In mid-November of this year, a series of sunny days with light southwest winds moved my partner Ruth Kirchmeier and me to extend the fishing season by going forth for white perch in Tisbury Great Pond’s Town Cove.
In mid-afternoon we paddled our canoe south down the cove from Mill Brook to the mouth of the Tiasquam River (brook) where we anchored. I began spincasting a tiny Hopkins stainless steel jig — its single hook adorned with a small piece of squid — and Ruth got out her pencils and crayons and a sketch pad. A superb woodcut artist, she rarely climbs into a canoe without the tools of the initial phase of her trade.
White perch are one of our favorite food fishes and I had good reason to anticipate success, having caught many of them in the same spot in previous Novembers.
After 20 minutes of casting without a hit my optimism was fading.
A sharp strike startled me and I was startled again when my hooked quarry leapt from the water, something that white perch don’t do.
It was a big snapper — a handsome, gleaming bluefish of about a pound and a half. I caught several more of the same size in the next hour.
Ruth was delighted. She greatly enjoys one of my recipes for cooking snappers of this size. I scale and gut them and make an incision down the lateral line on both sides, brush them thoroughly on both sides with olive oil, season them with salt and pepper and a substantial dusting of garlic-flavored bread crumbs, and bake them for 15 minutes at 350 degrees. It is a good idea to check them with a fork after 10 minutes. If the flesh flakes apart easily, they’ve been cooked long enough.
Tisbury Great Pond is a so-called salt pond, opened to the ocean — typically four times a year — by man. The reasons for these periodic openings include maintaining proper salinity for the pond’s oysters and soft-shelled clams, allowing access by spawning alewives (herring) and spawning American eels in spring, and avoiding the flooding of pond-side fields, marshes, roads, and homes. White perch also enter the pond to spawn, although some members of that species remain in the pond year-round. Low salinity and cold water doesn’t bother them and they can live their entire lives in freshwater ponds, lakes, and streams.
From the Tiasquam River’s outlet south to the ocean, the West Tisbury-Chilmark town line goes down the center of the pond. The pond’s riparian owners — there are about 100 of them — in both towns have formed an organization that is responsible for opening the pond at the proper times. They also annually elect a president, vice-president, clerk, treasurer, and three commissioners. They assess themselves annual dues of $100 each. In recent years, pond openings have cost about $600 each.
In 1839, the Massachusetts Fish and Game Commissioners made formal notice of the ecological need for periodic great (salt) pond openings, and in 1904 the Massachusetts Legislature authorized the riparian owners of all such ponds (save Edgartown Great Pond) in Dukes County to form organizations that would attend to pond openings. The Tisbury Great Pond riparian owners have been doing this for more than a century.
Kent Healy of West Tisbury — a civil engineer who is one of the Tisbury Great Pond riparian group’s commissioners — says that his organization confers with various state agencies about the timing of the openings. As an example of this, Brad Chase of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries is a frequent visitor to the Vineyard and Tisbury Great Pond.
The day I caught the snappers, the pond was high. It had been last opened in mid-July and had closed a month later. As of December 5, it was still closed. If the health of the pond’s fish and shellfish isn’t being threatened, the pond’s stewards let it fill until it is about 3.5 to 5 feet above sea level.
Snappers enter the pond in early June if it is open. They are usually six to seven inches long at that time, having been spawned offshore in the Atlantic in late spring. In the western Atlantic, bluefish range from Nova Scotia to Argentina. Bluefish can live to be 12 years old. Maximum weight is over 30 pounds, but 20 pounders are unusual. A five-pounder is considered a good fish by Vineyard anglers. The species is found throughout the world in most temperate oceanic waters.
Bluefish reach sexual maturity in their second year. At that time they are from 12 to 18 inches long. A three-year-old female produces from 0.6 to 1.4 million eggs annually.
Large bluefish occasionally enter Tisbury Great Pond, but don’t make a habit of it and rarely range any great distance from the barrier beach. Bluefish are voracious feeders and one of the reasons the snappers enter the pond is to escape predation from other fish, including their parents. Another reason is that ample food for them — including shrimp, crabs, silverside minnow, and young menhaden — is plentiful in salt ponds, bays, and estuaries.
The snapper’s habit of seeking food and shelter in salt ponds sometimes backfires. My son Jeff, his son Sam, and I observed this firsthand a few days after Ruth and I caught our snappers.
During the previous week Jeff and I had been refurbishing our three waterfowling blinds at the outer end of Mill Brook and putting out duck and Canada goose decoys. Because the pond was high, we used an aluminum skiff to get to those blinds. Two or three times an oar dipping into the water produced swirls from fish we judged to be more than a foot long.
We had already noted that the last two downstream pools in the brook were filled with great numbers of menhaden an inch or two long, medium-sized silverside minnows and some half-grown sea robins.
On our return to the landing in our skiff, the light was such that we could see what had caused the swirls: scores of large snapper blues surging up and down the pool. Jeff decided to fish the pool with Sam the following morning which was the opening day of the waterfowling season. (He wanted some snappers for smoking and freezing, and we had already made plans to hunt ducks and Canada geese in that spot the afternoon of the same day.)
A sad and sobering scene greeted my son and grandson when they arrived at the pond.
The bottom of the brook and its shores and the marsh beyond was littered with dead snappers and a much smaller number of sea robins. Gulls, cormorants, black-crowned night herons (locally called “quawks,” my own spelling), eastern turkey vultures, and crows were feasting on them. Most had been eaten by mid-afternoon. I suspect, although we didn’t see one, that otters also took part in the feast.
I should add that we didn’t inspect the remainder of the pond to see if other contingents of the fish had perished. The shallow pond covers about 600 acres when it is low and 800 when it is high. A few days later I learned from Tony Rezendes of West Tisbury that Nick Bayer, who has a home on the pond, had seen dead snappers on the shore in the Tiah’s Cove area.
Whilst duck hunting the east side of the main body of the pond in winter over the past half-century, I had occasionally seen young bluefish breaking water among my decoys, or clusters of them lying frozen on the shore of Tiah’s Cove, but this most recent experience was the only time I had observed schools of them alive one day and dead the next.
I felt that cold water was the major cause of their demise although low salinity would also have been a factor. The air temperature had dropped below freezing on recent nights. Bluefish less than 10 inches long need water temperatures above 45 degrees Fahrenheit in order to survive. Larger bluefish can take a bit more cold. If the pond is open when its waters get too cold for bluefish, they return to the warmer ocean.
The day we found the dead snappers I took the water temperature of the pond at the brook’s mouth. It was about 40 degrees Fahrenheit. At the same time that day in the ocean offshore of the Vineyard near Nantucket Island, the Nantucket Sound Main Channel 17 Lighted Gong Buoy recorded a surface water temperature of about 47 degrees Fahrenheit.
Jeff and I assumed that — ignoring the lower salinity they encountered — the snappers and the sea robins had pushed their way into the brook to dine on the silverside minnows and the young menhaden.
Because the snappers we found ranged from 8 inches in length to one that was 18 inches long and weighed 2¼ pounds, we also came to believe that separate young-of-the-year contingents — or even a few from the previous year — had entered the pond.
I have come to think that those responsible for opening the pond to the ocean should include the welfare of bluefish in their endeavors and that all of the salt ponds within the bluefish’s range up and down the Atlantic coast should be similarly regulated. This is a relatively inexpensive way to further protect one of our most valuable food and game fishes.
Nelson Bryant of West Tisbury was for almost 40 years the outdoor columnist for The New York Times. As a young man, he participated in the D-Day invasion with the 82nd Airborne. Later he became managing editor of the Daily Eagle in Claremont, New Hampshire and then a dock builder on the Vineyard, before beginning a career as a columnist that would take him around the world and back again to the Vineyard.
About the artist
Beginning in 1979, Glenn Wolff’s pen-and-ink illustrations accompanied Mr. Bryant’s Outdoors column. The evocative images and attention to detail traced the currents of the written word in a collaboration that delighted New York Times readers for 26 years and was renewed in The MV Times (November 2012, “Writer Nelson Bryant recalls a lifetime in the hunt”). Original fine art, prints, and more information is available at www.glennwolff.com.