Gone Fishin' : Derby enters last week; anything is possible
There are two days left in the 63rd annual Martha's Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby. I think I speak for many fishermen when I say, "whew."
I get no sympathy from my wife, Norma, when I describe the struggles of Derby fishing. She is firmly grounded in the ancient dictum Spartan women are reported to have said to their husbands before battle: Come back with your shield or on it.
I am not sure what the Derby translation would be, but I do know that Norma expects me to come back with my fishing rod and a fish - not a winning fish - any fish.
On Saturday I launched my boat for the first time this Derby. I own a Tashmoo-18, a boat modeled on the design of the Jonesport lobster boats built in Maine more than 50 years ago. The boat moves well through the water propelled by its original Evinrude 30-horse power engine.
I had no particular plan in mind beyond spending a day on the water. I was armed with a neighbor's leftover eels and bunker (menhaden), and assorted lures.
The word was out about bonito at Lucas Shoal, an L-shaped ridge that rises in the middle of Vineyard Sound about midway between Cape Higgon in Chilmark and Robinson's Hole, the gap between Pasque and Naushon Islands in the Elizabeth chain.
When I arrived several boats were anchored up and the fishermen onboard were chumming. The idea is to attract fish near the boat by tossing bait such as sand eels off the stern. When all goes according to plan, a big Derby winner ingests a sand eel with a hook in it.
Photo by Louisa Gould
A few other boats trolled lures specially designed for running fast in lazy circles across the shoal. I made a halfhearted attempt to troll but quickly grew bored when I saw no evidence of anyone catching a fish.
My next stop was Gay Head. Approximately 30 boats were fishing along the undersea ridge of boulders known as Devil's Bridge. Many of the fishermen had anchored and I presume they were chunking.
Chunking involves cutting up bunker into small pieces and dishing the bite-size pieces into the water. The bass begin feeding on the chunks. The fisherman embeds a hook into a chunk, and "fish on."
That is the theory anyway. And it is a pretty expensive one when you figure that one bunker costs between $1 and $1.75
I did not see anyone catch a fish. I dunked one of my eels and hooked a scup. No kidding, a scup.
Photo by Steve Wood
When it happened a second time it occurred to me that a big bass might find a scup-eel combo being reeled up to the boat an irresistible target so I hesitated just a moment, the hooked scup clearly visible in the clear water about 15 feet below my boat.
I quickly came to my senses. The scup season is closed and had I caught a fish I would have the task of convincing the Derby committee that a scup ate my eel and a bass ate the scup. I quickly reeled up and released the scup back into the water.
Bored, I called Ned Casey to see how he was doing. Ned did not answer. About five minutes later my phone rang. It was Ned.
"Ned," I said. "I'm floating off Gay Head and I've caught two scup on eels. Where are you?"
I expected Ned to tell me he was fishing off the Hooter or Lucas or maybe in among the cluster of boats off Gay Head.
"I'm in Italy," said Ned.
I am floating off the painted cliffs on a bright sunny day, Ned Casey is sitting with his wife Tina in an Italian restaurant, and we are talking about fishing.
Ned advises me to go around the head and try the Old Man, a rock ledge just north of Nomans Island. "They've been catching a lot of big bonito there," said Ned in a red sauce kind of way.
My telephone call, like the emails I receive from people in Nigeria who want me to share in unclaimed gold bullion, was another example of the ease of global communication.
I pulled the engine cord and the Evinrude easily cranked over, a testimony to the mechanical skills and finesse of Don Edgar. I am no Ernest H. Shackleton and lack the small boat skills to ease against the gas dock without a thud but the day was flat calm so it did not seem like an unreasonable hop to head to Nomans.
I trolled a bit. I dunked eels a bit. I watched other boaters do the same. When I snagged a starfish I knew it was time to head home.
I returned to the Lagoon boat ramp with one six-gallon gas tank empty and the other tank nearly empty. I figured in all my day of boating had cost me about $35.
On the way home I passed the Net Result market. The special board listed Maine lobsters for $5 apiece.
I did a little quick figuring of what my gas money would have bought me and came up with the following dinner feast: four lobsters and one pound of sushi-grade tuna.
But I had had a pleasant day and sometimes it is just enough to be out on the water. However I do think Norma would have preferred that I brought home a fish, or a lobster.
Fish, fish, fish
My seasonal neighbor Steve Wood fishes the Derby hard. He makes several visits during the Derby and from the time he arrives from his home in Belchertown until he rinses off his rods and packs up his SUV he fishes, often with his son Mike. They leave the house before dawn and arrive back at dusk.
Steve and Mike represent much of what is good about the Derby - family, enthusiasm, and fish, fish, fish.
Steve, a forester with the state Division of Conservation Services told me that the fish his son is holding above was one of three he caught that day.
"We had a great day, getting seven bonito between the two of us and missing several others," he wrote in an email. "I was bitten off by some big bluefish until I finally landed a seven-pounder. Mike had fished hard with me for nine days up till then and only got one small bluefish to weigh in. The weather was finally beautiful the last two days and the boat was finally running well so we fished all the way from Tashmoo to Nomans. Not bad for a 17-footer."
I checked in with several tackle shop owners for some last-minute Derby advice. In general, fishermen are advised to keep fishing the spots that have always produced fish.
Cooper "Coop" Gilkes at Coop's said he took a youngster out fishing on East Beach and had pretty good luck with bluefish.
Coop's recommended the north shore with eels from the shore and the Elizabeths with bunker, preferably live bunker.
The bonito and albie fishing is slim. Coop recommended Lucas Shoal. "Live butterfish, tinker mackerel, anything live works good if you can find them," said Coop.
At Larry's, Steve Purcell was not overly optimistic. He said the bass fishing remained slow, but big blues were coming from all over the place. North shore, East Beach, Gay Head, even big bridge were all good spots to try.
Steve said any of the well known big bass spots could still produce a big fish.
Julian Pepper, one of the young guys who work in the shop when he is not fishing, bagged a big one of sorts. On his way bass fishing he hit a deer with his car in Chilmark that weighed in at 200 pounds.
At Dick's, Steve Morris had the following advice. "Don't leave the beach," said Steve only half jokingly. "Fish all night. Just fish as much as you can and if you have a lucky charm rub it."
Steve said the fishing remains hit or miss. "If I were looking for a big blue I'd go to Chappy and a big bass I'd go to Gay Head or Squibby," he said.
The Derby awards ceremony begins at 1 pm Sunday at Outerland off the entry road to the Martha's Vineyard Airport.