Saltwater Heroes

The idea came from an eight-year-old Chilmark boy. Three years ago young Jack Nixon was reading journalist David Kinney’s book The Big One, the hot new fishing read of the summer that year about the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby. As Jack was reading, he gazed at a newspaper nearby and had a sudden thought: He wished that some of the men who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan could fish the derby.

And the American Heroes Saltwater Challenge was born. Jack’s parents, Bob and Sarah Nixon, owners of the Menemsha and Beach Plum Inns in Chilmark along with the Home Port Restaurant, commissioned their assistant manager to organize the event. The idea was to bring a group of disabled veterans to the Vineyard to fish the derby.

It was one of those events that had endless positive connections. The derby committee greeted the idea with enthusiasm and said it would give the vets free entrance into the contest. Charter and shore fishermen donated their time to take the men and women out fishing. Delicious meals were planned at the Beach Plum Inn. Assistant manager Dorina Klumick, who organized it all, made contact with Dr. Tamar Martin-Franklin, a psychologist who works with veterans afflicted with postwar medical problems. Dr. Martin-Franklin, an avid fly-fisherman, is a member of the local New York chapter of Project Healing Waters Flyfishing Inc., a nationwide organization dedicated to physical and emotional rehabilitation of disabled active duty military personnel and veterans through fly-fishing. There are 75 chapters and they organize outings. This would be the first saltwater outing for vets, but the theme was unchanged.

Three short years later, the saltwater fishing challenge is a cornerstone of the derby, and this week a group of vets from Maryland, some from the Bethesda Naval Hospital, traveled to the Island to participate. They went to the rugged shores of Wasque on Chappaquiddick and cast their lines deep into the churning riptides where the bluefish run. They went out in boats with the brawny charter fishermen in Menemsha and caught striped bass and bluefish off Noman’s Land. In an unexpected bonus, one of the vets caught a 34-pound striper; at press time yesterday Emanuel Thompson was leading the derby.

Hats off to the Nixons, the derby committee, the fishermen and others who generously donated their time to make the saltwater fishing challenge a reality.

And especially to the fishing vets, who served our country honorably and have overcome challenges that far exceed the limits and imaginations of ordinary people. We hope they return every year.

They are the big ones.