From surreal to reel in the Derby fish quest
It takes a certain amount of self-assurance for a woman to adopt the e-mail pen name of "squid mama." After all, the first image that comes to mind is not a fashion runway in Milan.
Sherry Mele, AKA squid mama, is one of the regulars who normally call Memorial Wharf in Edgartown their Derby home. An attractive blonde who favors glossy nail polish, she looks more like someone you might run into shopping at the Chestnut Hill Mall than drifting squid on the wharf.
Sherri Mele. Photo by Louisa Gould
Sherri and her longtime boyfriend since turned fiancé Roland visit the Vineyard every year to fish the Derby. They are members of an enthusiastic group of fishermen who support, encourage, and compete with their fellow "wharf rats."
Many winning shore false albacore and bonito have come off the wharf. Just as many have been lost. It is one of the trickier fishing spots on the Island.
A fisherman hooked up to a fish capable of stripping hundreds of yards of fishing line in a blink must contend with the On Time ferry, assorted boats and sailboats going in and out of the harbor, moorings, wharf pilings, and fellow casters. Landing a fish requires the use of a long-handled net, and sometimes added ingenuity or nerve.
Several years ago I described how Bob "Hawkeye" Jacobs dove into the water to free his line from under the Falmouth ferry docked next to the wharf. His fellow fishermen were impressed with his determination. The crew on the ferry thought he was nuts.
The folks who fish the wharf are one of the Derby's unique subcultures, made up of Islanders and off-Islanders from all backgrounds. Once a year they take over the wharf. Think of Brigadoon without the music and with fish.
Bonito have been scarce this Derby, particularly big fish. The current shore grand leader is Bernie Arruda of Edgartown, a wharf regular and former grand leader who caught his 6.35-pound fish in Menemsha.
Sherri Mele tried her luck at Edgartown Light Tuesday. Photo by Louisa Gould
I received the following e-mail a week and a half ago from Sherri who knows I am always on the lookout for interesting stories. Since she did such a good job, I will let her tell it with only slight editing from me.
"I was fishing the wharf this morning and had a squid out. Things were slow, no fish caught so far. All of us wharf rats and rattresses were fishing and telling stories at the same time when all of a sudden I got a pickup. It hit like a freight train. I was on the left‑end of the wharf by the ferry and the fish started running toward the Edgartown Yacht Club. Roland grabbed the long-handle net and started following me down the wharf stopping as I picked my rod up over each piling along the way.
Finally I got to the other end of the wharf. The fish was still tearing off line against the drag. I was right at the corner of the wharf when the fish came up about 10 feet in front of me and everyone started yelling, 'It's a big bonito! It's a big bonito!'
Then the fish ran around the piling and under the wharf and out the other side. I was standing there holding a rod bent in half and there was absolutely nothing I could do.
So my fellow wharf rats, Roland and Ronnie (McKee) put their tails together and came up with a plan. Roland and Ronnie decided that the only way I could land this fish without anyone else touching the rod and the line [a derby rule] was to take a clothesline and hand it underneath the wharf and around the piling and tie it to my rod and reel. Then for me to throw my rod into the water and run and grab the clothesline on the other side of the piling and pull my rod under the wharf and around the piling.
The game plan was explained to the rest of the Rats and the question was asked, "Do you think this will really work?"
There was a few no's, a couple of definitely nots and a large number of, 'you've got to be kidding me.'
"As I stood there with a blank look on my face trying to get over the part of the plan where I was supposed to throw my rod into the water the question was asked, 'Does anyone have a better plan?' There was total silence. Then Ronnie and Roland said, 'Let's do it.'
"Roland got the clothesline out of the truck. Ronnie tied it to the long-handle net. All three of us lay down on the wharf and Ronnie used the handle to pass the rope under the dock to Roland. He gave it to me and I wrapped the rope around my rod and reel.
"I reluctantly threw my rod in the water, ran to the corner and picked up the other end of the rope. My rod and reel came popping out from under the dock. When I reeled it in there was no bonito, just my bare hook.
"I did lose a nice bonito, but for me, helping each other out is what the Derby is all about."
I caught up to Sherri by e-mail a few days ago. Like most fishermen this Derby she has had little fishing luck. Although she has left the wharf in search of fish the Derby doldrums had not affected her mood or enthusiasm. She wrote me, "As you know the fishing has been so slow. This is the first time in years I have not fished the wharf every blessed day! But I'm very optimistic. It beats being home. I see all my friends and at this point if I catch a fish it's a bonus."
New York minute
On Friday my wife, teenage daughter and I boarded the ferry for a long weekend trip to New York City to see a play and take in the city sights. When I agreed to the plans several weeks ago my wife was concerned about depriving me of a weekend of Derby fishing. Mindful of the upcoming deer and duck hunting seasons. I was willing to trade a weekend of fishing for some earned good husband points.
Given the poor shore fishing it proved to be an opportune time to leave the Vineyard. I was not the only one who saw it that way.
On the freight boat to Woods Hole two fishermen in a Jeep parked next to us saw my rod racks and struck up a conversation with me.
They were brothers from Reading and they were leaving the Island a day early because the fishing was so slow. "Where have you fished?" I asked. "Everywhere," said one of the men. "You name it, we were there."
New York proved to be an interesting experience. For example, while standing in Times Square waiting for my wife and daughter to emerge from a cosmetics store I saw an attractive blonde in red, white, and blue mini-shorts, cowboy boots and an equally patriotic cowboy hat and no top strumming a guitar while standing on a traffic island. She attracted quite a bit of attention.
Curious, I asked one of two New York City police officers standing on the corner if this was a regular occurrence. He said it was. I asked about any laws against nudity - trying to make it clear I was not opposed, just curious. The officer, showing his training, noted that she was not completely nude because she wore stars over her nipples.
He told me they usually took action when she started to impede traffic. Turning to his partner he asked, '"Whadaya think? Time to move her?"
"Yeah, sure," said the other officer. The two men nonchalantly crossed the street to where the patriotic cowgirl was busy posing for photos next to a steady stream of smiling tourists.
One thing I learned about going to the theater in New York is the power of a star to turn middle-aged women into screaming teenyboppers. A singer who goes by the name Usher played the lead character in the musical we had chosen to see, Chicago.
His presence on stage was enough to elicit high shrieks from most of the women in the audience. One lady sitting near me produced a regularly annoying ill-timed giggle that sounded like a hyena being fed into a garbage disposal.
I muttered under my breath. The man sitting next to me agreed with my sentiments. I did not ask him if he was also a fisherman.
I did manage a side trip to the American Museum of Natural History. Walking through the fossil exhibit it occurred to me that we are quite fortunate that some of the creatures that swam in our oceans 70 million years ago went extinct.
I like catching big fish, but I am glad I do not have to worry about running into a Xiphactinus with its upturned jaw and giant, fang-like teeth. According to museum literature, the jaw was very mobile, capable of opening wide to take in large-sized prey, like a Derby fisherman.
However, with less than two weeks left in the Derby I would not mind hooking into one of its distant relatives.
I learned by e-mail I have one more correction to make to the list of Kid's Day Derby winners. Alec Lass, second place fluke winner in the 9-11 category, is in fact Alec Glass of Oak Bluffs and Ridgefield, Conn.