can.

I expose people to the often-intense hunting, catching, releasing or sometimes, yes, killing a wild fish, in a wild environment. I provide a service that allows people take a break from their rigorous hustle-and-bustle city lives to experience something totally encompassing, totally natural, something as old as human life itself, something so stoke-inducing you have to experience it to understand. For better or worse, that sort of thing has been ripped away from us by technology. Getting back to it is often blissful.

It’s not just the stoke that my son and I had yesterday. It’s the stoke that every darn client I put on a fish gets… The kind of stoke that’s made me a full-on fish junky.

Perhaps this is all a subconscious attempt at self-aggrandizement. Or maybe just a long-winded justification of life choices. Or maybe I’m just trying to convince myself that being a fish-bum isn’t irrelevant in the grand scheme of things.

But maybe, just maybe, such exposure is important.

Because when people don’t get to experience this sort of thing, well, then they don’t give a crap when waterways get trashed or when an industry wants to catch and sell every darn fish that it can, and to hell with everyone and everything else.

The point is that we need people to say “no”… We HAVE to have people that are willing to stand up. I’m not talking about those who shake their heads and say “that’s messed up”. I’m talking about people who attend contentious meetings, provide public comment, sign onto letters. People who will testify before congress and say they don’t want fisheries law weakened. People who are passionate about fish and habitat, forage etc.

We have to have those people… For our sanity, for the future, for our kid’s futures.

And maybe my life, however pathetic it may look from the outside, may move such people.

It’s not just the fishing…

Whether intentionally or unintentionally, I’ve made a career out of not just putting people on fish, but trying to keep a few in the water for all of “us” to catch.

In fact, I’ve been a steady conservation advocate for the better part of the last two decades. While I’d like to say it was out of the goodness of my heart, it’s more so that I can continue to do what I do. That we can all continue to do what we do. And that there’s something left for my son’s generation.

Certainly there have been, and are those who disagree with me/us regularly, on certain issues, some on pretty-much all issues. And that’s fine. Really, marine resource management is all about different perspectives. If there’s one thing I learned during my 9 years on the Mid Atlantic Fishery Management Council, it’s that compromise is important.

But the truth is it’s always been hard for me to handle people publicly and viscously questioning my motives. As if my advocacy, my writing, my work on the Council has been part of some “radical environmentalist” conspiracy to take people off the water.

Such attacks, which try and paint me as some kind of part-time, no-kill, super-liberal elitist, generally come from ethically corrupt desk-jockeys with a focus on appealing to the pitchfork-wielding lowest-common-denominator. Anyone who knows me, who has fished with me, knows that I am anything but…

And that’s unfortunate, as it’s resulted in enemies. Mostly internet tough-guys, but also the occasional idiot screaming at me and my clients who are trying to enjoy the day. I’ve learned to accept that sort of thing as part of the territory… It’s generally a lot of hot air from people not smart enough to understand that if you kill too many fish, you won’t have them next year.

But the reality is that I have always done what I’ve done, taken the positions I take, and advocate for the things I advocate for because of what I do.

I fish, I’m a fisherman. It is in my blood. It is in my son’s blood I think too. It’s who I am… It’s who “we” are. And we’re not going anywhere.

My name is John McMurray and I’m a fish-junky…