Gone Fishin' : Derby hard core maintain their edge
I drowned a squid Sunday night. The squid did not complain. He (she, it) had long since passed on to its temporary resting place in a cardboard bait box.
I did not catch a fish. Tom Robinson, sitting next to me on the beach, did not catch a fish. But other more determined, skilled fishermen did.
I was not surprised when I heard the names of the first fishermen who walked through the door of the Derby weigh station after it opened at 8 am Sunday morning.
Will Pate of West Tisbury was first with a 7.54-pound bluefish. Brice Contessa of Edgartown soon followed with a 7.63-pound albie. Bob "Haweye" Jacobs of Oak Bluffs walked in with the first striped bass of the day, a respectable 22.63-pound fish.
I am fairly certain that all three names will appear with some regularity on the daily Derby results. These three fishermen know what it takes to catch Derby-winning fish.
The 63rd annual Martha's Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby began at 12:01 am Sunday. Bob Jacobs made his first cast seconds later.
Bob, aka Hawkeye, combines the fishing skill and single-minded mania that exemplifies the most dedicated Derby fisherman. Years ago, I wrote a story about Bob when he jumped off Memorial Wharf in an unsuccessful effort to free up his fishing line after an albie he hooked hung up under the Falmouth ferry.
The part that struck me was Bob's very matter-of-fact explanation. As though his actions that day were perfectly rational, which they were, but only to someone who understood the Derby mentality.
I spoke with Bob Tuesday morning. He said he was careful not to cast prior to the start of the Derby and risk hooking a big fish.
Photos by Ralph Stewart
Bob reckons he hooked his fish between 2 and 3 am. He was nonchalant about the fleeting fame accorded the first bass through the weigh-station door. It was unplanned and unexpected, since he was not waiting by the door at 8 am.
"I mean I had a bass and I walked down to weigh it in," said Bob. "I was shocked. I walked in the door and flashes started going off. And I was thinking, what did I do?"
I asked Bob if he fishes pretty much around the clock. He paused a minute. "Well, this early, I mean, well yeah," he said and added quickly, "I'm retired. I don't really have other things right now."
By way of clarification, he said, "I'm not fishing around the clock yet. It's too early, and I don't want to burn myself out, but I'm out there. I can't really help myself."
Bob admitted that it has all the signs of an addiction. "But the way I look at it, I'm not hurting anybody," he said.
Bob picked his fishing spot based on earlier scouting and optimum tides. That, combined with his experience, provided a good idea of where he might find fish.
Bob used eels and a very big Eagle Claw circle hook. Circle hooks are designed to pivot and hook a fish cleanly in the jaw but require some technique to use properly.
Bob shared his expertise. He likes his hooks to have the widest gap possible and a large eye so the eel will not slide up the line. He fishes with 30-pound test braided line.
After he gets a hit he lets the fish run until it gets the eel down. Then he begins to reel. "I hook just about all of them in the lip," he said. "That's what works for me."
Coast Guard patrols Hooter
Massachusetts controls the waters out to three miles. The federal government exercises control beyond that limit, in what it terms the exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Federal regulations prohibit the possession of striped bass in the EEZ.
In recent years, the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) has sought to open the EEZ striped bass fishery in order to exploit productive shoals currently outside the state limit. Some recreational fishing leaders and conservationists have opposed a reopening of the EEZ on the basis that it currently provides striped bass with a refuge from commercial exploitation.
The debate was sharpened last October when President George Bush signed an executive order that directed the Commerce and Interior Departments to put regulations in place to establish gamefish status for red drum and striped bass in federal waters.
The Hooter buoy is located southeast of Wasque Point and marks the southern entrance to Muskeget Channel. It gets its name from the sound of the horn that announces its location.
The Hooter, as it is commonly called, has long been a popular Vineyard fishing spot for striped bass, as well as bonito and false albacore. Although it is located outside the three-mile limit and within the EEZ, I had rarely heard of any enforcement action until this summer.
In August, I received an email from Jim McDevitt of West Dover, Vermont. Jim had heard that the Coast Guard was boarding boats at the Hooter and citing captains who were in possession of striped bass, even though the fish were not caught there. Jim wrote, "I have often caught bass at Wasque or on the back of Nantucket and stopped at the Hooter and fished to see if I could pick up an albie (false albacore) or a bone (bonito) on the way back to Edgartown."
He wondered where he could get information about what he took to be new rules.
Coincidentally, long-time Oak Bluffs charter captain Bob Weiss came by to see me about the same issue. Bob provided me with copies of emails on the subject of enforcement he sent to the Coast Guard and Paul Diodati, DMF director.
Captain Weiss questioned why, after years of slack, the Coast Guard was suddenly enforcing regulations at one of the most productive bass fishing spots on the east side of the Vineyard and so close to the state line. He suggested the Coast Guard was reacting to political pressure from gamefish groups.
In an email dated August 6, Paul Diodati told Captain Weiss that the Division has been trying to reopen EEZ fishing for striped bass for eight years, but without success.
He wrote, "Primary opposition (and calls to the Coast Guard requesting enforcement of the EEZ closure) is from the Coastal Conservation Association and members of a group known as Stripers Forever. Both strongly support gamefish status for striped bass and continued closure of the EEZ, which they believe offers substantial conservation benefits."
Mr. Diodati said that in the Division's view, "there is no strong evidence of a conservation benefit because of the EEZ closure, other than scientists probably underestimate the size of the striped bass population without benefit of the data from the EEZ, and thereby we are over-managing the fishery by being more restrictive than necessary."
He said the Division is currently working to provide more data in order to document that bass are regulated well enough without the need for an EEZ closure.
After some back and forth with First District, I spoke to Executive Petty Officer Rob Bitinas at Station Menemsha. He said that he did not know anything about where any pressure might be coming from to enforce a law that was on the books.
From the Coast Guard perspective it is pretty straightforward. A fisherman may not possess a striped bass in the EEZ. Mr. Bitinas said the Hooter buoy is .8 nautical miles into federal waters, past the quarter mile leeway the Coast Guard allows.
What does that mean? It means no possessing striped bass in the EEZ, even if the bass was caught in state waters. The Coast Guard has the authority to issue a $50 fine per fish.
Add that to the price of gas, and a trip to the hooter can get pretty expensive real quick.
"This has been a heated issue everywhere," said Mr. Bitinas.
Kids Day is Sunday
The Derby can be a daunting event for a parent who would like to take his or her child fishing but cannot tell a scup from a sea robin. It is hard to know where to start when their language, bearing and attire makes it seem as though Derby fishermen belong to a secret society.
Well, each Derby there is a day set aside during the month-long tournament where a novice parent and child should not feel completely clueless (or put it this way, you will blend in). It is the Kid's Mini Derby and it is this Sunday from 6 to 9 am at the Oak Bluffs Steamship pier.
The pier provides an easy fishing spot. No casting skill is required and a simple fishing rod will suffice. Simply bait a weighted hook with a piece of squid or sand eel and drop it to the bottom where a hopefully a hungry scup or sea robin lies in wait.
From a child's perspective half the fun and excitement of this event is just going to it. The early morning hour and atmosphere of fishing excitement makes it a memorable event.
Derby committee members led by long-time kids' chairman Cooper Gilkes (assisted by keeper-of-the-records Lela Gilkes) provide bait and plenty of advice and assistance. The committee also hands out lots of prizes in numerous categories.
The mini-derby is strictly for kids old enough to hold and reel a fishing rod through age 14. It is the one and only time fishing is allowed from the pier.
That makes it tempting for parents and guardians who must sometimes be reminded by a committee member that this event is for the kids, not adults. That means no stage moms or dads casting.
Lost tackle bag
Derby hall of fame member Steve Amaral of Oak Bluffs found a tackle bag at Big Bridge on Sunday. Being an honest guy, he brought it to Steve Morris at Dick's Bait and Tackle. The rightful owner only needs to identify the contents. For more information, call Steve at 508-693-7669.