Gone Fishin' : An Island visit spawned newspaperman's first book
By Nelson Sigelman
Published: July 2, 2009
In April, Atlantic/Monthly published "The Big One: An Island, an Obsession, and the Furious Pursuit of a Great Fish
." The story focuses on the 62nd annual Martha's Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby and in the process describes the fishermen, culture, and history of this singular Island event.
Author David Kinney weighs in a 17-pound striped bass.
Photo by Louisa Gould
Even before the book was released, DreamWorks Studio bought the film rights. It was quite a catch for David Kinney.
Mr. Kinney is a former reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Associated Press, and the Newark Star-Ledger, where he contributed to the Ledger's Pulitzer-Prize winning reporting on the resignation of Gov. Jim McGreevey.
Mr. Kinney is also an enthusiastic fisherman. He lives outside Philadelphia in Haddonfield, N.J., with his two children and his wife, Monica Yant Kinney, metro columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. "The Big One" is his first book.
There are a lot of fishing tournaments. How did you find the Martha's Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby?
One year, on a trip through New England, I spotted a mention of the Derby in a tour guide. It was November, but my wife and I decided to take the ferry and see the Vineyard. I remember it was cold and dreary, and we didn't have anywhere to stay, so we just drove to Edgartown, took a picture of the shuttered weigh station, grabbed dinner and then head off-Island. But I was intrigued. I'm a fisherman, and I told my wife I had to return one day and fish the thing. A few years later, I read the Robert Post classic, Reading the Water: Adventures in Surf Fishing from Martha's Vineyard, which reminded me about the derby and introduced me to the rich vein of fishing stories on the Island.
I'd always wanted to write a book. After I quit my newspapering job to take care of my daughter in 2004 - she was then seven months old - it seemed like the time to give it a try. The Derby kept bouncing around in my head. The setting for the story couldn't be beat - as people who love the Vineyard can appreciate - and I thought it would make an interesting story. Once I dove into it, I found I was right.
Did you ever wonder how on earth you would turn this fishing marathon into a book?
There were some moments of grave doubt, especially when it dawned on me how difficult it would be to get secretive fishermen to let me - an off-Islander, a writer, and a fellow derby competitor - follow them around. I had one entirely sleepless night on the Island a month before the derby, when I thought I'd have to give back my advance because I couldn't seem to talk anybody into my plan. I finally got out of bed at 4:30 in the morning, bleary-eyed, and drove down to Menemsha, where I invited myself aboard a boat. Two part-time commercial fishermen were going out to fish for stripers, and I watched in amazement as they caught six 20- to 30-pounders in barely half an hour. I had never seen anything like it. This was my introduction to yo-yoing, the deadly fishing technique that would rattle the derby two months later. Yo-yo baits are (usually) menhaden weighted with lead slugs to make them more enticing to big stripers. I had a lot of lucky breaks in the course of reporting the book, and getting the chance to witness yo-yoing firsthand was one of them.
That morning also helped me see that if I hung around long enough, I'd find enough fishermen willing to invite me along and tell their stories, and that's what ultimately happened. When I drove home from the Derby, I knew I had what I needed. Not only had I heard a lot of great stories from tournaments past, not only had I fished with a lot of anglers, but I also had been fortunate enough to witness the classic Derby tale of Lev Wlodyka and his lead-bellied fish. It was just a matter of putting it all together.
What triggered the formation of your premise, the moment when you knew what the story was?
This was a leap of faith. I started with a hunch that I'd find something more than just your standard fishing tournament. I read everything I could find about the derby - particularly the coverage in the Island papers - and began interviewing some fishermen. At the end my first trip to the Vineyard, in the spring of 2007, I left fairly convinced that if I spent the whole five weeks at the Derby, there'd be an entertaining story to tell.
In that first trip, I met many of the anglers featured in the book. Lev took a break from overhauling his boat to give me a tour of Menemsha, and I met his father, Walter, who is a great storyteller. Buddy and Lisa Vanderhoop shared dozens of tales during a bitterly cold scalloping trip. Steve Amaral showed me the photographs of some of his impressive catches. I heard the story of the Dick Hathaway controversy. I stopped in to see Patrick Jenkinson at Up-Island Automotive, had dinner with Geoff Codding at the Newes, hung out in Coop's shop for three hours, and sat down with Ed Jerome, Derby president.
All of them told me the same thing. This derby is a big deal on the Island. Whether you're the competitive sort who really wants to win it all, or you're a fisherman looking for an excuse to escape for a while and hang out with friends, the contest is a way of life for five weeks. I was shocked by how seriously everyone took it. Outsiders say, It's just a fishing contest. But on the Island, I saw that it was more than that. I could see it in the blanket newspaper coverage. I could see it in the fact that major controversies erupt every so often. People get addicted to it and have to come back year after year.
Walter says the Derby is "a sacred kind of thing," which sounds like an exaggeration. But I heard that from fisherman after fisherman, and it became the driving force of the story.
You spent a lot of time fishing on Martha's Vineyard. What did you discover that delighted you or disappointed you?
It really is an inteiresting place to fish, and if I lived there, I have a feeling I would slip into obsessive fisherman mode pretty quickly. During the season, it seems like you can always find a place where the conditions are fishy. And the variety of locations is pretty compelling. One day you can fish South Beach, another day you can fish an inlet like Menemsha, or you can take a boat out and try Gay Head or Middle Ground or (as you New Englanders call it) the Hootah. If you're hardcore you can try to drown yourself on Squibnocket. If you know somebody or you want to take a long hike, you can fish the spooky North Shore. And it's all close at hand. I don't know how people who fish get anything else done on the Vineyard.
Disappointments? There's more open real estate than a newcomer like me could fish in five weeks, but for regulars, it's a shame that a lot of the beaches are off-limits these days. I don't much like the idea that you have to know somebody or get permission to access some prime fishing water.
If you were sitting in an Irish pub and the guy next to you asked you what your book was about, what would you tell him?
I'd tell him what I tell everybody else. It's a book about a bunch of obsessed fishermen on Martha's Vineyard and the annual tournament that brings them all into close contact. I tell them about the great lengths people go to win the thing. I tell them about the guys who have tried to steal the top prize in years past. (Everybody is fascinated by the cheating stories.) And I tell them the story of Lev and the fish I called "Leadbelly."
Your readers are no doubt aware of what happened, but to recap, Lev caught a 57-pound striped bass - topping a 56-pounder landed earlier in the derby. When he brought it to the weigh station, the filet master discovered 10 lead weights in its stomach. That set off days of debate and controversy as the committee decided what to do. It seems obvious that an Islander who had won the derby five times wouldn't do something as boneheaded as stuff a big fish. Quickly it became apparent that the striper had swallowed a bunch of those lead-filled yo-yo baits. But the Derby had a tough time figuring out whether to count Lev's fish or not. The affair made my writing job much easier. It gave me a cliffhanger for the start of the book, and a way to dip into some of the sticky issues that the Derby has to consider every year.
DreamWorks Studios bought the rights to your book. Mad Max in waders or Farrelly Brothers comedy? Where do you see it going?
It's way too early to say what sort of treatment Hollywood will give the story. Whatever happens, it will be surreal to see it all play out.
How many fish did you catch during the Derby?
You had to bring that up, huh? I suppose I should act like a fisherman and just make up some outlandish number. But since this book is nonfiction, I'll stick to the facts. I caught eight or nine stripers, including a 30-something pounder with Lev. I got a half-dozen albies from boat and shore, and my first and only bonito with Patrick Jenkinson. Ed Jerome took me out on the Wayfarer and put me over some mean bluefish. He patiently coached me on setting the hook in deep water, then watched in horror as I let one of the blues slash my finger while I tried to remove the hook.
So all in all, what's that? Maybe 20 fish? Not a lot, considering I spent all five weeks at the Derby. My excuse is that I had the distraction of actually reporting the book. I spent hours writing notes about what I saw. I spent some days in the library or the historical society, or doing interviews off the water. Many times I went out and just watched people catching fish, which was painful. I did go out on my own on the second-to-last night and catch a 17-pounder on live eels at Cape Poge Gut, which got me a third place daily pin and helped me salvage a bit of pride.
But now I've got a good excuse to come back for the derby every fall, and I'm looking forward to a Derby when I can give the fishing my full and undivided attention. Maybe I'll get lucky one year and catch a big one of my own.