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A blue heaven of razor-sharp sport

The big battlers off the end of the island draw crowds when they visit

By Julie Hatfield
Globe Correspondent / June 12, 2011

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CHAPPAQUIDDICK — The terns flying back and forth over the roiling waters are our first hint that it’s time to fish.

We can see them circling the Atlantic waters from our bedroom window on a spring day. They’re finding small baitfish — lots of them — which means the blues have arrived.

Everybody on the Vineyard waits for Blues Days, and others from as far as Maryland join us when word gets out.

Soon we see scores of four-wheel-drive vehicles, loaded with families, picnic baskets, rods, and bait buckets, bumping along the beach from Dyke Bridge to gather at the Wasque Rip.

I am fortunate to be able to walk 20 steps to one of the best spots in the whole country for catching blues: Wasque is an Algonquin Indian word for “wannasque,’’ or “the ending.’’ It is, truly, the end of the Vineyard. Where Wasque Beach sticks out into the water, two currents converge and move as fast as 8 feet per second. While it is extremely dangerous to swim here, the rip is the perfect convergence for bluefish on their way from as far south as Florida to spawn up north.

And they are ravenous. Spencer Fullerton Baird (1823-87), the first head of the now defunct US Commission of Fish and Fisheries, called the bluefish “an animated chopping machine.’’ They will eat anything alive, including their young and their siblings. During a “blues blitz,’’ when so many fish swarm around the rip they make the water froth, some anglers say you could throw an old shoe in the water and a blue would bite. I prefer a metal jig: Kastmaster or Krokodile, and after that, poppers, the surf caster’s equivalent of the fly rodder’s floating fly, because it’s exciting to see the wind-blown spray from a smashing strike.

One windy, overcast day in May I went down to the beach. While no blitz had occurred, there were a lot of lines in the water. I was reeling in a ballistic missile, watching it skip and splash along the surface, when a true “slammer’’ (as opposed to a smaller blue, under a foot, called a “schoolie’’) exploded out of the water and took the lure. The line immediately went taut.

I adjusted the drag knob on top of the reel to let line out. The massive blue tugged for a good five or six minutes before it began to swim parallel to the shore. I slowly followed it down the beach, apologetically ducking under others’ lines. “Looks like you got yourself an old fashioned clothesline,’’ said one man, referring to the fact that I wasn’t making any headway reeling the fish in.

After what must have been more than 10 minutes, the blue finally started to tire, and I tried to take advantage, alternating between pulling back slowly on the rod and then reeling in furiously. As it made one of its final desperate runs, I saw its immense silhouette through the face of a cresting wave. Though the rod strained and pulled me deep into the surf, I was able to slowly back away from the water and haul the fish ashore on a wave. It flipped and turned violently in a blur of teeth and treble hooks and it was a challenge to get my hand under its gill to lift it without getting sliced. I estimated its weight to be north of 15 pounds and I hauled it back to my tackle bag, leaving a trench in the sand as its broad tail dragged behind.

I respect the viciousness of the bluefish, with its razor-sharp teeth, its powerful jaws requiring a wire leader, and its strength. They are outstanding fighters, with strong runs and frequent jumps. When you land one on the beach, you step on the flipping fish with one foot and put a glove on the other hand to hold it while you pull the hook out with pliers. We bring along a club that looks like a miniature bat to knock the fish out before removing the hook. We skin, scale, and fillet it on a board right there at the beach before bringing it up to the kitchen.

On another day I was sitting on the beach with loads of other fishermen, waiting for the next tide. I decided to cast a silver spoon. I yanked and from the moderately bent rod it was clear that I had a small blue on the line. But this was much stronger than it should be. All the other fishermen began to make their way to the water, knowing that this fish was indicative of a school in the area. But there was a sudden thrashing and splashing and I lurched forward, my rod bent. I let it run for as long as I could, at which point I saw at the end of my line the familiar fin of a shark. Suddenly the rod popped up straight, the line reeled easily, and although we all assumed the line had been broken, we were shocked to see the silver spoon emerge from the surf with just a bluefish head, cut cleanly just behind the gills. The shark had eaten all of my catch except the head.

What’s wonderful about Wasque is that it is not only a beautiful beach and one of the best shore spots on the East Coast to fish, but also it is nearly inaccessible to tourists without the will to get here. Devoid of any hotels, inns, or restaurants, it will never be crowded with private homes, as the Trustees of Reservations has bought up most of the developable land. The only traffic on the dirt road outside our driveway is from the fishermen who are allowed to come through Trustees property to park in their own “fishermen’s parking lot’’ hidden among the scrub oak near the beach.

After a two-hour drive from Boston, then a 45-minute ferry ride, followed by another, two-minute ferry ride, and then a six-mile hop to the island, your reward is a gorgeous beach that is empty except when the blues are running. Fisherman-photographer Gary Mirando says, “Wasque holds a spiritual reverence for me. The fish are right there for you. It’s a refreshing moment to go out to Wasque and I’ve thought of moving to Chappaquiddick because of Wasque, but then have thought I shouldn’t in order to keep it special.’’

My husband’s grandfather, Edmund Leland, and his friend Curtis Nye Smith bought 150 acres here in 1917 because they liked to duck hunt at Poucha Pond, which sits on the northern side of the Wasque beach. Eventually they walked over to the beach side of the property and, when they saw the bluefish and striped bass that were waiting to be caught, became fishermen. A Midwesterner by birth, my fishing experience consisted of accompanying my little brother to a pier on Lake Erie and throwing in a line with a worm on the end. It could take six hours to catch a perch so small that our mother teased us by putting the fillet on a cracker and calling it an hors d’oeuvre.

So when my husband handed me one of the family rods, an 11-footer, told me to cast up-current, cocking the bale and moving “from 2 o’clock to 10 o’clock,’’ and I got an immediate bite, and another, and another . . . I finally realized why they call fishing a “sport.’’ I still can’t believe how easy it is — in the right season — to cast out my jig or popper, watch the old spinning reels for a mess of knot and line, snap it when I feel the bite, play the fish by walking down-current, and reel in yet another 5-pounder. Leland and his cronies didn’t bother with a rod in the old days; in a method called “heave and haul’’ they would simply throw a line into the water and hold onto the end of it with their hands until they felt the fish on the other end.

Unfortunately, blues are an oily fish that do not keep very long, and most of us love to fish them but are not wild about eating them. Some of the old-timers catch so many that they have an arrangement to sell them to some of the restaurants on the island.

The best bluefish meal of my life was when I caught a 4-pounder at dawn, ran it up to the kitchen, fried the fillet in a little butter, and served it with scrambled eggs and toast for breakfast.

Julie Hatfield can be reached at julhatfield@comcast.net.

If You Go

To get to the Wasque fishing area, take the Chappaquiddick ferry, called the On Time, which runs every 10 minutes or so ($12 car and driver round trip). To get to the parking lot, drive as far as you can toward Wasque, finally coming to Trustees of Reservations land. At the Trustees shack, pay $3 for the car and $3 for each adult in it. Park and take your gear down the wooden steps and walkway to the beach.
Bluefish season starts in early May, seems to be at its best in June when they are most hungry, and goes to October, when the Martha’s Vineyard Fishing Derby is held. Blues are young in May and June, much bigger later on; some can weigh as much as 20 pounds.
If you have a four-wheel-drive vehicle and an oversand permit ($180 for the Cape Pogue and Wasque areas, which also gives you a membership for the year in the Trustees of Reservations, 508-693-7662), take the left fork onto the dirt road to Dyke Bridge, where you can cross and drive on the beach to the Wasque fishing area.
Wasque is too dangerous for swimming. A safe public beach near the Trustees shack, 300 yards west of the fishing area, was lost to storms this year — even the parking lot was washed away. Swimmers will have to walk even farther, to Norton Point.