Gone fishin’: It takes a village to land a striped bass

Here is a story as American as a gluten-filled GMO apple pie.

Justice Hartford, visiting from san Francisco, holds up the striped bass he caught on a scup rig in Oak Bluffs Harbor last week. — Photo courtesy of Tammeil Gilker

There are many ways to have fun on Martha’s Vineyard in the summertime. For 11-year-old Justice Hartford, visiting from Oakland, Calif., catching a big striped bass from the Oak Bluffs Harbor jetty in the middle of the day in front of a crowd of people has got to be at the top of the list.

Justice arrived last Wednesday with his mom and dad for a visit. On Thursday, he went fishing. Looking for the scoop, I spoke to his grandmother, Judy Hartford of Oak Bluffs, owner of Bananas. “We’re like out of our minds with excitement; it was a big thing,” Judy said. She passed the phone on to her son.

“Hi, this is the father of the kid Justice who caught the fish,” said the man on the other end of the line, obviously basking in the reflected glory.

I asked him if he went by that name — father of kid who caught the fish — or if he had another. I was speaking to Chris Hartford.

Chris told me he and his wife, Tammeil Gilkerson, were visiting his mom with their son and daughter. They visit every summer, and while not experienced fishermen, they like to fish.

“We started fishing just to fool around five years ago, with a string and a hook,” he said. “Then we bought a rod and reel last year that we used today.”

That morning they went to Shark’s Landing on the harbor and bought a new scup outfit for his 8-year-old daughter Malea, and some squid. They fished from the new public fishing pier, took a pizza break, then decided to fish from the rocks at the entrance to the harbor.

On Justice’s third cast with a small scup hook, the hook appeared to be stuck. It was — stuck to a fish. Dad told his son to loosen the line so he could reach it to cut it.

“And right when I did, the line started moving really fast, so I didn’t cut it,” Chris said. It was a decision that spared him years of guilt.

“Then we realized that we had a fish on,” he said.

A small crowd started to gather. As with any small crowd on Oak Bluffs Harbor, it contained several guys who knew how to play a bass.

Justice slowly played the fish into the rocks. “Then some guy went down and grabbed it in for us,” Chris said. “He was pretty much tired out by then.”

“The fish or your son?” I asked.

“The fish,” Chris said.

A woman videotaped the excitement on her iPhone. In the video, someone can be heard asking, “Anyone know how to grab a fish?” I assume that was Chris. “Nice and slow,” one of the men tells Justice as he continues to reel. A man in fishing boots makes his way down the rocks and grabs the fish. Cheers.

“This is a video of some of the action that a wonderful woman just shot on her phone and sent to us,” Tammeil said in an email. “It was really exciting for a boy who has been coming to the Vineyard every summer since he was born. What was even more touching was the way the entire community rallied around and celebrated the moment. You can hear them cheering in the background!”


Chris said his son was in a state of shock. He admits that as excited as he was, he was pretty nervous about how he was going to get the fish. He was quite relieved when the bystanders pitched in to help.

This was their first striped bass ever. “We’re really very inexperienced,” he said. “It was pretty amazing.”

The fish was 33 inches in length. A very respectable catch on a scup rig.

I spoke to Justice, who was clearly modest. I asked him what he thought when the line started moving.

“I was kind of freaked out and kind of happy, I guess,” he said.

When the fish came to the surface, he said, he thought it was a shark.

I asked Justice if he liked fish, and preferred to eat striper or chicken fingers. True to his West Coast roots, he said, “I like sushi a lot.”

Jordan Wallace of Oak Bluffs, one of the bystanders and a manager of the Sandbar and Grille on the harbor, also stepped in to help with a generous offer to fillet the fish and cook it later for the family. Jordan shared in the excitement of the moment, and spoke about the pride he has in his community.

“It’s indicative of the nature of Oak Bluffs that this sort of occurrence is still possible; it’s so exciting,” he said. “Growing up here — I fished in that same spot when I was that age — and I still fish the Vineyard waters, I’m 22 years old, and to see a young man come from California and on his third cast catch a fish, it’s so exciting for me to see that. It makes everything that we do here for the tourism industry worthwhile, for me.”

Jordan said he planned to cook classic “Oak Bluffs fish and chips” in his kitchen at home, and serve it on the dock that night to the family.

“It’s such a pleasure to see,” Jordan said.

That night family and friends dined on fish and chips and, of course, striped bass sushi.

Fish Heimlich

Striped bass sometimes bite off more than they can chew, or swallow. That was the case recently with a striped bass that attempted to swallow a black sea bass.

John Kollett and Sandra Demel were fishing in Vineyard Sound when they spotted a very large striper, near 40 inches long, floating on the surface. As they got closer they saw it had something stuck in its mouth — a sea bass.

John managed to free the sea bass from the striper’s gullet. Both fish were still alive. He held the bass in the water in the current until it revived and it swam off. As did the sea bass, no worse, we assume, for the wear.

This stinks

I made my first fishing trip to Lobsterville Beach last week to fly-fish for striped bass with Alley Moore of Oak Bluffs. This would not be notable but for the fact that years ago by mid-July, I would have already have made the trip many, many times.

Lobsterville used to be one of the premier beaches in New England to fly-fish for striped bass from the beach. Fish in the 30-inch-plus range, and sometimes bigger, regularly showed up to feed along the crescent-shaped beach.

June was always the hottest month. Some nights, fishermen would line the beach in each direction. The sound of spinning reels and splashing fish only added to the excitement. The fishing slowly declined, and in recent years has been inconsistent.

Last Friday night, I drove to Lobsterville more to fish with Alley, who was in Menemsha anyhow and had opted for a quieter beach, than because of any hot fishing reports. If nothing else, I knew it would be a pleasant conversation.

To my surprise, there were fish. Not a lot, but certainly enough to make the outing interesting. When I arrived, terns were diving on bait up and down the beach. As dusk fell, bass began rising to the surface, leaving telltale rings.

I was casting a white squid fly on an eight-weight outfit. The choice reflected laziness more than strategy. It was already tied to the end of my fly line. A strike from a striper about 22 inches in length was a nice surprise. Alley picked up a fish about the same size on a small black sand eel.

After about 90 minutes and several more fish apiece, we decided to call it a night. As we walked along the beach talking, I noticed the rock about where I was about to place my foot move. It was a baby skunk.

Although my wife thinks I cannot dance — a view I encourage to keep me from having to get up and dance at parties — I am very quick and nimble. I jumped sideways a few feet as the skunk spun around, raised its tail, and fired.

My waders received a glancing blow, but I was unscathed. Alley had escaped the blast entirely. Luckily, I was driving a pickup and not an SUV, otherwise my waders would have gone home on the roof.

The next day, I looked for the small white case that contained the few flies that constitute my collection, sand eels and squid flies, but it was missing. The case likely fell from my vest pocket while I was hurdling the skunk.

If anyone found it and it does not smell too badly, I would like to retrieve it.

We returned Saturday night. The terns were absent, as well as the fish.