A chronicle of Vineyard fishing madness
"The Big One: An Island, an Obsession, and the Furious Pursuit of a Great Fish," by David Kinney. Grove/Atlantic, New York, April 2009. 276 pages. $24.
I've fished the Vineyard for 16 years now, often very hard during the summer months, and at least a few hard-core days during each Derby. I even work for a fishing company that is a sponsor for the tournament, but what I discovered in reading David Kinney's book "The Big One" is that for all my efforts and time, I have, as I long suspected, been wading in shallow water.
What Kinney uncovers in documenting this event is the deep cultural underbelly of a fishing society that few people on the outside will understand. I understand it, and I can certainly believe it, because I am a fisherman, but I was not wholly prepared for the extraordinary lengths to which some people will go to catch fish. I considered myself a passionate striper fisherman, but upon reading this book, I'm beginning to have second thoughts as to the level of my commitment - striped bass tattoo and all.
Kinney's central theme springs from the all-out efforts of Lev Wlodyka, at 28 already something of a Derby legend, to top a 56.1-pound fish hauled in by a 32-year-old house painter named Zeb Tilton. It is a quest that relies on stamina as much as fishing skills.
Along the way, we meet fishermen past and present, each of whom brings a single-minded determination to the search from shore and boat for a winning fish. One chapter, "Prayer to the Great Fish Gods," describes the hard-core techniques - and his brushes with Derby greatness - of long-time fisherman Steve Amaral.
Kinney has a knack for capturing the character of the characters he writes about. For example, one chapter, "I Fish, Therefore I Lie," describes a fishing trip with famed charter captain Buddy Vanderhoop. "Ask around the Vineyard, and you will hear that there is not enough salt in the ocean to take with a Buddy Vanderhoop tale," Kinney writes. "The man can't help himself. He is a storyteller of the first class, a real marvel to watch, a legend of his own making."
Perhaps what makes Kinney's book so fascinating is that it's not just a book about fishing, but a book that uses the fishing culture of the Island to weave in and out of the ridiculously complex fabric that is Vineyard society. If ever there was an epic struggle of the haves and have-nots, a microcosm of America's struggle with natural beauty versus development, of discovery and loss of innocence, all the societal struggles that play out across this country, the Vineyard is a poster child for it all, particularly magnified by the limited size of the Island. The surrounding ocean strictly defines the boundaries of the cultural battlefields, and the inclination to stand one's ground is a challenge, because, after all, there is nowhere else to go. If there is a fight over the use of a piece of land or access to a beach on the mainland, it is often defused by the abundance or perceived abundance of what is still out there. Here, that fight is magnified exponentially by the much larger percentage of the whole each scrap represents. Kinney does an excellent job of bringing all this home to the reader and giving the reader an understanding of why passions here can seem more volatile.