A 46-year-old flyfishing guide drowned in the waters of Eel Pond in the wee hours of Friday morning. Kenneth Schwam, who had recently moved full time to the Vineyard from Pennsylvania and had worked a few weeks at Larry's Tackle Shop, is being mourned by friends and colleagues near and far.
According to police, Mr. Schwam was out fishing late with a customer, Jem Paker from London. The two were wading in deep water when they both found themselves in over their heads.
The body of the drowned fisherman was found floating shortly before 2 a.m. Friday after an extensive search.
Mr. Paker made the call to police at 11 minutes after midnight from a Fuller street home.
Sgt. Ken Johnson of the Edgartown police said the search involved an extensive effort by many agencies and groups. Mutual aid came from Oak Bluffs and state environmental police; the U.S. Coast Guard participated in the search with both helicopter and search boat. The Edgartown harbor master's 25-foot boat went to the scene. Edgartown and Oak Bluffs fire rescue squads also responded with their boats.
Sergeant Johnson said the two men were fishing for most of the evening together. They arrived at Eel Pond at approximately 10 p.m. and fished for an hour. "At around 11 p.m. they decided to come back in; they wanted to try another area," he said. The charter was supposed to end at midnight.
"As they were on their way back, the tide was coming in," the sergeant said.
Eel Pond is a notoriously tricky fishing spot. A barrier beach at one time separated Eel Pond from Nantucket Sound, but for the last couple of decades it has disappeared underwater during most high tides. On one side of the barrier beach the water is shallow. On the Eel Pond side of the beach, it gets deep quickly. There is also a channel marking the entrance to the pond.
Eel Pond is a highly productive fishing spot, one of the lesser known fishing areas around the Island, accessible from Fuller street.
Sergeant Johnson said that apparently as the tide got higher, the two lost their way. "Mr. Paker said he could see the lights of the houses on the shore. He started swimming toward the lights. At that point they were separated," the sergeant said.
Mr. Schwam was wearing neoprene waders. They are fairly buoyant but do not act like a life jacket.
The U.S. Coast Guard used flares over the water to help in the search.
The body of the drowned man was discovered by Mike Hathaway, deputy harbor master, about 150 yards from the shore between the pond and the entrance to Fuller street. Efforts were immediately begun to resuscitate Mr. Schwam. Shortly after 2 a.m., an ambulance transported the victim to the Martha's Vineyard Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
Sgt. Jeffrey Stone of the state police barracks in Oak Bluffs said that on Friday afternoon Dr. James Weiner, a medical examiner from Pocasset, performed an autopsy. He listed the cause of death as drowning, but could not rule out death due to cardiac problems. "The autopsy revealed severe heart disease. You can't say yes or no to what contributed to the death," said Sergeant Stone.
Meanwhile, the Vineyard community of fishermen has been deeply affected by the loss.
Harbor master Charlie Blair said Mr. Schwam was a respected fisherman who had a great love for the sport. "He loved to fish and we fished with him last fall," Mr. Blair said.
Ken VanDerlaske of West Tisbury may have been one of the last fishermen to see Mr. Schwam. Mr. VanDerlaske said he was driving to the A&P in Edgartown when he spotted the two fishermen getting ready to fish Sengekontacket Pond. "It was about 7 p.m. They were putting their boots on. They were starting to fish at Sengie. I stopped to chat with them," he said.
Mr. VanDerlaske is a co-organizer of the Martha's Vineyard Rod and Gun Club's annual catch and release flyfishing tournament, held two weekends ago. "I've known Kenny for 20 years. He has fished and guided on this Island for 15 years. He would always bring people up from Pennsylvania, rent a house in the spring and fall. Kenny was truly dedicated to fishing. He had no wife, no kids. He fished and that was his main thing. Two weeks ago, my wife, Lori, and I saw him at Dogfish Bar. Lori gave him a big hug," Mr. VanDerlaske said.
They all commented about Mr. Schwam finally moving to the Vineyard full-time this past month. "Finally, he had moved here. This was a whole new life."
"I don't have a bad thing to say about him," Mr. VanDerlaske said. He said the fishing community has lost a good friend.
Mr. Schwam had just started tying flies at Larry's Tackle Shop. His skills as a fisherman and a fly tier are well known in Pennsylvania. He ran a flyfishing store called Delaware River Anglers in Willow Grove, Pa. He closed the store recently after deciding to make a full-time commitment to fishing and helping fishermen on the Vineyard.
The Larry's Tackle Shop web site on the Internet this weekend posted a tribute to the fisherman: "He gave to us an intimate insight to fishing and a fundamental understanding of nature. And when we were up for it, he shared with us his reckless abandon for life and adventure. Kenny left us doing what he did best and loved most, walking a beach where he was pursuing the striped bass with a novice angler in tow."
Mr. VanDerlaske said that Eel Pond, like many of the Island's fishing spots, does have a treacherous side. "Every pond has a sand bar. There are flats on one side and a hole on the other. I think he became disoriented, maybe the water got too deep," Mr. VanDerlaske said.
To get to some of the good fishing spots in Eel Pond, an angler has to wade through water that can get pretty deep. The drowning occurred when the water was high and there was an incoming tide.
Sergeant Johnson said: "If you are going to be wading out into the water at night, you need to have a life jacket, anywhere around the Island."
Yesterday afternoon there was a service at Goldsteins' Rosenberg's Raphael-Sacks Inc., at 6410 North Broad street in Philadelphia.
Mr. Schwam is survived by his mother Ronnie, and his father, Gerry, and sisters Ellen and Sally, brothers in law Lou and Pat and nephews, Matt, Jeff, Peter and Kevin.
There is already an effort under way on the Vineyard to organize some kind of tribute or memorial. Among the fishermen there is talk of a museum of flyfishing paraphernalia. Mr. Schwam had a great collection. Contributions in his memory may be made to the International Game Fisherman's Association, 300 Gulf Stream Lake, Dania Beach, FL 33004.