The Big One: Q&A with Author David Kinney
Serious feature alert! This is the first in an ongoing series of book reviews & author interviews here on Sports Rubbish. Hope you enjoy.
Aside from flipping to ESPN & finding Bassmasters on, most sports fans know little about the world of fishing. In his new book, The Big One: An Island, an Obsession, and the Furious Pursuit of a Great Fish, David Kinney takes us deep into the Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby, which is held every year on Martha’s Vineyard.
From The Big One:
The derby is the anti-Bassmaster. These are not hyperactive pros in tricked-out boats wearing patches that advertise trucks and boats and outboard engine manufacturers. ESPN is not following the competitors around with cameras. Nobody’s carrying on for the people back home. The tournament is more like a typical rod and gun club event, but rather than running for a weekend this one seems to last forever, with people who are just out for kicks and camaraderie fishing right next to hardcore guys who are chasing prizes and glory. It aims to be the friendliest competition on the water.
While the fishing competition aims to be friendly, rest assured that there is plenty of drama when the action becomes serious. In 2007, Kinney participated in the Derby while also following around several top competitors by land and by sea. What resulted was a unique perspective into the minds of fishermen participating in the biggest event of their lives.
The book’s colorful characters are entertaining, even for those who have never fished before. From Lev Wlodyka, whose fish have captured numerous titles and whose 2007 catch resulted in a major controversy, to Brad Upp, whose back sports a full tattoo of the island and the fish that are the goal of the Derby, readers meet plenty of interesting people along the way. These are not mere fishermen, they are Fishermen.
I had the opportunity to discuss The Big One with author David Kinney, who provided more insight into the unique fishing world on Martha’s Vineyard.
Sports Rubbish: Out of all of the different elements, what’s the most exciting thing about the Derby for you? What was it that made you decide to share it beyond the fishing world?
David Kinney: What’s most compelling about the derby is that anybody can win the thing. Sure, the most skillful and relentless anglers have the best shot, but the history of the tournament is filled with stories of rookies showing up on a jetty, catching their first striper or false albacore and taking first place. One year a 12-year-old girl named Molly went out on a charter boat in stormy weather and landed a 49-pound striper that led the field. An eighth-grader — he’s a few years from being old enough to even drive — caught a big bluefish from the beach in 2007 and ended up taking home the grand prize boat. So we’re not talking about Bassmasters-type pros here.
There are thousands of fishing tournaments around the country, and I’m sure they all have great histories of their own. I fell in love with this one because it has six decades worth of great stories, and a real subculture that has grown up around it. Lots of guys are just there for camaraderie, but lots of guys take it very seriously: They get off from work for five weeks, they stay up all night long, they swim out to rocks in wetsuits, they cheat, they lie to their friends. Winning the thing is the Vineyard equivalent of taking home the green jacket in the Masters. And there’s an interesting dynamic because it happens on this tight-knit island where everybody sort of knows everybody else.
DK: Most fishermen are secretive about their tactics and spots. Put them in a tournament where island reputations and more than $250,000 in prizes are at stake, and people can become almost paranoid. I made contact with many fishermen before the event to line up trips during the derby. Once the tournament started, I couldn’t find half of them. They didn’t return calls to their cell phones, and I couldn’t track them down in the dark of the night when they were out striper fishing. One afternoon I came upon a guy I had spoken with about fishing together. He was in his boat at the dock, and when I asked him again if I could tag along, he just pushed off the dock without a word and cruised away. So while it seemed easy enough — people say, You must have had a great time fishing for five weeks! — it wasn’t. It required a lot of persistence, just hanging around and building trust. Fishermen wanted to know that I wouldn’t burn their spots or spill the beans about their secret tactics. It didn’t help my case that Vineyarders are inherently suspicious of off-islanders.
That said, many people were happy to talk about their fishing lives. And in the end, I found more than a dozen fishermen willing to let me go along with them and ask questions and tell their stories.
DK: Yes, all of the people who feature prominently in the book have had a chance to read it, and their reactions have been positive. Many of them were quite candid with me, and in turn I made it clear what I planned to write. Some of them are wary of being in the spotlight, but I think in the end they appreciate having their stories shared in a book like this.
I suspect that Lev Wlodyka still wonders whether catching that big fish during the 2007 derby was such a great thing after all. I happened to be there following him around and fishing with him that year, when he caught a 57-pound striper and took it down to the derby weigh station, where they discovered it was crammed with 10 lead weights. It was a major controversy that put him on the front pages of the local papers, then landed him in the Wall Street Journal, then made him a central player in my narrative. And now that DreamWorks has bought the rights to my book, this story could end up a Hollywood plotline. The derby said all along — rightly, I believe — that Lev didn’t cheat, that the weights were the fallout from a commercial fishing tactic called yo-yoing. But still I think Lev would rather everybody go on and on about his six derby wins instead of the leadbellied fish.
SR: The Big One discusses some of the environmental issues surrounding the Derby over the years, such as overfishing & methods that are perceived as being more harmful to the fish. What’s your opinion on some of the controversies such as yo-yoing? Do you feel that the future of the Derby is secure, or will outside pressures from environmental/animal rights groups someday have a larger impact?
DK: Look, fishing is inherently harmful to fish. There’s no two ways about it: You’re impaling them with hooks and dragging them out of their environment. Sometimes it’s easy to overlook that amid all the talk about catch-and-release. That said, it is hard to defend a technique that sometimes leaves big lead weights inside fish’s stomachs. Saltwater recreational fishing is a wild west, and I’m not sure how a yo-yoing ban would be enforced. I’ve spoken to a couple of yo-yoers who tell me they’ve found ways to keep fish from swallowing the lead, which seems like a reasonable alternative if it works.
The derby isn’t going anywhere. The people who run the tournament have worked to be as conservation-minded as they can be, short of turning it into a catch-and-release affair. They’ve limited the number and size of fish anglers can bring into the weigh station. And they banned yo-yoing in the contest. Perhaps the bigger threat to the fishing tradition are the changes happening at breakneck speed on the Vineyard. It’s become a more exclusive place, and access to the water is more restricted than ever. I could imagine that one day wealthy landowners would object to 3,000 anglers traipsing all over the island carrying stinking fish. What the derby has in its favor is that it’s a cherished tradition among islanders and it does good for the community by handing out thousands of dollars in scholarships and a few tons of fish to senior centers every year.
SR: The book takes place during the 2007 Derby. You mentioned a couple of times about returning the next year. Did you go back in 2008, and if so, how did you fare?
DK: I did return for a long weekend, bought a derby button and fished two nights in the surf. I stayed at the wonderful old home of an island mystery writer named Cynthia Riggs, and she told me to bring her home a striper for dinner. So I went out with some eels to a beach on the western end of the island. It was a perfect night, crystal clear sky, sun just dipping below the horizon. I like to fish with live eels, which I cast out and reel in as slowly as I can. It’s a very peaceful way of fishing. On one of my first casts, I felt the d-d-d of a fish on the line. I brought it in and it was a 32- or 33-inch striper, maybe 14 pounds — big enough to weigh in and then give to Cynthia. But instead I thought, Oh, there’s a school of fish here, and I threw it back. I figured I’d get another one, a bigger one. But instead, every other striper I caught that night was too short to keep.
I checked the derby board the next day to see that the fish had a shot at winning first-place for the day. That would have been pretty cool. I blew it.
SR: That’s rough.
Recent news stories have said that there has been a resurgence of fishing in these tough economic times. What is your take on this? Do you have any tips for people who might be interested in taking up fishing?
DK: It could be true. Fishing can be cheap entertainment, especially if you’ve already got the gear. On the other hand, if you are just starting out, it can cost a bit to get a reliable rod and reel, a bit more to get a good selection of lures or plugs, a bit more for good bait. If you get bit by the fishing bug, it starts to add up. Serious surfcasters can spend upwards of $500 for reels. Hardcore guys buy $250 dry-tops for wading out to rocks. Flyfishermen and boaters can spend ungodly amounts on everything.
My advice to someone who wants to take up fishing is to go to a local tackle shop, profess your ignorance and let them lead the way. Start with gear that’s affordable but reliable — nothing kills a beginner like malfunctioning tackle. If you want to get good, join a local club and I’m sure you’ll find someone willing to lend you a hand. I learned a lot about the hows and whys of striper fishing from Frank Daignault’s classic book, Striper Surf.
Thanks to David Kinney for taking the time to discuss his new book, The Big One: An Island, an Obsession, and the Furious Pursuit of a Great Fish, which is available today on Amazon.com & in other stores nationwide. For more information, please visit www.davidkinney.net.
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