We were bouncing down the beach in a big four-wheel-drive pickup, going fishing, when Cooper Gilkes, one of the most respected guides on Martha’s Vineyard, stopped to talk to a ranger.
“You should have been here this morning,” the ranger said. “Six o’clock this morning, it was unbelievable.” That is, there were striped bass everywhere. Now, it appeared, they were somewhere else.
“Don’t tell me that,” Gilkes said. “I don’t want to hear that.” I was riding shotgun. I didn’t want to hear it either.
I had come to Martha’s Vineyard for one reason: to catch a striped bass on a fly rod.
It was early May, after a winter that wouldn’t go away. The migratory striped bass and bluefish showed up off the Vineyard more than a week late, and even now were only trickling in. Fishing was agonizingly slow, at the very time of year when anyone who even occasionally wets a line has the itch to be on the water.
Before I even arrived, Gilkes warned me that he couldn’t promise fish before late May but would do his best. I said I’d take my chances; given a choice of fishing or not fishing, you fish.
You can fish for striped bass on Martha’s Vineyard with spinning tackle and have loads of fun, of course. But I’m a fly-rodder. And over the past two decades, saltwater fly-fishing has grown like the fish in the proverbial fish story. The Vineyard, with miles of beach access and numerous salt ponds fed by the sea, is first-class fly-fishing water.
Until recently, Karen Kukolich’s 14-pound, 3-ounce striped bass was the women’s world record for a striper caught on a 12-pound-test leader. She’s fished all over the world, holds five other women’s division fly-rodding records and considers the Vineyard, where she lives, a special place to fish.
A summertime playground for movie stars, rock stars and financial tycoons, the Vineyard is, at the same time, one of the great American saltwater fly-fishing destinations. People come from throughout the U. S. and abroad just to fish, and the celebrities are often among them.
In fact, an entire fishy subculture permeates the Vineyard, a decidedly upscale resort destination with high-end restaurants, galleries and boutiques galore. Walk into PJ’s Cafe & Catering, a none-too-fancy, mostly take-out restaurant popular with the locals, and on the wall is a signed art print of a striped bass hitting a fly. Think of it as fine art and Formica, as if the striper were the whole point of Vineyard existence. There are striped bass weathervanes, striped bass boxer shorts, stripers at suppertime, stripers all the time.
I’ve fly-fished in freshwater for trout for years but had never lobbed a fly in saltwater. I couldn’t wait; in recent years, three different people on three different occasions used the same word to describe saltwater fly-fishing to me: addictive.
Small stripers run 15 to 20 inches and might weigh a few pounds. But stripers can run much larger, with fish of 10 or 15 pounds fairly common and fish to 40 or more pounds taken. I’m a guy who will happily spend a good part of a day walking up a mountain brook catching and releasing little brook trout that don’t weigh more than a breakfast sausage. Ten-pound stripers on flies? Where’s my camera?
But again, it was early in the season, and I knew I had to be content — thrilled, really — with a fish of 18 inches. The prime Vineyard fishing really takes off in late May and runs into the fall. I was a week early.
Meanwhile, a big nor’easter that caused much flooding in New England had literally torn an opening in the barrier beach that connected Edgartown and Chappaquiddick, creating tricky new currents, not to mention inconvenience for the people who used to drive to and from Chappaquiddick along the beach. Stripers already were congregating at the breach now and then, even this early in the season.
Success At Sunset
Guides often leave the fishing to their clients, but I urged Gilkes — he is known as Coop — to fish with me. We rigged up our rods and began casting, though I had the sense Coop’s fishing was all business. He was trying to find a pod of fish that he would direct me to. We fished for an hour without so much as a hit.
“Let’s go,” he said. Clearly the stripers were not there. Off we went to fish Edgartown Great Pond, a salt pond that holds stripers and other species. This, I sensed, was one of Coop’s little secrets, one of those places where even a neophyte saltwater fly-rodder had a decent chance of hooking one. We drove down a long, winding dirt road, parked in a clearing no bigger than his truck and started walking.
Reaching a narrow section of a cove, we waded in. It was 6 p.m., and the sun was dipping in the sky, but still bright. It might as well have been a ticking clock as far as I was concerned. Sure I could fish again tomorrow; I had another day on the Vineyard. But Coop was leaving for the mainland, and I’d be fishing by myself. I knew the odds of my getting a fish would drop substantially. I’ve learned over the years that a guide can make all the difference when fishing a new place.
The best fishing would come just as the sun was about to set, Coop said. Noted.
Wham. The sun hadn’t set, but he had a fish on and landed a striper of about 18 inches. Where there is one striper there often are others. I cast repeatedly nearby — Coop insisted I do so — and, son of a gun, caught and released my first striper, a fish of about 15 inches. Small, to be sure — tiny, really, as stripers go, but it was my first fish on a fly in saltwater. We took a picture. If I did not catch another fish it would be OK. I got one. I got one on a fly. Got it on a chartreuse Clouser pattern.
Gilkes caught another. I caught another, maybe 18 inches. Then it got quiet. Time to move.
We walked the shoreline of the salt pond, annoying a pair of osprey that squealed overhead, as they do. Surely a nesting pair, I thought, and a good sign. The osprey, or fish hawk, is a big-time fish-eater. This pond had to be really fishy, or they wouldn’t be there.
Around a bend and into another cove we walked. This was often a good spot, Coop said, and one where you could wade out 30 or so feet to cast. Over the next hour, we caught and released a half-dozen or more small stripers and white perch. You know the fishing is good when you aren’t sure how many you’ve caught, and I lost count.
The sky by now was a mix of horizontal stripes of salmon and deep pink, with little strips of yellow, amid dark blue, the night air cool but not cold.
I’m fussy about my fishing; to me, there can be no great fishing without great scenery, and by great scenery I mean a sense of the pristine natural world. There’s room for mankind’s creations in my fishing, but not much. I’ll leave it to others to catch big fish in the warm outflow of a nuclear power plant.
Anyway, here I was, with a beautiful sky in a quiet, woodsy nook of the Vineyard, lots of those wind-stunted Cape Cod oaks and pines surrounding the pond and not much else to intrude. Yes, this met with my approval.
We’d agreed to quit about 8, and it was close to 8. I cast again, by this time getting used to the saltwater fly rod — these salt rods have a lot more heft than my trout rods. I was getting a little more distance with the fly.
Another hit, and a strong one, bent my rod like a rainbow. The fish took off on a run, stripping line from the reel. Another run. Then another. “This is a decent fish,” I said. Coop watched, ready. In all, there were at least five runs until, after something close to 10 minutes, the fish tired, and Coop was able to grab it.
“A keeper,” he said before it was even out of the water. He lifted it and weighed it on the spot. It was 11 pounds, 29 inches long, and the biggest fish I’d ever caught on a fly.
The sun had just set, and it was getting dark.