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Surf Fishing on Martha's Vineyard

“They call it fishing,” he says. “They don’t call it catching.”

We fish. It’s a long night of casting and retrieving. But no catching. Three hours later my back is screaming to surrender, and Bob suggests we call it a night. I don’t argue with either of them.

My first visit to Chappaquiddick — the island on the island, serviced by America’s shortest ferry ride. My guide, Paul Schultz, is the leader of the Surf Fishing Safari offered by The Trustees of Reservations (one of the nation’s oldest conservation groups, caretakers of some of the most pristine tracts in Massachusetts). Paul’s truck is equipped to take up to eight people, but I have Paul to myself. My optimism soars.

Paul has lived in Edgartown since 1962, in his grandmother’s house, where his mother was born. He’s kept a journal—weight, location, tide, time,bait — of every fish he’s caught since coming home from Vietnam. I ask Paul his total number of entries. “About 6,500, give or take a few. About 4,500 blues, 1,300 stripers, and the rest bonito, false albacore, Spanish mackerel, and weakfish.”

At Wasque Point, the southeasternmost corner of Chappaquiddick, the Atlantic Ocean and Nantucket Sound meet, creating currents so strong that swimming is prohibited. Stripers, with their strong, broomlike tails, thrive in rough waters. So does the muscular bluefish. Paul hands me a rod and reel rigged with a plug — a simple, almost primitive white lure with treble hooks on the end. “I caught three bluefish here yesterday,” he says.

I start lashing the turbulent water with renewed optimism. I get good distance with my casts, but nothing else.

“Let’s head to Cape Poge and work the Elbow,” Paul says, after a fruitless two hours.

At Chappy’s northeast tip lies a long thin strip of land that eventually curves southward and almost completely encircles Cape Poge Bay. As we bounce northward, Paul watches the ocean to the right and the bay to the left. He reads the water for signs of fish. Birds are the aerial reconnaissance of surf fishermen. But there are more subtle signs as well. He sees a slick. Bluefish, the greasy cousin of the striped bass, leave slicks on the water as distinct as the spots your uncle’s hair tonic left on the couch every Thanksgiving.

I ask Paul why he sniffs the air.

“When you smell watermelon, or Juicy Fruit gum, that means bluefish. Some people say stripers smell like thyme,” he adds, unconvinced.

After a few uneventful casts at a slick, we move on. Paul points to the site where he caught his biggest Derby bluefish. He recalls its size with the pride and certainty of a parent: “16.36 pounds, caught it in 1995.” His biggest striped bass is 56.5 pounds, and he’s caught five in the fifties, a revered benchmark for locals. (The striper record for a rod and reel is 73 pounds.)

We see a cluster of baitfish popping out of the water, about 30 yards offshore. My first cast is a nervous one, and I miss badly, failing to account for the quartering wind. I sense Paul’s anxiety when I miss a second time. My third cast drops perfectly past the frenetic patch. I reel my lure through the action, braced for a strike. But nothing hits — or so I think. I have caught something. An infant bluefish, three inches long, has struck a lure nearly twice its size. I have to admire the brashness of this kid.

So far I’ve fished over 15 hours, in some of the most ideal conditions I’ve ever seen. And my only strike is from a bluefish with a Napoleon complex. I ask Paul where the stripers are.

“The water’s too warm. They really start hitting when the water hits 54 degrees.” It’s 59 degrees. But luck can change in an instant—and a day in Chappaquiddick’s white sands and blue water is a day to be savored.

We work our way along the inside of the elbow. A fast-moving shadow of fish churns quickly up the shoreline. (The shadow itself appears in the shape of a fish, making me wonder if I watched too many cartoons in my youth.) Paul quickly removes my plug and replaces it with a jig, a thin silver lure about four inches long. “Those are bonito, go get one.” For the first time, my casting is impeccable. But nothing hits.

Updated Friday, June 15th, 2007

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