Birds. Boils. No wind.
Conditions are ideal. Neither Brian McCarty nor James Manning can believe we have actually found this setup. Five minutes to shotgun. Tournament anglers have spread across the island of Martha’s Vineyard, off Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The father-and-son duo of Todd and Aron Cascone are west of us thinking they are dialed in, but little do they know that we are watching a blitz unfold in real time. Maybe I should call them?
Four minutes to seven. A fish porpoises right in front of me. Or text them?
There are sand eels everywhere. My little surf candy dangles precariously off the leader, perhaps knowing it’s about to get obliterated in this melee.
Three minutes to seven. Aron, fish everywhere … I stop mid-text.
James pulls out his camera and fires off a few shots of the birds diving. I imagine British filmmaker David Attenborough’s proper cadence describing the tern in full attack, slashing bait balls pushed to the surface by feeding striped bass in the shallows. Yes, Mr. Attenborough.
Two minutes to seven. … Just east of the break wall, I type.
The feeding fish will soon check our quota for the Martha’s Vineyard Rod and Gun Club Fly Rod Striped Bass Catch and Release Tournament: Four stripers per participant caught and released in the quickest amount of time wins the plaque.
One minute to seven. A fish busts the surface behind me near the beach. I put the phone away without sending the text.
Seven p.m. Casts fly in all directions, and we hook up instantly. To my left, James’ rod is bent to the water. Brian’s drag is screaming to my right. I see a flash in the water, and James’s fish jumps and flips. It’s a shad, an arching, acrobatic feat of disappointment. We are in the middle of the great hickory shad blitz of 2022, but we only want striped bass. After an hour of hoping there were a few schoolies mixed in with the thrashing shad, we trudge back to the car. My phone rings. It’s Aron.
“Hey man, you get your fish yet?” he asks in his Rhode Island accent.
“We got shad,” I say.
“Get over here, we got ours. The tide is just shifting, but they’re still chewing.”
I remember the text I didn’t send. Serves me right. Aron’s team has hit their four-fish-per-member quota, and it’s not even 8:30. Now we’ll just be fishing for the biggest-fish prize. That plaque will look mighty good, but there’s work to be done, and the hours are ticking by.
“Martha’s Vineyard used to be a lot quieter in the winter,” Nelson Sigelman tells me when I ask how the Catch and Release event came to be. This year marked the unofficial 30th anniversary of the annual tournament. It was canceled in 2020 due to Covid.
The tourney came about at the Rod and Gun Club on a cold, winter night. Sigelman, then news editor with The Martha’s Vineyard Times, a weekly newspaper, and Cooper Gilkes, owner of Coop’s Bait and Tackle, were tying flies with some other club members and dreaming of spring. The island had recently lost one of its characters, fly fisherman and school bus driver Roberto Germani. “He lived to breathe saltwater air and fish,” Sigelman recalls. They wanted to do something in Germani’s memory and decided to hold an annual tournament.
In the first few years, organizers randomly matched on-island anglers with non-residents and gave prizes to the winners. “Immediately, problems began,” Sigelman says with a laugh. Some fishermen, more focused on winning prizes and glory than having fun, created headaches for the organizers. So they decided to give plaques to the winners and award the prizes by chance.
“When we changed to the current format, we took away any incentive to push the boundaries,” Sigelman says. Every member of the team must fill his or her quota: four fish per angler for teams of three members or less; three fish for teams of four or more fishermen. Once each member of the team has met his or her quota, the team records its finish time. In order to win one of the prizes, you have to be present at the awards breakfast the morning after fishing.
“Stop! Stop!” James yells from the back seat. I had met James for the first time at the ferry dock the night before, though we’ve been talking for years. James is a talented photographer who goes by the professional name The Anglers Lens. His images are compelling and dramatic, and I was excited to finally work with him in person.
I pull into the parking lot of a gas station in Vineyard Haven and look toward where James is furiously pointing. “Oh yeah, I see them,” Brian says, already out of the car. Brian and I have fished the island together for years. A former sheriff’s deputy, he knows every inch of the Vineyard, though the stretch of water behind the gas station had never appealed to either of us as a honeyhole. These boils are deliberate, not erratic. We may have found the bass.
“Where you at?” Aron asks.
I’ve got the phone in one hand, and my other hand is clutching tight to my 9-weight as a feisty schoolie does not want to cooperate. “We stopped in Vineyard Haven and got into fish,” I say, trying to put side pressure on the bass with one hand like an idiot.
“We’re heading to Bend in the Road [beach], and I’ve got oysters and beers,” Aron says as my fish comes unbuttoned. Oysters and beer sounds pretty good at this time of night, particularly with Aron and his father, Todd. Aron is one of the best fly captains around. Orvis-endorsed and always on fish, he and I became fast friends over the years, and I always enjoy time with his father. Our team has long since given up on the possibility of winning the tournament outright. This is all for fun now.
“You guys want to call it and go meet Aron for oysters and beers?” I ask.
We consider it, but Brian has a hankering for one more look at Menemsha, so we saddle up again and head up island.
Sigelman is in good voice this morning. Aron saved us a spot at a picnic table near the shade, and the awards ceremony is underway. The Rod and Gun club overlooks a salt marsh on Sengekontacket Pond, a salt pond connected to Nantucket Sound. It’s a beautiful spot on a clear day.
As we sit in the sunshine, listening for the names of lucky prize winners, it’s nice to know that the tournament has blossomed into something full of fun and fellowship. There are more than 100 of us here. Cooper Gilkes sits in the perfect shade of a large oak tree with one foot on a bench, holding court surrounded by friends and admirers. Sigelman cracks a joke at his expense, and Gilkes gives it right back. The last prize is pulled, and I come up empty. Aron taps me on the shoulder.
“We’re going flats fishing before the ferry, you guys in?”
“Yes,” I reply without hesitation.