One morning in 1934, when Nelson Bryant was eleven years old, his father bought him a twenty-gauge shotgun. He took it out to the marsh at the head of a great salt pond near his house to look for birds. The landscape around him had changed little in the past five thousand years. He could turn in every direction and see just one house. Before long, a black duck flew by, and he took aim, pulled the trigger, and watched the bird drop to the ground. It was Christmas Day.
Nelson, who would go on to spend three decades as outdoors columnist for The New York Times, is not naive. He understands that progress marches forward, like it or not, on the Vineyard and everywhere else. But as with a lot of Islanders of his generation he can’t help feeling irritated about how the changes have imposed upon his life. He now sees six or seven houses around the scene of that first duck hunt — not a subdivision but still an intrusion. In the 1940s he could bike to the beaches of the North Shore after work and flyfish the night tides without seeing a soul. Today he would have to ask permission to roam those same beaches — an indignity he’s not about to suffer at age eighty-five.
“Let’s say I had a girlfriend in high school who fell upon evil times. That’s how I feel about the Vineyard,” he told me with a playful grin one day in his rustic West Tisbury home, a converted goat shack crammed with books, art, and fishing artifacts. “She’s been degraded.”
The truth is the Island has been evolving from a poor, rural, uncrowded outpost of farmers and fishermen into a lively summerresort since before the Civil War. The first wave began in 1835, when Methodists began flocking to a camp ground in an oak grove for boisterous faith revivals. In 1853 the Edgartown prayer meetings ran for one hundred straight days, a nd one born-again townsman ignored even his ailing wife to take part. Otherwise normalIslanders were howling “like so many coyotes,” his son complained. “The whole town seems to be running mad.” (Swap out eternal salvation for striped bass and it starts to sounds a lot like the derby.)
Word of the Island’s beauty spread, and soon a resort village had grown up near the camp ground. “Forty years ago, it was a barren waste, and now it is one of the more fashionable watering holes on the Atlantic Coast,” the Whaleman’s Shipping List once noted about what would later became the town of Oak Bluffs. That was written back in 1871, at the start of a decade that saw the construction of majestic new beachfront hotels, restaurants, shops and a massive roller-skating rink with hardwood floors lit by hundreds of lanterns.
It would be many years before the well-heeled arrived en masse and the whole Island became a must-see destination in the minds of Americans at large. As much as people try to pinpoint exactly when and how it happened, the truth is the revolution arrived gradually. “It’s kind of like losing your hearing,” said Nelson Bryant’s West Tisbury neighbor Whit Manter, whose family has lived on the Island for centuries. “You don’t notice it until you’re deaf.”
On the surface, the six towns of Martha’s Vineyard appear to be strangers adrift on a life raft, with little in common except for their mutual separation from the rest of the United States. One is all dunes and cliffs and giant homes, another is a closely settled harborside village with white picket fences. One has a waterfront park, an old-fashioned carousel, and a collection of gingerbread cottages. Another is farmland and scrub oak.
Packed onto its 104 square miles today is an eclectic population of more than fifteen thousand that swells to seventy-five thousand in the summer. Both numbers have risen sharply over the past four decades as more and more newcomers have discovered the Island. The wealthy came for peaceful summer homes and the workmen came to build them. Writers, intellectuals, artists, and hippies came to be inspired by pastoral simplicity and isolation. Middle and upper-class blacks came to vacation in a place known for its racial harmony. The AARP set came to retire. Film stars and celebrities came to escape their fish-bowl lives. And they are all still coming. Every day in July and August, tourists arrive by the boatload to swim at the beaches, rent mopeds, and see the famous sights. They leave their dollars and take home their Black Dog T-shirts. In all, 1.7 million people visited the Island in 2007.
In the late 1940s, when the derby started, the tourist crowds and the summer people were generally regarded as a saving grace. Sure, some longtime Islanders may have considered them, as one writer joked, a “lower order of beings,” but they spent money, they came only during the summer, and they kept mostly to the three down-Island towns, Vineyard Haven, Oak Bluffs, and Edgartown. (For you among the lower order: the western towns are up-Island and the eastern towns are down-Island, because as you head from west to east you descend in longitude. The Gay Head lighthouse on the western tip is at 70°49.8’. Wasque Point on the east is at 70°27.0’.) By the 1970s, however, development and tourism had grown more and more important to the Island’s bottom line. Fears arose. Was the Island becoming another Cape Cod, with its fast-food dives and clam shacks and gaudy tourist traps? Would development spoil their ponds and their beaches, their rustic vistas and their ecosystem?
In 1977, in the midst of this identity crisis, legislators in Boston proposed to eliminate the Vineyard’s representative in the capital. Islanders would instead share a district with the more populous Cape Cod, and the political math all but ensured that no Vineyarder would win election to the state House of Representatives. Needless to say, that didn’t go over well. “The hell with them,” a local selectman and fish market owner declared. “We’ll set up another state.”
Secessionists drew up a declaration of independence and designed their own flag, a white seagull in flight over a red-orange sun. State officials stopped laughing after the Islands got offers to throw in with Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and,bizarrely, Hawaii. Soon, someone suggested withdrawing from the United States altogether and seeking fo reign aid. An interimcabinet was appointed, a national anthem composed. A reporter from the Vineyard Gazette called the White House and engaged in a line of questioning that, thirty years later, reads like something out of The Colbert Report. A Carter administration spokesman said he doubted the White House would have a comment on the fracas, the Gazette reported. “Asked whether the government would attack the islands if the islands declared war on the United States, he said the nation might ‘if it became a matter of national security.’ ” The insurrectionists eventually lost the fight, which had been conducted tongue-in-cheek anyway. But it was a very Vineyard episode. It has always been a place apart, and theindependent streak still runs deep. When Islanders take the ferry to the mainland they might say they’re “going to America.”
By the 1980s it seemed as if all of America was coming to them.
The Island had become the fastest-growing place in the Northeast, and a poll by the Gazette found overwhelming support for a yearlong building moratorium. Towns — some of which had only recently put into place comprehensive zoning rules — set about trying to stem the rising tide of development. “We are witnessing the build-out of the Vineyard,” the newspaper warned in 1986. The following July the paper’s editorial board decried a decision to sell part of South Beach to a developer, who planned to close the Island’s most popular beach to the general public and sell access rights at an opening price of $25,000. “The shredding of South Beach for personal profit amounts to a declaration of war against the Vineyard — all the Vineyard. And the message of what historians will call plunder at South Beach is this: The Island is for sale and nothing is safe or sacred.” The state eventually stepped in to save that beach, and public and private conservation groups continued to snap up land, but in 1995 the head of one such organization told the Gazette that “the Vineyard in 20 years is going to feel just like any other suburb” — one of the most beautiful in America, but a suburb nonetheless, with more housing developments, more fences, more no-trespassing signs.
As a New Jerseyan, I know overdeveloped sprawl when I see it, and the Vineyard doesn’t exactly qualify. Not yet. A special land use commission has blocked some of the most objectionabledevelopment proposals, and towns strictly control building. There is still no mall and no fast-food chain — they blocked a McDonald’s in 1979 — and though the place is big enough to support a bus service and an airport it is small enough that it has no stoplights. Ask for a phone number and some people will give you four digits and assume you know the town exchange. “It’s Mayberry out here,” state fisheries biologist Greg Skomal said. People don’t lock their doors and hitchhiking is still fairly common. There are intersections where any reasonable municipal government would have installed a stoplight long ago. At one, ferry traffic is dumped onto a main roadconnecting the busy towns of Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs, and drivers are never quite confident about whether to go or give way. Islanders would rather have a thousand near accidents a year than one solitary red light.
It’s the sort of place that celebrates its cast of characters: the Vineyard’s peculiarities are a big part of its charm. There is the fisherman-farmer who went barefoot most of the year and was famously arrested for driving a team of oxen down the street while drunk. Someone told me of a cop who had turned his windshield-wiper tank into a machine that would dispense cocktails. I met a woman who desperately wanted to buy a tugboat and tur n it into a house, and a man who made a home out of a chicken coop. I heard a story about a guy randomly firing antique automatic weaponry into the woods. The newspaper had an article not long ago about a policemangunning down a feral turkey named Tom that had attacked a delivery crew. “The Vineyard is such a weird place,” said Dave Nash, who retired there several years ago. “You have people who, if you took them to the mainland, they wouldn’t know how to function.”
By turns Vineyarders have welcomed and wept over the Island’s ever growing fame. They hated that, for the longest time, the only thing a lot of people knew about their home was Ted Kennedy and Chappaquiddick. But they hailed the arrival of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who bought a 375-acre beachfront property in 1978 and built a dream house. In 1974 Steven Spielberg received a hearty welcome when he papered the Island with $1.5 million in Hollywood cash to shoot Jaws (though hosting a film crew for interminable months got old). In the 1990s they cringed when the press gave blanket coverage to the Clinton vacations, Princess Di’s visit, and John F. Kennedy Jr.’s plane crash into the sea off the west end of the Island. They take pride in being the kind of place where the famous can act like anybody else — window-shop, eat a quiet dinner, visit the fish market — without drawing a crowd.
“Spiritually,” the legendary sports columnist Red Smith wrote in 1954, “Martha’s Vineyard belongs to no state at all, being a land to itself where distinctions are drawn, courteously but firmly, between residents and foreigners.” To some Islanders, seasonal visitors (like Red himself) would never be true Vineyarders, and tourists would never be more than a paycheck. Days after JFK Jr.’s 1999 accident, a longtime summer resident had this to say about the Kennedy family: “They may have had a house here, but no one ever called them Vineyarders.”
Who is, then? It’s a favorite parlor game in some circles, but the truth is that the roster of true natives — with roots going back generations, to the Wampanoag tribesmen, to the founding white settlers of the 1600s, to the Portuguese whalers — grows smaller and smaller all the time, gradually replaced by the retired and the rich.
I found plenty of Islanders who wondered aloud if they wouldn’t be better off without so many new houses and developments, without so many more seasonal residents crowding their towns,roadways, and beaches. “Summer is wicked,” one lifer complained. Nelson Bryant admits to driving the speed limit down the long two-lane road running across the Island from Edgartown to WestTisbury and seeing how many cars pile up behind him. He’ll waver a little if anybody tries to pass on the left, just to make them doubt his mental state. The ornery octogenarian once pulled into his driveway, spun around, and counted seventy-two cars flying past without interruption.
Year-rounders’ larger gripe is that nouveau riche newcomers have driven up the prices for real estate to levels so astronomical that those of more modest means can barely find housing they can afford. Early derby awards give one measure of the sea change. First prize in the inaugural Martha’s Vineyard Derby in 1946: $1,000. Second prize: a building lot in Gay Head (now known by the Wampanoag name Aquinnah). In 1950, a plot of land dropped to third prize, behind a Jeep and a TV set, but above a pair of rubber boots and an outdoor jacket. The idea of giving away land today is, of course, laughable. The median home sales price has spiked over the past decade. In 2007 it reached $700,000 and topped $1 million in the most exclusive towns. Many properties sell for much, much more. An estate on Katama Bay in Edgartown went for $25.2 million in 2006, breaking the record of $22.5 million set the month before. Today, Aquinnah is where the Kennedys live, and winning the derby does not win you the right to be their neighbors.
A growing number of Island workers live on the Cape and commute by ferry every day. Tenants might uproot their familiesmultiple times in a single year as owners boost the rents to cash in on the summer vacationers. Some young people who grew up on the Vineyard end up moving off-Island, because unless they have family land or money they have difficulty buying their first house: they’re priced out. Swelling property tax assessments can put even longtime homeowners in financial straits. Many people who fall in love with the Island and decide to stay year-round have to cobble together jobs to pay the bills. They may have advanced degrees, but in the Vineyard economy they work at retail shops or sell art or start landscaping businesses. “Nobody does what they’re trained to do,” one Islander said. “You do what there is to do.” They earn as much as they can during the summer and squirrel it away for the winter. There is a Brazilian underclass that by some estimates numbers in the thousands. They can be found building homes, working in kitchens, and cramming by the dozen into rental houses.
The Island income gap is growing ever wider. A dinner entree in Edgartown might run $57. For $125,000, members of a new private club in Edgartown called The Boathouse can enjoy harborside fine dining, a fleet of boats, a sprawling fitness center, tennis courts, a pool and a spa. It costs $300,000 to join one exclusive golf club. The Vineyard is covered by Plum TV, a niche channel that airs only in the most elite resor t destinations, including Miami Beach, the Hamptons, Vail, and Aspen. While all this goes on, Habitat for Humanity is building affordable housing.
Of course, it goes without saying that vacationers keep the Island economy afloat, and the summer-home crowd finances the construction trade and shoulders a significant portion of the tax base. In other words, they remain a saving grace. Nelson Sigelman, the Martha’s Vineyard Times managing editor, understands why people fear the sweeping changes. But he notes that people struggled to pay the bills before the boom, too, and many workers are far better off now. Electricians, carpenters, masons, and other workmen make better money than they could on the mainland. If your livelihood depends on it, tourism and development is not a threat to your way of life — it is your way of life.
On top of all these cultural changes, residents are confronted with the daily reality that they live on a shrinking Island. Erosion is swallowing up five to eleven feet of real estate annually on some parts of the Vineyard; landowners have hired crews to shove their houses back from the sea. Every clash, it seems, can be traced to a land-use disagreement: the fight over where to put inexpensive housing; the battle over high-decibel c hickens; the debate over how to assign mooring slips to boaters in Menemsha.
A sense of loss hangs over the place. There is a feeling among longtime Vineyarders that the Island was once a secret, known only to a lucky few. They had the place to themselves and now they don’t.
Perhaps no one is more sensitive to the Vineyard’s dwindling open land than its fishermen, for whom the fishing spot is sacred — a secret to be protected. It may be on someone else’s beach, behind someone else’s gate, at the end of someone else’s driveway, but they own it as if they have been issued a deed.
As a fisherman myself I understand this. I arrived on the Vineyard expecting to see subterfuge and stealth, paranoia and mistrust.
I’m not sure I expected the threats.
When I joked around the weigh station one day that I’d come to the Vineyard to write an encyclopedia of the Island’s best fishing locales, a derby committeeman whose day job is assistant principal at the West Tisbury School told me that I would be burned at the stake and my ashes scattered in the harbor. On a boat the following week, a charter captain who was employing an unusual tactic turned to me and said, “Can’t put this in the book. I’d have to kill you.” Just asking questions made me suspect. Lev, after taking me out on the water three times, asked his wife whether she thought I was really a writer, or if I was just trying to learn all of his spots and tactics so I could return the following year and win the whole tournament. One day, I ran into a crew of regular derby anglers on a beach. “We’ll have to kill him,” one man said to another when I introduced myself as a writer. A woman at the water’s edge saw him talking to me and screamed over her shoulder: “Don’t tell him any secrets!”
Some fishermen told me there aren’t secret spots anymore, and on the surface that’s true. If you fish the Island for any length of time, you will eventually find your way to a lot of the waters that fish frequent. Many spots are mentioned in books or magazines and in Internet articles or chat rooms. The Martha’s Vineyard Times publishes a rundown of which techniques work best on which beaches. I used Google Earth’s satellite imagery to map routes to some beaches. On the water, even the most guarded boat fishermen cannot escape the scrutiny of a watchful competitor.
On the other hand, the place is built for secrets. There are miles and miles of rutted, barely passable dirt pathways that snake through the woods. Anglers can park along some roads without trouble, but on others their trucks might be towed or vandalized or locked behind a gate. Boaters throw off the competition by going out in the dark or taking circuitous routes to their fishing grounds. A good spot might be this hole next to that rock. Fish just to the left or the right and you’ll get nothing.
It’s also not enough to know where a spot is. The real secret, after all, is knowing where the fish are. You have to figure out when to work a spot, and how. Pick the wrong tide, you’ll get nothing. Tie on the wrong plug, you’ll get nothing. And just when you think you’ve figured it all out, everything might change for reasons that never become entirely clear. One fisherman told me he had discovered something new about a well-known spot whose location I will not divulge for fear of summary execution. Everybody generally fishes the falling tide. But for the past two years he’s been catching good stripers on the rise. Nobody has caught on to the fact that he’s fishing the same beach, only at an unconventional time. “Everybody’s wondering where the hell my spot is. It’s right under their noses. If people knew I was catching these fish out here . . .” He just laughed and shook his head.
Who you confide in and who you don’t is a major part of the derby calculus. Friends may share information about where the fish are during the regular season. But come the derby there’s less talking, and more conversations occur in encrypted language only a close friend can decipher. “Everybody gets weird,” fisherman Morgan Taylor said. Specific locations get code names that mean nothing outside your circle of trust: Dreamers. Dreamland. Slammers. The Rock Pile. The G-spot.
“You want to hear lies?” one angler told me. “Try to ask someone where he caught a fish.”
Whit Manter, an exceptional derby fisherman until he all but gave up the sport for golf, recalled that when somebody would ask him a question about the fishing — any question, innocent or not — he would just walk away. His father hammered the code into young Whit: you don’t spill the secrets. “I was a crusty old bastard,” he acknowledges. “I was respected as a fisherman, but I don’t know if I was well liked. I wasn’t mean. I just wasn’t polite.”
Geoff Codding’s unassuming demeanor is interpreted as typical fisherman’s caginess during derby season. “I won’t lie to anybody. People’ll come up and ask me shit and I’ll just stare. I would never ask anybody nothing. It’s the worst thing you could do. ‘Oh, where’d you catch that? Did you catch that there?’ You can’t really ask somebody where. That’s not part of the whole thing.”
Secrecy is prized at all levels of the derby hierarchy. I went to visit tournament president Ed Jerome at one point and asked if I could join him for a trip out on the water.
He agreed, then added, “Of course, we’d have to blindfold you.”
Over the years guys have gone to ridiculous lengths to protect their spots. They’ve parked their cars in one lot and hopped rides to their actual destinations in friends’ trucks.
They’ve hidden in the beach grass. They’ve caught a load of stripers, driven them to some other beach, and pretended to have caught them there. They’ve buried their fish so that when the competition walks by and asks the question — Get anything? — they can safely say the fishing stinks. It doesn’t always work. Twice, a secretive fisherman told me, his gambit unraveled just as he was assuring rivals there weren’t any fish around. One time, a bass in its death throes flipped sand on the guys. Another time, an angler actually slipped on the entombed striper. When the deception works, though, nothing beats watching other fishermen walk past a magic spot on the way to someplace famous.
Fishermen don’t rely on subterfuge just to gain a competitive advantage. It’s also about crowd control. Tell somebody you were into stripers at Wasque and that person will tell at least one other person, who will tell at least one other person. The next thing you know, twenty anglers are camped out at your spot. One morning in 2000, Steve Morris weighed in a 41.78-pound bass to take the lead in the shore division (for good, as it turned out). That night, when he returned to the spot, all the fishermen were on the beach in their pickup trucks. “I mean, it was like a parking lot. Everybody knows where everybody fishes.”
It doesn’t help that access to the beaches is increasingly restricted.
“Welcome to the People’s Republic of Martha’s Vineyard,” one fisherman told me. “It’s like, ‘Come on down, you can use this part of the beach ’ ” — he drew a narrow strip on a piece of paper — “but you can’t park there.” Almost two-thirds of the Vineyard’s beaches are owned by individuals and private clubs. To use these beaches you need gobs of cash or ancestors who were prescient. Memberships in one private beach association originally sold for a fewthousand dollars but in recent years have commanded staggering sums. A single share fetched $375,000. Buyers receive a deed to sixty-eight feet of beachfront, but what they really get is the right to use an entire mile of sand. The dirt road leading to the exclusive strand is gated, and the keys to the lock are like heirlooms handed down from one generation of members to the next.
During the tourist season, some owners post security guards on the beach to enforce their property rights. Steve Purcell, owner of Larry’s Tackle Shop, told me stories of near fisticuffs between overly antagonistic fishermen and overly aggressive guards. Most anglers try to avoid confrontation, he said. “I know people who do army crawls past guard shacks.”
Massachusetts is one of two states that permit private ownership of beaches all the way out to the low-water mark, whicheffectively allows deed holders to bar the public from many stretches. The law dates to the 1640s and has survived even an attempt by a State Senate president to change it. Exceptions are carved out for those engaged in fishing, fowlin g, or navigation, and somebeachcombers have tried to apply those loopholes liberally by carrying a fishing rod with them while they “navigate” the private beaches on foot. A few years ago, a group of rabble-rousers vowed to challenge the Vineyard’s “beach apartheid,” as they called it. But only a new law can stop owners from kicking people off. “They don’t want you down there,” fisherman Janet Messineo says. Whatever the law says about fishermen’s rights, after you walk a mile (or even two or three) to your spot from your car you still might have to stop along the water to debate the mechanics of a 360-year-old law with the irate owner of a property that cost him several million dollars — or a renter who’s dropping $25,000 a week to get away from riffraff like you.
Fishermen have always ignored trespassing laws that keep them from irresistible stretches of water. When landowners spotted them, they tended to look the other way. Today, they might call the cops, as one man did in 1998 when Nelson Sigelman walked across the edge of his property to get to the beach.
For Shirley Craig, the Island native who came of age in the 1930s and ’40s, that’s a huge change. A few property owners clashed with derby competitors in the early years, but back then so much more of the beach was open to fishermen. “There were a few gated places where you had to have a key. They didn’t have parking restrictions, they didn’t have residency stickers, they didn’t have anywhere near the number of private beaches that we have now.” Lev Wlodyka said that even as recently in the 1980s, when he was a boy, landowners would not object if they saw him walk across theirproperty to get to a beach. “Now, they freak out! It’s like, ‘Whoa, whoa! Sorry I stepped on your scrub oak.’ ”
In the early decades of the derby competitors drove campers out onto the beach and spent all day and night at the water’s edge. They cooked breakfast and dinner on their tailgates. Today, it is illegal to drive on many beaches, let alone camp. Even conservation land can be off-limits to fishing and other public uses. The Cedar Tree Neck Sanctuary, for example, is a 312-acre preserve of oaks, beech groves, and rocky coastline on the North Shore. But it is owned by a private conservation group whose focus is walking trails, scenic vistas, and wildlife habitat, and at theentrance is a sign reading, “Picnicking, swimming, sunbathing, fishing and other activities of the sort are strictly prohibited since they would inevitably conflict with the purpose for which thissanctuary has been set aside.” Translation: Come and enjoy but please don’t do anything.
All the new restrictions rankle fishermen, but the fact is there is still a lot of beach open to them. The Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank Commission, The Trustees of Reservations, and local and state governments have saved major stretches for public use, most notably on Chappaquiddick. During the fall and spring the beachassociations and departing summer residents often leave their gatesunlocked for fishermen and beachcombers.
And savvy anglers figure out how to get into otherwise restricted spots. Mark Plante, who is a plumber, gets “ins” from clients with beachfront property. Julian Pepper saved a fellow angler from drowning at the Menemsha jetty one day and won his eternal gratitude, as well as something far more valuable: permission to use his property to access a good spot.
Many year-rounders watch houses in the off-season — turn the water on and off, make sure everything is ready when the owner arrives, repair what’s broken — and they often get parking and fishing rights in addition to a paycheck. Smart anglers get to know these caretakers. They are neighbors, friends of friends, and colleagues. They coach the kids and sit on the same civic boards. When fishermen or hunters win permission to use private land, they are discreet about how they use it, and they deliver fish or venison as a sign of appreciation.
But things change. Erosion makes it hard to drive to old spots.
An owner dies and his son doesn’t want fishermen using his dock, his driveway, his beach. Properties get sold to a less tolerant owner. Many working-class anglers can’t help but harbor bitterness toward, as one put it, “all those rich people who build trophy houses and put up gates to keep out us little skunks.”
The Vineyard is a different place than it was when the derby began in 1946. The derby pumps millions of dollars into the economy every fall, but fishing is a smaller part of the culture. “It’s a big Island,” said Mark Alan Lovewell, who covers fisheries for the Gazette. “There’s a lot more going on now.” The Chamber of Commerce ran the derby for years but it handed off control in 1986, and in the years since then it’s thrown its weight behind other tourist draws, such as the wedding industry. Today, hundreds of couples get hitched on the Island every year, and derby season, with its mild weather and sparse crowds, is the most popular time. These days, well-dressed mainlanders visiting for weekend nuptials seem to fit in better on the Vineyard than derby zombies driving around with fishing rods bristling from their pickup trucks and fish guts caked on their clothes.
It took Nelson Bryant the longest time to see what was happening to the Vineyard. After returning from World War II he attended Dartmouth. One year he didn’t have enough money to get back for the fall semester. But he did own twenty acres on Deep Bottom Cove, which he had inherited from his uncle. He sold it to a friend for the price of a train ticket, about $20. He’s not sure exactly how much the property would fetch today. It was on Tisbury Great Pond, which is now an exclusive part of the Vineyard, and in 2006 one estate there sold for $19 million. About a decade ago, Nelson got wind of a different sort of real estate opportunity and, naturally, he jumped at it — though his decision had more to do with fishing than finance. At Dogfish Bar, a flyfishing mecca that Nelson’s newspaper columns helped make famous, parking had become tight and the police were ticketing and towing cars. So a couple of men put together the North Shore Fishing Association and sold shares of a tiny parking lot just over the dunes from the beach. A number of fishermen, including Nelson, bought in for $15,000. They all received keys to a padlock on a cattle gate at the entrance. Not too long ago, someone offered Nelson $90,000 for his key. He had to sh ake his head at the absurdity of a dirt lot that’s apparently worth north of $1 million.
At the end of a rutted dirt road leading to another popular fishing spot is a parking area for a few pickups. It’s near a multimillion-dollar house owned by a well-known couple in TV and films. (For fear of burning the spot, I’m not naming names.) The previous resident had permitted a few anglers to park there, and when theproperty changed hands the new owners did nothing to stop them from continuing to do so. Now, many people have discovered the place, and they assume the parking area is open to anyone. Regulars fear they’ll all be cut off. On the Vineyard, if you have a good spot you keep quiet.
One night, I got to talking about the clandestine fishing culture with Zeb Tilton’s younger brother Zack, a fast-talking roofer whose ancestry goes back to the Island’s early settlers. The brothers are great-grandsons of a legendary schooner captain named Zebulon
Tilton. It goes without saying that Zack knows more than his share of productive spots, places his family has fished for ages and places he’s found on his own. He has a simple way of keeping his secrets secret: “One part truth, two parts lies. That’s my formula.”
Darkness won’t set in for another hour and Morgan Taylor is getting antsy. It’s still the first week of the derby and the beach is crawling with fishermen. The shore bass and bluefish divisions are wide open. The biggest striper is 22 pounds, the leading blue a mere 9. One lucky night and just about anybody could be in the lead. Morgan has a spot that has been good to him this year — very good to him — and he definitely doesn’t want anybody knowing where it is.
With his short-cropped hair and button-down shirts, Morgan is the straight man in a free-spirited gang of fishermen. His friend and surfcasting partner, Julian Pepper, is an artist and photographer who works at Larry’s Tackle Shop, which is located in what Julian calls the Edgartown Man Mall: it also has a liquor store and a deli. (“What else do you need?”) This year, for the first time, the derby includes a two-man team competition, and Julian and Morgan, who spend the winters in Hawaii working on an offshore fishing boat, are team Hanapa’a, Hawaiian for “fish on.” They’re known to work the Island’s hard-to-reach spots, stretches of beach where you have to hike a mile, scamper over and around boulders, and wade out until the waves are up to your neck. Testimonies to their fights with big bass hang on a wall of the shop: treble hooks that are broken, severely bent, or otherwise mangled. These guys are among the hardest of the hardcore.
I’d met Morgan a couple of times at the tackle shop and we’d gotten to talking at the end of the Menemsha jetty earlier this afternoon. He spoke quietly and seemed to use the absolute minimum number of words possible. When it became clear the fish weren’t biting, we picked our way over the rocks back to the parking lot. I asked if I could tag along to his night spot, vowing not to give it away. Morgan hemmed and hawed while he returned his albie rods to their holders, which looked like a battery of rocket launchers in the back of his black pickup. He leaned over the truck bed, visibly uncomfortable with my proposition. This was a spot Julian had showed him, he explained. Fisherman’s code prohibits giving up somebody else’s spot. It’s the lowest form of betrayal. But I pressed the issue and he relented. Soon I was trailing him out of the Menemsha parking lot toward his next stop.
When we arrive he turns on the radio in his pickup, eats a sandwich, and fiddles with his fishing tackle. Morgan is serious about his gear. He’s tested all kinds of knots to find the ones that work best with the braided line he uses. (He would tie a knot, loop it around a door knob, and yank until it broke. The surgeon’s knot and the uniknot came out on top.) He changes the hooks on his plugs to the strongest variety he can buy. He spent years using inferior reels before he realized he had to get the best, the Van Staals, crafted from titanium and sealed to keep salt and sand out of the gears. They cost $600 and up but he doesn’t ever have to worry about his reel failing again.
He has a strategy for throwing off potential spies tonight: head down to the beach and fish some marginal water until dark, then backtrack to his spot. Before we leave the parking lot a fisherman pulls up in a truck with out-of-state plates and begins a conversation. Or tries to, anyway. Morgan does his thing — a series of barely intelligible mumbles. I follow suit with my best crusty-Islander-around-a-stranger imitation. I just look. I don’t say a word.
Morgan has good reason to think people might try to tail him.
In June, he caught the first striper over 50 pounds taken from a Vineyard beach in quite a while. His 52-pounder ranked among thelargest bass caught from the shore in New England that year, and it was definitely the biggest one he’d ever caught. A few nights later he tangled with and lost what he could only assume was a bigger fish. Julian followed it up with a 43-pounder from the same spot. Get a pair of fish like that and paranoia can set in. The Vineyard’s small-town vibe can start to feel suffocating. Morgan told only a few people about the spot, and local surfcasters who think they know where he got it really don’t. When they took the photo — Morgan, soaking wet in his waders, hoisting the beast with his fist under the gill plate in the classic pose — they went to a completely anonymous location, with no landmarks to give a smart fisherman any clue as to where they were. “I was extremely tight-lipped about that,” Morgan told me once. “Might’ve even lied about it a few times.”
As we walked out to the beach, I couldn’t help wondering why he’d agreed to take me, a stranger and a writer, to his top-secret spot. How could he know I was a man of my word? How could he be sure I wouldn’t burn him? After a minute it dawns on me that we’re not going anywhere near his spot tonight. He’d told me more or less where it was and how they fish it, but now I have to assume that his descriptions were more or less untrue.
We end up fishing a better-known spot for a few hours, wading out past our waists and firing plugs into the surf. After a while Julian shows up with a few others and they manage to get a few small stripers. I am decidedly not hardcore. I’d balked at dropping a couple of hundred dollars on a waterproof top, and instead I try (unsuccessfully) to use a raincoat and a wader belt to keep myself dry. The arm on my eyeglasses breaks. My reel fails in the surf. I catch nothing. Around eleven p.m. we head back to our vehicles and the five of them are talk ing about packing it in for the night. But when I drive off they’re still milling around as if they might hit some other spot.
The next day I run into Julian at the shop. He assures me they drove straight home after I left.
I’ll give them this, the inscrutable Team Hanapa’a: if counterespionage is all about keeping your competition wondering whether you’re telling the God’s honest truth or straight-faced lies, they’ve got it down pat.
Excerpted from David Kinney’s new book The Big One: An Island Obsession and the Furious Pursuit of a Great Fish, published in April 2009 by Grove/Atlantic.