One of the top striped bass caught in the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby this past week had a rough journey off and back onto the derby leader board.
On Sunday evening, Lev Wlodyka, 28, of Chilmark weighed in a 57.56 pound striped bass.
But the fish, it turns out, had ingested 1.68 pounds of lead prior to being caught.
This was a big surprise to Mr. Wlodyka, not to mention to derby officials. They quickly disqualified the fish. The decision upset Mr. Wlodyka, for he had caught the fish using a hooked eel.
After doing further research into that fish and learning details on a bluefish that had ingested lead and been weighed in earlier in the contest, derby committee officials reinstated Mr. Wlodyka’s striper Wednesday night.
The decision came after a lengthy three-hour meeting at the Martha’s Vineyard Rod and Gun Club in Edgartown.
“Lev Wlodyka did nothing wrong,” derby president Ed Jerome said yesterday.
Mr. Jerome said the controversy is not about how Mr. Wlodyka caught his fish, but rather the state of the fish prior to being caught and how derby officials will deal with such troubled fish going forward.
Derby officials have since come up with a new practice for evaluating all big striped bass and fish donated to the senior fillet program.
At the center of the controversy is an increasingly popular fishing technique called yo-yoing.
The technique involves using a bait fish artificially loaded with lead to make it sink as a way of catching striped bass.
Derby participants are prohibited from using this technique. Many fishermen think the practice should be outlawed in Massachusetts and along the East Coast.
More and more striped bass are being found that have ingested these lead-poisoned bait fish.
Mr. Jerome said he and the derby committee believe the striped bass that Mr. Wlodyka caught had ingested a lot of these bait fish in its life.
A striped bass of 56-plus pounds has a life span of at least 22 years. There is no telling how long those pieces of lead had been inside the fish.
Earlier in the derby, a fisherman had weighed in a bluefish that was examined to also have evidence of ingesting lead-weighted bait, but in that case the fish was not disqualified from the contest.
“In these two incidents, we realized, with the research that we did, that in both cases the fish had the inorganic material in their stomach and intestines prior to being caught,” Mr. Jerome said. “As a result we’ve had to think about this crazy situation. This is very serious.”
In the case of the bluefish, caught earlier in the derby, they found a skewer, two weights and a decayed menhaden.
In the digestive tract of Mr. Wlodyka’s fish, they found 10 weights and a number of clips used to close mouths of lead-weighted menhaden.
Mr. Jerome said: “There was nothing else in the belly. It had to make that fish sick.”
“In the past we always opened every derby leader and examined it for any foreign materials,” Mr. Jerome said. The intent was to catch fishermen who were cheating.
As a result of these two fish and incidents in the past, the derby has shifted its approach.
“Now we are doing this because we know that this kind of thing is going to show up more often,” Mr. Jerome said. “When we find evidence of yo-yoing, and we can conclusively prove scientifically that this material was in the fish prior to the catching, we will deduct the weight from the weight of the fish.”
Thus Mr. Wlodyka’s fish was reinstated in the derby as a fish weighing 55.88 pounds.
And with the concern that lead in a fish also taints the meat, Mr. Jerome said from now on every single striped bass donated to the fillet program will be opened at the stomach to see if there is any lead in it.
“If we find any, we will also take a sample of that fillet and have it analyzed,” he said. “Until we get conclusive evidence that the lead being kept in the stomach is not harming the quality of the fish, we will not put those fish in the fillet program. We will discard them.”
That is no small order. In the past several derbies, close to 5,000 pounds of fresh fillets of fish a year have been donated to the Island’s senior citizens through their councils on aging.
Mr. Jerome said derby officials remain opposed to yo-yoing for environmental reasons. “You can’t put lead into anything. You can’t put it in paint. The state has a law prohibiting the use of lead in birdshot.”
“Tons of fillets are eaten compared to a few birds. They have to outlaw this practice,” Mr. Jerome said.
At least two years ago, the derby wrote a letter to the state requesting that a prohibition against the use of lead weights in yo-yoing.
“They should come up with a weight that is biodegradable, so that if they do get in the fish, it is digested and dissipates,” he said. “The fact that the state has not acted on this is unconscionable.”
Here is how striped bass anglers use lead for yo-yoing:
They take a large menhaden, usually as big as they can get.
A lead weight is inserted in the mouth and pushed inside. A barbecue skewer, of bamboo, and sometimes thick wire is also inserted into the fish to keep it straight when pulled through the water. The mouth of the menhaden is shut with a wire clip. Closing of the mouth keeps the lead weight in and helps keep the fish streamlined when it moves through the water.
A hook is then placed on the top head of the fish.
A boat fisherman will then lower the fish to the bottom, usually over rocky bottom and play the fish off the bottom. Some anglers will lower the yo-yo all the way to the bottom and then reel it in quickly, and repeat it over and over again, hence the name yo-yo. Others will simply dance the fish off the bottom, raising and lowering their rod as though jigging. The technique is said to be very productive and used commonly by commercial striped bass anglers.
In the violent action of raising and lowering the bait, it is possible for the bait to get loose and come free. And often when the striped bass grabs the fish, it gets hooked but the bait drifts away. When it drifts free, another striped bass in the same school will eat and consume the poisoned bait.
In the case of Mr. Wlodyka’s fish, it had eaten at least 10 of these fish.
Lisa Capone, a spokesman for the state Division of Marine Fisheries said: “This appears to be a fairly new technique and it has raised the attention at the division. We will try and gather information over the winter to see how widespread this is. We will take a look at it.”
For Mr. Wlodyka, this has been an awful week with ultimately a positive outcome.
He is an experienced and respected Chilmark angler. During the summer he commercially fishes for striped bass. During the fall he devotes his energies to fishing in the derby and at other times he is a general contractor. He has a wife and a six-month-old son.
He said he caught the striped bass in his boat, while fishing alone. When he caught it, he said: “I was more happy than I have ever been. I was all in cloud ten. I caught the fish at 8:50 p.m. at my favorite fishing spot. The fish swam by the boat, took 70 yards. Then it went to the bottom and came back and took 50 yards, held for five minutes and then came up,” he said.
He said that after he got to the dock, he rushed in his truck to Edgartown to weigh the fish in.
When the fish was opened, and he learned the fish was going to be disqualified, he was devastated. “It was going from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows,” he said.
“There is irony. Eight to ten years ago, I went to my father. He was on the derby committee. I told him this [yo-yoing] is wrong, it kills the fish. It was in the late 1990s, He had to explain to the derby committee how it was done. Back then only 30 or 40 boats were doing it up and down the East Coast. Now it is far more common.”
In a letter earlier this week to the derby committee, hoping that they would reinstate the disqualified fish, Mr. Wlodyka wrote: “It’s the amazing spirit of the derby that we all love so much. In the end, I guess this fish and I had a lot in common. We both got something that was totally indigestible and hard to swallow. See you on the water.”
He said he appreciates the support he got from the waterfront committee in reinstating the fish.
The leading fish in the derby so far, with one full week to go are as follows: Striped bass: boat, Zeb Tilton, 56.51 pounds; shore, Zachary K. Tilton, 40.61. Bluefish: boat, Bruce L. McIntosh, 14.62; shore Dan J. Hess, 11.02. Bonito: boat, Geoff K. Codding, 9.14; shore, Neal J. Farrell, 7.38. False albacore: boat, Sandy E. Fisher, 15.33; shore, Clark M. Goff Jr., 15.86.