Tom Keer is a writer, fly rodder and hunter who lives on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. www.tomkeer.com
My mind always wanders while driving around Boston at 0300. It’s an odd, transitional time, the symbolic period that lands between good and evil. Last-call barflies already have been thrown out, and the lightest traffic of the day is made non-existent by traffic lamps that blink yellow. To get to my boat means I’ll drive through the Combat Zone. Every night I see hookers chatting up a drag queen or two on Tamworth Street, between Boylston and Lagrange. They’re either waiting for another date or for Chinatown to open. Ginseng tea has a cleansing effect, I’m told.
Up ahead are enough bright, flashing lights around a bunch of Crown Vic’s to power Foxborough stadium for a night game. They surround twisted steel from a car’s front end, stoved in so much that the steering column sticks out of the sunroof. Some high school jockeys from Southie boosted a car from Brighton and drove it back to their turf to destroy. It’s a rivalry, a ritual driven by what Tennyson described as spring when “a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.” All I know is that I’m pissed, and that this wreck will take so long to clear that I’ll miss the best part of the dropping tide.
I didn’t get up at 0200 to sit in a traffic jam, but since I wasn’t going anywhere fast, I picked out a magazine from my truck’s floorboard. Fly Fishing in Saltwaters, one of the two hyper-focused titles of the day, sat in the midst of unpaid bills, crushed coffee cups, Yodel wrappers and empty dip tins. Striped bass conservation was winning, but while most anglers chatted about the legal length and if it should remain at 36 inches, drop lower, or shift to a slot, this column talked about menhaden. The columnist suggested our current focus should morph towards restoring baitfish populations, for if they were augmented, we’d have outstanding fishing for decades. I nodded, ‘cause this guy got it, and he wrote with conviction, passion and scientific research in a way a piker like me could understand. It was written by Capt. John McMurray, a guide and conservationist in New York City. Maybe I understood him because he prowled an urban fishery, similar to me.
I recently met up with McMurray to catch up on his conservation efforts and to talk fish. The native New Yorker spent his formative years in Virginia, just outside of DC. “I grew up playing sports, with wrestling and football being my main focus,” he said. “But if I wasn’t working out, at practice, at a match or at a game, I fished the Potomac River for large and smallmouth bass and panfish. There weren’t a lot of striped bass around then, but it was a great fishery not far from our country’s capitol.”
His father was in politics, a career with which McMurray once flirted. “My family lived outside of DC because my dad was the staff director of the Housing Subcommittee under Rep. Henry Gonzales,” he said. “I figured that one day I’d wind up on Capitol Hill, so I studied Poly Sci at Loyola College in Maryland, worked as a page, and then interned with Marcy Kaptur, the Democratic Congresswoman from Ohio. I enjoyed the work, but something didn’t feel quite right so I took the year off. I moved to Boca Raton, Florida. I got a job as a beach lifeguard, and (I got) a longboard, and if I wasn’t working I was fishing or surfing.”
While he enjoyed office work, at the end of the year McMurray knew he had to be on the water. That said, he enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard. “I first was stationed in Portsmouth, Virginia, on a cutter, and pretty much wiped oil out of the bilges and polished brass for a year. I busted my rear to get off that ship. Eventually I got them to send me to marine mechanic school. After that I took a billet at Station New York, where I qualified as a small boat coxswain (the guy who runs the boats), and worked as a boarding officer, focusing on law enforcement, specifically fisheries enforcement. My enlistment ended in 1999, and then everything just kinda clicked.”
The click was an indoor/outdoor main course with a side dish of politics. “I started One More Cast, a fly-fishing charter business focusing on New York Harbor and Jamaica Bay, Queens,” McMurray said. “It’s cool fishing in that urban stuff. Water shuttles ferrying brokers and traders to Wall Street leave huge wakes, planes fly low overhead to land at JFK while barges and tankers head to port. Catching a grand slam of striped bass, bluefish, false albacore and bonito around that stuff is unparalleled. Fly fishing near Manhattan isn’t a quiet or meditative experience, but it does speak to the power of conservation. Without conservation we’d still have rampant pollution and low fish stocks. That’s all changed in the past several decades and created a destination fishery in one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities. Guys from around the globe book charters because they can sneak in a morning fish and still be at work well before noon.”
McMurray believes that people who benefit from a resource should give back, and that’s how he engaged in fisheries conservation. “When I thought about creating the perfect job, I landed on a hybrid of guiding and fisheries management,” he said. “My first post-military job was as the executive director for the Coastal Conservation Association (CCA) in New York. I learned to fish when there weren’t many striped bass to catch, so I had a front row seat to the effectiveness of conservation. The striped bass recovery rivals that of the whitetail deer and wild turkey. I wanted to focus on the next step, which was to ensure that the restored fish stocks thrived for the future, and CCA NY was a perfect fit.
“After three years I left to join the Norcross Wildlife Foundation, because, well, it paid more. I enjoyed that position for two main reasons. The first was that I could identify worthy organizations working to protect habitat and natural resources, and supply them with the tools they needed to do their jobs better. The key focus was on creating and protecting outstanding habitat and water quality, and while a lot of those grants went to protection of habitat on land, there was also a lot that went to organizations focusing on marine fisheries conservation. The second was that I had a great boss who gave me the flexibility to guide almost every morning and still be in my office for a full day of work. I mean, really, what’s better than that?”
To further up the ante, McMurray started writing. “I wrote every day at both CCA NY and Norcross,” McMurray said, “so writing was as natural as fishing and conservation. But I wanted to reach a larger audience, which is why I contributed to so many different titles. Some pieces were practical in nature, but most of them focused on conservation. I wrote the conservation column for Fly Fishing in Saltwaters for about a decade, have written for Salt Water Sportsman, Sport Fishing, On the Water, Tail, and many others. I chart time when folks refer to my weekly reports on Reel Time, one of the early digital publications. It’s mind blowing to think that was a quarter of a century ago.”
Water cleanses McMurray, no different than a baptism washing away the sins of the world. On the day that forever changed America, 9/11, McMurray was in his Norcross Foundation office on the Upper West Side. “I remember that day because the surf was pumping,” he said. “A lot of my friends who work in the city went in late so they could get a morning surf in. It saved their lives, because, had the seas been flat, they’d have been in one of the Twin Towers.” The following day McMurray went fishing. “I’ll never forget catching fish surrounded by that smell. It was an odd mix of gasoline, soot, ash and debris and it filled the entire five boroughs for months. Though it was over two decades ago I can still smell it as if it were yesterday.”
These days, it’s McMurray doing McMurray, which is code for running wide open. His recent endeavors include serving as the legislative proxy on the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which is the body responsible for managing striped bass. Perhaps more importantly, he and Tony Friedrich co-founded the American Saltwater Guides Association (ASGA), with McMurray its sitting president. ASGA provides small businesses that depend on healthy marine resources, as well as the conservation minded part of the recreational fishing community, with a voice in the saltwater fisheries management dialogue. And according to Dr. Willy Goldsmith, ASGA’s executive director, there is never a question of McMurray’s position.
“Fisheries management is incredibly complex, and it takes someone who is smart, passionate, dedicated, and fully vested in it,” Goldsmith said. “John co-founded ASGA to give the recreational fishing community a stronger presence when it comes to issues that impact guides, fly shop owners, boat yards, marinas, pretty much everyone. Take last week for example; John sat in three full days of meetings near Washington, DC, then went home to New York and wrote a 4,000-word blog about his thoughts on a key striped bass management framework that was approved at the meeting, slept for maybe an hour and woke up to run a charter. That dedication, that passion and that commitment is exactly what gives John such a unique insight into the management process. In many ways he’s the embodiment of our organization. You always know where John stands on an issue, and though some may disagree with him, no one can deny his drive to fight for what’s most important to him.”
It's no surprise that McMurray’s home is as unique as the man himself. Who else would live on a canal, just a chip shot away from Gotham? McMurray, his wife Danielle, daughter Maddie and son Ollie do. “I keep my skiffs in Jamaica Bay, but my three Contenders are docked behind my house,” he said. “I try to keep the 0-Dark 30 noise down, particularly if we’re leaving super early to target bluefins, mahi or skipjack tuna with 14-plus weights. Warming up three 300 hp outboards on three boats at 2 a.m. means I have to find ways to keep my neighbors happy. And I have to keep bathroom-needy, over-caffeinated, excited clients quiet when my family is asleep, too. To be honest, that’s way more difficult for me than finding fish.”
At his core, John McMurray carries the interests of the striped bass fishery in his heart. Whether you’re throwing Crease Flies off the Long Island Coast, flatwings in Rhode Island, or Grocery flies in Maine, think about McMurray. If you’re catching fish he’s part of the reason.