Prologue: The Chase
“You bring beer? If we can’t catch a derby winner, at least we can catch a buzz.”
Five o’clock on a Sunday afternoon in September and the best young striped bass fisherman on Martha’s Vineyard has booze on the brain. This is downtime anywhere else on the planet, but we’re in a tiny fishing village called Menemsha—the center of a universe all its own, a weird old watermen’s enclave at the far reaches of an island cut off from mainland America by a roiling saltwater river— and work is just beginning for Lev Wlodyka. We’re about to head out in his boat to hunt for a giant striped bass, and though beer is not required it comes highly recommended in most quarters of the fishing world. I didn’t bring any, but that’s no problem. We won’t be alone out on the water. Where there are boaters, there are Bud Lights.
It’s the eighth day of the five-week Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby, the most celebrated striper fishing tournament on the most storied island on the East Coast, and already a huge bass has been brought to the scale. It’s the sort of fish that Lev usually hauls in, the very monster he wanted to get right off the bat, all the better to demoralize the competition and bolster his argument for treating the derby like a job this year: He can jump-start his new charter-fishing business by getting his name in the papers, and while he’s at it he can win some loot, maybe even take home one of the $30,000 grand prizes. He fell in love with the derby as a kid, and at twenty-eight he’s already won it five times. A year ago, he landed a 57.6-pound bass that ranked among the largest stripers caught on the planet that season, despite the ridiculous name he gave it, “Jelly Belly Nelly.” If you were to choose a franchise player for your fantasy derby league, Lev would be a good choice.
This time, though, some other fisherman caught the big one: a thirty-two-year-old house painter named Zeb Tilton. Soon after Zeb pulled the giant aboard, Lev eased up in his boat to see it, and Zeb told him it weighed somewhere in the forties. Then he held it up. “Are you high?” Lev asked. The thing had a head the size of a city block, and it tipped the scales at 56.51 pounds to take the lead in the derby’s highest-profile division, striped bass caught from a boat. “I just got lucky,” Zeb told The Martha’s Vineyard Times. His striper wasn’t only the largest of this year’s derby. It ranked as the fifth-largest fish caught in any derby going back sixty-two years. Beating it would require a historic feat.
Zeb’s fish broke spirits all over Martha’s Vineyard. “The derby’s won,” a charter captain took to telling anyone who would listen. But Lev wasn’t convinced. He fished forever that Thursday night after Zeb got the beast, and he returned well after midnight with a striper weighing 46.34 pounds that put him into second place. He pounded the water again Friday night.
Now it’s Sunday and he’s ready to continue the chase for a 57pound derby winner. “Dude,” he tells a friend, “I want to beat that fish so bad.”
Lev and I meet on the Texaco gas dock in Menemsha, where vacation homes with picture windows occupy the high ground above a jumbled waterfront scene. Its heyday as a fishing port has passed, but Menemsha still looks (and smells) the part. Traps, buoys, barrels, rope, all the stuff of maritime life is here, lining the docks and settling around decrepit, weathered shacks like washed-up flotsam. Lobstermen and fishermen cruise in and out, a pair of seafood markets do a bustling business, and two rust-streaked offshore boats— the Quitsa Strider II and the Unicorn—tower over it all. Workboats carry the stench of dead fish to the dockside. Look closely at the tiny plastic skeleton on the pickup parked in front of one shack and you’ll notice that some mischievous lobsterman has altered it so it’s flipping you the bird. The hood ornament on another truck is a tiny dog taking a dump. The Texaco station next to the dock is home to “Squid Row,” a bench where you can sometimes find old-time commercial fishermen commenting on the action in a language all their own. Inside, the station sells fifty-cent coffee, ice cream bars, postcards, fishing lures, derby registrations, and a CD of sensitive acoustic-guitar songs by an angler-songwriter who graces the cover shirtless holding a bonito. Cell phones don’t work well here, which is fine with most people. If Lev wants to make a call, which isn’t often, he has to park along the beach, put his flip phone on speaker, and stand it up on the dashboard to get a signal.
Lev is gassing up his boat, Wampum—eighteen feet, ten inches of gore-splattered fiberglass. Duct tape holds together the throttle. The wiring looks jury-rigged. The boat’s white-and-powder-blue V-hull could use a paint job. But it’s a rugged and reliable craft, and the Wlodykas can’t help but regard it with great affection.
Provisioned with crackers, vitamin water, and $40 in fuel we push off the dock. Lev steers through the twin jetties flanking Menemsha channel, pulls his ball cap down over his floppy mop of black hair, and guns the outboard. The green hills and vacation homes recede as he turns into the setting sun. Off in the distance is the string of islands that trace the northern boundary of Vineyard Sound. To the east is Naushon, owned by the Forbes family. To the west is Cuttyhunk, home and namesake to a famous nineteenth- century bass fishing club that hosted the likes of Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.
The seas off the western end of the island hide boulders the size of Hummers and houses, behemoths dumped by the glaciers more than ten thousand years ago. Every fisherman with a boat and a chart can find the famous rock formations between the Elizabeth Islands and Nomans Land—Sow and Pigs Reef off Cuttyhunk, or Devil’s Bridge off the Gay Head cliffs—but there are scores of lesser- known spots and Lev has many of their Global Positioning System coordinates punched into his chart plotter. He pulls Wampum to a stop over one of them and starts to set up, tying a new hook onto a fresh stretch of leader, then hanging it over the steering wheel and pulling the line to snug up the knot.
“People think it’s over,” he says. “I don’t think it’s over at all.” This has become his mantra.
Lev 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 his voice gets barroom-loud, the words tumble out at top speed, and he jumps up to demonstrate before breaking into a high-pitched cackle. His public persona— working-class tough guy—belies an introspectiveness he reveals only to his closest allies.
A handful of eels slither at the bottom of a white bucket, and using an old T-shirt to get a grip he holds one behind the head, hooks it in the mouth, and tosses it over. A windy, cold morning has turned into a pleasant afternoon with a light breeze. The tide is pulling strong and boils on the ruffled waves mark where the water rushes past the rocks. Lev turns the boat sideways to the current and lets it drift over the place where, if he is to be trusted, all the biggest stripers have been caught in this year’s derby. But I’m having a hard time believing that he’d brought me to the spot, even if the point was to get a bass 57 pounds or bigger. What if I told somebody? What if I came back with a boat of my own?
“This isn’t where all these big fish are coming from, is it?” I ask.
“Why else would we be fishing here?” he replies. “This place is going to light up at dark.”
The sun is still a hand above the horizon, though, and the fish aren’t biting yet. Instead, it’s prime time to hunt for beers.
On the way out Lev had hit up a dump-truck driver fishing with his girlfriend on a borrowed boat. The guy couldn’t figure out how to use the GPS. “I’ll give you whatever you want to show me how to use this,” he’d pleaded. Lev jumped on board, fiddled with the device, and climbed back with a couple of bottles. Fifteen minutes later, he spotted four friends crammed onto another tiny fishing boat, their rods bristling in every direction. They looked like refugees about to land on a beach and seek asylum. One of them was fighting a striper. “Yah boy!” Lev shouted. “Can we get a beer?” They fired cans from afar. One went in the drink and Lev motored over and fished it out. “Don’t waste beers now!” he chided. (He also asked if he could have the bass to give to one of his neighbors, who was dying. They declined, no doubt figuring Lev could just as easily catch one himself.)
Now, Lev returns to the truck driver and arranges another trade. Bait for beers—or, more precisely, live eels for bottled Coronas. With eels running about $1.50 each at the tackle shops, this isn’t much of a bargain. It’s nothing compared to the time he bartered fifty rubber bands for fifteen lobsters and four packs of smokes during an offshore tuna trip.
“See?” Lev says as we motor back to the spot. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Now we can go catch a sixty-five-pounder.”
We have good reason to feel confident. During one of our beer runs a guy on the refugee boat mentioned that a charter client got a 60-pound bass today, a possible derby record. Any information shared on the water is of dubious veracity and, as a primary source, this friend is particularly questionable. He likes to screw with people, and he’ll let a ruse continue for days. Really, what better way to mess with Lev’s head than to tell him that someone else—especially some dude on a fishing charter—got a giant fish today? Lev knew that his friend was not to be trusted. But he wanted to believe.
“Are you serious? Dicky got a sixty?”
A minute later: “Are you kidding me?”
Then: “No shit, huh?”
His friend wasn’t backing down from the story, and soon Lev was buying it. “I knew there were bigger fish in here. I’m telling you, there are huge bass out here. There are fifty fish out here that are bigger than sixty pounds—probably more. You’ve just got to get your eel ten inches in front of its face.”
When I toss my first eel over the gunwale, I ask Lev how long I should let a striper run with it. Some guys will tell you to wait three seconds before setting the hook, some for as long as ten. Lev has a different kind of answer.
“I imagine them turning.”
“Five seconds?” I press. “Seven seconds?”
“Not even that quick?”
“Depends on the hit,” he says, and like a teacher with a child who’s not quite getting it he gives me a brief lesson. “A lot of bass fishing is putting yourself down where your bait is. You’ve got to visualize your bait drifting around through the rocks, over through the eddies, then the bass coming up behind it and grabbing it. Feel him hit it. He’s just swallowed it and then he’s turning to go back where he was. You’ve got to see him with your bait. That’s why a lot of people miss. They’re just on the surface. You’ve got to be three- dimensional about it.”
This high-def visualization of feeding stripers is the sort of image most fishermen get from Stripers Gone Wild, a popular DVD of underwater fishing scenes. (As the name implies, it counts as fish porn among compulsive anglers.) Lev’s picture comes from years spent fishing with abandon. For a few weeks every July and August the state of Massachusetts permits the sale of bass, and Lev and a group of twenty-something friends bomb out of the harbor in little powerboats at ungodly hours. Some years, they’re fishing day and night, coming in only briefly for fuel, bait, food, and sleep, in roughly that order. They’re all but hallucinating, walking around like zombies, and the tourists who flock to Menemsha for a taste of the quaint old harbor must watch these dudes in wonder—unshaven, smelly, wild men materializing off the water like a band of latter-day pirates. They have no use for sleep after a while, and soon everything seems very hilarious. Things that shouldn’t be funny have them roaring. One of the guys told me he wishes he had pictures of the things he’s seen: the orange moons rising out of the sea in the dark, the sunsets and sunrises, thunderstorms that made their rods hum with electrical energy. One night he watched bass chasing a huge ball of baitfish in seas teeming with bioluminescent microorganisms that light up when they’re disturbed. The stripers looked like lightning bolts, and the school of fleeing menhaden looked like a comet exploding around the boat.
Mostly, the commercial bass fishing scene is just ballbusting work. After two months of handling baitfish and big bass, their hands are covered with cuts and scrapes and their fingers are too swollen to bend. For the ones without wives, their personal lives are in disarray: their homes are wrecks, their laundry piles up, their refrigerators go empty. “Your brain actually hurts,” one of them told me. “You can’t complete a sentence.” Then, when the entire fishing fleet catches the limit—one million pounds in 2007—the state closes the season and the guys can sleep. A few weeks later, the derby arrives and they do it all again, maybe not as hard but still a lot harder than normal people.
Admission into their circle—known variously as the Night Crawlers, the Boys of Summer, the Menemsha Kids, and the Mosquito Fleet—is more or less closed. They’ve been fishing together forever. You’d have to have grown up with them, fished with them since you were a kid, been in on all their jokes. It would take too long to explain. Like brothers, they know one another’s flaws, they remember all their fights, and yet they remain loyal. They look out for each other. Some of them have had a reputation for being roughand- tumble, a bit wild, and some of them are still growing out of it. During this year’s derby one fisherman had his face pummeled in a scrap. Another night, after a house party broke up, some of the guys moved the celebration to the beach and started shooting off firecrackers, and two fly fishermen got freaked out and called the cops and they had to talk their way out of there. It wasn’t that long ago that one of them owned a boat named Itchy Scrotum.
The older generation of island anglers is still trying to adjust to the fact that the Menemsha Kids are grown up. The untamed boys who skateboarded or biked down to the harbor with their fishing rods, who won the derby junior divisions, who went out in all sorts of weather in tiny boats and came back loaded down with fish— those kids now have jobs and real boats and even, in a couple of cases, children of their own. Lev and his wife, Jen, welcomed their firstborn to the world a few months before this year’s derby. Lev found himself watching the baby in their cramped rental house while Jen worked. “I still feel like a kid,” he said one morning in his truck while we watched for fish. “But I’m not.”
They are all good fishermen, and they know it. The bass grounds off the west end of Martha’s Vineyard have become as familiar as their own backyards. They’ve spent years figuring out the boulders and dropoffs that produce the biggest fish, and they are secretive about them to the point of paranoia. “They don’t talk about spots,” said Jennifer Clarke, a charter fishing captain and derby champion. They’ll go out of their way to keep rivals from finding out where they’re fishing. They might skip a good daytime tide at a spot if there are other boats around. Then they’ll go back out at midnight, turn out their running lights, and fill their boats. “Lev doesn’t say anything about anything,” she added. “Lev and I have never had a conversation about where he caught what.”
Lev has established himself as the best of the Mosquito Fleet. “It’s the Mosquito mafia,” said an old family friend, “and Levie’s the godfather.” His friends acknowledge this, with some qualifiers: that he has luck on his side and he’s had the privilege of growing up fishing and spending months on the water every year. But it’s hard to believe that good fortune alone explains his five derby victories and his consistent hauls every summer.
Consider: One night before this year’s derby started, he’d been in bed spooning with his wife under the covers. Then his eyes blinked open and the next thing Jen knew he was off into the night to hunt for bait. “I was thinking about that the other night,” Lev said.
“There’s no support group for me. There’s no FA—no Fisherman’s Anonymous. I need help.” He’s always watching, always thinking, always searching for a trend that will explain where the fish are and what will entice them to bite. Maybe it’s a daily event, a tide that works. Maybe it’s something you notice only after paying attention for years. He’s tried to make a science out of it. Another son of a fisherman who hunts for stripers during the commercial season marvels at how Lev does it. “Things make sense to him more than others.”
Out on the water the sun starts to go down, an orange ball dropping into the ocean, the kind of daily finale the tourists applaud at Menemsha in August. Lev watches it appreciatively, and suddenly prime time has arrived. The monofilament peels off my reel, and as I wait for the moment to set the hook Lev starts to coach.
“Hit him, hit him, hit him!”
I close the bail and lift and the rod arcs. With a jolt I’m on. The striper holds in deep water for thirty seconds, sulking, then begins to pull out line against the drag—one, two, three broad-shouldered hauls. It swims west and Lev ducks underneath my line and I move with the fish to the other side of the stern.
“That’s a good fish,” Lev says, his thoughts turning immediately to how we will split the grand-prize Chevy Silverado he imagines me winning. “Fifty percent, right?”
I suggest 75 or even 95 percent for him—it’s his boat, his bait, his know-how. All I’ve really done is show up and hold the rod.
“I’ll take that action,” he says.
While we fantasize, a problem arises.
“You’re on a rock,” Lev says. “Feel the rock?”
No, I don’t.
The striper has wrapped the line around a boulder below us, and I can envision it rubbing the line against the rock, trying to saw itself free. Lev springs into action, firing up the engine and steering around in a circle to undo the damage. In a minute, the fish is off the rock and I’m reeling it to the boat.
Lev pulls the fish up on the gunwale by its lower lip and works the hook free of its jaw.
“Thirty-pounder,” he estimates. “Thirty-something.”
“You should take it for your neighbor,” I tell him.
“Nah, it’s too big. You want to weigh it?”
He holds up the fish. It’s motionless in his hands, and I admire the dusky lines shooting down its flanks. Big stripers have always looked majestic to me out of the water, with their sharp dorsal fins standing up like a crown. I think for a few seconds. This is close to the largest bass I’ve ever caught. At the same time, the leaderboard fish run between 45 and 56 pounds. A 30-pounder is nothing. I’m thinking like Lev, who has caught too many fish to be sentimental about one this size. “Nah,” I say finally. I don’t even ask to hold the fish or get a picture for my wife and daughter back home. We’re out here for fifties, right?
Back in the water it goes, and as we return to the spot Lev tells me to stay sharp. “It’s going to be nonstop. This place is stacked!” Our beers go untouched for another half hour as we stand at attention and get hit after hit. Lev puts one foot in front of the other, his rod held out to the fish. He pulls a few feet of line off the reel and holds it in his fingers like a bowstring, so that if a fish hits he has an extra second to react before the line peels out. A bass yanks at his eel, and he lets it run until he senses that the fish has it. Then he rears back and he’s on. But it’s nothing huge. We end up with a couple of stripers each and a bluefish. We spot a bass thrashing on the surface of the water and Lev pilots Wampum over to check it out. The striper is on its side, and Lev sinks the hook of his gaff into its flank and pulls it onboard. The pig had choked to death on a baitfish known as scup— one that was too large to fit down its throat.
Then, with that omen, the spot turns off. “Come on!” Lev protests. He tries hailing his friends. “Speakeasy, Speakeasy, howboutcha?” he calls over the radio. Silence. He smacks the steering wheel in frustration. He lets out a frustrated bark. We reel up and he jams the throttle down and points the boat back toward Menemsha.
Lev has enough experience on the water to know when a spot isn’t happening, and tonight it isn’t happening. There will be other nights. Just about everybody would agree that Zeb Tilton didn’t catch the biggest bass in the ocean. (Neither did Dicky’s client; the 60-pounder that got Lev excited is a hoax.) But of the three thousand people who will fish the derby, Lev is probably the only one who believes he can find it. “I wouldn’t be out here if I didn’t think I could catch something huge. Most years if somebody caught a fifty- six I’d fold her up. I know there’s bigger fish out here.”
Two weeks later he would prove himself right—and somehow, at the same time, wrong. He’d get a fish that would land on the front pages of the papers, uncover once and for all a secret fishing tactic, thrust islanders into a contentious debate, and throw the tournament into turmoil.
Before it was all over Lev couldn’t help but wonder: Would he have been better off just throwing the cursed fish back in the ocean?