Years ago, striped bass swirling on bait along Martha’s Vineyard’s premier fly fishing beach were a predictable sight in June and early July.
I am reluctant to write about the “good old days” because I worry that it will only confirm my descent into codger status. So I will assign responsibility for invoking past Island fishing glory to my good friend Cooper Gilkes of Edgartown, who was fishing next to me as striped bass jumped and swirled along the length of Lobsterville Beach in Aquinnah the first week of July last summer
“This is like the old days,” Coop said as his fly rod bent under the weight of a striper that had stopped his fly, a “red devil,” in its tracks. Coop, who at more than threescore and ten has seen plenty of good old days, was beaming. His broad smile was in part due to the fact that he was hooked up and I was not, and his unbridled enthusiasm when he is catching fish — any fish, any size, anywhere — with friends by his side.
Lobsterville Beach is a northerly-facing, mile-long concave strip of sand and gravel just west of Menemsha Harbor. This natural bowl collects bait, particularly on a dropping tide when Menemsha Pond empties into Vineyard Sound. That bait — primarily sand eels, silversides and juvenile herring — attract striped bass.
The prevailing southwest winds of summer give an advantage to fly fishermen who are able to cast with the wind at their backs even in the strongest winds. Fishermen also do not have to contend with the SUV size boulders found along much of the north shore, or the crashing waves along the south shore. The beach gradually slopes and there are no obstructions for a cagey bass to wrap around in an effort to break free.
The only real obstruction is the limited non-resident parking along the beach and the town’s ambiguous parking enforcement policy. Will you receive a $50 ticket if you park in a resident-only parking spot after 5 pm? Maybe.
I suppose the nineties would qualify as the good old days. Of course, I was more than 20 years younger and more willing to drive up-Island and more able to stay awake past 11 pm. And there were nights when the fishing was so good that I stayed well past the time I ought to have stayed and drove home as the first glimmer of light appeared on the horizon knowing I would pay for my sleep debt at work later that day.
Those were the nights that stripers more than 30 inches in length and weighing in excess of fifteen pounds were not uncommon. On nights when the fish were sipping sandeels off the surface with the delicacy of a debutante at tea, a circular ring would appear on the surface of the water, visible in the starlight. I would make a quick cast to the widening target and anticipate a strike as I stripped in fly line hand-over-hand.
Just as exciting were those nights when the fish crashed bait with a sound that mimicked rocks dropping in the water. Ploof! Ploff! The challenge was to maintain a slow strip despite the excitement pushing my hand movements.
But my memories of those evenings are more about the fishermen than the fish. When the fishing was good word would circulate from Islander to Islander the old fashioned way — people would speak to each other. No texts, no Facebook posts to alert the world.
Many night the beach would be lined with fishermen, many of whom I knew, and I would walk up the beach, being careful as I walked to time my passage with the whizzing backcasts, until I found a spot in the picket fence of fly fishermen where I could comfortably fish. On any given evening the chatter was as entertaining as the fishing. You would hear a fish hit and know someone was on — Sonny, Jamie, Tommy, Billy …
Some nights the fish were picky. That was the opportunity for classic Vineyard fishing one upmanship. There is nothing better than standing among a group of fly fishermen when you are catching fish and they are not. And there is nothing more exasperating when you are not catching fish and they are.
I am hard pressed to say when the great fishing ended as it simply petered out. June was no longer a dependable time to head up to Lobsterville. Night after night the fishing was slow and the long ride from Vineyard Haven up-Island seemed longer, particularly on the way home.
Coop called. “Oh boy, did you miss it,” he said. What I had missed was going up to Lobsterville Beach when he told me he was going to give it a try last week. The next night Tom Robinson, his house guest Ryan and I arrived at Lobsterville about 7:30 pm. It was early to be bass fishing but Coop had said the fish were there when he arrived. He had not exaggerated. Fish were jumping and swirling when we arrived.
I was fishing with a eight-weight Sage rod and Valentine reel, a very simple reel manufactured by a tool maker who liked to fish and lived in Charlton, Mass. The reel is no longer made but it is one of my favorites for its light weight and simplicity.
I tied on a white squid fly. It was not productive so I switched to a black sand eel that I had tied up with some floatation in the body. That was the ticket to success. My first fish was about 28 inches long. I continued to catch fish with some regularity, although not as large as my first fish, which appeared to be a keeper, and which I had released.
When I left home Norma said “Have fun and bring home dinner.” My wife was fairly confident I would have fun, but based on my past success much less confident I would bring home dinner. The state minimum is one fish at 28 inches long.
It was about 10:30 pm when I walked up to chat with Coop. My arms were tired and my back was beginning to ache. I told Coop I had been catching only small fish. Coop said he’d caught a big fish and lost an even bigger one. I put those claims down to Coop’s enthusiasm.
I stepped away and moved to Coop’s right. I made a casual cast. As I stripped in line the fly stopped. I began to take up line on my reel as the fish remained stationary. “I’ve got another small fish,” I said to Coop.
The fish began to come to shore but when I attempted to bring it closer it began to pull away. The fish moved out slowly. “Maybe it’s not so small,” I thought. The fish began heading back to shore so quickly that I could not keep tension on the line simply by reeling so I quickly backpedaled up the beach using the reel and my footwork to keep tension on the line.
The fish took off again, this time with authority, then began swimming down the beach to the west. “Coming in front of you Coop,” I shouted.
“Go ahead,” Coop said as he lifted his fly rod.
Two young kids spin fishing, the newest employees at Coop’s tackle shop, were my next obstacles. One of the kids got his lure tangled on my fly line as the fish continued to pull. To his credit, he didn’t panic and untangled the lure from my line.
I continued to walk down the beach putting pressure on the fish. A group of Brazilians was fishing. The first man in the line saw what was happening and heard me say I had a fish on and I needed them to let me pass. He alerted the others and they all stepped back and watched me bring the fish in. I don’t know Portuguese but I’m sure the translation for what I heard was something like, “Oh my God look at that fish.”
The striped bass was 42 inches in length and weighed about 22 pounds. It was the biggest striper I have caught on a fly rod since 1996.
The ride home from Lobsterville did not seem so long.