MARTHA'S VINEYARD, MASS. / / We were bouncing down the beach in a big four-wheel-drive pickup, going fishing, when Cooper Gilkes, one of the most respected guides on Martha's Vineyard, stopped to talk to a ranger.
"You should have been here this morning," the ranger said. "Six o'clock this morning, it was unbelievable." That is, there were striped bass everywhere. Now, it appeared, they were somewhere else.
"Don't tell me that," Gilkes said. "I don't want to hear that." I was riding shotgun, and I didn't want to hear it either.
I had come to Martha's Vineyard for one reason: to catch a striped bass on a fly rod.
It was early May, after a winter that wouldn't go away. The migratory striped bass and bluefish showed up off the Vineyard more than a week late, and even now were only trickling in. Fishing was agonizingly slow, at the very time of year when anyone who even occasionally wets a line has the itch to be on the water.
Before I even arrived, Gilkes warned me that he couldn't promise fish before late May but would do his best. I said I'd take my chances; given a choice of fishing or not fishing, you fish.
You can fish for striped bass on Martha's Vineyard with spinning tackle and have loads of fun, of course. But I'm a fly-rodder. And during the past two decades, saltwater fly-fishing has grown like the fish in the proverbial fish story. The Vineyard, with miles of beach access and numerous salt ponds fed by the sea, is first-class fly-fishing water.
Until recently, Karen Kukolich's 14-pound, 3-ounce striped bass was the women's world record for a striper caught on a 12-pound-test leader. She's fished all over the world, holds five other women's division fly-rodding records and considers the Vineyard, where she lives, a special place to fish.
A playground for movie stars, rock stars and financial tycoons, the Vineyard is, at the same time, one of the great American saltwater fly-fishing destinations. People come from throughout the United States and abroad just to fish, and the rock stars, movie stars, pro athletes and moguls are often among them.
In fact, an entire fishy subculture permeates the Vineyard, a decidedly upscale resort destination with high-end restaurants, galleries and boutiques galore. Walk into PJ's Cafe & Catering, a none-too-fancy, mostly take-out restaurant popular with the residents, and on the wall is a signed art print of a striped bass hitting a fly. Think of it as fine art and Formica, as if the striper were the whole point of Vineyard existence. There are striped bass weathervanes, striped bass boxer shorts, stripers at suppertime, stripers all the time.
I've fly-fished in freshwater for trout for years, but had never lobbed a fly in saltwater. I couldn't wait; in recent years, three different people on three different occasions used the same word to describe saltwater fly-fishing to me: addictive.
Small stripers run 15 to 20 inches and might weigh a few pounds. But stripers can run much larger, with fish of 10 or 15 pounds fairly common and fish up to 40 or more pounds taken. I'm a guy who will happily spend a good part of a day walking up a mountain brook catching and releasing little brook trout that don't weigh more than a breakfast sausage. Ten-pound stripers on flies? Where's my camera?
But again, it was early in the season, and I knew I ought to be content -- thrilled -- with a fish of 18 inches. The prime Vineyard fishing really takes off in late May and runs into the fall. I was a week early.
Meanwhile, April's big nor'easter that caused flooding in New England literally tore an opening in the barrier beach that connected Edgartown and Chappaquiddick, creating tricky new currents, not to mention inconvenience for the people who used to drive to and from Chappaquiddick along the beach. Stripers already were congregating at the breach now and then, even this early in the season.
Guides often leave the fishing to their clients, but I urged Gilkes -- he is known as Coop -- to fish with me. We rigged up our rods and began casting, though I had the sense Coop's fishing was all business. He was trying to find a pod of fish that he would direct me to. We fished for an hour without so much as a hit.
"Let's go," he said. Clearly they were not here. Off we went to fish Edgartown Great Pond, a salt pond that holds stripers and other species. This, I sensed, was one of Coop's little secrets, one of those places where even a neophyte saltwater fly-rodder had a decent chance of hooking one. We drove down a long, winding dirt road, parked in a clearing no bigger than his truck and started walking.