The Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby is often exciting in unpredictable ways. For example, two weeks into the 78th Derby that began on September 10th, I watched a big brown shark chase a false albacore attached to a fishing rod. Not every day you see an albie become a popping plug.
It was late morning. Gone are the days when I woke before dawn and raced from spot to spot in a quest for elusive Derby glory. At 72, I’ve decided that it’s just not as important as sleep and breakfast.
The tide had begun to fall along the beach, not optimum, and most of the fishermen, some of whom had been there since dawn, had left. I walked along the sand until I saw a large log that had washed up. The crook of a branch made a comfortable spot to recline and stare at the water.
I’d estimate that Derby albie fishing consists primarily of staring at the water. Occasionally, you get to make a cast into breaking fish. And when all the fish gods nod in agreement, you hook an albie, a mini-tuna that is among the most exciting fish to catch in our waters — thus the addictive nature of this species.
I was seated, fly rod in hand, on a warm, gorgeous day, listening to Waylon Jennings ask, “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way,” when Cooper Fersen (“Little Coop”) walked onto the beach. He was surprised to see me.
“Fishing hard?” he said with a smile.
I explained that I was practicing fishing Judo: maximum efficiency, minimum effort. If I saw the fish break, and they appeared to be heading my way, I’d get up and make several casts.
Little Coop does not do it that way. He began casting a jig a considerable distance off the beach. Suddenly, the fish started to break. Coop put a cast on target, and the fish gods smiled at him.
The fish didn’t meet the Derby’s twenty-five-inch minimum weigh-in length. He released the albie by spearing it into the water, a technique that revives it by forcing water over its gills.
Little Coop and the handful of fishermen on the beach resumed staring. Soon, Coop left in search of Derby glory. I was making a few blind casts to keep my fishing muscles from atrophying when I saw a pod of albies erupt in tight just up the beach in front of a lucky spin fisherman.
“I’m on,” Andrew Keenan of Edgartown shouted as his fishing rod arched under the weight and speed of a fish capable of running off hundreds of yards of line in a blink. Suddenly, there was a large splash.
“It’s a shark,” someone yelled.
Wow, that’s cool, I thought.
When he saw the splash, Andrew thought he’d hooked a big albie.
“... then I saw the dorsal fin and the tail, and I thought, ‘oh oh.’”
Andrew said his fish ran up the beach, then reversed course, ran down the beach, and took a sharp turn, likely because it was being pursued.
For some reason, the shark gave up the chase. Andrew said, “I can’t believe it [the albie] came in whole. Wasn’t a scratch on the friggin thing. Not a scratch.”
He said, laughing. “Good opening fish action.”
Onlookers were still talking about it when I got to my truck. Sitting in his car talking to another fisherman, George Kouberg estimated the shark was at least seven feet long.
“It was incredible. I’m surprised that albie was untouched because it was right on it — 20, 30 feet off the beach,” he said.
The news that a shark had chased an albie was no surprise to Jeff Sayre, who spends many evenings with his girlfriend Ivone Rosa catching and releasing brown sharks from that beach. In my official capacity for the Tisbury Shellfish department, I often alert Jeff when there are delectable fish carcasses in the Lake Street bait barrel. And he reports back to me on his success.
Recently, armed with some bonito carcasses, he reported back, “Last night in the rain, I had one cruising down the beach, and I ended up catching that one, which was awesome, and then I got another one on Saturday night.”
Shark fishing’s not for me, but there’s no mistaking Jeff’s enthusiasm, and that’s what fishing’s all about on Martha’s Vineyard.
The night after Andrew almost lost his albie, I received a photo with this message from Jeff: “I got my biggest one ever last night.” I asked him if it coughed up a big albie before he released it.