I was at a memorial gathering recently for a friend of mine from the fishing community, and while
I was there ran into a number of people I've met over the 16 years I've been writing about fishing.
Mike Malek was special. I got know him when he and a gruff old man (yes, Tom, I know, don't ruin your reputation!) and a third partner were opening Grumpy's Tackle in Seaside Park, New Jersey. Mike was the kind of person who always was willing to help his fellow anglers, whether you were still learning the difference between a striper and a bluefish, or if you'd been through the inlet a few dozen times.
Mike (and Tom and the crew at Grumpy's) taught me that fishing isn't just about the fish; fishing is about the family and the community of people who happen to have a common love for this sport, this pursuit, this game. And never was that more apparent than at Mike's memorial gathering, where people from all walks of life — surf rats (Nick H, I'm looking at you) and artists (Lynch!), rodbuilding fanatics (Mike was a world-class rod builder) and longtimers who've lost more big fish than some of us have seen, and everyone in between — came out to remember a man who brought us all together.
Like my flesh-and-blood family, my fishing family is one I defend and fight for at every turn. Yes, there are moments this fishing family — just like my flesh-and-blood family — is dysfunctional. But that doesn't mean I would fight for it any less.
That's why I devote this space so often to continuing to press the fight for our fishing rights. At every turn they are under attack — from NOAA, from these enviro-businesses that rake in millions of dollars with screaming headlines about how the ocean will be empty soon, and from misguided reports that blame anglers for the ills of the oceans at every turn.
"The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea." The Isak Dinesen quote, which makes the rounds on social media often, sums up what so many people love about fishing: it can soothe the soul, provide a respite from work stress, life stress. It can be a haven that keeps kids away from the computer and out in the fresh air.
Even after years apart, when that fishing family is together, it can make you feel whole.
That's why I fight for your right to fish. There are fewer and fewer people who criticize NOAA these days. The reporters, the columnists, have disappeared as print journalism has been washed away in the pounding waves of the internet. The voices willing to speak out have become fewer as boat captains have been forced out of their birthrights and their passions because regulations and economic calamities have made it impossible to continue.
Fishing combines that triad of saltwater: the sweat of the effort to catch a fish; the tears, of disappointment over the one lost at the boat, or of joy at the catch of a lifetime; and the salt of the sea, infusing itself into every pore, every cell, every ounce of your soul. Without the opportunity to catch fish, you lose two of the three pieces of the triad.
It's a loss I'm not willing to take sitting down, and I'll never shut up so long as I can breathe in that salt air.
"I see us as stewards," a friend said to me recently as we discussed the ongoing battles for access to fisheries. There are fights on a number of fronts — black sea bass, blueline tilefish, grouper, and attempts to implement marine protected areas — and we cannot rest for a moment. Fighting to maintain access isn't just for those of you who've been on the water 40, 50, 60 years. It's for the next generation; the kids like 8-year-old girl Lily Bencivenga of New Jersey who is just learning to love these trips to the edge (and proving herself to be quite the big game angler).
It's for the folks whose bucket lists include that dream trip to catch marlin, or that trip to the Outer Banks for big striped bass in the surf. It's for the folks who feed their families in the winter with the fluke fillets they freeze in the summer.
It's for you. And for my fishing family.
Mike, who battled liver cancer, never stopped fighting from the time he was diagnosed 18 months ago. He never stopped living, either. "We got him to Trinidad twice," Tom Hansen (the Grumpy of Grumpy's) said. Trinidad was special to Mike. A respite from the hustle and bustle of running the shop. A paradise tucked away from the world. A chance to get a serious dose of soul-healing saltwater.
A few years back, I started building a surf rod at Grumpy's. Mike kept an eye on it, helped me with it. And as life raising my daughter became so busy that time to go to work on it became nonexistent, Mike took over. “I was afraid you'd never finish it,” he said with a smile the day he presented the finished rod to me. I've fished it a couple of times, but not nearly enough, something that will change. I owe that to Mike.
It's an even-money bet that I might not have finished building that rod. But one thing is sure: I'll never be finished fighting for our rights to fish.
I owe that much to Mike, too. And to all of you who are part of our fishing family.
Mike Malek taught me that.
Karen Wall Subscribe