Gone Fishin’: Dogfish bar access is a winding path

Fishermen were surprised to find new signs barring passage to the informal path they have used for years to gain access to the popular fishing spot.

A sign warns people to stay off the well used trail that once provided informal access to Dogfish bar. — Photo by Nelson Sigelman

Fisherman are protective of fishing spots. It is a trait imprinted in their DNA since the first time a caveman decided it was more fun to catch a trout in a stream with his hands than hit it with a club.

More than 20 years ago, fishermen in the know could travel down a dirt road in Gay Head — now known as Aquinnah but still called Gay Head by those in the know — to a small parking lot. A path led to a beach at Dogfish Bar. Property owner Dr. Jason Lew was fine with fishermen using his lot. On a good night the striped bass fishing could be legendary. But the arrangement, one similar to past conveniences that once provided fishing access around the Island, was too good to last under the onslaught of more visitors and GPS.

Last fall, Bob “Hawkeye” Jacobs asked me to look into new signs that had sprouted up barring access to the path to the beach. Stone boulders had also been placed around the parking area, acquired years ago by the state Department of Fish and Game (DFG).

Last Saturday, I drove to Aquinnah to look into the fuss. Then I started making phone calls.

A sign planted directly on the path to the beach states: Private, no trespassing, protected sensitive “Ecosystem,” violators subject to arrest.

It is a pretty ominous warning for a fisherman who just wants to catch a bass and mind his or her own business. I took a short walk and discovered pretty quickly that the ecosystem is dominated by ticks.

What I discovered in my research is that Beverly Wright and her husband Robert Macdiarmid own the lot to the west of the state lot. A portion of the property where people parked and the path was on their property, not the state’s. Beverly told me that frustration over abuse of their property — mostly by beach-goers, not fishermen — led them to assert their property rights and bar anyone from parking on their property or using the path.

Beverly said she placed the boulders only on her property line. She said she does not know who placed boulders in the state lot to constrict parking. No one seems to know.

Doug Cameron, Office of Fishing and Boating Access (FBA) assistant director and deputy chief engineer for the Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game, told me in a telephone conversation Wednesday that FBA recently received permission from the Aquinnah conservation commission and planning board to create a new path on DFG property. The one sticking point, he said, is that after the fact, the planning board said the parking lot must be limited to four vehicles. Doug does not agree. I am sure fishermen will be on his side.

I also learned that William Waterway, once known as William Marks, was behind the “ecosystem” signs. Mr. Waterway is the president of a private beach association that maintains a parking area about 100 yards up the road where the cost of admission, a key to the gate lock, is more than $70,000. William also owns a lot just adjacent to the association lot. He just sold a share solely for parking and beach access for $72,500.

Mr. Waterway appears to be the self-appointed environmental steward of the beach. His ecosystem signs are everywhere. I could not reach him by phone but this is what he has to say about himself on his website: William Waterway is an award-winning water author, poet, artist, philosopher, and Native American flute artist who was raised on an organic farm.

William is interested in man’s connection to water. “Mysterious water helps us to survive each second,” he writes in the introduction to his website. “Without a stream of healthy water flowing through our bodies – we become ill and cease to exist. The same goes for the body of any region or country.”

I suppose the tug of war is between tick ecosystems, reverence for water, and fishing access. Fisherman have a champion in Jack Sheppard, longtime director of the Fishing and Boating Access Board. Jack is responsible for helping fishermen and boaters gain access across the state. A little history is in order.

Years ago, as I said, Dr. Lew allowed fishermen to use his lot. When his property went on the market, in 1996 the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank stepped in with an offer to buy the entire parcel that stretched from Lighthouse Road to the beach and create a boardwalk path. Unfortunately, Gay Headers objected to the potential public incursion and the local Land Bank advisory board nixed the deal, citing fears of heavy use, traffic, impact on the environment, and community opinion in making its decision.

Division of Fisheries and Wildlife Commissioner John Phillips had fished Dogfish and recognized the value of public access to a unique fishing spot. John asked Jack Sheppard and the public access board to step in. The state purchased a 2.4-acre property at Dogfish Bar in 1996 for $160,000.

John and others in the state agency pledged that care would be taken to preserve the ecology and protect residents’ interests. He asked the Island office of the Trustees of Reservations (TTOR) to handle local management details. And the Orvis Company, out of Manchester, Vermont, known for its commitment to the environment, pledged to contribute $40,000 towards management costs. Orvis regularly devotes a percentage of its profits to projects, causes, and activities that benefit the environment.

Under the theory that no good deed goes unpunished, Gay Headers saw a conspiracy. Orvis wanted to run a fly fishing school, some said. It was untrue. Their interest did not extend beyond preserving access for the public. The Trustees just wanted to be helpful.

In one report at the time, Mr. Waterway, then Marks, charged that some fishermen are “pretty damned lazy” if they cannot walk from public parking on Lobsterville Road to Dogfish Bar, a distance of approximately one mile.

Mr. Marks said that he opposed the purchase because he believed the Spur Road and the surrounding environment is “burdened enough as it is.”

Orvis decided not to spend money where they were not wanted. The Trustees wanted no part of the controversy.

After much gnashing of teeth, and a tussle between state wildlife officials and Gay Head leaders, a period of detente settled over the area. The state did not improve the parking lot and everyone looked the other way.

So here we are again. The well used path is off limits. Walk on it and it is a trespass. Fishermen may walk through the grass until the state creates a new path, Doug Cameron said. My advice is to check for ticks.

Catch and Release

The Martha’s Vineyard Rod and Gun Club will host its 23nd annual Fly Rod Striped Bass Catch and Release Tournament this Saturday.

There are three prize categories: the Roberto Germani Trophy, for the most striped bass caught and released by a team; the Sonny and Joey Beaulieu Trophy, for the largest striped bass caught and released; and the Arnold Spofford Trophy, for the most fish caught and released by a team using one fly per team member.

The contest rules are simple. There is no fishing from boats. Fishermen may only fish from beaches that are accessible. The first cast cannot be made until 7 pm Saturday, and fishing must stop at exactly 2 am, Sunday.

The club hosts a breakfast in the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School cafeteria Sunday morning followed by an awards ceremony at 9:30 am.

The entry fee is $35. Money raised by the tournament helps support a variety of youth programs. For tournament information or to contribute, contact Cooper Gilkes at 508-627-3909. Sign up early or Saturday afternoon at the high school.

Coop’s will host an Orvis Day this Friday. Stop by to win a new fly outfit and feast on hot dogs and burgers.