SI.com | April 30, 2009
Catching bluefish from a helicopter. Tossing M-80s overboard to scare off rivals. Riding out lightning storms in little boats. On Martha’s Vineyard, guys have been known to take saltwater fishing to irrational extremes. So it figures that the island’s annual Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby, the most celebrated striper tournament on the East Coast, is not your standard two-bit weekend affair. For its most hardcore devotees — zealous, addicted, borderline obsessive-compulsive — winning the derby is something like slipping into the green jacket at the Masters.
And while unsportsmanlike behavior will get you ejected (leave the aircraft and fireworks at home, please), fishermen will try just about anything to catch the big one during the tournament’s five weeks. That includes scouting spots with snorkeling gear, leaping onto passing ferry boats to land fish, wading through breakers to stand on rocks as the tide rises and forgoing shuteye like cramming undergrads.
“I like sleep deprivation,” one angler says. “Sleep when you die.”
Grown men have cried over the derby. They have ignored their wives for week after week, yawned through work day after day, skipped out on their jobs altogether, drawn unemployment, burned through every last day of their vacation time, downed NoDoz and Red Bull and God knows what else. They have spied on their rivals and lied to their friends. They have told off strangers and cheated like lowlife bums. People have actually died fishing the derby. At stake are a quarter of a million dollars in prizes for catching the biggest striped bass, bluefish, false albacore or bonito, either from shore or boat, with spinning gear or flyrods. The biggest prize is island immortality — and literally any of the 3,000 or so anglers can become champions. Dozing fishermen. Complete amateurs. A few years ago, a 12-year-old girl caught a 49-pound striper and won the thing.
But just as the smart money follows Tiger Woods at Augusta, one man has become the hands-down favorite when September rolls around on Martha’s Vineyard. His name is Lev Wlodyka, and if people struggle with the name (repeat after me: wuh-LAH-dick-uh), they know that at 29 years old, he is the best young striped bass fisherman on the island. “Lev’s a black hole for fish,” says his father, Walter, a commercial fisherman turned animal control officer who is known on the Vineyard as Walter the Skunk Man. “Some people are born to be doctors, some people are born to be lawyers, some are born to be businessmen. Lev was born to be a fisherman.”
He is built like a linebacker: tall and broad-shouldered. He’s all movement all the time, and his demeanor shifts like the changing weather, from quiet and aloof to friendly and goofy in five minutes flat. When he gets excited about a story, the words tumble out at top speed, his voice gets barroom-loud, and he breaks into a high-pitched cackle at the punch line. He does miscellaneous construction work in the offseason, but when the water warms and the fish begin to arrive, he fires up the boat. In the summer, he hunts for stripers during Massachusetts’ commercial season — a month and a half of ball-busting, 20-hour days. A few weeks after that, the derby begins and he is back on the water in search of one big fish.
Between the junior divisions and the real deal, he’s won it more than 10 times. A few years ago he caught a 57.6-pound bass before the derby that ranked among the largest caught on the planet that season. No question: If you were scouting for a franchise player to anchor your fantasy fishing team, Lev would be your man.
He pulled out a fish with a head the size of a five-gallon bucket and the approximate build of a telephone pole. A tournament official issued a grave warning: “There is a black cloud over this fish.”
But a week into the 2007 derby, it didn’t seem so wise to follow the smart money: Some other fisherman walked into the weigh station with the monstrous striper. The guy caught it while drifting live eels near the Gay Head cliffs on the west side of the island, where fish lurk amid boulders the size of Hummers. At 56 pounds, it ranked as the fifth largest fish ever caught in the derby. Beating it would require a historic feat.
The fish broke spirits all over Martha’s Vineyard. It’s over, it’s over, it’s over. That’s all Lev heard from anybody. “It ain’t over,” he would reply, and he stayed on the hunt. A week passed, then another. The moon turned full, then began to wane. The 56 stayed atop the leaderboard.
On the last Sunday in September, Lev drove down to the dock in Menemsha, the salty waterman’s village where his boat Wampum — eighteen feet, nine inches of gore-splattered fiberglass — bobbed among the scrum of gritty workboats, hulking commercial trawlers and burnished pleasure crafts. Wearing a hooded sweatshirt again the brisk evening air, he eased the boat past the Texaco station and Squid Row, a weathered bench where islanders and tourists keep watch over the action in the harbor. Once clear of the inlet’s twin jetties, he gunned the engine and headed for the spot where all of the biggest stripers had been caught so far in the derby. He had the place more or less to himself.
The sun dipped into the sea with a transcendent grandeur that, despite all his years on the water, Lev still appreciates. Then the show started, and it was a beautiful thing. Lev zeroed in on the fish like he could see straight to the bottom, and he put his boat right over them. Drifting live eels past the sunken rocks, he started pulling fish over the gunwale. But it wasn’t until he boated a 30-pounder that he really started getting excited: Get into thirties and there’s a chance that fifties are swimming below.
Soon he hooked into a striper that came right up and swam by the boat like the shark cruising past Quint’s Orca in Jaws. The fish seemed groggy. It took fifty yards of line, came back, took thirty more yards, then went to the bottom and sulked for two minutes. Finally it came up to the boat and Lev gaffed it and pulled it aboard. The fish was monstrous, and Lev knew immediately that if it wasn’t a winner it would be very, very close.
It was 8:45. The derby weigh station on the Edgartown waterfront closed at ten o’clock. He raced to the harbor, docked the boat, and deposited the fish into a cooler in the back of his truck. Then he flew across the island, laughing like a madman and passing cars on the two-lane roads. He walked into the claustrophobic old fisherman’s shack dragging his massive cooler, the striper’s tail jutting out the side. His hair was mussed, the left leg of his cargo pants soaked to the knee, his sun-bleached sweatshirt splotched with fish slime. He pulled out a fish with a head the size of a five-gallon bucket and the approximate build of a telephone pole. And there was this: Its belly was huge, distended and misshapen. He was almost trembling as the fish went on the scale and the digital display on the wall ticked up and down and leveled off.
It stopped at 57.56.
It was the historic fish he needed — third-heaviest in derby history — and cheers broke out. Lev called his wife and his fishing partner. He posed for a couple of photographs. Then he waited for one last piece of business. The bass was taken outside to the filetmaster, D. J. Pothier, who stood as the final defense against the kind of blatant cheating that seems to be endemic in fishing tournaments. He cuts open any first-place catch to check inside the stomach for foreign matter. It sounds ridiculous, but the difference between winning and losing can be a matter of ounces, and with thousands of dollars at stake, guys have stuffed tournament fish with all kinds of things: baitfish, rocks, mercury.
D. J. sliced open the behemoth with a filet knife, cut the stomach and jammed his hand inside. Everybody gathered around, anticipation mixing with the brackish aroma of freshly caught fish. Those closest at hand tried to peer inside the belly, wondering what a striper so enormous was eating. The answer seemed to be nothing at all: The stomach felt empty. Lev thought D. J. was about to hand the fish back to him. Instead he reached all the way into the farthest recesses, and as his hand came out there was a clattering on the floor at his feet. It sounded exactly like change falling out of a pants pocket. People looked at Lev and saw his face morph from shock to horror to embarrassment.
Inside his fish-of-a-lifetime, D. J. had found a fistful of lead weights.
Lev felt clotheslined, whipsawed. He said it felt like somebody had taken a dump on his birthday cake. To be suspected of cheating in the derby is among the worst things that can happen to a fisherman’s reputation on Martha’s Vineyard. Guys will tell you it’s almost on par with being accused of a felony. Lev vehemently denied stuffing the fish. It’s not how it looks, he said. The derby brass believed him — they’d known the Wlodykas forever — but by the time the weigh station reopened the next morning, people were chattering about the young gun and the big fish and how he must have cheated. How else would a pound and a half of lead end up inside that striper?
His explanation was complicated, and so was the predicament for the men and women who run the derby. The discussion over what to do about Lev and Leadbelly would stress psyches, strain friendships, and set off days of incendiary debate about a controversial underground fishing technique. Like a star athlete accused of doping, Lev would draft an emotional statement for the derby and the press. One tournament official would pull Lev aside and issue a grave warning: “There is a black cloud over this fish.”
Before it was all over the clash would grow so intense that Lev could only wonder: Would he have been better off throwing the cursed thing back in the ocean?