On Martha's Vineyard, celebrating stripers



September 04, 2005|By CANDUS THOMSON

MARTHA'S VINEYARD, Mass. - The clerk behind the counter at Capt. Porky's Bait and Tackle spends a lot of time assembling the colorful rods and reels that parents buy and kids dangle off the nearby Edgartown wharf.

You see the fruits of her labors everywhere. After a couple of days on this island, you get used to seeing families of fishermen - dads, moms and young ones - walking downtown streets with fishing rods in one hand and tackle boxes in the other. No doubt about it, this island is an angler's paradise.

And no more so than in the fall, when the stripers migrating south mingle with the bluefish and turbocharged bonito and false albacore. Charter boats are busy, surf casters line the beaches and jetties from first light until dark, and folks even poke around the brackish ponds that rise and fall with the tides.

There's a small inlet not too far from the place where I'm staying where the striped bass visit at high tide each evening. First come the schools of bait-fish, racing in from Katama Bay to seek haven from the ravenous advances of the stripers. The little fish boil over the water's surface, sounding like sleet pinging off a window pane. Quickly, though, the sound of their escape - and the escape route itself - is overwhelmed by the arrival of the stripers, splashing, gulping, darting every which way.

It doesn't take a whole lot of expertise to hook up once the dinner bell has rung. An inch-long lure that looks like a metallic icicle tied on 10- or 12-pound test does the trick.

There are plenty of throwbacks but enough fish over 28 inches to keep us out of the expensive restaurants at dinnertime. The red tide that closed shellfish beds from Maine to Rhode Island has passed, meaning a striper dinner is often accompanied by steamed littlenecks or quohog chowder.

The big talk here among the locals is of the island's month-long Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby that begins at one minute past midnight next Sunday and runs through mid-October. The event, in its 60th year, attracts about 3,000 participants and fills in the conversational gaps between speculation about the Red Sox and the Patriots.

First prize for the top shore fisherman this year is a Boston Whaler and accessories worth $40,000. The top boat fisherman will win a pickup truck worth $35,000. The contest has plenty of other prizes, too.

There are the official rules, which you get when you pay your $40 entry fee, and the unofficial ones, which you hear about at Capt. Porky's or from the natives.

As a public service, the Martha's Vineyard Chamber of Commerce distilled the unofficial rules in a recent tourism guide:

"Never ask prying questions, particularly when it comes to striped bass. Islanders rarely ask someone directly where they caught a fish, but they are very good listeners with acute hearing in tackle shops, where they browse and feign total disinterest as they pick up on every bit of information given freely by excited visitors;

"The truthfulness of any answer relating to locations and flies diminishes in direct proportion to the size of the fish caught;

"Any discussion of fishing spots is carried on with very limited phrases consisting of `the rock,' `the jetty,' and `the point,' with the assumption that you will know exactly which place is being discussed, by the nuance of the conversation. Act like you do even if you don't and you may find out something."

Interestingly enough, there is no talk up here of "Fish Bites," the new artificial bait being embraced this season by Chesapeake Bay and Ocean City anglers as a bloodworm replacement. Tackle shops I've visited don't even stock them. Anglers seem plenty happy enough with artificial flies and lures, live eels or mackerel. I have to say that given the stringers I've seen, the fish do, too.

Part of the charm of the monthlong derby is the free one-day event for anglers 14 years old and younger. The Kids' Derby runs from dawn till dusk, with prizes for all kinds of catches. I'm guessing some of those kids with gear from Capt. Porky's will be among the winners.

Even though it's heartening to see kids eagerly casting from piers and shoreline, you still have to wonder what kind of fishing experience will be left when they're teaching the next generation.

Having just watched the bruising battle over the future of menhaden between recreational and environmental forces and the commercial fishing industry, it was discouraging to come up here and read about the dismal failure to protect codfish stocks on Georges Bank despite regulatory intervention.

According to preliminary numbers released late last month by the National Marine Fisheries Service, the number of codfish in the once-rich waters off the coast of Massachusetts dropped by as much as 25 percent between 2001 and last year. Commercial landings dropped from 12,330 metric tons to 4,583 metric tons during the same period.

Some biologists say that unless overfishing ends soon, there might not be a year class large enough to sustain the cod population.

"This is much worse than I expected," Priscilla Brooks of the New England Law Conservation Foundation told the Vineyard Gazette.

All of this happened after enactment of the toughest regulations in the history of Georges Bank commercial fishing. About 6,000 square miles have been placed off-limits to trawlers and the season has been reduced to less than two months of the year.

Still, the cod population struggles.

Based on that situation, you begin to wonder whether the recently approved five-year cap on commercial menhaden fishing in the Chesapeake Bay beginning next year will be enough. And if it isn't, will it be too late in 2011 to do something meaningful?

With the Chesapeake serving as the primary nursery for East Coast menhaden and striped bass that eat them, Maryland's anglers and their young counterparts on Edgartown's wharf have a lot more in common than they might think.

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