Gone fishin’: A walk on the beach and new friends met along the way

President Obama missed an opportunity for an authentic Martha’s Vineyard experience when he picked up a golf club instead of a fishing rod.

Colvin fishes for dinner on a beach in Barbados. Photo Nelson Sigelman

President Barack Obama departed Martha’s Vineyard Sunday evening. Over the course of his 16-day vacation he played golf on 10 days, mostly teaming up with elite current and former NBA players, and wealthy businessmen with seasonal connections to the Island.

It is unfortunate that Barack Obama chose to spend most of his vacation time engaging in a sport that does little to distinguish the Vineyard from any other rolling piece of meticulously maintained green grass with lovely views. Had he asked me I would have advised him to try casting a Sluggo around the rocks along the north shore for bass, troll off Devil’s Bridge for blues or just rake up a bushel of clams in Menemsha Pond.

He did not ask, and the closest he got to an authentic Vineyard fishing experience was a dinner plate upon which lay an exquisitely prepared piece of striped bass.

I was prompted to ponder what the president was missing after my encounter with a 25-foot Coast Guard patrol boat. A Coast Guardsman wearing a combat helmet was tethered to a 50-caliber machine gun mounted on the bow, with three heavily armed men in the cabin, when it came racing up to me at full speed, wake spray flying as though they were auditioning for a recruiting film.

My 18-foot Tashmoo skiff was armed with one fly rod and two spinning rods. I was about one-quarter of a mile from the beach heading for Menemsha, passing well offshore — I thought — from the Obama vacation house somewhere back from the sand cliffs of Menemsha Hills.

The stern but polite person in the wheelhouse informed me that there was a “1,000-yard federal security zone” in place (that’s more than half a mile) and I would have to go offshore another 100 yards or so. Really, I thought to myself, is this necessary — the president is golfing and dining out in a lot closer proximity to the general public, and here we are on Vineyard Sound where there is a clear view of everything on the water, but I have to make an even bigger loop — hey, who am I to argue with a machine gun?

So I proceeded out and thought about the notion of the imperial presidency and the layers of insulation that now accompany the job. And I came to the conclusion that our presidents ought to go fishing, if for no other reason than it is a good way to meet ordinary people — maybe not those that write $25,000 checks — but good people nonetheless.

I was reminded of the equalizing effect of fishing when I came across some photos I took in late February, when Norma and I visited our friends Ed and Laurel at their vacation home on Barbados. On previous visits I would walk along the beautiful beach and often encounter local fishermen. Bajans are quite friendly, and it was always easy to talk fishing.

The shore fishing is not particularly good around this island built on a geologic prism of rising coral surrounded by deep drop offs, but mahi-mahi, tuna, and barracuda are just offshore. I brought a light spinning rod to cast from the shore, and packed extra lures I thought would be of some use offshore, not to use but to give away.

Colvin was bottom-fishing near a rocky point for anything he could catch to eat. His tackle consisted of two broken spinning reels, one of which he jammed with a piece of wood to keep it from revolving freely, and heavy surf rods with broken guides. For weight he used lead pulled from an old car battery. We chatted about fishing, and I told him I would bring him luck. I was quite happy when my prediction came true and he caught a pretty reef fish, a chub of some type, no bigger than an average scup.

Colvin said he had been an amateur boxer. He said he used to fish from a boat but something, which he declined to elaborate on with a hint of darkness, had happened.

I handed him several lures, including some Deadly Dicks, and a Bass and Bluefish Derby fishing cap. I told him about our Island’s annual fishing tournament — the centerpiece of so many Island friendships. Colvin was genuinely happy about his new hat and his new friend, as was I.

A few days later I hiked up the beach to one of the government-run fish markets adjacent to John Moore’s rum bar, an island landmark where those of high and low station drink glasses of white rum. Fishing boats were pulled up on the beach in various states of repair.

Fisherman Wilton Broome, along with Patrick Thomas, and Shaun Roach were limin’ (hanging around) by Wilton’s fishing boat. I might have been on the dock in Menemsha. We talked about the fishing — been kind of slow — and the lack of bait. I reached into my pack and pulled out a handful of tuna lures Cooper Gilkes had generously given me to take down to the island (I’d asked for anything old he didn’t need, but Coop being Coop, he handed me several new lures). The guys thought the lures were great, and I had three new friends.

On my way back I watched a woman swim out from the beach holding a spinning rod in her hand. Treading water, she started casting. I was impressed with her enthusiasm and took several photos.

When she returned to shore we chatted. She was a bit leery of my photo taking, but I assured Rochelle, “You’re a very intrepid fisherman, and Island fishermen on Martha’s Vineyard appreciate that quality.” Rochelle (her friends call her Rocky) was from the Caribbean, but lives in Montreal, Canada.

On Martha’s Vineyard there are a Colvin, a Wilton, and a Rocky — I would not want to name names, but I do think that Barack Obama would enjoy meeting them. Were he to return for the 71st Derby, which begins Sunday, Sept. 11, and ends Oct. 15, he would see an Island not measured by 18 holes in the ground.

Before we left Barbados, I decided I would leave my spinning rod and reel with Colvin. I looked for him on the beach and amid the small houses on a hillside where he said he stayed, but did not find him.

About one week after we returned to the Vineyard I received an email from Laurel. She said that returning from a stroll past the rocky point that morning, she chanced upon a man “sitting on the cement walk holding a fishing line leading straight into the sea. I asked him what kept the line taut, and he said, lead. I asked whether he was the one that our friend had told us about, who made his weights out of battery parts. He got all bright at that, and said, Nelson.”

And when I received that email I smiled and said, “Colvin.”

Correction: In an earlier version of this column I referred to Barbados as a volcanic island. In fact, Barbados lies directly over the intersection of the Caribbean plate and the South American plate in a region known as a subduction zone. Beneath the ocean floor, the South American plate slowly slides below the Caribbean plate. The marine sediment — essentially the sand or soil at the base of the ocean floor — is scraped off the top of the South American plate and forms a buildup known as an accretionary prism. In the case of Barbados, coral grew over this pile of sediment, and the coral was pushed closer and closer to the ocean surface as more sediment added to the accretionary prism. Barbados is known as a coral island because its base is made from upwardly-moving coral, not volcanic lava flow.