As a crowd of 100-plus bleary-eyed fishermen dug into their breakfasts and pushed the coffee machines beyond their limits Sunday morning at the 26th annual Rod and Gun Club catch and release tournament, two past participants, Army Captain Matthew Blair and his twin brother, Army Captain Nicholas Blair, were waiting to join them.
Matthew was in Fort Riley, Kansas, just back from a tour of Afghanistan. Nicolas was on the border in Kuwait, in full combat gear, on call with the Quick Reaction Force.
One of the traditions of the event is that you must be present to take home prizes, which are chosen at random.
Halfway through the awards breakfast, longtime master of ceremonies and former Martha’s Vineyard Times news editor Nelson Sigelman pulled the name Nicolas Blair from the box, making him the lucky winner of a gift certificate to Coop’s, a silver bass belt buckle, and a hat. After being told Mr. Blair wasn’t present, Mr. Sigelman asked the crowd if they should break tradition and hold his prize, eliciting a chorus of “Noooooo,” and shouts of “Pull another.”
Then a large movie screen slowly dropped from the ceiling.
“I think Nicholas is saying, ‘Wait a minute, not so fast,’” Mr. Sigelman said. It took a minute for the befogged fisherman to process the split-screen before them, until Mr. Sigelman introduced the brothers Blair. A loud and long ovation ensued.
Due to some audio difficulties with the Kuwait connection, Matthew explained that his brother was part of a quick response team that provides support for troops in battle, “in the event the engaged units can’t deal with the ISIS threat,” he said. “Fortunately, that allows him to be not occupied with combat operations today, but they’re next into the fight with a squadron of Bradleys as soon as they’re called.”
Matthew was just back from Afghanistan, where he commanded a company of Apache helicopters in Kandahar. “We were very busy with ISIS the past few months,” he said. “We got after them pretty good.”
“I’m sure these guys have changed their minds about holding your prize,” Mr. Sigelman said, sparking a standing ovation.
In 2013, Mr. Sigelman wrote about the Blair brothers and their father Jim, who fish the catch and release tournament together when possible. That year Matthew was unable to make it, due to injuries sustained in Afghanistan.
“I was quite taken aback, I don’t get to see my sons that much,” Mr. Blair told The Times on Monday morning. Mr. Blair said he often registers his sons for the tournament whether they can make it or not, because the money goes to funding the annual Kid’s Trout Derby. “I meant to register them this year, but forgot. When Nelson called his name, I thought maybe someone else had done it. I’m glad they still get their prize. We’re a ruthless bunch of guys; if somebody leaves or steps out for a cigarette, they’re out of luck.”
Mr. Sigelman said the idea for the Skype appearance was hatched back in April, when Jim Blair contacted him because he had a gift for Cooper Gilkes, Island fishing icon and co-organizer of the event. “After Jim said his boys were deployed and wouldn’t make it to the catch and release this year, I talked to [Edgartown School network administrator] Darren Belisle. He seemed pretty confident he could make it happen. I had no idea if it was going to work. I can’t get my email half the time. Hats off to Darren. I think half the guys in the room had tears in their eyes.”
Tears flowed more than once from the salty crowd on Sunday morning. After his surprise video visit from his sons, Jim Blair turned the tables and presented Coop with an American flag, sent by his son Matthew, that was flown from his Apache helicopter during a combat mission in Afghanistan.
He also presented Coop with a picture of that flag, flying from Matthew’s helicopter on that mission.
The picture had an inscription. Jim Blair tried to read it, but couldn’t.
It read, “On September 11, 2016, this flag was flown in an AH-64D Apache Longbow Attack Helicopter during a combat mission over Lashkar Gah, Helmand Province, Afghanistan … This flag is dedicated to Coop’s Bait and Tackle from the Charlie Company ‘Ghost Riders’ 1-1 Attack Reconnaissance Battalion in support of Operation Freedom Sentinel.”
“I can’t believe they did that; I’m still recuperating,” Coop told The Times on Monday. “I saw a lot of tears running. I know mine were flowing pretty good. Those boys are unbelieveable.”
Coop said he’s going to have the flag mounted in a glass box with the plaque, and hang it in his abundantly stocked store.
“I’ve got to find room for it. I don’t know where, but I will,” he said. “Something’s got to go.”
Coop said he’s known the Blairs for a long time. “The first time I met the boys, Nelson was being Nelson and giving them a hard time, and I told him, ‘They are big boys, they can put you in their back pocket any time they want to,’” he said, laughing. “What these guys are putting on the line is so incredible. The reason we’re here is because those kids are on the line. Thank God we’ve got them, that’s all I can say. Anytime those boys want to go fishing, they have an open invitation as far as I’m concerned.”
There was also fishing at the 26th annual Rod and Gun Club striped bass catch and release fishing tournament.
A whopping 537 fish were caught by 128 participants, far surpassing last year’s total of 330 fish. In 2014, only 70 fish were caught.
Favorable conditions didn’t hurt the tally, but it’s a good sign that this many bass were caught, and released, on a fly no less.
Matthew Beaton, secretary of the Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, fished the tournament for the first time. “I’ve done better,” he said. “My group did more sightseeing than fishing, but we had a great time.” Mr. Beaton is no stranger to the Vineyard; his family vacationed here growing up, and he drove a cab for the summer of 1998. “I fished a lot on the Island when I was younger,” he said. “I used to go into Coop’s all the time for some sage advice.”
Oak Bluffs town administrator Robert Whritenour fished the tournament with his son Bobby and brother Matt. His team got skunked — not literally — but it didn’t matter.
“This event is what made me fall in love with the Island 20 years ago,” he said. Mr. Whritenour said the best part for him was spending the night working the Lobsterville Beach.
“People who don’t fish for bass don’t know that the beach is a much cooler place at night,” he said. “It’s so beautiful out there. It’s a meditative experience. Catching fish is a bonus.”
And the winners are …
Roberto Germani Trophy (most fish caught and released)
Team: Crab Cakes
Members: Kyle Colter and Benjamin Stimson
Members: Tim Sheran, Jeff Iadonasi, and Jay Bodnar
Team: Our Stripers Don’t Wear Diapers
Members: Aleca Hughes, Tyler McPherson, Gunnar Hughes
Arnold Spofford Award (most fish caught using one fly)
First Place — a tie:
Members: Jim LePore and John Kollett
Team: Michael Duble
Members: Ben Scott and Travis Keltner
Team: One Fly
Members: Ken Beekov and Ralph Norton
Members: Ralph Carrieri, Randy Shea, and Dave Hoskyns
Sonny and Joey Beaulieu Award (the largest fish caught and released)
Length: 38 inches
Girth: 19.5 inches
Total: 57.5 inches