Jaxon White


Are You...Asking Me...To Take You Fishing??

I write about fishing on Martha’s Vineyard, which leads to the notion that I actually catch fish on Martha’s Vineyard. Which inevitably results in being asked to take people fishing.

Most every Island fisherman faces this social obligation, particularly in the summer months when distant relatives remember that a family member has a house on the Island, and friends you have not seen since elementary school locate you on Facebook. It is as obligatory as taking guests to see Gay Head, or paying $5 for a scoop of ice cream.

My goals are generally modest: bring my guests and my fishing equipment home in one piece, have fun, and hopefully catch some fish. That is not as easy as it may seem. Agreeing to take other people fishing is fraught with challenges.

Island fishing culture has its rules. Above all is the code of secrecy – if I catch twenty-pound stripers at Dogfish Bar on Tuesday night I do not post it to bloody Facebook or there will be a crowd of fishermen there on Wednesday night.

Island fishermen tend to be loners, or have one or two fishing pals with whom he or she shares a set of values. I often fish with Tom Robinson, the owner of Island Timber and chairman of the Tisbury Conservation Commission. Tom and I share a like-minded approach to fishing and Island politics that mixes cynicism, humor, and a resignation to the fact that neither of us will be alive when Tisbury finally agrees on a plan for a new Stop & Shop.

If I think the stripers are on Lobsterville Beach, I call Tom. Making a plan is as easy as asking the question: “Want to go fishing tonight? Okay, I’ll pick you up at seven.”

Done. No arranging schedules. No worrying about his tennis schedule, or plans for dinner, or when people get home from the beach, or the art gallery he wanted to visit.

I know that Tom will have everything he needs, and depending on the quality of the fishing we may return home early or very late. After years fishing together, Tom understands that if he catches a big fish I will attribute it to luck, and if I catch a fish I will attribute it to skill and will expound on my talents all the way home. If we do not return home by 2 a.m. our wives will assume we are catching fish.

Taking someone new to the Island changes the entire dynamic. Years ago, I took a visitor fly-fishing from the sandbar inside Tashmoo Pond, but forgot to properly brief his wife on fishing culture. Small bass were taking bait off the surface. When we did not return by 11 p.m. she assumed the worst and was in a complete panic by the time we did roll in, about 1 a.m., with the explanation that the striper fishing had been great.

The best fishing trips begin with a realistic assessment of your guests’ abilities and social limitations – in other words, not everyone is prepared to impale a squirming, slimy eel on a hook just because it is the best way to catch a big striper, or blow off a dinner date and risk the wrath of a spouse because you have found fish. Some people are ready to hike in to Great Rock Bight, an outstanding Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank property on the north shore, and cast big plugs or eels among the boulders on a dark night. For others, a better option is a trip to Lobsterville Beach, where the gradual slope and minimal current makes for easy fishing.

One evening I took my former college roommate, Bill Stevens, his wife, and their two young children to Lobsterville. I tipped the hook of a half-ounce white jig with squid and cast it out for the kids to reel in. Fluke and sea robbins provided plenty of action. We all agreed that the highlight of the trip was when Bill went to pick up a blue crab and it clamped down on his hand with its claw.

I expect new fishermen to be unaware of fishing etiquette: a rod dropped on the sand is pretty much a given when the bluefish are hitting. My loaner outfit is an Ugly Stik rod, about as tough as they come, and Penn Battles reel, which has performed well even when the reel turned with the sound of sand being mixed in a food processor.

Still, there are those days when fishing is best enjoyed as a solitary experience. For some fishermen, it is the only way.

Years ago, it was about midnight when I got out of my vehicle on Lobsterville Road so I could walk over the embankment and see or hear if stripers were feeding on the beach. Just then, a shadowy figure began walking back up from the water, as though he was giving up for the night.

But Island bass fishermen become pretty adept at recognizing other fishermen in the dark. “Kib?” I said.

“Nelson?” he said.

Kib Bramhall, artist and one of the Island’s legendary fishermen, said that there were fish along the beach. He explained that not knowing who was in the vehicle he figured he would pretend he was leaving and we would leave. Mind you, no one else was on that beach, but Kib wanted his solitude.

In a recent email I reminded Kib of the incident and asked him if he takes visiting guests fishing.

Kib said he didn’t recall the incident I described but admitted, “your description of my behavior was entirely in character.”

As for guests, he said, “When it comes to fishing I am pretty antisocial these days, in part so that no one can see my screw-ups or interrupt my immersion in the game.”