Where do you go fishing on the Vineyard in February? The Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse, of course.
Last Saturday, a packed house of fisherman, friends, and curious Islanders gathered in the Marilyn Meyerhoff Lobby to hear stories, fish tales to be accurate. The setting was perfect; with fisherman and taxidermist Janet Messineo’s whimsical fish, painted horseshoe crabs, and mounted striped bass decorating the walls, one could almost feel a tug on his or her line.
Messineo, whose first book, “Casting into the Light,” is an Amazon bestseller, hosted the evening. “Fishing is an art. Art is made from fish, and fishermen are artists,” MJ Bruder Munafo, artistic and executive director of the Playhouse, said when she introduced Messineo.
The fifth annual Fish Tales event began with a master storyteller of fish news, Nelson Sigelman. Sigelman spent 27 years at The MV Times, and every summer when the fish were biting, Sigelman wrote a weekly fishing column. Sigelman joked, “I worked on a few big stories at The Times, but everyone remembers my fishing column, which I only wrote in the summer.”
Sigelman, an accomplished angler and author, recalled his early fishing adventures with his father in Dorchester at Echo Bridge, “catching sunfish. It was an indelible imprint.” Sigelman’s dad eventually introduced him to flounder fishing, which he enjoyed until school and life distracted him. Years later, when Sigelman was living in South Boston, he rediscovered his love of fishing, and nearly lost his life.
He decided to go fishing on Castle Island, a known hangout for gangster Whitey Bulger. Nelson threw his first cast, and crossed lines with the fisherman to his left. He threw his second cast and crossed lines with the fisherman to his right. “The only reason I’m still alive is that Whitey Bulger didn’t fish,” said Sigelman.
Edgartown harbormaster Charlie Blair relayed a tale dating back to August 1985, and “it’s a true story as best as I can remember,” Blair said with a laugh.
His weekend had begun simply enough: A few guys from Worcester booked a two-day charter on his boat. The first day was too windy, so they stayed local and caught a slew of bluefish, which they fileted and put into a cooler.
The dawn broke beautifully the second day, with a southwest wind and clear skies. Blair, his first mate, and the Worcester guys headed out into deep water for shark fishing. Blair cut up herring for chum, and soon the two lines were ripping. By the time Blair had cut up two 25-pound boxes of herring, everyone on board had caught a nice blue shark.
The audience nodded and waited. Surely there was more.
As Blair was leaning over the side of the boat washing the herring off his hands, a mako shark swam by. Blair has a passion for one fish — mako shark.
He scrounged around for decent bait, finding none. He scraped bits and pieces of herring together, even found a can of deviled ham in the ship’s galley, but the mako wasn’t interested. Then, a second mMako showed up. This one looked to be about 200 pounds. Blair was going crazy. “The captain entered the Mako Zone,” he said.
With no bait, Blair gave up and headed for home. As they were driving back, one of the guys from Worcester asked, “Captain, would mako eat bluefish?”
“Sure, they love it,” Blair replied.
In that moment Blair remembered all the bluefish fillets in the cooler, the cooler sitting near him on the boat. The audience laughed, even Blair.
“Thirty-five years later, that trip is still on my mind,” Blair said.
Messineo stepped to the microphone and said, “I have a phrase called PTFD, Post-Traumatic Fishing Disorder. I think that’s what Charlie had.” The audience laughed again.
Phoenix Rogers, as well-known for her Island wampum jewelrymaking as she is for her passion for hunting and fishing, took the stage next. Rogers’ love of fishing took off like an albie on the run when she started dating Joe Rogers in 2012. The two fished together, hunted together, and then planned their 2017 wedding around a honeymoon that would include roosterfishing in Mexico.
“I’ve been fortunate to travel the world and catch a lot of big fish,” Rogers told the audience. “The fish I covet most is the permit. I’m addicted to them.”
Rogers explained her addiction, the number of times she’s traveled with her husband or others to catch permit, and the time she went to Belize alone in 2018. “I had my guide lined up, the same guy we always use. I was going back to get my grand slam: a permit, tarpon, and bonefish in one day.”
The second day of her trip, her guide is sick, and the fishing lodge gives her a new guide — a kid named Michael “who’s maybe 18.” Rogers was less than happy. They set out in the boat, and the waves and wind kicked up. The morning continued to go downhill.
Suddenly, they rounded a bend, got to the lee side, and came upon beautiful, clear, calm water and about a hundred permits finning. Rogers was in heaven. She pitched her crab, hooked up, and her line went screaming. Twenty minutes later she landed the fish of a lifetime — a huge permit.
There wasn’t a person in the room who doubted how amazing the moment was for Rogers. Her smile, nearly two years later, lit up the room.
“I was chasing my obsession,” said Rogers, who has started Women of the Outdoors Martha’s Vineyard, which will meet the last Monday of the month at 6:30 pm at the Rod and Gun Club.
Chilmark selectman Warren Doty stepped up to tell a tale unlike the others. Doty had the crowd laughing and chuckling as he described the humble beginnings of his fishing life. Doty found himself in Menemsha during the 1975 scallop boom. He began as a shucker, and not a very good one. He stuck with it, worked hard, and one day got invited to work aboard Jonathan Mayhew’s Quitsa Strider.
The honor and excitement faded quickly as Doty’s stomach protested the movement of the boat at sea. A sympathetic crowd nodded and smiled as Doty described his ordeal and embarrassment trying to haul in the sea scallops while getting sick. He was ordered to lie down.
Doty woke from his four-hour nap to find the hauling done, and Jonathan and Gregory Mayhew exhausted. Jonathan rested, then Gregory instructed Doty to take the wheel and he too went to take a nap.
Doty, not quite certain what to do or where he was going, drove on toward Menemsha in the dark. He kept hearing a lot of noise on the radio. He didn’t know who was talking to whom, but the radio seemed to be incredibly active.
Suddenly Gregory was grabbing the wheel, talking into the radio, and telling the Coast Guard ship that Quitsa Strider would make way and gave them room. Gregory then turned and told Doty that the radio noise was the Coast Guard yelling at him for pushing them in toward the shore.
Not an illustrious beginning to Doty’s scalloping career, but definitely an amusing fish tale.
Messineo thanked everyone for coming, but as often happens when a good story is told, the audience thanked the storytellers. All told, Fish Tales 5 was a reel success.
The evening was dedicated to Karen Kukolich, a beloved Island fisherman who lost her battle with cancer in November.