Barbados lures a Martha’s Vineyard fisherman

A Bajan fisherman throws a cast net over a school of baitfish. — Photo by Glenn Burnell

Last February, at the invitation of friends, my wife and I left cold, gray Martha’s Vineyard behind and traveled to Barbados, the easternmost island in the Caribbean, for one week of blue water set against an azure sky, an endless pitcher of rum punch, fried flying fish basted in spices, and plentiful Bajan hospitality.

I caught one fish, a small needlenose creature called a garfish. But an encounter on the last day of our stay provided me with one of the more memorable fishing experiences of my life, and there was not a fish in sight.

Our trip was not intended as a fishing vacation, but I have a firm rule: never travel to any destination where the air and water temperature are both above 80 degrees without a fishing rod. I also packed a Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby hat, to give away when the time seemed right.

The Derby embodies the Vineyard spirit of community, the natural beauty of our shoreline, and the exciting fishing that makes our Island unique. Each entrant in the month-long fishing contest receives a hat emblazoned with the Derby name, the date 1946, the year the contest started, and an image of an arching striped bass, a fish emblematic of the currents that swirl around our Island.

I have acquired quite a collection of hats over more than 25 years of fishing the Derby. Years ago, I realized they make great gifts to take along on trips and the recipients enjoy receiving something unique to the Vineyard.

Our winter escape to a warm Caribbean island was an anomaly. We had never been beach people in the conventional American sense, content to baste in the hot sun in a semi-comatose state. For years, our trip planning revolved around our daughter, now 22, and school vacation. Several years we went to Maine, one year to Montreal. There was a trip to London and one to Amsterdam. The common thread, intended or not, was always cold, damp weather.

When the opportunity to go to Barbados presented itself I needed to convince my wife Norma that there was something to be said for getting closer to the equator in February. She was resistant, wondering what we would do, but agreed. Once in Barbados she rarely left the white sand beach and bath temperature water.

We flew from New York and arrived that afternoon at the house of our hosts located a short stroll from Gibbs Beach on the west coast of Barbados, in the parish of St. Peter. We dropped our bags and went to the beach.

My second cast I hooked a fish on a one-ounce, green Spofford’s needlefish, a lure that is irresistible to many Vineyard species, including striped bass and false albacore, and had lost none of its fish attracting abilities over the long flight south. The garfish was not big but it was interesting in its appearance with a slender snake-like body, and long, beak of a mouth with sharp, needle teeth, hence its alternate names, needlefish and sea needle.

I like to walk along the beach and cast every 50 yards or so. It is as much about the activity, walking and listening to the sea wash up on the sand, as it is about the likelihood of catching a fish. On Barbados, outfitted with a light spinning rod and a small bag of lures, wearing my favorite tan Derby fishing hat against the bright sun, the fact that I was fishing at all proved to be an easy conversation starter with the wide range of people I encountered on my lengthy strolls. Many wondered what I expected to catch. My answer was, “I have no idea.”

The local fishermen who motored along the beach in wooden skiffs, cast net at the ready, had no doubts about their quarry. It was a type of bait fish we would call sprat. “They’re very quick, you only get one chance,” one Bajan fisherman told me as he gathered his net on the beach into neat coils.

The government of Barbados supports fishermen through a series of government operated markets where locals, chefs and bolder visitors go to purchase day-caught fish. The market closest to our residence was more like a stall, where mahi-mahi sat in ice bins, and hefty Bajan women with toothless grins cleaned and packaged flying fish, an island specialty. Several times over the course of the week I made my way to the market to watch the give and take of Bajan commerce.

The centerpiece of the action was a man who went by the name “Smokey,” a no-nonsense fish cutter who was ruler of the domain. On order he would pull a mahi-mahi from the bin and fillet it on request after which he named the price. Smokey had a reputation. He was said to not be particularly friendly.

Perhaps. But I was intrigued watching him clean mahi-mahi, peeling off the skin after several deft cuts, and on my multiple trips to the market he answered my questions, even if he did not smile.

“It’s not as difficult as it seems,” Smokey said about his method. “You just have to do what comes naturally.”

Fishermen on Barbados as on the Vineyard keep to their own schedule. “Some guys will go out in the morning,” he said. “Some guys go out at night and come in in the morning, 7 am, but you won’t find me here that early.” Not a smile punctuated his remarks. Ever, to me or anyone else. I had my man.

Our last day on Barbados I took my fishing rod and started out on the long walk to the fish market. I walked past sites that had become familiar, the luxury villas and hotels where vacationing Brits turned from white to lobster red, the rum shop where a group of Bajans hung out laughing and playing dominoes and a long-grounded fishing boat on the beach.

Smokey was cutting fish. “Smokey,” I said, “Do you know where Martha’s Vineyard is?”

It can grow tiring to hear some editorialists genuflect to our specialness. It was refreshing to hear Smokey say he only vaguely knew where Martha’s Vineyard was located.

“Well, it’s an Island and every year there is a fishing contest,” I said, “called the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby. It’s a very big deal.”

I handed him the blue Derby hat I had packed away one week earlier. “There are only two people on Barbados with a Derby hat,” I said. “You and me.” I waited for his reaction.

Smokey put the hat on his bald, brown head and smiled. “How do I look,” he said with a grin. It was not exactly a Lone Ranger silver bullet moment, but it felt pretty good.

I began walking back up the beach, stopping periodically to cast and linger in the warm water flowing around my bare feet. Suddenly, a young, lanky Bajan who seemed to be about 12 years of age came running up to me and asked me what I was doing. He was smiling, fidgety and genuinely excited. He peppered me with questions and grabbed at the fishing rod, anxious to give it a try.

His actions and mannerisms did not reflect his age and were awkward enough to suggest something else was at work beyond his youth.

He wanted to cast. Luckily, I had enough experience to stay well back as he whipped the lure to the side. I did my best to improve his casting skills without success.

He told me his name was Jadon. I assumed his father was one of the laborers on a seaside project and he was on his own on the beach. We walked together up the beach until we came to a rocky point. It was time to part company.

I told him he could go no further. Spontaneously, and with a huge smile on his face, he jumped up on my back and hugged me. I removed my well-worn fishing hat and put it on his head. “I want you to have this hat,” I told him. “This is a pretty special hat where I come from.”

Jadon looked at me with a huge grin. Then he went running back down the beach waving the hat and yelling for joy.

How we got there
We drove to the Kingston, R.I. Amtrak station (free parking) and caught an afternoon train to New York City where we spent the night with our hosts. The next morning we boarded Jet Blue’s 8 am direct flight from New York City and arrived in sunny, warm Bridgetown, Barbados about 1:30 pm. Six days later we departed on an afternoon Jet Blue flight and arrived back in New York about 7 pm. The next day, to our delight, our car was still parked in Kingston when we arrived at the train station.