Striped bass answer the perennial Vineyard question

Been fishin’ yet? It is a common question on the Vineyard in early May, if people suspect you are a member of the Island’s large fishing fraternity.

The question reflects the Island’s seasonal transition from winter to spring. Natural milestones alert us that it is time to check that the reel on our favorite fishing rod still turns freely: herring in the runs, squid in the Sound, blues hitting at Wasque rip and hushed conversation about striped bass.

Congenial Fritz Knight spied me from the doorway of his office in the Martha’s Vineyard Savings Bank Thursday and walked out to the lobby for a brief chat about fishing. Had I been fishing yet?

No, I said, but I planned to go that night.

My preparations were simple. Grab the one-piece light surf rod I had stored on basement hooks last fall after I gave up all hope of catching a Derby winner. Spray a couple of shots of WD-40 on my aging Penn 704Z reel and search through the jumble of tackle I had planned to organize but ignored all winter for a handful of nine-inch Sluggos, the soft plastic eel-like lure that bass find irresistible.

Tom Robinson picked me up just before 8 pm. I had been casting a short time when I felt a solid bump and tug on the end of the line — from a striped bass. The first solid hit of a new fishing season reawakened the enthusiasm that lay dormant all winter. I took a deep breath, sucking in everything I love about fishing on the Vineyard.

Spring fishing is most often associated with schoolie bass, smaller fish about 20-inches in length. But big fish also arrive early.

I know that is true because about two weeks ago, Lucas Mercier landed a 46-inch bass that weighed 37.5-pounds. On Friday night, his sister Holly landed a 42-inch bass that weighed 30.75-pounds. For each, it was their largest shore fish.

“Every time we’ve caught our biggest fish we’ve been together, I think that’s really cool,” Holly told me in a telephone call.

“I’m in the thirty-pounder club and I’m happy,” Holly, the self-described Sluggo queen, said. “I’ve been chasing that fish for a long time. Now it’s a forty-pounder. Luke told me I can’t keep anything less than a thirty-pounder.”

I wanted to speak to Holly, not about her bass, which was impressive, but the fact that she and her brother are fishing pals, which I found more impressive. These days we are more likely to hear about siblings suing each other.

Holly at 38 is the oldest in a family of five of Kathy and Randy Mercier of Edgartown.

Luke is six years younger than Holly. About ten years ago he set out to see the world off-Island. His travels took him to the Virgin Islands, Colorado, Montana, Wyoming and Hawaii, with periodic trips home to fish the spring and the fall Derby.

“I kind of bounced around — no kids, no bills,” Luke said.

Being so far away made him cherish his Island home. Now married and with a five-year-old boy and seven-month-old girl, he also has appreciation for the family bonds that link him to the Vineyard. “You can always count on family, and that is something I’ve learned from having kids,” Luke said.

He and Holly began fishing hard together during Luke’s annual fishing migration home about four years ago. This spring Luke decided to return to the Vineyard with his family.

That each finds the other good company is obvious. They can wander the beach for hours and find something amusing. Getting each to talk about the other elicits no touchy-feely observations.

What makes Holly a good fishing partner? I asked Luke.

“She keeps her mouth shut,” Luke said with a laugh.

“We get along pretty well,” Holly said. “We are both there for each other.”

There are people who like to fish, and there are striper fishermen. There are few easy ways to consistently catch big bass from the shore, and the people who know what it takes respect those who are willing to walk the beach, often late at night.

The footing can be difficult even for someone in perfect health. Luke keeps a close watch on his sister. “I have MS, and he’s always making sure I’m okay,” Holly said.

Luke said he does not mind frequent stops. “Who cares if you have to stop every ten minutes? We sit down and talk for ten minutes, and when she’s ready we get up and go,” Luke said. “Or if it ever came down to it. I’d throw her on my back and carry her.”

The night Holly caught her big fish she required no help of any kind to land it or make her way about a half-mile back to the truck.

“Do you want me to carry it?” Luke asked her.

“Nope,” Holly said.

“Good girl,” her brother said.