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Allan Taylor. At on the first morning of the derby I drive into Menemsha, park at the beachfront, turn off the engine, and sit, waiting and watching. The Texaco is shuttered and dark. Fishing boats bob in the harbor. I roll down the passenger-side window and hear the faint clang-clang of the bell on the green buoy out in the Vineyard Sound. I can just barely make out the beach and the waves and the twin jetties along the inlet to the harbor. The moon is a sliver of a crescent. After all I've heard and read about the competition, I almost expect to see a mob converging on the parking lot: para-anglers appearing in the sky to storm the jetties like something out of a grainy war movie, or men ducking out from around every corner, derby badges pinned to their hats and fishing rods brandished like weapons.
But what I see is more like the aftermath of an all-night party. One guy is lying on the beach under a blanket, his head on a sand-sculpted pillow.
His partner is sprawled in the front seat of their pickup. A fly fisherman is asleep on the sister jetty across the channel in Lobsterville. They were all working the beaches for stripers at the official midnight start of the derby, because it can pay to start early. Some years, the winner has caught the big bass on the first day, and once a guy landed it in the first ten minutes. But none of these guys had that kind of luck this morning, and they trickled into the harbor in the darkness to wait for dawn — the time when other derby fish are known to storm the jetties.
I watch from the car for a while, then the sky starts to lighten, imperceptibly at first and then quickly, with each blink. As if an alarm has gone off, the sleepers stir. The fisherman on the beach jumps up and shakes out his blanket and walks over to the truck and wakes up his friend. The guys speed-walk out to the jetty, and when it's just light enough to see I gather up my rod and tackle bag and follow.
We're after two derby species this morning. One is the false albacore the hipsters call them "'cores" but to everybody else they are "albies" and the other is the bonito or "bones".
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The fish are drawn to the inlet to feed on baitfish — scup, peanut bunker, silver-sides — sucked in and out every six hours by the tides. On the end of my line is a lure called a Maria, a slug of metal encased in a hard, translucent plastic with a treble hook hanging off the end. I start casting into the roiling water. The jetty is an L-shaped stack of boulders that runs parallel to the beach for a stretch, then juts out into the Vineyard Sound.
At the tip is a navigational aid tower, rusty but solid, that marks the port side of the inlet with a square green sign and the number 3. The tower doubles as a rod holder, tackle-bag rack, and beer stand. On a post at the foot of the jetty is a weathered white sign with a warning scrawled in black marker. It reads:. Slipping on the rocks is a hazard, but only one of many on this particular jetty. I've been warned that Menemsha can be a tough place.
With so many hooks being thrown around in such a confined spot, fights are bound to break out. Guys down shots from miniature liquor bottles, chase them with beer, and smash the empties in the rocks. They jockey in front of you and cut off your casting angle. They fire their lures from point-blank range at the cormorants paddling by the rocks.
Some otherwise rugged fishermen are unwilling to brave the crowd. Before long I see Lev's friend and fishing partner, Geoff Codding, pull up to the Texaco station in the huge Titan he won in last year's derby. Geoff got a college degree in environmental policy and aspires to be a commercial fisherman, but for now he earns a living mowing lawns and harvesting scallops.
Not much gets in the way of fishing the tournament every day. Geoff — wearing his derby uniform of waterproof boots, blue jeans, and Red Sox cap — gets out of the truck and talks to some buddies filling up their boat at the gas dock, then returns to his pickup and drives over to the spot on the beachfront where cell phones work.
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One of his friends might call with reports of fish someplace else. From the front seat of his truck he can watch the water and decide whether it's worth fishing.
He sees what looks like a few albies breaking the water's surface at the end of the jetty. Then he spots the telltale sign of fish: everybody on the rocks is bent at the waist, reeling as fast as they can. He grabs his rods and his bag of lures and falls in, casting languidly. Within minutes, the harbor is teeming with people. A dozen fishermen line the Lobsterville jetty across the water, and more are pouring onto the beach beside it. Boats slide through the inlet and take up stations just off the beach or rumble off to spots unknown.
By the time the albies begin their assaults on the baitfish hugging the rocks, I find myself behind fishermen three deep. The men on the rocks are all business. There is little of the usual chatter, and nobody's touching the alcohol tucked under the tower — a six-pack of Coors longnecks and a plastic twenty-ounce bottle of Pepsi spiked with Yukon Jack. The group seems to move as a single life-form: whipping casts, changing directions on a dime, doing whatever it takes to get lures in front of fish. I am forced to stand back and watch in awe. I couldn't fit a cast between them if I tried.
When the jetty fishermen are at work, it can either be a symphony of coordinated motion, with one or two guys hooked up and dancing from rock to rock and going under and over each other's rods, or it can be a tangled mess. The pros know how to keep out of each others' way. It would take me a few weeks to figure out how to fish the tip without screwing up the works.
Anglers have an easier time of it on the Lobsterville jetty just a short cast across the inlet. The fishing is comparable but the two spots may as well be different worlds. I never saw a fly fisherman on Menemsha, where they are regarded as pompous hotshots who are overly fastidious about their gear. People who fish lures and bait using regular spinning reels have a hard time figuring out the fly guys.
Why do they spend so much time tying flies and perfecting their casts when they are practically assured of catching smaller fish than everybody else? The answer: even catching a smaller fish is more challenging on a fly rod. Some disagreements span the inlet. If fish are running in or out of the channel, people are often casting directly at each other. When it works it's like music. Everybody casts and retrieves in rhythm, lures returning to their owners in perfect time. Tranquillity reigns. When it doesn't work — when a Lobster-villian entangles a Menemshan, or vice versa — one fisherman has to open his bail while the other reels the mess up and untangles it.
Generally, it's a polite transaction. No harm. Don't sweat it. Happens to everyone. Sometimes, of course, it's not. One year a fly fisherman on the Lobsterville jetty had an albie on and a Menemsha spin fisherman cast over his line and the fly fisherman believed started yanking. As they went back and forth, a boat steamed out of the inlet and cut the line. Pissed beyond belief, the Lobsterville fly fisherman got into his pickup truck and drove the twenty minutes around Menemsha Pond to the other side.
He strutted onto the rocks, fly rod in hand, and cast over the offender's line. Things devolved from there. Choice words were exchanged and the fly line slashed, but no fists flew. Afterward, the fly fisherman apologized. People marveled that he had managed to stay so angry for the entire trip from Lobsterville to Menemsha.
Why would this be different? As the jetty fills up this morning, a guy named Tony Jackson gives me an object lesson in what can go wrong. Standing out on the farthest rock, he draws his rod back over his shoulder, the treble hook of his lure dangling among the circle of fishermen, and then sweeps it toward the sea. There's a whipping sound and then his rod stops.