• Nelson Sigelman

President Obama Needs to Take Time and Go Fishing

There is a lot to learn outside the Vineyard summer cocktail circuit.

(August 2010)



Marsh Bryan hauls in a bluefish at Wasque Point.

The political pundits will be lathered up this week. President Barack Obama and his family arrive on Martha's Vineyard for a summer vacation. I expect talk radio hosts will nip at this vacation like 3-D piranhas in a low-budget film spring break float tube party. Critics will harp on the news that Michelle Obama did not buy her bathing suit at Walmart and the First Family rushed from the Gulf for the Vineyard — Chilmark no less.

Against the backdrop of a struggling economy, even the president's supporters wince a bit as they muster a half-hearted defense: he needs to recharge (me too); he's not really on vacation even when he's on vacation (he needs to suck it up — he asked for the job); the president has a 24/7 job (like a Marine in Afghanistan doesn't?); he vacationed on the Island before he was president (not at exclusive Blue Heron Farm).

The critics think a vacation on Martha's Vineyard — toney, chic, elite, Hollywood-east, haven of the rich and powerful (take your pick of recent press adjectives) — shows the President is out of touch, that he just doesn't get it. There is some truth to that. But the inside-the-beltway group does not get it either. I want to help.

Although some visitors think they are elite, including members of the press corps, it does not make all of the Vineyard elite. Eddy (Bonito Ed) Lepore, a retired tool engineer, and his wife Janet of Vernon, Connecticut, spend each summer in the Martha's Vineyard Family Campground. They are not unlike other retired couples throughout the country or most people who call the Vineyard home.

At its heart, the Vineyard is about grabbing a fishing rod because the blues are at Wasque Rip, chasing blue claws in a salt pond, or taking the long way around East Chop drive to take in the view of Nantucket Sound even if it takes a few extra minutes.

The last time Barack Obama visited the Vineyard, he golfed at the Vineyard Golf Club, the same exclusive 18-hole course for members that Rush Limbaugh played on when he visited the Island. Ironic, huh?

I think it is time for the President to ditch the caddy shack look (even if Bill Murray, Vineyard summer resident, is a member of the same course) and forego socializing only with people he can hang out with in Washington. The President should go fishing.

Fishing is the great equalizer on Martha's Vineyard. It does not matter if you are staying in a rented room in Oak Bluffs or a Chilmark compound; there is the opportunity to have a great time casting under the stars from the beach at Wasque Rip or Lobsterville Beach.

During the derby — if you have to ask what that is, you do not know as much as you think you know about Martha's Vineyard — venture capitalists fish and compete with Island carpenters. And the fish do not care who you are.

More than 48 million people in this country fish; They fish from the shore, and they fish from all manner of boats. Wooden skiffs on lakes; bass boats outfitted to look like a NASCAR racecar that go almost as fast; and sportfishermen that are as luxuriously outfitted as a Miami condo.

According to "Fisheries Economics of the United States 2006," a NOAA report that covers 1997 to 2006, recreational fishing generated $82 billion in sales, $24 billion in income, and supported 534,000 jobs in 2006.

On Martha's Vineyard, fishermen support businesses with names like Coop's, Larry's, Dick's, and Porky's. These are businesses that pay taxes and hire local people who spend money in our community and help out folks when they are down on their luck in many little ways that never make the news.

Cooper "Coop" Gilkes in shop.

The President could learn a lot from Coop about fishing, the Vineyard, and what concerns the country. Coop and his wife Lela, a person who embodies the qualities of fairness and generosity of spirit much of the world associates with the United States, built a successful business out of their house. Lela does the books. She knows how much of her family's income from all those plugs, rods, and reels go to the government.

I recently read a story in the New York Times, "Pakistani taxes widen divide between rich and poor," that reported that even as we send that country billions of our tax dollars in aid, out of more than 170 million Pakistanis, fewer than 2 percent pay income tax, and most of the very rich pay nothing at all.

Maybe the President could stop in at Coop's and explain to Cooper and Lela why they are asked to share their hard-earned tax dollars with Pakistan when that country's elite do not.

Every winter Island tackle shop owners such as Steve Purcell at Larry's order from shops around the country; that keeps other people working. If Steve misjudges, there is no multi-million dollar payday on the way out the door. No bailout. Closed. Down with the ship.

Tackle shops do not sell derivatives. They sell eels, squid, line, and hooks and dispense fishing advice. Small shops like Dick's rely on their hard-won reputations for honest dealings and personal service. Maybe you could stop in and talk to Stevie Morris, owner of the shop named after his grandfather. You probably saw it on your way to lunch with your pal and advisor, Valerie Jarrett, in Oak Bluffs.

I do not want to play the role of presidential advisor and critic Dick Morris but far more people could relate to a photo of the President taking a scup off the hook than swinging at a golf ball at a private club with a $300,000 membership fee, or playing hoops at a vacation home that rents for $25,000 a week.

Martha's Vineyard is a very good choice for a vacation if you want to fish. There is nothing fancy about catching scup from Memorial Wharf or bottom fishing from a skiff in Vineyard Sound, or sitting on an upturned bucket next to Janet Messineo bait fishing for striped bass.

How misguided are the reporters parroting back knocks on the Vineyard? Well, the Washington Post, which should know a thing or two about the Vineyard given the ties between the Graham family, owners of the newspaper, and West Tisbury, recently published a piece titled, "Why vacation, Obamas, when you could have a great staycation here in D.C.?"

The story, written by writers who I assume are irritated that they are stuck in the city in August, described all the wonderful activities Washington has to offer. This one caught my eye.

Barry Adams and Andy Peterson with blue claws.

"What does Maryland have that Martha's Vineyard doesn't? Steamed blue crabs. For great crustaceans and a waterfront view, the Obamas should head for Mike's Crab House, just outside Annapolis, where diners sit outdoors at picnic tables enjoying a feast — $65 for a dozen large crabs — with all the fixin’s while watching boats drift by."

No blue claws on Martha's Vineyard? I have news for President Obama — don't believe everything you read about Martha's Vineyard. On Sunday I joined a crabbin' expedition that included Coop, Ned Casey, and two guys who have never had to chase their food — fellow New Yorkers and longtime seasonal Island visitors Barry Adams of Oak Bluffs and Andy Peterson of Vineyard Haven.

Catching crabs is about simple fun. All you need is a long-handled crab net and floating tub or bucket. I recommend polarized sunglasses and solid footwear, in the event you step on a crab and it objects.

Sometimes you see the crab, and sometimes the crab sees you. The little crustaceans swim fast. You need to be quick. Steam them up as you would a lobster. There is nothing toney about eating fresh-caught steamed Island blue claw crabs on an outdoor deck. Just dig in and get messy.

President Obama and his girls would have a great time netting blue claws just steps from his back door on Tisbury Great Pond. I would be happy to assist.


First published in The Martha's Vineyard Times, August 2010. From "Martha’s Vineyard Outdoors, Fishing, Hunting and Avoiding Divorce on a Small Island." Available at local Island bookstores, Amazon, and marthasvineyardoutdoors.com.


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