I married my husband more than 60 years ago for better or for worse — but not for fishing. There have been better years and worse years, but not many fishing years for me. I tried. I was naïve in the beginning. My father had liked to fish; he mostly sat on a New York suburban dock and cast a worm out into a lake or pond. It was quiet. It was peaceful. And it was easy. Nothing to it. I could do that.
But it was not easy. Fishing on the beaches of Martha’s Vineyard involves hard work, long hours, and great skill. The tide and the weather determine a fisherman’s life — and the life of his wife, if she ever wants to see him. The first mistake I made was getting married in September, the Oscar season of the striped bass and bluefish derby. Who would catch the biggest one, or the most, in one excursion to a favorite beach?
When the tide was favorable in the daytime, it could be pleasant, and if I got tired of endlessly throwing out the nylon line, I could bask in the sunlit sand. But Johnny had to work in the daytime, and his fishing fever demanded daily fishing, not just weekend fishing. That meant fishing in the dark, which is no problem for an experienced fisherman. But there is something called a bird’s nest, which happens when the line is cast out, unwinds faster than the plug can carry it, and ends up a complete tangle around the reel. I became quite good at creating a bird’s nest, and consequently spent most of my time standing on the dark beach, a small flashlight held in my teeth, trying to untangle the line, while Johnny walked up and down the beach pulling in fish.
One night, tiring of this constant exercise of untangling fishing line, I looked around for my fishing-teacher husband. Nowhere in the dark was he to be seen. I was alone on South Beach at one in the morning, with no idea where I was or how to get back to where I should have been. I began to walk along the shore, and shortly came to the opening: an open stream between the Atlantic Ocean and Tisbury Great Pond. I cautiously waded across it, and in the distance could see a shadowy figure casting into the surf. When I approached Johnny, I could see five or six big bass piled up on the beach, and he was excitedly pulling in another one. He was angry with me for crossing the dangerous opening, and I was furious at him for leaving me to cast into fishless waters while a few yards to the west, he was hauling in more fish than he could carry back to his truck. Why hadn’t he called me to share in the bounty?
Another night, we were fishing side by side, with no other fishermen to compete with. Things were slow, but I wasn’t getting so many bird’s nests, and we were chatting amiably when I suddenly got a hit. Johnny shouted, “play him, play him!” and then stuck his own long rod into the sand and came to my side to help me. The fish was coming in. “It’s a bluefish!” Johnny exclaimed, as the fish appeared struggling in the surf. Johnny started to wade into the water to snag the fish, when zing! — his own line went streaking out. Leaving me, he raced to grab his rod before it too went zinging out into the water. As he grabbed it and began to pull in a nice fish, my fish gave a leap, shook the plug out of his mouth and escaped back into deeper water.
That was the last time I went fishing on the beach. I have never caught a bass or a bluefish, but I came to accept my husband’s passion for fishing. I spent my time drawing up plans for our house, bearing and raising three children, and later on, teaching school for 20 years. After more than 60 years of being married to this fisherman, May 15, 1992, will remain in my memory as the day I helped bring my third granddaughter into this world. I had been up all night helping my daughter deliver her first child who was born at 6 a.m. Johnny, however, will always remember May 15, 1992, as the day when, at the age of 72, he beat out all the younger fishermen and caught the first bluefish of the season and got a prize for it.
His joy was almost as great as mine.
Shirley W. Mayhew lives in West Tisbury and contributes to the Gazette. Her late husband John Mayhew was a respected fisherman on the Vineyard.