• Nelson Sigelman

It Takes a Big Gaff to Land a Bucket

Updated: Mar 30

An offshore trip provided an opportunity for some mischief.

(August 1993)


Venturing offshore to go fishing can be an exciting and beautiful experience with the opportunity for a real adventure. You just never know what you’re going to catch, particularly when you start to doze off.

Dale McClure of Vineyard Haven had gotten a new boat and wanted to go out and do a little tuna fishing. So he invited his friends, David Steere of West Tisbury and Cooper Gilkes of Edgartown, to go along. Coop had just gotten in from the Oak Bluffs shark tournament, but with the lure of tuna and blue water it didn’t take much to motivate him. So the three fishermen met in Menemsha and headed offshore at four in the morning.

This was David’s first trip offshore tuna fishing and he had a lot of questions for Coop, who had rigged all the rods with the same lure except one, telling David with the certainty of experience, “That’s the one they’ll hit every time.” But despite Coop’s appetizer and main course trolling arrangement, they couldn’t raise a fish.

They trolled and they trolled, almost out to the shipping lanes. For four and one half hours they trolled, on an ocean so flat and calm that you couldn’t help but fall asleep. And that’s exactly what David did. He went back to a chair that was between the rods and fell fast asleep.

Now, Coop is a fisherman who knows how to take advantage of every opportunity, and that includes putting one over on his fishing companions. So, recognizing a chance to have some fun, he turned to Dale, motioned to the sleeping David, and whispered, “The bucket.”

“So I sneak out very quietly,” Cooper says with a laugh, “and, of course, I picked the rod that I said was gonna get hit, right, and I pulled the line in by hand. I didn’t reel it in, I pulled it in, took the lure off, took the clip, put it on a five gallon brown bucket, reached over the side and dropped it in the water. Then I headed for the wheelhouse. Well, in my haste headin’ for the wheelhouse I got the damn line around my ankle. All of a sudden, as I go through the wheelhouse door I’m findin’ myself attached to a five gallon bucket goin’ ninety miles an hour due south!”

Coop gets in some quality time while heading offshore.

As Coop worked to free himself, the line went tight, driving the bucket very deep. Meanwhile, David was still sleeping through all of it, presumably dreaming of the big one. And that’s what he thought he’d hooked, because when Coop finally got clear of the line and let it go, it sounded, Coop says, “like the biggest tuna hit you ever saw in your life! Zzzzzzz…,” the line was screaming and that woke David right up out of his chair.

“So David woke right up,” Coop says, “and you could see him trying to get himself together, and we’re laughing in the wheelhouse. So he goes, ‘What do I do? What do I do?’ So I walk back, cool as a cucumber, right, tryin’ to keep a straight face, and David goes, ‘It hit that rod, you were right. I don’t believe it.’

“So he tries to get the rod out of the rod holder, but the rod is buckling and he can’t get it out. I mean Dale is putting the coals to it [the boat throttle] pretty good, right, and this bucket now is 250 yards back. So he can’t get the rod out and I tell him to relax the drag just a little bit, and lines going out, and we get him in a harness, all rigged up.”

Now two momentous battles ensue – one between David and his bucket; the other by Cooper and Dale to keep from laughing. Finally, after fifteen minutes the bucket just breaks the surface of the water about 25 yards back and David turns to Cooper, asking, “What color is that thing?” To which Coop replies with a straight face and the hint of a big fish, “Jeez, looks brown to me, David.”

David gets the bucket in even closer and now Coop says, “Dale comes out and he brings a little bluefish gaff with him. David looks up, and I swear, if I’d had a video camera I’d a made a million bucks. David looks up, sweat’s 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!’”

In moments of excitement or stress we all say things we sometimes regret. It is safe to say that David will forever regret telling Dale to “get the big gaff” as long as fishing stories are told to entertain around Island fireplaces in winter.

And, by the way, David landed his bucket.

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