Updated 11 am, Oct. 8
I suspect that years ago, an aging fisherman who had used a baitcasting reel all his life saw some young guy casting a spinning reel and said, “What the hell is that?”
My what-the-hell moment came a few weeks ago as I walked down a familiar path to a rocky spot on the north shore and heard an odd buzzing sound. I looked around for the source of the noise, hoping it was not a disoriented swarm of pissed-off Africanized bees, and spotted a white drone with whizzing propeller blades hovering over the cove.
Macol Oliveira, 16, of West Tisbury stood on the beach, holding the controls. My initial reaction was irritation at the annoying intrusion of a noisy gizmo on the Island coastal landscape. When the young pilot shouted to his father, who was standing nearby holding a fishing rod, that he could clearly see striped bass on the flats just past the rocks, and told him where to cast, my attitude changed. I was interested.
Macol was watching the images captured by the drone’s high-definition camera on a cell phone clipped to his control panel. The bass were clearly visible, as was a big ray gliding among the rocks.
He, his father Luiz, and I stood staring at the screen until I was struck by the absurdity of the scene — perhaps being captured by extraterrestrials using their own drone — of me at one of the most beautiful fishing spots on the Island, in waders, holding a nine-foot, one-piece fishing rod, staring at a screen.
In the Island classic, “Reading the Water: Adventures in Surf Fishing on Martha’s Vineyard,” Bob Post, who liked to joke that he was a fisherman trapped in the body of a dentist, described how experienced Island fishermen used their senses to determine where to fish. Trained eyes would spot a seam in the current, a ripple on the surface indicating bait, or a change in coloration that might indicate the presence of fish.
I caught up to Macol this week and spoke to him about his drone. He is a polite, smart kid, and a junior at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. He is also a hard fisherman, who embraces technology but pays his dues. During the Derby, on the weekends it is not unusual for him to wake up at 4 am to fish for bass, then transition to albies and fish all day.
Macol said he has been fishing with his folks since he was a little kid. “I just like being outside; I like nature,” Macol said.
Macol said he and his dad purchased the drone, a DJI Phantom 4, the first week of the Derby, after watching fishermen in Australia use it to spot tuna, once the job of pilots in spotter planes. “We like to go offshore pretty often, and we didn’t want to pay for a spotter plane, and we figured the drone would work just as well,” he said.
It is a $1,300, top-of-the-line model with a 4K camera (I don’t know what that means), and a five-mile range, capable of flying half an hour on one battery charge. When I encountered him on the beach, he was testing it out. “And it went pretty well,” he said. “And we saw so many fish.”
Macol said he is interested in electronics and computers. Always looking for a new way to harass my friends, I suggested he could use his drone to drop eggs on people along the beach. A more mature futurist than I, he told me, “We definitely could, because we’ve already flown bait out with it.”
He said he and his dad had used the drone to fly a line out with an eel attached to a hook. I imagined an eel wrapping itself around the propellers like a Japanese monster movie.
With respect to pushing the boundaries of the Derby rules, Macol was quick to add that spotting fish is one thing, but not delivering bait. “Flying the bait out — I wouldn’t want to do that — that’s just not fair.”
Macol also understands that some people might find a drone annoying. “Whenever we fly it, we always look to make sure no one is around,” he said, “because we don’t want to get in the way of anyone. We try not to invade anyone’s privacy.”
The Derby rule committee, which already wrestles with the details of fair competition, has its work cut out for it.
On Friday I received the following email from Macol. Pretty lousy stuff: Hi, I was wondering if you could do me a favor. Today I was fishing at Memorial Wharf and I turned my back for 5 min. In the time someone stole my rod and reel. Could you put this in the lost and found section? It was a St. Croix avid surf 7ft (red) with a Penn clash 6000.
Lets help the kid get his fishing rod back. If you know something please call the Edgartown Police at 508-627-4343.
For up-to-date Derby results, go to mvderby.com.