Gone Fishing The 72nd Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby got under way last Sunday with plenty of fish and fish tales.

The derby is the Vineyard’s Fall Classic, and everywhere there are signs that the best fishing season of the year has begun: business is brisk at bait and tackle stores; ferries are filled with pickup trucks and oversized off-road vehicles loaded with saltwater casting rods of every description. These are serious fishermen who plan their vacations around the Vineyard fishing derby, many of whom return year after year. They meld with the Island fishermen who also fill out derby rosters. They are carpenters, electricians, plumbers, lawyers, health care workers, artists, homemakers, senior citizens and grade schoolers — fishing on the Vineyard knows no class lines, professional, age or color barriers.

In that way, it is one of the great equalizers.

Because everyone can do it — you don’t need a lot of money or a fancy boat or vehicle. All you need is a rod, a bucket of lures, a peanut butter sandwich and thermos of hot coffee.

Oh, and some luck.

In the preface to Reading the Water, a collection of stories of Vineyard surf fishermen now out of print, author Robert Post pondered the topic of luck:

Sometimes nature provides rare glimpses of beauty that have a lasting impact. Whether I’m thinking of a seal breaching through the Menemsha Channel chasing a bunker or a striped bass silhouetted in the curl of a wave at the Edgartown Pond opening, I remember them with awe. I remember, particularly, an evening at Gay Head several years ago.

On the Sunday after Thanksgiving in 1979, I decided to fish for striped bass. The fall was warm, and water temperatures around the Vineyard were still comfortable for baitfish and bass. When I arrived at Zack’s Cliffs, the first thing I noticed were thousands of screeching, diving gulls working the water. They were fifty yards out from the faint tide line etched in the sand, feeding on sand eels.

I walked a few miles around the first point. After an hour, stars provided the only light. I cast my large Atom swimming plug into the calm ocean darkness. I was expecting a bass to take the plug with every cast, But I left Gay Head without catching a fish. In fact, I never had a hit, but it hardly mattered. I knew within myself that by late November the bass would be gone. What did matter was my solitary invasion of raw nature, the beauty of the surf and its roar in the night, the screaming gulls, and the sand eels gasping in panic.

Several fishermen tell unusual tales about lost fish. Many of the fish that are most memorable are those that are lost after a dramatic heart-pounding fight. Like most surf fishermen, however, I can remember the first bass I was able to land. It was caught at the foot of the East Chop cliffs in 1973. I was just starting to fish from the beach. I was hardly a diehard fanatic or a knowledgeable beginner. My Grandpa Louie left me his bamboo rod with an Ocean City conventional reel. The reel was still loaded with braided nylon about twenty years old.

The gear’s condition was quite poor. The drag wasn’t working. To strip off line, I had to throw the lever arm, putting the reel in free spool. I half slid and half stumbled down the cliff, finding a comfortable rock to stand on. The surf was gentle, splashing off the rocks in a fine spray.

I used a one-inch square of frozen squid for bait, placing it on a rusty hook. Unable to cast because I was using a boat rod with a jammed reel, I just lowered the bait into the water, where it bounced pathetically off the rocks. I was suddenly jolted by a hard tug on the line, almost losing my balance.

A rod can only do so much. Acting like a lever with the fisherman on one end and the fish on the other, it needs the help of line running out over a smooth drag. Fortunately, this fish was hooked well, so after several tugs back and forth it flopped up on the rocks. It was an eighteen-pound striper. Catching that fish taught me that good luck can overcome ineptitude and a lack of experience.