You’ve heard those fish stories about the one that got away. Well, Jason Hershey went to work on Chappaquiddick early Wednesday morning with a fish story about the many things he did just to let one go.
His tale begins around 6:30 Tuesday evening on the beach at Lobsterville, within sight of the Gay Head Light. Mr. Hershey was fishing with his friend Caleb Carnahan. Both men live in Edgartown. The ebb tide had eased, the wind was calm. “I was throwing a Deadly Dick out there, doing top-water jigs, and I’d had nothing,” Mr. Hershey said. “Slack water. You have to be able to cast really far.”
The light was nearly gone around 9 p.m. and the tide was starting to flood. Mr. Hershey stuck his pole in a sand spike. “I was on squid and a two-ounce weight to hold it out there,” he said. “I told Caleb, ‘Listen, man, I’m going to pack up all my stuff, but I’m going to leave my line soaking while I do that.’ Soon as I closed my tackle box, had everything set to pick up and go — all I had to do was pull my line in — bang.”
Mr. Hershey is an outdoorsman. He’s 32 and grew up in Cave-In-Rock, a town of roughly 450 people lying along the Ohio River in southeastern Illinois. He voice is deep and his accent trends southern. He was a paratrooper who served in Iraq, South Korea, Germany and elsewhere. He works as lead foreman for Donna Kelly, a landscaper on Chappy.
Meet him and you know right away he’s a man with a strong center. On one side of his wrist is tattooed the word Respect. On the other, Loyalty. He tries to live by those words every day, he said.
At Lobsterville, there was no doubt about it — a striper. Mr. Hershey was using a nine-foot Shakespeare Ugly Stick, a Penn Pursuit 8000 reel and 50-pound braided line. “So it’s pretty beefy,” he said of his rig. The night before, he’d caught a keeper at Cedar Tree Neck. It’s rocky there, but the Cedar Tree Neck bass didn’t battle like this one. “He should have been harder to bring in on the rocks. And he wasn’t.” The fight at Lobsterville lasted seven or eight minutes, but then the fish came ashore.
It was a good-looking bass, even in the dark. Silver and green and longer than Mr. Hershey’s shoulders are wide. Another keeper. The fish was hooked through the lower lip, but there was no other sign of injury.
“I threw him up on the beach, you know?” Mr. Hershey said. “I baited my line back up, because I was, like, ‘Well, here we go. He’s not the only one out there, probably.’ I threw it out there and we stayed there for, like, 30 more minutes. And he was laying up on the sand — at least a half an hour on the beach.”
But there was no more action. They decided to go. Mr. Hershey walked up the beach, lifted his striper and brought him down to the water to rinse off the sand. Mr. Carnahan offered him a knife to gut the fish, but even after half an hour on the shore, the bass still trembled strongly, and Mr. Hershey refuses to bleed a fish while it lives.
He put the bass in a plastic T-shirt bag — “two of them, actually, because he didn’t fit all the way into one. So I pulled one over this side, one over that side. And I tied the two handles together in the middle. Then I put the fish in the plastic bags inside my backpack and zipped the backpack up, threw him on my back and marched off the beach in Lobsterville.” He put the backpack in the rear seat of Mr. Carnahan’s car.
On the drive home to Edgartown, a journey of nearly 20 miles, which took half an hour, Mr. Hershey heard and saw nothing from the backpack.
“He wasn’t moving around or anything. I really, honestly thought when I get home that it was going to be a dead fish that I could just fillet,” he said. The men reached the Park ’n Ride lot in Edgartown, Mr. Hershey got into his own car with the backpack and drove up the Vineyard Haven Road to Morgan Woods.
“I got out, got my bag out, went inside, I even washed my hands up and everything, and then I went over there and opened the bag.” He planned to hose off the fish before filleting it in the backyard. But then he noticed something.
“I see his gill go like that,” Mr. Hershey said. He opened and closed his right hand slowly. “And I was, like, ‘Is he still alive?’” He picked up the fish, went inside and showed him to Flavia Hershey, his former wife, who is also living at the house with Mr. Hershey and their two children, Jasmyn, age nine, and Floyd, six.
It was now 10:30 p.m. He had landed the bass at nine. No striper he caught had ever lived longer than half an hour, 45 minutes tops. With the sluggish movement of the gill, Mr. Hershey figured the striper was all but done for. When the last hints of life were gone, it would be all right to gut the fish. But first he asked Mrs. Hershey to take a picture.
“As I’m holding him, his mouth opened and closed, his gill went like that again,” Mr. Hershey said. Then he felt the tail twitch. “I was so amazed that it was still alive. I said, can you believe this? This guy is, like, a fighter.”
Mr. Hershey hunts as well as fishes. His father taught him that you eat what you kill or you don’t kill. The fillets from the Cedar Tree Neck bass were still in the freezer. This one was fighting for life like nothing he had ever seen, and he didn’t really need it. “And I looked at Flavia, and I said, you know what? I’m going to save this fish.”
He had never revived a fish before. But he knew that they sometimes did it at the weigh-in station of the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby. And he had seen River Monsters on the Discovery Channel, a program in which the revival and release of big fish is a calling. “You’re crazy,” Flavia said. “You’re not going to bring that fish back.”
“I said, yes, I am. I’ve got to go right now.’” He ran to his car, put the striper in the footwell of the front passenger seat and sped off to Sengekontacket Pond.
“I got down to Sengekontacket, the landing on Anthier’s Way there,” Mr. Hershey said. “Turned the headlights onto the water so I could see what I was doing. Matter of fact, I had a brand new pair of $120 Jordans on my feet, and I waded out in the water with them, because I didn’t think he had the time for me to take my shoes off. They’re not brand new anymore, that’s for sure.
“When I get him into the water, I’m trying to keep him upright, because he keeps wanting to fall over on his side. I got him underneath the belly like this, and the tail back here in my hand, and I can feel his tail, like he’s trying to swim. Basically the technique that I was shown was, you push him forward and pull him back in the water, so it runs the water through their gills. It’s like CPR for a person. You’re running oxygen back into their system.
“I did that — I don’t know — it was, like, an hour. Until I felt him get a little more life in his tail. I tried pushing him off, and he actually swam out a little bit, swam a circle back towards me. It was like he knew that he didn’t have the energy, and he was trying to make it back so I could hold him a little longer. When he made that circle, I knew that he knew that I was trying to help him. And when he got almost back to me, he went on his side again. I went over there, grabbed him again, and I said, no, buddy. You almost had it. C’mon. We got this.
“After another 30 minutes, I felt him, he was a little more lively. I pushed him again. He went out and he went out and he circled back. He had the top of his head and his eyes above the water just a little bit. His tail was down, like that. He swam almost out of the headlights, but I could see the yellow on his eyes and the silver on the back of his head. And then, all of a sudden, he was — foom. And gone.”
It was nearing midnight. The striper had survived 90 minutes on land, including half an hour on a beach, encasement in two plastic bags and a backpack, a trip across the Vineyard in the back seat of a car, a hosing down with freshwater, an impromptu photo session in a house and a race back to the nearest saltwater pond in the footwell of a small SUV. Revival had taken another hour and a half, one minute of gentle sub-surface, back-and-forth triage for every minute of his ordeal ashore.
“I was, like, okay, now I can go home,” Mr. Hershey said. Mrs. Hershey was on the couch, half asleep, when he arrived. She expressed amazement when he told her what he had done, and how the fish had lived. Again she offered the thought that he might be mad.
But Mr. Hershey’s own thoughts lingered on saving what you don’t need to kill, on good karma come Derby time, on the improbable adventures a night by the shoreline can offer — and especially on the striper. “I don’t think that fish’ll ever be caught again,” he said. “Mainly because fish learn. They’re not stupid. They pick up on things. And after a fish is caught, thrown into a knapsack and then still has the will to live — he’s going to remember that.
“And the next time he sees a little yellow thing over here, floating, and a squid beside it, he’s going to go: Nah.”