Real fishing is a journey

Lessons and learnings in hooking up.


When my wife and I first moved to Martha’s Vineyard, I had the grand idea that I would just “become” a fisherman. I arrived with an inexpensive 8-foot spinning rod and reel my father-in-law had given me, and very limited knowledge of saltwater fishing. I grew up in upstate New York, fishing from time to time in freshwater lakes and rivers, but that was the extent of it. Fast-forward 15 years to my arrival on the Vineyard, with the illusions so many of us had of what our fishing future was going to be.

For the first year or two I went out occasionally, dropped a line in the water and caught nothing. I always seemed to be alone on the shore, and I never understood why. After a few of these fruitless attempts, I realized I had to get serious if I was ever really going to go become a fisherman. As I ramped up my business as a private chef, I wanted more than ever to be better connected to my food and the resources available here on-Island.

In 2016 I buckled down and entered the Derby, and made it my mission to catch fish. I began my campaign by begging a few fishermen friends to take me out, including fellow chef John Thurgood, or “Barefoot Johnny,” as he’s known to some. On a rainy day in September on the Menemsha jetty with John, and another chef friend, Gary Stuber, I caught my first striped bass on Martha’s Vineyard, a small schoolie, but a real accomplishment and quite a thrill!

I couldn’t stop thinking about that experience. I started reading everything I could about tying knots, landing fish, tackle, rods, reels … it was truly overwhelming. I realized that the Internet is both a blessing and a curse, so I decided it was time to do things the old-fashioned way, the Island way. I started popping into Dick’s Bait & Tackle, asking questions, listening to stories, and soaking up any tips I could. The best piece of information I was given was so obvious I had overlooked it completely: Just put in the time. I am a chef by trade, and it is not a skill I acquired overnight. It takes years of focus and dedication to learn anything really well, and it’s a constant pursuit of knowledge.

I began fishing relentlessly. I paid attention to my own world, and tried to understand some of the world of the fish. I started to understand the tides, the moon, the migration of different bait, how different lures act in the water. Somewhere along the way I began to catch fish, and after that I was out every day, rain or shine. Fishing to me has become a way of life. I have seen more sunsets, met more people, and spent more time exploring the coast of this beautiful Island than I had ever imagined. Each place offers a new challenge, a new landscape, and a new set of skills to put in my toolbox.

My season this year began with a very productive couple of weeks fishing mackerel from the Menemsha jetty. As the bass and bluefish moved in, the mackerel were no longer around, so it was time to move on to the much-anticipated hunt for striped bass.

Last week the stars aligned, and my wife decided she needed a little break and offered to come with me to Dogfish Bar. I have had great luck up there this season on the incoming tide after dark. I have caught bass and bluefish from the sand, using lures including the Daiwa Salt Pro minnow. Just a few days before I had headed up-Island with a friend to celebrate his birthday the way he wanted. No party, no fanfare, just a night out fishing with some good friends. When we first arrived, the parking lot was overflowing with cars, and for good reason. People where catching fish on all kinds of tackle. On that trip, we watched one fisherman pull 14 fish out of the water using spinning tackle and a Sebile lure.

My wife and I arrived just after sunset on a beautiful clear night. The tide was about halfway in, and the other fishermen on the beach were hooking up. On my second cast I hooked up with what could only be a large bass. I landed the fish, and it was a beautiful 30-inch striper. I find that this size fish is perfect for eating; the meat is sweet, very forgiving when you cook it, and can hold up quite well in your freezer if you want to save some for the future. Though I often catch and release, I decided to keep this fish.

I do my level best to use every piece of any fish I harvest. I am a big believer in reducing waste, and honoring any animal that I harvest for food. Since it was only my second cast, I decided to stay a while longer. In about an hour I hauled in four sizable bass, one of which was nearly 40 inches (I released three, due to the state regulation that allows you to keep one a day). All in all, it was a great night fishing.

Fired up from a night of big bass, I decided to head up to the same location the following day. It was very quiet, as it often is, and the water was glassy. There were no signs of bait fish from Lobsterville to the Aquinnah lighthouse. I have been back to the same place a few times after having a stretch of successful fishing. As the saying goes, “You don’t leave fish to find fish.” After a few days of being skunked, I will be spending more time bouncing around the other beaches and jetties to find my next big fish. The hunt is on.

Gavin Smith began fishing when he moved to Martha’s Vineyard in 2014. He is a self-admitted novice, but a truly avid one, eager to learn and share as much as he can. Gavin is a private chef and passionate foodie who appreciates the bounty that Vineyard waters provide, and likes nothing more than sharing his catches with his clients. He’ll be a regular contributor to the Fishing Report.