Catch and release tournament was humbling all the way around

Christopher Newhall of Scituate holds up a striped bass that took him into his backing Saturday night. — Photo courtesy of Christopher Newhall

I half expected the 22nd annual Martha’s Vineyard Rod and Gun Club striped bass catch and release tournament to conclude with a collective snore. The 100-plus people assembled in the regional high school cafeteria Sunday for the morning breakfast and awards ceremony were a tired group.

Or maybe everybody just looked tired through my weary eyeballs. I do not normally stay up until 2 am to fish, even when there are fish. I did once. Now I prefer sleep over fish. I suppose it is a consequence of aging and lack of a pill for my flagging fishing libido … when the mood is right and the fish are biting take Castalis.

But once a year I rally because the catch and release is one great time. It also attracts the kind of fishermen that make me proud to be part of that fraternity.

My fishing strategy, as usual, involved leading my four partners on a long, arduous walk to a spot that I could say should have big fish, and where I could say I had caught big fish but, in fact, that night would have no fish. Pretty clever, huh?

The plan began with burgers and sausage on the grill at my house. I sprang that plan on my wife, Norma, in the morning. I find the less time I give her to think about my plans the better. You see, there is a clash of cultures in the way my wife and I prepare for guests. I am a minimalist. She is a preparer, a tidy-upper.

“Norma,” I said, “I’m going to get some burgers and throw them on the grill before we go fishing.”

Norma erected what she thought might be a hurdle. “There are not enough chairs for everyone,” she said referring to our collection of white bargain box patio furniture I spray painted black and which is not aging well.

“We can borrow some from the neighbors,” I said, referring to the unoccupied seasonal house next door.

“What about salad?” Norma asked. I had not given it a thought.

“We don’t need salad, these are fishermen,” I said.

“We only have four paper plates,” Norma said.

“No problem. We are having burgers, they can hold them.”

Norma looked at me with disbelief, and the resignation borne of 22 years of marriage. “You can’t do that. I’ll get some when I go to the store.”

“What about drinks?” she asked.

“We can drink water,” I said.

She did not say anything. She had given up.

Well-fed, Tom Robinson and I and our three off-Island guest fishermen headed for a spot on the north shore. Terns were diving when we arrived, but other than a few stripers, we found mostly small blues.

Humbling indeed

But this tournament is not about the fish, it is about the fishermen. I was reminded of that Sunday morning when I took on the role of master of ceremonies for the 22nd year.

Sitting among the fishermen Sunday morning was Army CPT Nicholas Blair, 27th En Bn (C) (A), of Norton, currently stationed at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina. A member of “Team Chappy,” he had fished with his father, Jim, and a group of friends undeterred by the cast on the foot he broke during a training exercise last month.

Unable to attend as he had in the past was his twin brother, Army 1LT Matthew Blair 10th Mount 1st BCT, who was lying in a hospital bed in Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

An Apache helicopter pilot, Matthew was serving in Afghanistan last month when he sustained a series of fractures in his foot while on a mission, which he completed, his brother told me with a hint of pride, despite his injuries.

Prizes are not awarded based on catch totals. The winners get simple plaques. We draw registration blanks to hand out the prizes that include custom collections of saltwater flies, very expensive fly rods and reels, and assorted gear, almost all of it donated by the participants.

Randy Shea of Marlboro won a new fly rod. Without missing a step he walked over to the Team Chappy table and handed the rod to Nicholas and asked him to give it to his brother Matthew.

In a conversation the next day, Nicholas, 34, told me he is part of the Global Response Force. From natural disasters to combat situations anywhere in the world, its members are the first to arrive.

Nicholas broke his foot on May 2. His brother Matthew broke his foot one week later. Only time will tell, Nicholas said, if his brother will be able to return to an Apache cockpit.

Nicholas said he enjoys the opportunity to fish with his father and family friends, the Johns, on the Vineyard. He has made the tournament three times.

Nicholas is humble about his service. He would prefer to go unnoticed, but I noted his and his brother’s service during the awards ceremony Sunday and the fishermen, many of whom had earlier signed a tournament tee-shirt for his brother, gave him a round of applause.

“It was a little embarrassing,” Nicholas told me over the phone Monday. “I really appreciated your kind words in the beginning. Nobody joined to be celebrated as a hero. We do what we can. I’m not saying my brother’s not a hero for what he did — breaking his foot and still continuing to go on — that’s a common theme. I know people who have been hurt and then continued to fight until they died.”

Pausing to reconsider his earlier remark about the show of gratitude he received Sunday morning, Nicholas said, “It’s not embarrassing. It’s welcome, but it’s humbling to see the appreciation.”

On Sunday, the last drawing was for the “pot of gold,” a jar containing $1,210 raised by selling tickets. Half would go to the winner and half to the club for various programs.

When the winning number was announced, Nicholas stood up with the winning ticket worth $605 cash. “Give it to the Wounded Warrior project,” he said, and sat down.

Catch and Release results

A total of 128 fishermen registered for the tournament by mail and in person, one fewer than last year. The official catch report total was 228 fish, well above last year’s tally of 123 striped bass. Of course, those numbers are not accurate since a number of fishermen failed to turn in their results.

Standings are based on the number of fish divided by the number of fishermen.

Roberto Germani award (for the most stripers caught and released by a team): 1. Team Double Haul (Wilson Kerr, Clint Eller), 22 fish; 2. Team Septic (Doyle Bunch, David Thompson), 14 fish; 3. High Stickers (Cooper Gilkes, Aaron Cascone, Donald O’Shaughnessy, Tom Zemianek), 24 fish; 4. Team Snunks (Matt Bienfang, Perry Harris, Mike O’Connor) 17 fish.

Arnold Spofford award (for the most fish using one fly): 1. Team Last Cast (Ed Tatro, Scott MacCaferri) 8 fish; 2. Team Wet Waders ( (Ralph Norton, Ken Berkov), 7 fish; 3. Hooters (Ralph Carrieri, Randy Shea, Dave Hoskyns) 7 fish; 3. Team Caddy Shack (Seth Woods, Mac Haskell, Charlie Finnerty), 7 fish.

Sonny and Joey Beaulieu award (for the largest fish caught and released): 1. Aron Cascone (36.5-inch length, 17.75-inch girth, 54.25); 2. Norris Johns (34-inch length, 17-inch girth, 51).

Larry’s Bass Blast

It is not too late to get in on the shore and boat competition striper action in this month-long tournament that ends June 30. Winners split the kitty. For more information, call the tackle shop at 508-627-5088.