S. Manakin


That’s a Keeper

And now, without further ado, the award for best fishing story goes to...

A good Martha’s Vineyard fishing story is a valuable form of summer social currency. Unlike politics, Island fishing lore is part of the cultural glue that binds us.

With this month’s Best of the Vineyard awards in mind, I thought of three of my favorite fishing stories, those that reveal something of our Island character, and characters.

The ability to cast a Roberts Ranger lure isn’t needed to appreciate the story of what happened when a fisherman cast over the line of legendary Edgartown fisherman Dick Hathaway many years ago during a classic bluefish blitz at Wasque Rip.

Not surprisingly, Dick lost his fish. Not soon after that, the other fisherman hooked a big fish. He fought it for about ten minutes.

“Good one, huh?” Dick asked the man. The man, who was still fighting the fish, said it was. Dick then reached over, grabbed the fishing line, and cut it.

According to Robert Post in his fine book Reading the Water (The Lyons Press, 2004), the fisherman whose line Dick cut was Ted Leland, who just happened to own that stretch of beach.

“The only bad part,” Dick explained to me years later, “is that the sheriff was with me [and] Dominick Arena, the chief of police, was with me...”

With the retrospection that comes with age, before he died in June 2017 at the age of ninety, Dick said, “I guess those things happen, you know, everybody gets excited when they get a fish on.”

The best fishing stories are not necessarily about catching or losing a trophy fish, but the set of circumstances in which the angler finds him or herself. And one of the cardinal rules of Island fishing is to never miss an opportunity to play a joke on a friend.

Take the tale of Cooper “Coop” Gilkes of Edgartown, who in August 2013 went offshore looking for tuna with Dale McClure of Vineyard Haven and David Steere of West Tisbury. Coop rigged all the rods with identical lures but for one, telling David with the certainty of experience, “That’s the one they’ll hit every time.”

For four-and-a-half hours, they trolled on an ocean so flat it was a lullaby. David sat down in a chair between the rods and fell fast asleep. It was David’s first tuna trip offshore. Coop saw his chance.

He turned to Dale, motioned to the sleeping David, and whispered, “The bucket.” Coop then quietly pulled in the fishing line by hand on the middle rod and replaced the tuna lure with a five-gallon brown bucket. He dropped it over the side and quickly joined Dale at the helm as though nothing had happened.

Once the line came tight, the reel began to scream: Zzzzzzz… “It was like the biggest tuna hit you ever saw in your life,” Coop said. While Dale managed the throttle, David fought his “fish.” After more than fifteen minutes, he managed to get it to the point where he saw a flash of brown break the water’s surface.

Dale came out of the wheelhouse holding a small bluefish gaff. “David looks up, sweat pouring off him, and he looks at Dale and says, ‘No! No! No! Get the big gaff. Get the big gaff. I don’t wanna lose him!’”

David landed his bucket, and Coop added another story to his impressive repertoire.

Coop, a master storyteller, said the secret to a good fishing story is to pull the listener in “so they can relate to what you’re talking about.”

That’s certainly true of another of my favorite stories, even though very few people have faced similar circumstances. Of course, given the popularity of a movie about a shark terrorizing a small Island community, who can’t relate to a good shark-in-the-boat story?

Thirty-two years ago, longtime Edgartown harbor master Charlie Blair was a well-known charter captain who owned a thirty-two-foot boat named Nisa, which coincidentally had a bow painted with a gaping shark’s mouth design. A regular customer had booked an August trip for his two teenage boys and three friends. But instead of the usual bluefish trip, the boys said they wanted to try shark fishing.

They had suspended the bait under a float set a distance from the boat when one of the boys saw a fin cutting through the water. Charlie immediately yelled down from the bridge that it was a mako, a fish known for speed and aerial acrobatics. He told the teen holding the fishing rod to get ready for action.

That was an understatement.

The mako took the bait, the fisherman set the hook with a sharp tug, and the fish jumped in the air. But that was just the start. The mako then sped through the water straight for the boat and jumped again. Estimates vary regarding height. Mate Elizabeth Staples said the fish was higher than the bridge of the boat – all she saw when she looked up was the white underbelly of the shark.

Charlie grabbed the young fisherman. He dropped the rod. Just then, the mako hit the stern of the boat and bounced onto the deck. Not surprisingly, everybody acted like…well, like a two-hundred-pound very angry mako had just jumped onto the boat’s deck. Elizabeth said it was a good thing the kids were young and agile.

The mako flailing and gear and lines flying everywhere, Charlie yelled for Elizabeth to hand him the harpoon and struck the mako as it thrashed on the deck.

Charlie was just happy everybody was safe, he recalled. And the boys had a great story to tell.

I could go on. My wife insists that at parties, I only talk about fishing. “Honey, people aren’t interested in your fishing stories,” she’ll tell me after the fact.

I suppose, but it could be worse.

I could play golf.