Who knew a book about a fishing tournament could be so damn compelling? Journalist David Kinney goes inside Martha's Vineyard's annual Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby with his book, "The Big One".
The intro says it all:
"Grown men have cried over the derby. The have ignored their wives for week after week, sleepwalked through work day after day, stayed up all night long, skipped out on their jobs altogether, drawn unemployment, burned through every last day of their vacation time, down 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. If you believe the conspiracy theorists, they have prosecuted bogus charges of rules breaking to get their adversaries tossed from the competition. People have died fishing this thing."
On Martha's Vineyard, you'll hear lots of stories about the brash surfcaster Dick Hathaway. How he caught more fish than anybody. How he got into fistfights in the local bars. And how he was banished for cheating in the island's Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby—a scandal that, to the thousands of saltwater anglers who consider the contest a sacred tradition, was as momentous as if Lance Armstrong had been tossed out of the Tour de France.
Dick has a different story he likes to tell first: How he caught an 8-pound bluefish while hovering in a helicopter off Chappaquiddick. I know, I know: It sounds like the kind of total whopper only a fisherman could make up. On the other hand, Dick does have a newspaper clipping about the feat, and that gives it more credence than most fish stories. One year a friend bought a two-seater, and the angler ended up in the passenger seat 35 feet over the rip off Wasque Point. He dropped a "popper" into a school, got the bluefish on tight, fought it for a bit and then tried to reel it up. He couldn't quite do it, so the pilot put the bird on the beach and Dick jumped out and dragged the fish out of the waves. If Hunter S. Thompson had been one of the famously obsessive-compulsive surfcasters on Martha's Vineyard, it's hard to imagine him pulling off a stunt more Gonzo than that.
It was in the derby that Dick made his name—for good and for bad. The annual competition, the most celebrated striper fishing tournament on the East Coast, runs for five weeks every fall. For its devotees, who pass up work and wives in a manic pursuit of stripers, bluefish, false albacore and bonito, winning it really does feel like riding down Champs-Élysées in the yellow jersey. So it's saying something that Dick has won it six times in four different decades. One of those championship fish was a striper weighing in at sixty pounds, two ounces, which is still the biggest ever caught in the contest.
But with Dick, storm clouds always seem to hover on the horizon—more than once, The Martha's Vineyard Times labeled him "a scoundrel"—and with the victories came controversy. Dick may have been a great fisherman, rival anglers would tell you, but he won those derbies by bending the rules. He never got called out because nobody ever had the goods on him. Or if they did, they didn't have the guts to do anything about it.
That finally changed in 1999, when two men on the derby committee filed an official complaint. On the first night of the tournament, the men testified, they saw Dick and his fishing partner keep more than one striper apiece—a violation of state law and derby rules. When Dick got hauled before the two dozen men and women who run the competition, he denied everything.
There was one problem for the old surfcaster: They weren't buying his story. They'd known him far too long.
Over the years, Dick made the newspapers as much for his fast fists, it seems, as for his fishing prowess. A 1962 case was typical. Dick and some other men were shucking scallops at a fish market. They got into an argument over the volume of the radio, and one guy pointed his scallop knife at Dick. Later, on the witness stand, Dick explained what happened next.
"I hit him in the jaw once," he said.
"That's all?" the prosecutor asked.
"I might have swung again," Dick replied.
The other man ended up with a broken jaw. Dick ended up with a $50 fine.
He will tell you he got into his share of barroom fights. Somebody would say something and he'd put up his fists without a second thought. Eventually, the cops would arrive and drag the combatants to jail for a couple hours until they sobered up.
Dick is hardly the only island fisherman to get in a few fistfights—not by a long shot. But his reputation as a renegade made people willing to believe the rumors about that 60-pound record-breaker of his. He brought it in one October morning in 1978 as soon as the weigh station opened, stood for a picture and quickly left. People found it odd that he didn't stick around to bask in the glory. Dick told me he sold the bass on the spot to some anglers from New Jersey.
What was with that fish, people asked, that a guy as ambitious as Dick Hathaway would steal away without taking his bows?
When I asked around, many longtime fishermen said they were told that something unusual happened in the weighmaster's station that morning. The scale was misread and somehow, a 50-pounder was recorded as a 60. Once Dick walked out, it was too late to double-check the weight. The fish was gone. Three decades later, I spoke to the woman from the weigh station, Helen Scarborough, who insisted that the scale was read correctly. But she acknowledged the controversy over the bass. People didn't get a look at it, she said, and that gave it a stigma. Some people suggested it had been stuffed. What's the truth? "Only he and God knows," she told me.
As far as Dick is concerned, the speculation is garbage. So what if he got out of there before anybody could take a look at it? He had to go to work, he says. "This is all a big joke."
But even if they can't prove that his record-breaker was actually, as one fisherman put it, a "Phantom Sixty," there are those who say that if some misfortune befell Dick, well, he had it coming, didn't he? Who would be surprised to see Dick's karma circle back and kick him in the pants?
And if somebody pointed a finger at Dick, what would the derby do? Toss him out—the legend, the myth, the six-time champ?
The answer came shortly after Dick finished defending himself against the cheating charges: The derby decided to ban him for a decade. Dick tried to fight back, but he got nowhere. Before he went into his derby exile, he made a vow in the paper: "After 10 years, I will be 82 years old, and I shall return."
His bitterness about the whole affair has never abated, and now that he's eligible to return, he says he might just decide to boycott the derby. But then again, he wonders, wouldn't it be a show to make a grand return? To win it at age 82? To really rub their noses in it? Wouldn't that just about make the derby brass insane?
Read more about the author at DavidKinney.net