The waves were screaming one fall morning south of the Vineyard when Capt. Jennifer Clarke landed a big one. Alone on her Boston Whaler, the 40-pounder had broken her rod.
A friend of Mrs. Clarke’s had already turned back to shore due to rough seas. But she was determined to reel it in and there was only one person to call for an extra rod: Capt. Buddy Vanderhoop.
“All I remember is him shimmying out on his butt on the bow of the old Tomahawk and our boats were just rockin’,” Mrs. Clarke recalled on a calm Menemsha morning this week. “He handed me his rod and said, you are absolutely insane. I’ll see you when you get in.”
Mrs. Clarke landed the fish, hand-reeling it in with what was left of the old rod and used Buddy’s rod to continue fishing for hours.
That was Mrs. Clarke’s first introduction to Mr. Vanderhoop, famed fishing captain and now longtime friend who eventually encouraged Mrs. Clarke to get her captain’s license and introduced her to the charter business. The two are docked next to each other in Menemsha.
Don’t let the layered wampum jewelry, wedge sandals or long, loose hair fool you. Mrs. Clarke is a serious fisherman — she’s quick to draw a distinction between fisherman and fisherwoman (she prefers the former). She has won several awards at the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby and was the first female to win every award on the American Striper Association’s East Coast Tournament Trail. She’s also a singer-songwriter and former investigative reporter.
On Wednesday with the sounds of the Menemsha Bike Ferry swooshing by and the bell of the buoy outside of Menemsha Harbor drifting in the background, Mrs. Clarke reclined in her 32-foot Yellowfin Center Console. A strong easterly wind prevented her from heading out on her boat Femme Fatale and she had time to tell her tale.
She grew up in Virginia and started fishing at a young age, learning to fly fish when she was four years old. Her grandmother’s pond was stocked regularly with trout. “I was hooked early,” she said, smiling. “My parents are really, really hard-core fly fishermen. Then we got a place in Montana when I was 12 and that had lifetime rod rights on Spring Creek. That’s where I learned how to fly fish well. That’s some tough fishing. You can’t believe how tricky it is.”
A neighboring rancher took her under his wing after giving her the nickname Ms. Miss “because I missed so many fish,” she said. “But I finally got it.”
“I was so obnoxious because I’d hook into these big trout...and I would get a big fish on and I would just wade through everybody’s water,” she said, laughing. “These Orvis-decked out dudes would see the fish and go, oh my God, what is she using? The rancher would just shake his head and say, figure it out on your own.”
And she learned the hard way. The rancher friend would tie her wrist to the rod so she would not use her wrist to cast.
“He got me to the point where I could really slam and I was out-fishing all of the grownups, except for my mom and dad — they’re brutal. But I was always hooking into the brown trout, which are the hardest to get.”
Family fly fishing took her around the world, from Yellowstone National Park to Chile and Argentina, where even a two-day trip in the mountains by horseback and a blizzard didn’t stop them from getting to their fishing hole. Bonefishing in the Seychelles wasn’t half bad either, she said.
“We were one of the first groups to fish there,” Mrs. Clarke said. “You’re wading in the atolls in the Indian Ocean. It’s just insane . . . that was my coolest fly fishing experience.”
Mrs. Clarke eventually moved to Los Angeles, where she was an investigative reporter for Primetime Live. It was there that she met her husband, actor and comedian Lenny Clarke. A family reunion brought the two to the Island in 1994.
“I was so hooked on the Vineyard because it reminded me so much of where I grew up — the people were so wonderful, and country stores, the gas stations.”
And then there was Mr. Vanderhoop.
“He started to really teach me how to striped bass fish,” she said. “I was really lucky, I got to learn striped bass fishing from Buddy, who has a magical and innate and rare connection with the water.”
“I was so obsessed, I just lived out there.”
Mrs. Clarke has won a grand slam title in the derby (catching all four fish included in the tournament), the largest striped bass of the derby, as well as the American Striper Association’s awards for angler of the year and lady angler of the year.
In 2001, she fished the American Striper Association’s East Coast Tournament Trail and was on the water from April until Christmas, boating from Gay Head to the southern tip of the Chesapeake Bay. Because she had her captain’s license, Mrs. Clarke was granted special dispensation to fish the tournament alone.
“I don’t think I could do it today, it was exhausting,” Mrs. Clarke said letting out a whoop. “I won every piece of that trail. It was the worst thing that could have happened to them, this girl wins every bit of it. But it was great and I got a sponsorship out of it.”
As one of the few females on the Menemsha waterfront, Mrs. Clarke said she rarely saw any prejudice against her.
“I was so obsessed with it I didn’t care. I was oblivious. I did it for the love of it and never heard any of it.”
But when she began commercial bass fishing, it “got nasty.”
“They strung me up on blogs and long threads. It was really upsetting. I remember feeling like my nirvana had been swept away, like it had been obliterated.”
Mr. Vanderhoop and Mr. Clarke reassured her that when you’re on top, there’s always a handful who are looking to knock you down.
“They said, be proud because that’s how good you are. It didn’t stop me.”
With commercial fishing and tournament circuits behind her, she’s “replaced the thrill” of high seas with the “the thrill of turning people on to the greatest days of their lives.”
“Everyone is just on a natural high when they’re out there,” Mrs. Clarke said.
She shared some advice for derby fishermen.
“Fish hard. As Buddy says, you have to put in your time. That’s why you’re getting the big fish.”
And with that, Mrs. Clarke and Mr. Vanderhoop headed out to lunch at the Aquinnah Restaurant.
“The best thing about the derby is anyone can win it,” she added before walking away. “You never know who it’ll be.”