In these waters there is not a more celebrated fish than the coastal striped bass. Beginning Sunday, anglers in the Martha's Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby will begin their pursuit of bass, bluefish, Atlantic bonito and false albacore. They will fish along the Island's shoreline and in a variety of boats offshore.
They will pursue these four species for five full weeks, and they'll do it with passion.
The best of the anglers will plot, scheme, look at the tides, the currents, the weather, and maybe in the end flip a coin on how to pursue the biggest. Anglers who snag the largest of each of these four species have an equal chance of winning the grand prize powerboat and truck.
The striped bass, swimming beneath the surface of the wave, is a creature as highly regarded as the bald eagle that flies above. Books of fact and fiction have been written about this fish. There is a singular mystique and prestige attached to the fish and to those who have caught one. The sight of this fish - and being seen by it - as it is raised out of the water is part of the magic. Fifty-eight years ago, the fishing tournament was named after the highly prized fish and there has never been a shortage of followers.
A 32-inch bass - minimum size for the derby - is at least ten years old. They have spent most of the summer feeding either here in Vineyard waters or farther north; striped bass are known to migrate as far north as Maine.
In the autumn they head south, nearly always stopping by these waters to feed on the multitudes of different bait fish that have grown up here; that's why a striped bass fishing tournament takes place now. Most of the biggest fish caught from the shore will be caught at night.
Striped bass begin their life in the shallow fresh waters of streams and rivers that feed into the coastal embayments of the mid-Atlantic states.
Most of them were spawned in the waters that feed into Chesapeake Bay. A few have a birthplace in the Hudson River. They are voracious feeders. In these waters, striped bass eat small minnows, eels and squid. To catch a striped bass an angler needs a lure or bait that resembles what the fish are eating that day. In striped bass Class 101, you learn that if you want to catch a big fish, the secret is to go where they are eating and offer them what resembles a meal.
Striped bass are a regional success story.
Years ago, as derby anglers know, striped bass were so scarce that the annual derby organizers were moved to stop catching the fish from 1985 to 1992 until their numbers were sufficiently restored.
The migration of striped bass along Vineyard waters remains a mystery. Every autumn is different. "I wish we could pinpoint a pattern. Some years the big bass seem to miss us. We'd like to know what happens," said Greg Skomal, a resident sport fishing biologist for the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries. This fall state fisheries scientists will resume tagging striped bass to better understand their migration patterns.
For those who love seafood, striped bass are a delectable fish, highly tasty. But you can't now buy a locally caught striped bass in a restaurant or fish market, as the commercial striped bass season, which began July 6, ended August 10 when the state commercial quota was taken.
In Massachusetts, recreational fishermen are allowed to catch two 28-inch striped bass per day, even though the derby's minimal size is four inches larger.
The ‘Unthanked Hero'
Bluefish are a deep ocean fish. There is nothing friendly about a bluefish. By comparison, pound for pound, bluefish are as angry in the water as a shark. Bluefish are the mainstay of sport fishing.
"I think bluefish are an unthanked hero. When there are no striped bass, the angler goes for bluefish," Mr. Skomal said.
Bluefish spend almost all of their lives in the deep ocean, only coming close to the Island when there is food to eat. They have yellow and black eyes and always seem to look vicious. Their teeth are sharp.
More anglers get bit by bluefish than any other species.
"Bluefish spawn to the south, off the continental shelf. They are a staple food for sharks and all predatory fish. Even small bluefish are forage fish," Mr. Skomal said. Like striped bass, bluefish can be caught day or night. They feed on the same bait as a striped bass and are often caught in the same places.
The state has no minimum size for the catching of bluefish, but there is a daily limit of ten fish per angler. There is no seasonal closure. In the interest of conservation, the derby has a 22-inch minimum size. Bluefish are a good eating fish, though they cook best when right out of the water.
Bonito and False Albacore
Bonito and false albacore look like little tunas.
Somewhere in their genetic past these two warm water fish are related.
The Vineyard is the northern-most reach of their range and to most anglers these two species are an enigma - hard to predict, harder to understand, but a highly prized catch. Bonito and false albacore are a gentleman's fish, only caught during the daytime.
Bonito arrive in July.
They are a fast moving small fish with blue streaks on the skin. While a large striped bass may weigh as much as 60 pounds, the biggest bonito ever caught in the derby weighed only 12 pounds. Bonito swim in tight schools. They sometimes jump out of the water in pursuit of their favorite bait, sand eels. These fish are considered very smart and are shy of the fishing line. Many times they will be spooked from a lure because they sense that there is a fisherman at the other end of the line.
Bonito are edible, often cut in steaks and thrown on the grill. The derby minimum size for bonito is 21 inches. There is no state restriction on the taking of bonito.
Only a few anglers will admit to eating false albacore; the fish under any circumstances just taste too gamy. Instead, the rewards to this fast moving fish are all tied in to the moment they are hooked. The derby record for a false albacore is 19 pounds.
In that often futile effort to get away, "albies" can run hundreds of feet of fishing line in a moment and then completely reverse direction. False albacore have multicolored skin when alive, and are gray silver when dead. Like bonito, they are savvy to fishing line and therefore difficult to catch.
False albacore usually show up in middle to late August and, like bonito, can stay in these waters into October. The derby minimum size for false albacore is 25 inches; there is no state limit.
Mr. Skomal wonders what the ratio will be between false albacore and bonito this fall. "I used to think when there were a lot of albies, you won't see a lot of bonito," he said. But there are times when that formula doesn't work. The two species of fish have competing interests, he said. "Bait will dictate how long these fish hang out."
The smart and lucky angler may catch one, two or three of these species of fish in the weeks ahead. It is the very best who can catch all four species; there is a special contest category for that kind of fisherman, called grand slam.