Lady Gaga was a no show, as were Diane Sawyer, Ted Danson, Mary Steenbergen, Skip Gates, Carly Simon, and James Taylor. Their absence meant there was none of the usual Martha’s Vineyard celebrity buzz at the 12th annual VFW Fluke Derby awards ceremony — but nobody cared, least of all the fishermen.
Mike Jackson, first place in the men’s division with an 8.9-pound fluke was beaming. ” I beat Coop,” he said when one of his team members pressed him to come up with a quote.
He may have beaten Cooper “Coop” Gilkes, but he did not beat ten-year-old Nathaniel Packer, who landed a 10.1-pound fluke to take the grand prize. Of course, Nathaniel was not of age to be standing in the crowded VFW bar and so he was unable to point that fact out to Mike.
The fluke tournament is as much about bragging rights as it is about prizes. And on Martha’s Vineyard, fish bragging rights still count for more than bling.
Speaking of Coop, he preferred to speak softly and let the numbers do the talking. Although he and his teammate Rick Harvey, Team Sole Men, took first place in the team competition he was too tired to say much.
Like most of the other teams they had fished long and hard each day. The combined total of their eight heaviest fish (four weighed in each day) was 51.4 pounds, almost 10 pounds more than the second place team “4 Reel.”
Sunday evening most of the sun-baked fishermen crowded into the one-story, nondescript Veterans of Foreign Wars building on Towanticut Avenue in Oak Bluffs were just happy to hold a cold beer and swap fishing stories (or depending on their age, a hot dog and a soda). After a long day on the water, the foil-wrapped hot dog I grabbed off the buffet table tasted great.
But not as good as the sea bass I fried up the day after the competition. In my opinion, black sea bass is one of the finest eating fish on the Vineyard — better than the prized striped bass — and best when breaded with Panko bread crumbs. But I digress.
The fluke fishing was generally slow the past few weeks but picked up in time for the tournament. Fishermen still had to work for their fish but there were enough four- and five-pounders and an occasional big fish to keep it interesting right up until the final weigh in at 6 pm, Sunday.
One problem was the time of the flowing tide, which went slack around noon off Seven Gates. Fluke fishing is best when there is a good drift and you can cover some bottom. The mid-day slack meant a lot of fishermen were floating and baking but not catching much.
On Saturday, I caught my largest fish, a 7.2-pound fluke late in the afternoon once the rising tide started to run to the east. On Sunday, I caught three nice fish in succession, each about 5-pounds, on the dropping tide flowing west. The key was the running tide.
On Sunday, VFW tournament chairman Peter Herrmann told me that about 140 fishermen entered the tournament, about the same number as last year.
In keeping with the spirit of the event, the awards ceremony lacked much ceremony. Peter, looking slightly frazzled, thanked the prize contributors, including Dick’s, Larry’s, and Coop’s tackle shops. When the attention level waned and the fishing chatter picked up at the end of the dining room nearest the hallway to the bar Peter did not use a gavel, he just yelled: “Hey.”
With all attention on his remarks, he made sure people knew about the generosity of the sponsors and said that all the money raised this year would go to prizes next year.
Peter then handed Nathaniel Packer his grand prize trophy, which also went with a big cooler emblazoned with a familiar name and logo on it. “Sorry it says Budweiser,” Peter said, “but we weren’t expecting a ten-year-old to win it.”
One by one, Peter handed out trophies and a pile of great prizes that included fishing gear, coolers, and bikes for the kids. As participants filed out of the hall Peter said he was grateful the weather, always one of his biggest worries, cooperated.
“What’s the best part of the tournament?” I asked Peter.
“In about 5 minutes when all the prizes are given out and I can relax,” Peter said with a laugh.
Kidding aside, Peter said, “It’s satisfying because I followed through with something that somebody else started.” And he added, “It’s fun seeing the kids so happy.”
The tournament may be over but there is still plenty of eating and fishing to be done. From what I gather, the deep water off Robinson’s Hole and the stretch of deep water between Cedar Tree Neck and the Brickyard hold some nice fluke and sea bass.
As always, the key is to be on the bottom. That may take up to 10 ounces of weight or more when the wind combines with the tide. A strip of squid and a strip of fluke belly make an enticing bait. Go fishing.
12th annual VFW Fluke Derby results
Grand champ: Nathaniel Packer (10.1 pounds).
Men’s division: Mike Jackson (8.9 pounds), Rick Harvey (8.7), and Calvin Tomkins (8).
Women’s division: Nina Patterson (8), Beverly Bergeron (5.8), and Holly Mercier (4.9).
13 to 16 years of age: Chris Perry (5.9), Tony Canha (5.7), and Damon Hardison (5.4).
12 years of age and under: Nathaniel Packer (10.1), Corbin Buchwald (7.3), David Packer (4.4), Oliver Metters, and Tate Buchwald (4.2).
Largest Sea Bass: Lucas Mercier (4.2)
Team division: 1. Sole Men, 51.4 pounds, (Cooper Gilkes, Rick Harvey); 2. 4 Reel, 41.8 lbs., (Andre Levesque, Mike Jackson, Eric Levesque, Kevin Hatt); 3. Greyfin, 40.7 lbs., (David Hearn, Sheldon Ebanks, Henry Juricek, Arilson DeSouza); 4. Madkel, 38.8 lbs., (Peter Cox, Dana Hodson, Thomas Cox, Nina Patterson).
Bright Waters, Shining Tides
A number of years ago, I drove up to Lobsterville to fish for striped bass. As I recall, it was about mid-summer and the fishing was slow. We were looking for fish and it was very late at night. The beach was pretty much deserted.
I parked and we started to walk down from the road to the beach just to have a look and listen for the telltale “thunk” of feeding striped bass. As I did I saw a shadowy figure walking off the beach and called out, “Kib.”
Kib Bramhall recognized my voice and walked over. He admitted the fish were thick and he had only walked off when he heard us park in the hope that he could throw us off the scent. You see, old habits die hard and Kib is from the old school when Island fishermen buried their stripers in an effort to maintain secrecy.
I resurrect this story to introduce Kib’s book, “Bright Waters, Shining Tides” (by Vineyard Stories, $29.95), a collection of essays and paintings he has produced over 50 years. Kib is a fisherman in the finest Island tradition. Buy his book and leave it on top of your pile of fishing and hunting catalogs to give your house some class.
The book is available at his daughter Emily’s store Bramhall and Dunn in Vineyard Haven and Edgartown and at vineyardstories.com.