Gone fishin’: Cue the double bass, the sharks are off East Beach

A chunk of bluefish or mackerel and a stout rod with plenty of fishing line is the ticket to big game excitement from the shore.

Coop places a mackerel on a hook as bait for a shark.

This fishing column began in 1995. That was the year Cooper Gilkes and I agreed to be part of the Possible Dreams auction, the annual fundraiser for Martha’s Vineyard Community Services.

The deal was that Coop would provide the fish and I would describe the whole experience in The Times fishing column. A few days after the auction I learned that a woman named Olga Hirshhorn had anted up a bid of $1,700 to win the fishing trip. At the time, I wondered why Olga Hirshhorn of Sarasota, Fla., and Vineyard Haven, and the widow of the founder of the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., a woman in her seventies, was even interested in the trip.

Almost every year after that Olga refused to be outbid. Seven possible dream trips and many thousands of dollars donated to Community Services later, I knew the answer to my question: the lady loved to catch fish, and she loved Coop — everybody loves Coop — me, I was just the wretched scribe.

The fundraiser format changed, Olga got older in body if not in spirit and we stopped offering the trip. This spring the Community Services folks called and asked if we would offer the trip in memory of Olga, who died last October at the age of 95. Coop and I knew it was a request we could not refuse.

Last Monday, one day after the auction, I received an email from Joseph Venturella, an Edgartown seasonal visitor from Indiana and the winning bidder of our trip. Could we go out that week, he asked, because he had a friend visiting who really liked to fish. I checked with Coop and we discussed our options for a fun trip from the shore. We quickly came to one conclusion: shark fishing.

The mention of sharks and Martha’s Vineyard in the same sentence induces shivers — thank you, Mr. Spielberg. What many visitors do not know is that large sandbar sharks in the five-foot range and in excess of 60 pounds lurk just off the beach. These sharks provide exciting fishing for a dedicated group of Island fishermen.

That Friday at 6 pm outside his tackle shop, Coop and I arranged to meet Chris Kieta, a visiting Chicago-area fireman and avid freshwater fisherman, Lorenzo Venturella and his sister Mariana Venturella, and Lorenzo’s friends and fellow college students Matt Wiggins and Nathan Miller.

Coop was quick to show the group a video on his cellphone of a previous night’s shark fishing. The group was impressed. As we loaded up the vehicles, I walked out with a shotgun to wide-eyed stares. “We’re going fishin’ for sharks,” I said matter-of-factly as I placed the shotgun in Coop’s truck. Of course, I did not need a shotgun and removed it once the group was in their vehicle — just adding a little dramatic effect.

As we headed across Edgartown Harbor on the Chappy Ferry, the captain urged Coop to catch the hammerhead spotted off South Beach. I was reminded of the scene in that movie, you know the one, where the citizens head out as a posse to catch the marauding great white snacking on the locals.

Once on the beach Coop set to work baiting hooks, selecting from a smorgasbord that included bluefish, mackerel, and bonito, and setting out rods with long wire leaders. This shark fishing is serious business.

Nearby, Chappy residents Colin Floyd and his wife Tina Humber Floyd had one rod out as their three kids played in the sand. If there was any doubt that there were sharks to be caught, it was quickly dispelled when Tina hooked up and was promptly being dragged down the beach in our direction as line melted off the reel.

Tina hauled back on the rod … zzzzzzzzzz the line kept going despite the pressure of the drag. Tina was digging her feet into the sand to brace herself as Colin grew concerned over how little line remained on the now visible spool when the line suddenly snapped. “The tail cut the line,” Colin said.

Tina’s hands were still shaking. “That thing was bigger than I am,” she said.

One of the kids ran up and asked, “Daddy, does Mommy have a sharky?”

I asked Tina how old the kids were: Matti-Lyn was 11; Isabelle was 8 and a half, and Rhys was 7.

“You’ve been busy,” I said.

“What do you do if you live on Chappy,” Tina said. “You have babies and you fish.”

The excitement whetted the appetite of our group. As the sun set, Chris, the more serious of the fishermen, kept a close watch on the rods. The rest of the gang was just enjoying being on Chappy. Suddenly one of the rods started to bend, not much, but enough to indicate a fish was on the other end.

Lorenzo reeled in the fish. It was a small dogfish. But I saw no need to identify it as a harmless, toothless fish. “It’s a baby great white,” I announced. Chris was not buying it, but the kids seemed to like the idea. At any rate, it was certainly the most photographed dogfish on the beach that night. And the kids seemed generally excited.

An experienced firefighter and EMT, Chris has seen the best and the worst of humanity, and has had his share of excitement. Coop wanted him to experience more than a dogfish but the hour was getting late, and with Norton Point closed, we knew we would have to leave soon to catch the ferry.

Coop wanted one of the group to catch a fish in the worst way. Nothing makes him happier than to see someone he has taken out catch a fish, and when they don’t, he is depressed.

Just then the 11-foot rod bent to the weight of a heavy fish. Chris picked up the rod from the sand spike and leaned into the fish as Coop coached him to let the fish run. At that point in the battle the risk of injury came from getting a finger wrapped in the braid line peeling off the reel.

The fish was running up the beach. “Go with it,” Coop advised him.

Chris started walking up the beach, the rod doubled over as the group followed and urged him on. It was exciting, then the line parted.

It was time to pack up and catch the ferry.

As we walked up the beach, Coop looked up at the stars and said, “Thank you Olga, you came through there in the end.”