Martha’s Vineyard made fishing lures combine art and craft

A collection of Scott's handmade plugs hang from a window sill in his workroom. He built the stubby needlefish on the right out of old broom handles. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

Fishing is not just about catching fish. If it were, fishermen would save a lot of money and go to the fish market.

The lures Coast Guard Machinery Technician First Class Scott Maccaferri builds in what little spare time he has combine the elements of his life: fishing, the ocean, and manual skill. Scott follows in the tradition of 19th century Island duck hunters, men who knew how to work with their hands and used available materials to create decoys to hunt ducks. The end result combined form and function.

Catalogs are filled with plastic lures that are beautiful, durable, and catch fish. Scott’s lures have personality. It is what sets them apart from their plastic counterparts and provides a link to fishing’s past.

The bass fishermen of an earlier era — one of fifty pounders and seemingly miles of access for beach buggies — used wooden plugs with now legendary names like Atom and Gibbs.

Scott Maccaferri is a 20-year member of the Coast Guard and engineering petty officer for Station Menemsha. Scott is responsible for keeping everything going at Station Menemsha, and that includes the machinery that provides security for Island fishermen.

Scott, his wife Madeleine, and three children — two boys and a girl ages 10, 6 and 4 — live in Vineyard Haven.

The service was a natural choice for a guy who grew up in Plymouth and when a teenager worked on the water on lobster boats and head boats. He appreciates the opportunities to travel and learn provided him by the Coast Guard. “There are so many different sides of the Coast Guard that it keeps things interesting,” he said.

He began building lures in 2007. It was a natural outgrowth of his interest in fishing and ability to work with wood. He looked at some plugs and figured, “Hey, I can make one of these. It’s just a piece of wood and some paint.”

Of course, as everyone who has ever ended up with one screw left over from a do-it-yourself reel repair project knows, some jobs are never as easy as they seem.

“Once you get into it you realize that there is a lot more that goes into it than just a hunk of wood and some paint,” he said. There is considerable work.

Scott makes three different size jointed swimmers, two pencil poppers, and a needlefish that he sells under the name “On-Island Lures.” He described the process of making a jointed swimmer.

It takes about 20 minutes to turn a block of wood on a lathe into the desired shape. He drills it out so he can later insert a stainless steel welding wire that will run the length of the lure and attach to the hooks.

He measures and cuts the lip slot. “Where you place that lip slot or line tie determines whether the plug is going to swim deep or on the surface,” he said. “That takes a little bit of trial and error to get right.”

Any holes he drilled to accommodate weight he fills in with epoxy. “You have to wait for that to dry, then you sand it all flush and then comes the sealing process.”

He warms his plugs up in a small oven to open up the pores of the wood and then soaks them in a wood sealer for a couple of hours. The lures are allowed to dry for about three days. “Then you prime it, you wait for that to dry, then you paint it, you wait for that to dry, and then you put on the eye stickers and add the epoxy coat, which gives it that gloss.”

He uses an onion bag as a stencil during the painting process to give the plugs a distinctive scale finish. He adds a single strong Siwash hook on the tail and an extra strong treble up front.

A Coast Guardsman, he believes in realistic sea trials. New models get a summer tryout.

The end result is a beautiful looking plug that a surf fisherman could trust to hook and hold a big bass from Gay Head to Wasque, but also looks pretty good on the mantle.

“The best part is catching fish,” Scott said. “Catching fish on something you made in your basement, that’s what it’s all about. Or hearing people say, ‘I caught the biggest fish I’ve ever had on that popper you gave me, that thing is awesome, you got anymore?”

On-Island lures are available at Coop’s and Larry’s. They sell for around $20 depending on the model.

Slow fishing

I am not catching Derby fish. Nothing. Zip.

Tom Robinson, my frequent fishing partner, and I have an in-house derby. I think I lead with the following catch: one skate, two bluefish less than one pound each, one schoolie striper, and a crab.

Ned Casey and his brother John have had equally dismal fishing but more excitement. The guys fished Quansoo last week. A gray seal popped its head up so they moved up the beach.

The guys were fishing when Ned said, “Johnny’s rod bent friggin over. And Johnny says, ‘I think I caught a seal.'”

He did. Luckily, after a strong run the hook pulled.

The people I have talked to also tell me that the fishing is slow. Of course, a glance at the Derby board shows that people are catching fish. But certainly not in the quantity we would like to see.

I hear about albies and an occasional bonito up at Menemsha and Lobsterville from the shore. There are stripers and bluefish off Chappy and Gay Head.

The boat, bonito, bass, and bluefish divisions recently changed leaders. The 46.15-pound boat bass Richard Penney caught and the 15.50 pound bluefish Charles Ogletree caught is news of change we can believe in.

I remain optimistic. With ten days left, Derby fishermen will keep plugging away.

By the numbers

In 2010, the Derby registered 2,797 fishermen. As of Monday morning that number stood at 2,341 without the benefit of an expected Columbus Day weekend surge.

Fishing appears to be on a par with last year, which is not exactly good news, particularly with respect to striped bass. In 2010, the Derby weighed in 147 boat bass and 237 shore bass for a total catch of 384 fish. That was the lowest number since bass were reintroduced to the Derby in 1997 and eight fish less than the previous low set in 2008.

Here is a tally of fish weighed in as of Tuesday morning, compared with the 2010 final tally: 344 striped bass (384); 847 bluefish (1,266); 160 bonito (184); and 221 albies (131).

Iron chef

When the subject of eating false albacore comes up, the general consensus is that it ranks below cat food. Skip Bettencourt of Chappy has another view.

“I caught an albacore and haven’t enjoyed eating them in the past but recently heard soaking it in milk improves its palatability. After soaking it overnight in the fridge, I grilled it with poppy seed dressing and it was super. You might want to pass this along in the fish news. My wife likes it better than our venison.”

Lost and found

A rod and reel found at Big Bridge around Wednesday, September 28. Call 508-560-5607.

A fishing tackle bag found at Big Bridge on Sunday morning, October 2. Call 508-221-0592.

Bob Beal left his fishing utility belt on the fence at the Wasque parking lot late Friday night “after a long day of fishless fishing.” Contact Derby headquarters or call The Times.

Cooper Gilkes left a box chock full of squid jigs on the dock. It can be identified because it contains 3,482 squid jigs. Call Coop at 508-627-3909.