August could have been a great time to catch up on responsibilities around the house before the five-week Derby begins Sept. 9, but I’ve found chasing baitfish and looking for bonito was time well spent.
Soon, I’ll be lured to connect to the fall migration of fish and, once again, be roaming the beaches into the night. During the summer months, I can usually ignore an evening fishing for a striped bass for a few days at a time, but I have this problem of not being able to leave a star-filled ceiling with white water lapping at my wader-clad knees. Many times, with conviction in my heart, I have said to my husband, “Tristan, I’ll be back in just a couple of hours.” Luckily, he knows my fishing addiction better than I know it myself, so when I drag myself through the front door hours later than predicted, he’s not one bit surprised. Feeling tired from lack of sleep the following day is the only thing that stops me from repeating this behavior every night.
The brown shark, also called the sandbar shark, kept the Chappy beach fishermen entertained most of July and into August. The few times I was able to get to East Beach or Wasque rip, in lieu of fishermen targeting bass or bluefish, I saw mostly shark fishermen lined up with bottom-fishing rigs, offering a smorgasbord, waiting for a strike from a brown shark. These sharks can weigh up to 200 pounds, and can bend a 12-foot “meat stick” in half.
Twenty years ago, when the browns showed up in great numbers on Chappy, we were able to catch and eat them. My friend Hawkeye and I spent many summer nights shark fishing on East Beach. We released most of them, but kept an occasional 20- or 30-pound shark to share for food. They are delicious and taste like mako, which is likened to swordfish. The brown shark disappeared from our beaches for over 10 years but then came back in numbers a few years ago. In 2008, the National Marine Fisheries Service banned all commercial fishing for these sharks. Today, the law states that no brown sharks can be taken. When fishing for bass and bluefish slowed down, Coop and his gang from the tackle shop spent many evenings on Chappy catching and releasing brown shark. One of Coop’s righthand men, Luke O’Toole, told me one of the guys caught a 300-pound sand tiger shark.
I talked with Jim Cornwell, who fished the August MV Surfcaster Catch and Release Brown Shark Tournament. He was among the members that fished on East Beach for four consecutive nights. Not one shark was hooked and brought to shore, compared with last year when they landed several. Jim won last year’s tournament with a brown shark weighing about 115 pounds.
Seems like the sharks have left our area, so the bass and blues can once again come out from the safety of the deep water and feed closer to shore.
Bonito have arrived. Boat fishermen are doing well daily, and I’m hearing that Lobsterville, Menemsha, and State Beach are the best spots find them. John Piekos caught his first-ever shore bonito. He was chasing bluefish, but much to his surprise a bonito took his offering. He said, “It spit the hook once it hit the beach, and I ran a sub-4-minute mile to that fish, beating the next wave. We had it for dinner last night, and it tasted great.” Well done, John.
I haven’t caught a Spanish mackerel in many years, but with the water temperatures rising, we are seeing more tropical fish in our waters. I keep hoping. They are the best table fare — more delicate than any bonito or tuna. While fishing for bonito and false albacore, it’s possible to pull a Spanish mackerel from the school. I’ve never figured out how to target one of these species from the rest. Sand eels and silversides are their prey of choice, and their feeding habits are identical. Statistics tallied by the Derby show that when the bonito schools are thick, the little tunny (albies) become scarce, and when the albies take over the food chain, the bonito seem to disappear. I do know that when I’m fishing with light tackle with no leader for bonito, when my line comes back after a hit cut clean, it’s a pretty good indication that a Spanish mackerel is in front of me. I keep a few Deadly Dicks and AOK T-Hex lures rigged with a 3-inch, 10-pound test steel leader for just such an occasion.
Many years ago, I wondered why a Spanish mackerel cut my line and a bonito or albie didn’t. I was under the illusion that the reason was that the Spanish mackerel teeth joined at the gum line, and the bonito and little tunny had enough space between each tooth for the line to safely fall through to the gum. I ran into my taxidermy shop to verify this theory, inspecting some of the fish that I had mounted in my shop. To my surprise, that wasn’t the case at all. Once again, being stymied, I called my friend Greg Skomal. He has moved off-Island, but he lived here at the time, and was our resident marine biologist. He wasn’t quite sure either, so he visited me in my taxidermy shop. We inspected the fish I had mounted on the walls. I watched Greg as he studied the mouth of each fish. He came up with an answer.
The difference? Bonito and albie teeth stop before the hinge in the corners of their mouths on the top and bottom. The Spanish mackerel teeth run all the way back to this hinge. When a fish goes for your bait, and swims away from you, your line finds a safe haven in the corners of the mouth of the former, but not in the latter. Bonito and Spanish mackerel have razor-sharp teeth, and I’ve seen blood spurt from unsuspecting fishermen trying to free a hook without pliers from a bonito’s mouth. Since the bonito have been scarce for the past 20 years, and many new fishermen have never landed one, especially from the shore, be warned: “Never stick your fingers in the mouth of a bonito.”
The “little tunny” is not popular as table fare, so if you catch one it is best to release it. False albacore, once hooked, run like “green torpedoes” with incredible stamina, which is a thrill for the fisherman but many times fatal for themselves. You can usually revive and release the smaller fish, but the larger ones will fight until their demise. Most of the trophy false albacore that I have worked on, when I dissected, I noticed have burst the arteries that run from their hearts, and would not have been able to be revived.
There have been schoolie bass all around the Vineyard, but it’s nice to see the larger fish are coming back. Brothers Wayne and Tony Jackson don’t need a Derby to fish for striped bass. They come from a long line of Island fishermen. The Jackson name has been tied to fishing for many generations. When they were small boys, their dad passed away. Their uncle, Paul Schultz, stepped in and taught them to fish. They are no strangers to the Derby awards ceremony.
The Derby begins Sept. 9
You don’t need to be an experienced fisherman to join the 73rd annual Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby, which is scheduled Sept. 9 to Oct. 13. Keep in mind that the Derby is an all-inclusive, four-species tournament. The Derby awards $30,000 annually for college scholarships to graduates of the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, as well as scholarships for youngsters to attend summer camp. Their mission is to give back to the Vineyard community and support recreational fishing. If you show up and cast a line into the ocean, you are a contender, so “never give up a minute before the miracle.”
Janet Messineo fishes the coastline of Martha’s Vineyard, where she’s lived since 1966. She is a retired surfcasting guide and taxidermist, former president of the Martha’s Vineyard Surfcasters Association, and both a Derby committee member and participant. She is a frequent source and contributor to newspapers and magazines. Her long-awaited book on fishing will be published by Pantheon Books in June 2019.