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A timeless dream of fishing

2/17/2006

The dream lives.

The dream, that is, that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. shared with the world during one of America's most historic speeches, delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963.

In that landmark "I Have a Dream" speech, King, whose wife, Coretta Scott King, was laid to rest just this past week, uttered immortal words that offered a nation torn by racism and segregation that one day, perhaps, "little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers."

Today, Charles K. West, the CEO and founder of the online Black Outdoorsman Magazine, shares King's vision for the future.

Except his version includes a lot of fishing, especially for West's beloved bluefish that swim along the craggy New England coast line and delight anglers with their legendary autumn blitzes.

As the nation celebrates Black History Month, West was interviewed for a recent segment on "The Outdoors Show on ESPN Radio" that aired Saturday.

Years removed from his boyhood experiences of fishing along the New England coast, West dreams and works to encourage more African-Americans to enjoy the great outdoors.

"The outdoors is accessible to all people," West said. "You don't have to pay a membership fee, you don't have to have a membership in a club, you just have to know where to park and to get out there and enjoy it."

West knows full well what he is talking about, being introduced to the outdoors world by his father as the West family grew up in Harlem.

"My parents made an effort to get us out of the city limits," West said, noting that in addition to involvement with the Boy Scouts of America, he also visited relatives every summer at Cape Cod.

"That was my first saltwater-fishing experience, fishing the surf around Martha's Vineyard," he said. "And then, while people might have trouble believing it, New York City is actually surrounded by an outdoor environment" and fishing opportunities.

In fact, not far from the Big Apple, West landed a fish that helped to change the course of his life.

"My first fish, it was pretty much a fluke," West said. "Literally, my first fish just so happened to be a fluke.

"I was about 7 years old and while my father had introduced us to fishing quite a few times before, I had never caught any fish before."

"On that particular trip, we were packing the buckets and stuff away and were about to leave when I asked for one more cast," West explained. "Well, about 15 minutes later, my father said that it was time to leave.

"But when I started pulling in, I felt some sort of tension on the end of my line. It turned out that it was a 7-pound fluke!"

And the rest, as countless other anglers know all about, is history.

Today, as West and his wife await the arrival of their first child later this year, he continues to enjoy fishing, as evidenced by angling journeys up and down the Eastern seaboard and into the Caribbean for such species as sailfish, Spanish mackerel, wahoo, redfish and barracuda.

But despite such exotic saltwater catches, West's angling heart remains close to one of the species for which New England is most famous.

"My favorite species to fish for? It would have to be the bluefish," said West, who lists the landing of a 14-pound blue and the 20-minute jetty fight that another big blue once gave him among his most memorable angling accomplishments. "Pound for pound, I think they're the most exciting fish to fish for."

"Plus, you can actually fish for bluefish on pretty economical tackle and with the sport's different styles, like flyfishing or conventional tackle. Blues are affordable to fish for, they're always migrating each year and they're abundant."

West spends plenty of time at his home in Maryland dreaming about the smashing strike and pounding run of a bluefish at the end of his tackle.

"Casting a plug out, especially during a bluefish blitz, there's nothing better in that September to October time frame down the New England coast," he said.

Nothing better, that is, until you take into account West's ultimate dream, a vision of helping to introduce the wonders of creation to his fellow African-Americans.

"During our first year, we did some marketing and saw that there was about 17 percent of African-Americans participating in the outdoors in general," West said. "That's whitewater rafting, kayaking, canoeing, bird-watching, hiking, camping, fishing and hunting — the whole kit and caboodle."

Since then, West has worked hard to help increase those numbers.

"We're not trying to be exclusive," West said.

"We're trying to look at an issue in African-American society and to take a look at it from another perspective. Outdoor activities are one of those vehicles to help African-Americans be more active, be more fit and be more comfortable in society."

To help increase participation, West indicates that some myths and obstacles that keep more African-Americans from stepping outside to enjoy the outdoor world must be overcome.

"Why don't more African-Americans participate in the outdoors? Well, I think there are two primary reasons," West said. "One, when you look at various outdoors media, either television or print, you don't see a big number of African-American faces.

"As a result, many African-Americans, they think it's a white person's sport," West continued. "That's what Black Outdoorsman is trying to do, to showcase African-Americans that are actually getting out there and enjoying those sports."

Published on the Internet four times a year, West says his four-year-old online publication seeks to give the outdoors more exposure and visibility in the black community.

But it also tries to dispel a common myth that many people have about participating in the outdoors.

"People think it's expensive to participate, but it doesn't have to be," West said. "You can go right off a jetty, use a rod and reel from Kmart or Wal-Mart, and have the same kind of experience that people are having in the boats offshore."

West is passionate about helping members of the black community learn to enjoy the great outdoors for two primary reasons: Such participation is therapeutic, and it helps foster strong family bonds.

"One of the things that is happening in the African-American community is that we have one of the highest rates of cancer, heart disease and diabetes," West said.

"So one of the goals is to see more African-Americans get out and enjoy their lives more, instead of dealing with health and stress issues.

"In the end, I want to see African-Americans enjoying their lives and spending less time in the hospital."

West also hopes to see more families spending quality time together, just as his parents made sure that he and his two siblings did while growing up.

"The outdoors experience is a family experience, a great place for family bonding to occur," West said. "I was fortunate to have that experience with my family.

"In a sense, when you have a successful and healthy family experience, I think you have a healthy society."

West acknowledges that such a dream isn't always easy to achieve, especially in light of the fact that many children — African-American and otherwise — are growing up in single-parent homes today.

In many cases, the daily grind of life just to keep the bills paid limits the amount of time families can afford to get out and enjoy the outdoors.

That's where outdoors enthusiasts have to step in and do something, West said.

"We're becoming a society that does not want to be responsible for our youth," West said.

"Sure, everybody has the responsibility for raising their family. But with so many single-family homes out there, every one of us will have to reach out to help expose them to outdoor activities.

"Start small; one event could spark the interest of a child."

Especially an event like the catching of a bluefish on the rugged Atlantic coastline of New England.

"He'd be hooked for life," West said.

And therein are the seeds of West's own dream.

It's a dream of anglers of various cultures and skin tones sharing the edge of the water, their rods arcing with the pulsing run of a bluefish as the sounds of laughter mix in with the booming surf and the Atlantic's salty air.

Click here to learn more about "The Outdoors Show on ESPN Radio." And to find the ESPN Radio affiliate in your area, click here.