A Life on the Water -Fall 2017
by: Dean Geddes
photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger
After 44 years in the charter-fishing business, Captain Tom Mleczko officially passed the torch to his son Jason this summer. But that doesn’t mean he has retired.
Tom is something of a local living legend.
Having spent a lifetime on the water, his name is synonymous with fishing on Nantucket. The late author David Halberstam, a longtime seasonal resident, once wrote that Tom was, “by consensus, our best fisherman.”
But old habits are hard to break. Even though Tom has passed the torch, he can’t help himself. He’s still taking charters out on the water. It’s a testament to how much he loved and still loves his job. How many people retire and still keep showing up for work?
“You do something for so long, it’s hard to hand it over,” Tom said.
“At the same time, I’m very proud that Jason is doing it. It’s such a wonderful thing to be able to hand the business over to someone who is uniquely qualified and also your son.”
To this day Tom still gets excited watching his clients cast and get a hit. For him the charter business is about the people on his boat first, and the fish second.
“He has a 10-year-old girl catch a bluefish and he’s jumping and screaming louder than her,”
Jason said. “My father taught me very early it’s a people business. When he’d come home I’d say, ‘What’d you catch?’ And he would say, ‘They had a great time.’ And as a 9-year-old, that would always frustrate me. But eventually I figured out what he meant. It’s not just about what you catch, it’s about creating great memories.”
Tom founded Captain Tom’s Charters with the idea of offering a different fishing experience. Most boats fish by trolling, trailing baited lines behind the boat, a simple and very effective method of catching fish. But Tom thought it would be more fun and challenging to drive near sandbars and rip currents where the fish are feeding and have people cast from the boat with light tackle.
“We love to find the fish and I love watching the strike, but once you have the fish on, a lot of the enjoyment is over for me,” Jason said. “A lot of people are about the fight. For me it’s about solving that puzzle and watching that beautiful strike. We fish light tackle on the surface for a reason. You can see the fish come and hit it and it’s just incredible.”
Tom and his wife Bambi have three children: Wink, A.J. and Jason. While the whole family enjoys fishing, Tom and Jason are different. They’re obsessed. Jason started working on his father’s charter boats as soon as he was old enough, spending five years as a striker (first mate) before becoming a captain in 2001.
Tom developed a love of fishing growing up around the water. After graduating from college in 1970 he moved to Nantucket and had to pinch himself. The waters surrounding the island were an angler’s dream come true.
Somewhere in between all the fishing, Tom also found love on land. After meeting his future wife Bambi, the pair married in 1971, and Tom worked a series of jobs on the island including a stint at Sherburne Associates. He would work all day, then fish all night, and that didn’t leave much time for sleep.
“Nantucket was such a paradise, but eventually my wife had enough. She said, ‘This is crazy. Why don’t you go fishing in the day and take people with you?’ So it really all started on her volition,” Tom said.
In 1973, at age 22, Tom bought his first boat, a 26-foot lapstrake wood Mackenzie bass boat. It was old. Tom was the boat’s third owner. But it was sturdy, like a tank, and it served its purpose well. Tom made the decision to set up his charter business in Madaket Harbor instead of at Straight Wharf, a decision Jason said was “one of the best decisions he made,” because these days it allows them to avoid the crowds both downtown and in the harbor.
When Tom started back in the early 1970s, he was one of only four people on Nantucket charter-fishing. The others were Bobby Francis, Ray DeCosta and Gibby Nickerson. But there was something that Francis was doing differently that caught Tom’s eye.
“Bob was unique in that he was casting plugs out of a boat, and the traditional way of catching fish was trolling. We felt, and Bob started this, that it’s a lot more fun to go surfcasting out of your boat,” Tom said.
Tom has since taken that approach and perfected it, with the vast majority of his charters spinor fly-casting in the rips and sandbars instead of trolling for fish. But back in the 1970s, Tom was the new kid on the block, and Francis wasn’t exactly welcoming to his new competitor.
“He didn’t acknowledge my existence for years,” Tom said. “He was a very, very good fisherman. People still talk about him today. But it took him a long time to accept me. Eventually he came around, and we got to be very good friends.”
During the first few years, when Tom didn’t have anyone to take on a charter, he would fish commercially for bluefish to fill the time and make ends meet.
“We would sell them for 25 cents a pound to Walter Glidden at Glidden’s Fish Market and that’s how we got through,” Tom said.
Eventually, the persistence paid off. Although clients weren’t biting in the beginning, slowly, through word of mouth, Tom’s business started picking up.
“I’d say for the first four years we weren’t really viable, but then that fifth year we started to turn it around and by the sixth year we were really busy,” Tom said. “People had a really good time with us and learned with us. We were all about education, about the fish and everything about the water and Nantucket, and that’s something we still do to this day.”
It’s not just for the customer’s enjoyment. Teaching is in Tom’s blood. Since the charter business is seasonal, Tom took a second, more stable job teaching high school at the New Canaan Country Day School in Connecticut, where he and the family lived during the school year.
In 1996, after 26 years teaching, Tom retired and moved back to Nantucket to focus on the charter business full-time. Quickly the one-boat operation expanded.
In 1980, Tom upgraded from the old 26-foot Mackenzie bass boat to the Priscilla J., (named after his wife) a 30-foot Crosby Hawk. Tom had the boat custom-built to be sturdy and spacious with a shallow draft, allowing him to navigate the rough and shallow waters on Nantucket’s west end. When Tom retired he added Purple Water, another 30-foot Crosby Hawk, nearly identical to Priscilla J.
These are Captain Tom’s two workhorses, the big boats. But in the last 15 years he has also added two smaller boats, JABB (Just Another Blue Boat) a 23-foot center console Maritime skiff and Roccus, an 18-foot, smaller version of JABB.
With more boats come more captains. For the first two decades Tom was the one and only captain, but now including himself and Jason there are a total of five: Nat Reeder, who started out as Tom’s striker in 1984; Carl Danielson, who has been working for Tom since 1998; and Danno Lynch, the newest captain who has been at Capt. Tom’s Charters for six years. There’s a reason the turnaround is so low. The people who work at Capt. Tom’s are family even when they’re not.
“It’s a family business, and I credit my father for developing that,” Jason said. “When Nat was our striker he was living in our basement and I was in high school at the time. He was like my older brother.”
When it’s not charter season, Jason works as a middle-school teacher. He has spent the last 10 years teaching science in Boston, and having just relocated to Nantucket full-time, will begin teaching at Cyrus Peirce Middle School in the fall. Jason and his wife Jenny have three young children and a fourth on the way in October.
“It’ll be my first full winter on Nantucket, but with four kids under 5 I don’t think I have to worry about being bored,” Jason said. ///
Dean Geddes is a staff writer at The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.