The Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby is just about at its halfway point. As can be expected, some days have been more productive than others. Though striped bass have still been plentiful around the Island, the majority are undersize. Bonito have remained elusive after one of the most spectacular late-summer runs in modern memory, with the shore leader at the time of writing this article being just six pounds.
With thousands of anglers converging on the Island to fish the Derby, not every angler has the same level of experience.
Last week I set out to chase a late outgoing tide. As I walked down the beach I noticed two very small striped bass floating dead in the waves about 100 yards from each other. Both fish had clearly been caught and then thrown back into the water by an inexperienced, or careless, angler. This is certainly not the first time I have seen fish being mishandled. I completely understand the excitement of catching your first albie, or bonito. I also understand the frustration of fishing for days without a fish to weigh in. However, we as anglers are the stewards of our ecosystem, and it is our responsibility to care for every fish we catch.
It’s not uncommon to see fish pulled from the water, then paraded around to see if anyone has a tape measure, or to snap a photo, all the while the fish is struggling to survive. Anglers spend countless hours preparing to catch fish, watching videos on how to twitch a lure, or rig bait. But many don’t spend as much time preparing to handle a fish once they have landed it. It is a privilege to be able to fish the beautiful waters of this Island, and I for one am doing my best to respect its ecosystem.
When you land a fish, it is important to move quickly, and confidently. Back hooks out of the fish rather than pulling or tearing. If a hook is too deep to remove safely, cut the leader as close to the hook as possible and leave the hook in the fish, rather than doing further damage. Once you have freed the fish from your hook or lure, don’t just throw it in the water; gently releasing fish is important for their survival. The goal of catch and release is to allow these fish to survive and continue their part in the ocean’s ecosystem.
Striped bass should be picked up by grabbing the lower jaw and supporting the weight of the fish with your other hand. This will help keep them from thrashing around, giving you the best chance of quickly removing the hook and getting them back into the water quickly. When you place a striper back in the water, you should place them headfirst into the current of the water, moving them gently back and forth for a moment to let water pass through their mouth and over their gills. Once the bass has had a chance to breathe, it will swim away confidently. Bluefish have notoriously sharp teeth, and tend to thrash around with or without provocation. Avoid the urge to step on any thrashing fish, as you can damage their internal organs. Grabbing fish by the gills, or eyes, can also do irreparable damage. If you are uncomfortable handling fish, consider having a pair of gloves with you to allow you to more confidently contain the fish without handling it too much.
Hardtails can be picked up by their tail, and are quite easy to handle. Release them face-first into the water, allowing them to naturally torpedo into the water without throwing them.
The Derby is a tournament, and you should measure fish if you believe they are worth it. Take an extra moment to get your tools together before you head out, and spend some extra time preparing to catch and release successfully, because inevitably not every fish you catch will be a prize winner.
I ran into legendary Island angler, writer, and woman of many talents Janet Messineo at weigh-in a few days ago. She was volunteering her time to cut fish for the fillet program that helps feed the Island’s elder community. She complimented me on keeping my fish nice and cold, saying that several fish were not kept to temperature and had to be turned away. Have fun out there, catch lots of fish, but remember to do it responsibly, so that we can all enjoy the bounty of this beautiful Island for years to come.
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 passion with his clients. He is a regular contributor to the Fishing Report.