As if on cue for the sixty-seventh Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby, the fish are running again.
There was a bluefish feeding frenzy at the Cape Pogue gut late one afternoon last week, one of those churning blitzes where you could throw out an old shoe and catch a fish. And out on Nantucket Sound, boats have been lined up like summer traffic at Five Corners as fishermen chase the silvery schools of bonito now flashing through the cooling saltwater. There are reports of stripers being caught on the north shore.
September is fishing season on the Vineyard, bolstered by the long tradition of the derby, the venerable monthlong fishing contest that attracts anglers from around the country and around the Island. The derby begins on Sunday.
And then the serious fishing begins — in boats, on the shore and with every kind of saltwater tackle.
This is the Vineyard’s Fall Classic, and everywhere there are telltale signs that the best fishing season of the year has begun. Business is brisk at tackle shops around the Island and Steamship Authority ferries are packed with trucks and sport utility vehicles festooned with saltwater rods, coolers and tackle. These are serious fishermen who plan their vacations around the derby, and many return year after year. Derby rosters will also be filled with Island fishermen of every description — carpenters, electricians, lawyers, doctors, artists, homemakers, senior citizens and grade schoolers. Because fishing on the Vineyard knows no class lines, professional, age or color barriers.
In that way, it is one of the great equalizers. And that’s because everyone can do it — you don’t need a lot of money or a fancy boat or vehicle to fish (although it is true that many fishermen have these things) — all you need is a rod, a bucket of lures, a peanut butter sandwich and a thermos of hot coffee.
Oh yes, and some luck.
With all that you can be on top of the world, standing on the jetty at State Beach in Oak Bluffs or at East Beach on Chappaquiddick, casting into the inky water by the faint light of a crescent moon, no sound except the soft whine and click of the bail as you cast, and then slowly reel in. Fishing is a form of mediation; the rest of the world goes away when you do it.
Until you get a fish. Then the fight begins, a hard one if it’s a bluefish and one involving finesse and patience if it’s a bass. Either way, you’re hooked now, ready to quit the day job and just fish.
But as the derby nears the end of its sixth decade, fishermen have more to talk about than who landed the big one last night and made the leader board. There is discussion all along the waterfront and online these days about the decline of striped bass stocks. Many point to the decline in menhaden stocks as a reason, since menhaden are a primary food for stripers. A story in the Cape Cod Times last month reported on the rise in bacterial infections among stripers, thought to be caused by warming waters.
Are the stripers in trouble? Cooper Gilkes, the Edgartown tackle store owner and longtime fishing sage, thinks without question that they are and speaks out about it whenever he is asked.
Two years ago Dick Russell, a longtime Vineyard fisherman and conservationist, wrote a commentary in the Gazette at the outset of the derby urging some kind of moratorium on the taking of stripers, perhaps by shifting to catch and release for that part of the tournament.
Surely a controversial move and perhaps little more than a symbolic one in light of the complexity of the issue, but one that must stay on the table for discussion — not because, as some might have it, that we want to kill the derby, but because we hope it will last forever.
Perhaps in the off-season, when the rods and reels have been put away and the flyfishermen are tying flies at the rod and gun club on dark winter nights, there will be time to think about ways to ensure the return of the fish for many generations to come.