Full but hardly significant disclosure: I know Paul Melnyk, the author of Montauk Confidential: A Fisherman’s Memoir (AuthorHouse). He and his daughter sing with The Choral Society of the Hamptons, but who would have thought that this bass was so . . . into bass. And stripers, and all manner of fish, and that he can lay claim to having invented a surfcasting technique—“skishing,” fishing while swimming! And who would also have thought that this attentive, seemingly serious man, so quick to lend a hand at choral rehearsals, as well as his voice to masses and requiems, would have such a daring, mischievous streak (his buddies affectionately call him “insane”) or that he could write such a colorful book about his five-decade love for all things piscatorial, and Montauk.
The memoir, which is as much about a past time as it is about fishing, is well titled. With its allusion to exposé, Montauk Confidential captures the risk-taking, rough and tumble world of the Montauk surf scene and reveals “circumstances and conversations that certain people would rather not see in print.” And it gives away secrets such as “Montauk Honey Holes” (map and all). Melnyk’s obviously not worried, though, because he knows that the best spots will yield only to the best fishermen—those who have crossed the line from love to obsession, old hands who, like him now, will never be finished “with the sport of taking the cows (big female fish) and shoving them up the arses of my friends.” Besides, getting soaked with cold water “is irritating to the casual fisherman,” and the cuts and eddies that harbor “slobs” (big stripers) prove forbidding.
Melnyk has a great ear for dialogue, casting himself not infrequently, and always with humor, in a self-deprecatory role, the first to admit to being an “a—hole,” antagonizing competitors, including friends, and delighting in seeing enemies get payback “I was told that I was the world’s biggest bull shitter (Me?)” Clearly, he’s proud of belonging to a unique community of characters who make up the insider fishing scene—guys, usually in odd-couple pairs, who would take a room in Ann Breyer’s Cottages, the tourist bungalows at Montauk Harbor he used to own—and the salts who hang out a bit more, as they age, at the Montauk shrine for booze and shmooze, “Paulie’s Bait, Tackle and Free Coffee Emporium.”
The memoir is not all fishing. Some of the most engaging chapters recall Melnyk’s loving, earthy Polish grandparents, and childhood episodes, such as a serious snowball fight, that honed his instinct for ingenuity and brought out his passion for audacious adventure, the makings of the “hopeless thrill junkie” he would become. Other parts show how instinctively his individualistic streak could morph into outrageous behavior—fishing in pirate attire, challenging tournament committees by breaking the rules. Still other chapters prompt shock and awe, as Melnyk recalls diving close to rocks, spear fishing in great depths, and various near-death experiences. But the wild man can also surprise with unexpected, lyrical turns that celebrate the mystique of Montauk and the lure of its waters, much of it going on in the wee hours, in total darkness, and deep into the cold fall.
Though a memoir, Melnyk announces that he’s been selective, choosing “stories and individuals that have molded, challenged or influenced me in dramatic ways” and showing how he went from “goog” (Montauk lingo for an awkward, inexperienced angler) to expert, despite setbacks that would have deterred lesser fanatics. A journeyman cabinet maker by profession, Melnyk also recounts the time in 2005 when he lost three fingers during “an argument with the 10-inch blade of a Delta Unisaw,” necessitating a 12-hour operation (don’t ask what he did with the severed digits!).
He did get one and a half fingers restored but was forced to give up guitar, “his mistress” for years, a sadness that was overcome when, on the advice of a pastor friend, he joined The Choral Society. In an email, he writes that “being part of this group is one of the best things” to have happened to him, not to mention having a custom electric guitar made for him by a good friend. But nothing—nothing—will ever claim his soul the way fishing did, and still does.