By Doreen Leggett
Mike Abdow was born in Worcester in March, 1954. That summer he was in Provincetown in a converted milk truck at the edge of the sea.
“We lived on the beach in P-town. You were allowed to do that then,” he said.
Abdow spent summers and weekends during school fishing with his grandfather, who he is named after, and when you ask where he grew up he often says Race Point.
Back then you could sell anywhere.
“I was 12 years old and I would drive the vehicle into town and pick up ice and drop off fish,” he said. “It’s a great thing for a child, hunting and fishing with your grandfather, with your dad.”
By the time he was 14, he worked on a tuna seiner called the Silver Mink with Captain Manny Phillips. Bluefins were called horse mackerel and they went for five cents a pound, used for pet food. His grandfather used to yell at him for even wasting time with them, Abdow said.
“The old Portuguese fishermen taught me how to fish,” he said. “My grandfather used to tell me to speak only when spoken to, so I never talked much.”
A lot has changed in 60 years. Now Abdow makes a pretty good living chasing “horse mackerel” that sell for dollars a pound and he is no longer the silent type, known for his booming voice and stories.
“He talks a lot. He’s entertaining,” said Captain Tom Smith from Orleans, who met Abdow on Cape Cod Bay about a quarter of a century ago. “He can sell ice to an Eskimo.”
Abdow would agree. He has heard it before.
Not long after he started fishing out of Chatham, highliner Dave Ryder had some advice:
“He said, ‘You should get into the charter business because you have a big mouth and you tell great stories,’” Abdow remembered.
That is what he has been doing on the F/V Magic, as Magic Charters, for almost 20 years.
If Abdow had his druthers he probably would have gone straight into fishing, but his family had other ideas.
“My grandfather swore up and down in Arabic that I was going to college,” Abdow remembered.
Abdow’s family is from Lebanon, near Beirut, landing here in 1895. Abdo means water in Arabic and they Americanized the name when they arrived.
“We were the only Lebanese on the sand in Provincetown, which is funny because we are from the sand,” Abdow said on a recent winter day, having wrapped up the last of his duck hunting charters.
So he ended up going to college and then into the Air Force in 1971. Abdow doesn’t like to talk about those years much, except for the fact he missed Bob Hope in Thailand by a week or two.
Abdow arrived back in his home town in 1973 and met his wife, Paulette, at a local nightclub.
They had two boys (and now four grandchildren), moved to Groton, Connecticut where he was working on submarines, mainly electronics, but he fished whenever he could. He went for stripers mostly and flounders, which he sold.
“I got pretty good at filleting flounder,” Paulette called from the other room.
“People would come down in Cadillacs and the fish would go in the trunk,” Abdow said.
He got a bad case of pneumonia and doctors figured it had something to do with his work at the plant so he was told to make a career change.
Abdow went back to fishing, but also spent time working at his cousin’s car dealership in Worcester. He was juggling that, school at General Motors and fishing off Block Island with Captain Charlie Dodge (who ended up landing on the Cape too).
“Charlie and I were the two heavy hitters on Block Island in the early 1980s,” he said. “We fished until my arms fell off.”
Again, it was mostly striped bass, but by 1987 the pickings were getting slim so he jumped fisheries and jumped islands.
“I went longlining and I liked it and I told my wife I was buying a boat,” Abdow said. “I came into Chatham with a boat that said Basstard in 10-inch letters.
“When I pulled up all the locals said, ‘Who the hell are you?’” he recalled, laughing. Abdow was in Ryder’s Cove first and moved over to the Chatham Fish Pier in 1989.
That was the year he went longlining full-time for cod, haddock, pollock; there were a lot of groundfish.
When he first got to the Cape he spent his first 10 years in Orleans, mainly because he knew fisherman Dave Farnham who, like Abdow, was from Worcester.
There wasn’t a steep learning curve from fishing part-time to fishing full-time: “Fishing is fishing. It doesn’t matter what you do. The object is catch fish, sell fish, put money in the bank.”
Baiting 4,500 hooks a tide was a family affair. The baiting shanty was in the backyard of his crew. By then he was fishing on the Black Boat – yes, it was black.
“There was a lot of money to be made in those days,” Abdow said. “A lot of old timers were getting out.”
“I sold fish to David Carnes (one of the buyers who leased a bay at the fish pier at the time),” Abdow said. “I had to have 10 to 15 boxes of the good stuff.
“When the gillnetters came in sometimes it would take them hours to unload.”
Abdow mixed in dogfishing with groundfishing. He said he was one of the original bunch who started fishing for dogs in the 1990s. Until then, he said, people were throwing them away, so the fishermen out of Chatham had to find a market for them.
“Dogfishing is easy. We were getting 25 five cents a pound,” he said, adding that then the regulations changed, tougher catch limits were set and the markets were hurt.
He concentrated on commercial fishing until early 2003 or 2004. He had bought The Magic in 1996, after he lost the Black Boat when it sank off the tip of Monomoy.
“I officially have a wreck at Monomoy Point,” he said.
The Magic, his second one of that name, is the boat that started him in charter fishing.
“That was the last good year of cod fishing,” Abdow said. “I started testing the waters in 2005.”
The regulations had started piling up as well. To go fishing the fleet had to line up at a pay phone at the pier and call a number in Salt Lake City. Then you had to do it again when you returned.
Calling and asking permission to go to work never set well. He was among a group of fishermen who helped start the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association, the precursor to the Fishermen’s Alliance, in the 1990s. He remembers signing on to the organization that would give small boat fishermen a stronger voice.
“I wrote a $100 check right at the high school,” said Abdow.
When it comes to chartering, it isn’t just fishing, you have to be an entertainer, Abdow said. At first, he didn’t think it would work.
“I was not a people person and I didn’t think I was going to like it,” he said. “But it kept getting bigger and bigger.”
He found he enjoys it. He is lucky enough to be one of only two charter boat companies that can use the Chatham Fish Pier.
“It’s a commercial dock. It’s one of the last ones left,” he said.
He usually does two trips a day, often taking families. Abdow finds out about their lives and how different they are from his. He finds it interesting. It doesn’t hurt that clients rave.
“‘This is the greatest four-hour trip I’ve had in my whole life,’” Abdow says they tell him.
Abdow already has charters booked for May and is sought after for his tuna skills as well, appearing in a documentary or two.
Tom Smith has a story about Mike Abdow pulling over to chat when they were out tuna fishing.
“There was nothing going,” Smith remembers, then Abdow threw a line. Lo and behold, “he hooked a darn tuna, right from under my boat. He has got a lot of mileage out of that. I must have heard that story 300 times,” he said with a laugh.
When Abdow transitioned to being a charter boat captain he also took classes on the stock market, went as far as he could go without spending big money. He mostly fools with it in the winter. “In the summer I’m too busy to think,” he said.
Abdow admits he does have a little help with markets. Evie, Captain Nick Muto’s little girl, will call him with some words of wisdom.
“Grandpa,” she’ll say in a video texted to his phone (though he is not her grandpa in the strict family sense), “we have to make at least 8 percent in the stock market tomorrow.”
Abdow said he considers Muto his stepson, among a handful in the fleet who he considers family.
“They are like all my kids,” he said.
“He’s become a real mentor of mine,” said Muto, who has been fishing for close to 20 years. “There is a ton of stuff to learn from these, for lack of a better term, old guys,” he laughed.
If Muto sees something unusual in a certain spot at a certain time of year, or if something isn’t working, he’ll mention it. “He’ll say, ‘Oh, why don’t you try this?’” Muto said.
Abdow also makes some gear for Muto and others. That is what he has been doing on quiet winter days: making jigs, working on his own tuna gear, preparing for working 100 days straight.
He wouldn’t have it any other way.
“If I won the lottery I would not change my job,” he said.