Martha’s Vineyard Fly Rod Contest Celebrates 31 Years this May
On Saturday, May 20, I will help host the Martha’s Vineyard Rod and Gun Club Striped Bass Catch and Release Tournament. It began 31 years ago, and I have been involved in every one.
I described the spirit that makes this contest unique in the following fishing column published In June 1999 in The Martha’s Vineyard Times:
The Fishing Mentality Takes a Road Trip, A collision with a plow was not about to slow these anglers down.
The story makes absolute sense to me. I am certain any fisherman who hears it will give an understanding nod. I am not sure anybody else would. But most fishermen readily acknowledge and take pride in the fact that they are part of a unique fraternity: One whose members pursue the sport of fishing undeterred by howling winds, crashing surf, driving rain — or even a 10-ton tandem axle Mack dump truck?
The Striped Bass Fly Rod Catch and Release Tournament attracts hundreds of fishermen each year. For many, the one-night tournament is an annual Vineyard fishing pilgrimage. It is also an opportunity to catch some fish and share some fun with fishermen from around the country.
Paul Fersen, Randy Carlson, and Matt Glerum work for the Orvis company in Manchester, Vt., and have been a large part of every catch and release tournament since it began eight years ago, both as supporters and participants. Last week, they packed Randy’s new Pathfinder with fishing gear and left early Thursday morning for the approximately six-hour drive to Woods Hole, ready to do some fishing.
Less than an hour after getting started, they decided to make the ritual stop for coffee and donuts. Randy was ready to make a left turn and stopped when the laws of physics intervened. Another driver sped around them and struck a woman in the car ahead of them who was just making a turn as well. A dump truck was coming the other way.
“He slammed into her rear end, pushed her into the opposite lane, and hit the dump truck,” Paul says, “which knocked the rear end of the dump truck askew just enough, so it came screaming into our lane.”
He adds with a laugh, “It was kind of like a giant scientific experiment on Newton’s laws, with all kinds of equal and opposite reactions going on.”
But it is hard to be scientifically dispassionate when a 10-ton tandem axle dump truck with a plow harness is careening toward you. The three men sat in the car with their final thoughts.
“It was pretty interesting,” Paul says in a bit of understatement. “I’m sitting there watching this silver grill get larger and larger in about two seconds.”
If this were a made-for-television story about near-death experiences, I could tell you that in the seconds before the impact, Paul had a vision that changed him profoundly or that his whole life flashed before him. But this was a fishing trip to the Vineyard. What was on his mind with a Mack truck logo staring him in the face?
With a deep laugh, Paul says, “This is the truth, the only thing I can think of is: this is really going to screw up my fishing trip.”
The plow harness struck right on center and split the front end of the car wide open. The airbags deployed. The men were taken to a nearby hospital, where despite their bruises, they all appeared to be in one piece, much to the relief of Paul and Randy’s worried wives, Mimi and Kathy, who quite naturally expected that their husbands would come home.
But this is a fishing story. Paul says they decided they could go home and sit under the covers while their wives fretted over them or still go fishing. It was an easy decision.
Paul explains with typical fisherman logic, “I mean, nothing was injured to the point where we couldn’t fish. So we got on the phone and called Mimi and Kathy, and I said, okay, Mimi, get my truck, go over to Kathy’s house, pick Kathy up, so you’ve got something to ride back in, bring my truck down, we’re outta here.”
Most women who have been married to fishermen for any length of time are rarely surprised by the bouts of insanity the sport inspires or their husband’s ability to rationalize why they go fishing in almost any conditions. But even Mimi and Kathy had to question the actions of the three men as they stood in the demo yard and unloaded fishing gear from Randy’s mangled vehicle into Paul’s truck.
But with their unanticipated three-hour delay, there was still the problem of their 5:55 p.m. ferry reservation. Paul called the Steamship Authority office and explained the story of the car wreck and car switch, and fishing trip to a boatline reservation clerk.
“The lady said, we’ll try to do something for you; just bring a note from the hospital that you’ve been injured in a wreck.”
They brought one of the hospital reports they had received, which advised the men about how they should care for themselves after suffering a head injury. I asked Paul if it suggested anything about participating in a fly fishing tournament or recommended spending the night casting from the beach at Dogfish Bar. He admits with a laugh it did not. I can only assume the doctors were golfers.
On Sunday, at the tournament awards ceremony, we presented the three men with a special award, a copy of Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura’s new book, “I Ain’t Got Time to Bleed.”
At least, not while there is time to fish.
The catch and release is a unique tournament in many respects. Fishermen who might not be attracted to fishing competitions find it promotes the best aspects of fishing—the camaraderie that fishermen share on the beach, for example—and downplays the competition and prizes that make some tournaments unpleasant events.
I think the club and the Vineyard can take some pride in the tournament. It is a competitive event that barely honors the competitors for their achievements. It gives away hundreds of dollars worth of prizes to people who are generally surprised to win anything.
The tournament began 31 years ago. A group of us that included Cooper “Coop” Gilkes and Sonny Beaulieu would get together every Monday night in the winter, tie flies and tell fish stories to each other at the Rod and Gun clubhouse off Third Street in Edgartown.
The storytelling was as much fun as the tying.
One night we got talking about Roberto Germani, an Island fly fisherman and character who had died that year. What do I mean by “character?”
I ran into Roberto, and he described watching bait and bass under little bridge. He got the idea to eat some of the bait, little silversides, I recall, to see what the fish experienced. He then learned what cormorants instinctively know: that it is essential to eat the bait so its little fins slide and do not snag going down one’s gullet. Roberto, who believed strongly in catch and release, survived that experience.
The group decided to sponsor a catch and release tournament and give away a prize in Roberto’s name for the most fish caught and released in one night of fishing by an individual and in later years by a team. Saltwater fly fishing was just beginning to gain popularity, and we decided to match fishermen up randomly in teams—off-Island fishermen with Islanders.
Initially, prizes were given to top finishers. Catch counts were on an honor system. Paul Fersen of Orvis, the Vermont company built on fly fishing, added his considerable support with no conditions or requests for recognition. Over the years, other individuals, groups and companies also donated prizes.
As the contest gained popularity, we made changes and presented only plaques and not prizes to the top finishers. Now we pull registration forms out of a box, and a fisherman may not catch a fish all night and still walk away with a new fly reel.
Sadly, the club also added two new prize categories to remember Island fishermen. We added the Sonny and Joey Beaulieu Trophy for the fisherman who catches the largest striped bass and releases it. In 1993 Sonny and Joey Beaulieu, father and son, died in a boating accident with Fred Loud and Fred’s son Adam.
In 1995 we created the Arnold Spofford Trophy, for the most fish caught and released by a team using one fly, to recognize Arnold Spofford, fly fisherman and gentleman.
Recognizing concerns over catch-and-release mortality, we have modified the rules and changed the focus from high fish tallies to a fish quota—the first team to fill its quota wins.
The fish quota is four fish per angler for teams of three members or less. Three fish per angler for teams of four or more fishermen. The twist is that each member of a team must catch his or her own quota for the team to qualify.
For example, if you’re on fire, you can continue to fish after you've filled your quota, but those fish don't satisfy your team member’s quota—he or she has to carry his own weight. We think this will add to the rooting (or harassing) of fellow team members.
Plaques will be awarded based on each qualifying team’s team finish time.
The biggest fish category is a combination of length and girth. Fishing in that category may continue even after a member of a team meets his or her quota.
Hooks must be barbless, or the barbs must be crushed down.
We think these changes, which emphasize quality over numbers, demonstrate continued conservation leadership and set a good example for others to follow.
And wind, rain, or moonshine — we do not cancel.
The entry fee is $45. The money raised helps to support club youth activities. For more information, go to the Rod and Gun Club website.
If you would like to donate a prize, it would be much appreciated. Contributions can be shipped to Catch & Release Tournament, Coop's Bait & Tackle, 147 West Tisbury Road, Edgartown, MA 02539, or dropped off on Saturday. If you have any questions, please call tournament committee member Cooper Gilkes at 508-627-3909.