Cooper A. Gilkes 3rd has been known nationally for his fishing prowess - and now he has an appropriate award to match. Field and Stream magazine has named Coop's Bait and Tackle Shop as one of the top 10 tackle shops in the country. In the August issue, on the newsstands now, Mr. Gilkes is listed at the top of the survey in a colorful five-page spread.
On Sunday Mr. Gilkes was all smiles behind the counter of the Edgartown shop. He had known about the designation for months but was only getting to share it now that the magazine was out.
"You've got to be kidding," Mr. Gilkes recalled saying when he was told that the store had made the top 10. Field and Stream is the world's largest outdoor magazine with a circulation of one and a half million. It is published 11 times a year.
No other New England shops made the list.
"I didn't know their criteria," Mr. Gilkes said. "I told the guy, ‘This is unbelievable, there are shops, huge shops.'"
But Mr. Gilkes was assured that one of the most appealing characteristics of his tackle shop is that it isn't so big - a fact the article makes clear.
"If home is where the heart is, and fishing is what you love, why not put a tackle shop in your house?" wrote Kirk Deeter in the magazine. "You'll abandon the ‘bigger is better' line of thinking the minute you walk in and see the floor-to-ceiling stacks of conventional and fly-fishing gear, specifically meant to handle any sportfishing challenge presented by the tricky and volatile waters along this part of the American coastline."
Mr. Deeter wrote of Mr. Gilkes: "If you're lucky you might strike up a conversation with Coop, who earned his stripes as a commercial fisherman, when it comes to finding the bite, he can put you on the bluefish, the false albacore, and especially the striped bass. His ability to find stripers in the rips or off the beach is reputed to be uncanny."
The tackle shop is open every day from morning to late afternoon, from April well into October. Mr. Gilkes is known for his extensive knowledge of the Vineyard waterfront, and inside the phone is always ringing: there are people who want an edge on the fishing hot spots, and those who have tales to tell about the fish they have caught. Advice is freely given even though the place can get filled with customers and friends.
"Call me nostalgic, but I've always felt that the best tackle shops are much more than just places to find fishing stuff. A great one is the angler's ultimate resource - part classroom, part museum, and part safe house for the angling-afflicted," wrote Mr. Deeter.
"Some tackle shops have evolved into regional icons. Others are unofficial research laboratories where new methods and ideas are improvised, gossiped about and tweaked long before anyone reads about them in a magazine. But all great shops recognize their roles in linking fishermen to their home waters."
Here on the Vineyard, Mr. Gilkes surely does that.
He is an advocate, opinionated about the fish, the fishermen and the impact government has on both. In the early 1980s when the striped bass were in significant decline, Mr. Gilkes was among the first to speak strongly in favor of pulling the striped bass out of the annual Martha's Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby as an important gesture for supporting recovery.
"There are times it would actually turn my stomach," Mr. Gilkes said, recalling how it felt to publicly declare a position that might prove harmful to his business. "In one respect I'd be pulling away from the business in order to do what is right for the fisheries. It gets tough at times," Mr. Gilkes says.
He is also an advocate for conservation and for beach access, and is concerned about fish stocks that are in decline. "We try and stay involved. I am on The Trustees of Reservations and their planning board. I am involved with the Martha's Vineyard Rod and Gun Club and my hats off to the Martha's Vineyard Surfcasters Association for being on top of the issues."
Part of that awareness goes back to his time as a commercial fisherman, when he fished for bay scallops, quahaugs, striped bass, bluefish, scup, fluke and eels.
Today Mr. Gilkes is best known by a generation of young fishermen for his volunteer work. He is the chairman of the rod and gun club's spring trout tournament and the fall kids' derby, which is run by the Martha's Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby.
Even with the shop to run, Mr. Gilkes always finds time to fish, often going out on the water the same day that he has spent hours at the cash register. "It is a balancing act. That is what it is," he said. Just this past weekend, he and his son Danny went fishing in the Oak Bluffs monster shark tournament in their new used 31-foot Blackwatch white hull boat called Clean Sweep.
What makes it a fine store is the people inside, Mr. Gilkes said - the ones he works with and the ones he meets as customers. "I see people from all over the world. The first chance they get when they arrive on the Vineyard, they come in here. I can't say enough about the friends I have gained," he said.
He credited much of his success to his wife, Lela, who he called the Rock of Gibraltar. He also gave credit to his son Danny and brother Robert, and the regular staff including Rob Morrison, John Rapone, Paul Fiedler and Drew Contessa.
"As a tackle shop, it is about the people, but it is also about trying to keep this home grown. We have such a good relationship with people, we try to stay involved," Mr. Gilkes said.