From NYTimes 10/22/04
October 22, 2004
A Quiet Isle Where Striped Bass Reign
By JAMES PROSEK
OR years, Cuttyhunk Island has been a Mecca for striped bass fishermen, especially in autumn, when the bass congregate off its rocky shore on their migration south. According to "The Wise Fisherman's Encyclopedia," published in 1951, Cuttyhunk is "the Grand Central Station of north Atlantic striped bass fishing."
It is a little harder to get to than Grand Central itself though, especially now through April when the ferry from New Bedford, Mass., makes only one round trip a week, on Fridays, to this point at the end of the Elizabeth Island chain — eight small islands projecting like a spur off Cape Cod's heel at Woods Hole. That is why on a recent chilly clear October afternoon, my friend Taylor Hoyt and I boarded Captain John Paul Hunt's Seahorse water taxi for the trip across Buzzard's Bay to Cuttyhunk, with warm clothes, fly and spin fishing equipment and a bucket of a dozen live eels.
Also on the boat was Ginny Doran, one of the island's 20 or so year-round residents, who had bought a load of baseboard radiators at Home Depot on the mainland and was taking them home to the island. Her two children, ages 5 and 10, are the only students at Cuttyhunk's one-room schoolhouse, built in 1873. "It's great," she said. "It's like home schooling." The teacher, Maggie Martin, 24, spends the school year on the island. In winter, mail comes only twice a week.
Cuttyhunk has no restaurants, but breakfasts and occasionally other meals are available at the two or three inns that go in and out of service depending on the whims of their owners and operators. One market sells basic canned foods, produce and meats. "It's like nowhere else, really," Mrs. Doran said.
Cuttyhunk was put on the map in the angling world by the Cuttyhunk Island Striped Bass Club, founded by New York and Philadelphia millionaires who bought most of the island in 1864. Their club was originally established on Sakonnet Point, R.I., but then the members discovered the more fertile waters to the east and built the club building that still stands on Cuttyhunk's south shore (it now operates as an inn). One photograph from 1902 shows several members of the club, including President Theodore Roosevelt; William Howard Taft, whose presidency was still ahead of him; and John D. Archibold, heir to the Standard Oil fortune. To communicate with their city offices while on fishing trips, the men used carrier pigeons. Today's visitors find that cellphone service is spotty.
Meals and wines at the club were, as one would imagine, extravagant, but the primary reason for being there was the pursuit of striped bass, a beautiful silvery fish with dark horizontal stripes that extend from the end of the gill plate to the tail.
Long wooden platforms anchored by iron spikes into the large boulders on the shore provided casting "stands" for the club members, who each had a "chummer" — a man with a bucket of lobster tails and chopped up menhaden (a baitfish in the herring family) that he would throw into the water to summon the fish.
The angler who caught the largest striped bass each year was pronounced the "High Hook." The fish that won an angler the position of "High Hook" usually ranged from 50 to 60 pounds, but in 1913 a club member caught an exceptional fish. News of Charles B. Church's 60-inch, 73-pound world record striped bass, caught in Vineyard Sound (actually just off neighboring Nashawena Island) from a small wooden skiff, enhanced Cuttyhunk's reputation as the best striped bass fishing destination in the world.
By 1921 the club had dissolved — in part because of World War I and in part because of a diminished population of bass, probably because of overfishing (the club's total catches as documented in "Sport with Gun and Rod," published in 1883, fell to 2,026 pounds in 1882 from 5,862 pounds in 1876). But the island's economy continued to rest heavily on the striped bass, and it remains a symbol of the small island community to this day. Whereas coastal churches from Boston to Maine often sport cupolas with weathervanes depicting cod, on Cuttyhunk the church weathervane is a striped bass.
Bruce Borges, the son of a Portuguese fisherman from New Bedford, met us at the "fish dock," the communal meeting place in the well-protected harbor. He was driving a golf cart. There may be two or three cars on the island, but most people travel by foot or golf cart.
With his broad shoulders, flat nose with a slight bump, big white mustache, chiseled face and gold earring in the shape of a "shackle," Mr. Borges, 68, resembles a gift-shop carving of a sea captain. No one knows the island better. In summer he is a lobsterman, and before going to the house he pulled four lobsters from his holding trap for dinner. We ate them as the setting sun spotlighted the outermost house on the island's east side.
Around 9 p.m., Taylor and I put on our waders, grabbed our surf rods and a bucket of eels — traditional bait for striped bass — and walked the short distance in the dark to the rocky shore (because the island is only two miles long, the ocean is always just steps away). Away from the mainland's lights, the stars shone much brighter, and since the moon had not yet risen, the night was very dark.
I put an eel on Taylor's hook, acting as chummer. He stepped out into the surf and on his first cast hooked and landed a 42-inch striper, his personal largest. We released it, and then a half hour later, I caught one 39 inches. We kept that one to eat. So far, Cuttyhunk was living up to its reputation.
IN the morning, the breeze was up and we were out on the boat with Mr. Borges casting flies into the rocks. He first came to Cuttyhunk when he was 16 to work for Irwin Winslow Hall, a legendary striped bass charter captain known as Coot. "I did everything for old Coot," Mr. Borges said, "pumped gas, made up eel-skin rigs for trolling, and eventually ran my own charters." He later met and married Carolyn Cornell, a fifth-generation islander (her father was a "chummer" for members of the bass club), which made him about as close to a native as you could get without birthright. He worked for years at the Coast Guard station on Cuttyhunk and then became a lobsterman. Now, in the fall, he takes fly and light-tackle fishermen out on his 22-foot skiff to fish the shallow rocky waters for stripers.
If you knew that striped bass love rocks (its old scientific name Roccus saxatilis, as well as its common name rockfish, allude to this), which they do, then you would begin to understand how Cuttyhunk's coast would be ideal habitat for this fish. Nestled between Buzzard's Bay and Vineyard Sound, the island and its waters are abundant with rocks of all sizes. Some are so giant you would hesitate to call them mere boulders, and though they are fairly visible under the dark clear water, they have ripped open many hulls. Shipments of all kinds have been left stranded on the shore, adding to the stores of residents, from ebony wood in the 1860's to marijuana in the 1960's (even the liner Queen Elizabeth II went aground on the nearby Vineyard ledge). The combination of strong winds, rocks, heavy surf and fog make the south shore of the Elizabeths ideal for shipwrecks, leading to its nickname, "the Graveyard."
Perhaps the most famous fishing spot off the island today is the Sow and Pigs. Known by islanders simply as the Pigs, its many rocks reminded some past Cuttyhunker of a series of sows with their sucklings.
When the stands were still in place on the island, members of the club mostly fished from shore, with lobster tails for bait. But then boats were used, pulling lures along the entire south side of the Elizabeths, from Cuttyhunk all the way to Robinson's Hole between Pasque and Naushon Islands (where a great white shark was recently hanging out). Anglers trolled eel skins stretched over half-inch copper tubing with two hooks. The captain kept a bean pot with a cover on it filled with brine that could hold 10 rigs or more. They'd also troll swimming plugs (wooden lures carved to imitate baitfish) covered with eel skins.
It wasn't until a charter captain, Charlie Haig, introduced the bucktail jig (a lure with a lead head, tied with hair from the tail of a deer) in the 1950's that jigging with a wire line became a favorite fishing method among the islanders. The history is intact in Mr. Borges's head, and comes out in bits, but only if you ask. He never uses bait because his father never did, only popping plugs, jigs and flies (his father used to make plugs by hand and sell them under the name Cuttyhunk Popper). Why has Mr. Borges chosen to live on Cuttyhunk his whole adult life? Besides the fishing, he just liked that it was out of the way.
"You can't come by car," he said. "It's boat or plane. It's not like Montauk or Point Judith that you can drive to. I don't know what this place would be like with all that. There's no motel. There's lodging but you can't just show up and find it. All you have is the bass club or the Avalon or the odd people who offer rooms occasionally."
The Elizabeths, eight in all (Nonamesset, Uncatena, Weepecket, Naushon, Pasque, Nashawena, Penikese and Cuttyhunk) are barren islands that resemble Iceland or the Scottish Hebrides. All but Cuttyhunk and Penikese are owned by the Forbes family (the Democratic presidential nominee, John Forbes Kerry, whose mother was a Forbes, spent some childhood summers on Naushon).
Nashawena Island, next to Cuttyhunk, has a herd of more than 200 Scottish highland cows, their thick long coats useful when there's nothing else to shield them from a northeast blow. Cuttyhunk is barren, too, its trees felled long ago by Bartholomew Gosnold, who first settled the island in 1602 and built the first English habitation on the coast of New England (there is speculation that Shakespeare's New World in his play "The Tempest" was based on Gosnold's journals from his expedition to Cuttyhunk, not a 1609 shipwreck in Bermuda). He returned to England soon after with a cargo of cedar and sassafras. The trees never seemed to have recovered on any of the islands.
There's a great salt pond on the west side of Cuttyhunk where oysters are farmed. Cuttyhunk oysters are a prized item on the list at the Oyster Bar at Grand Central.
For many years, Cuttyhunk was a place for wealthy men to escape their harried 19th century lives. And Cuttyhunk has remained an unchanging eddy in the wake of civilization.
Over just two chilly days, it seemed the colors of the leaves had changed, the bayberries were mature, the poison ivy and choke cherry and small scrub birch were turning yellow and orange. The setting sun left a rosy cast on Gay Head on Martha's Vineyard, clearly visible across the sound. Forecast of the first frost was broadcast the night before. Soon the bass would be all south of here and the few Cuttyhunkers left would be hunkered down for the winter, watching ice form on their very protected harbor.
If You Go
NOW through April 30, the Alert II ferry from New Bedford to Cuttyhunk makes only one round trip a week, on Fridays (508-992-1432; one-way adult fare is $14).
Alternatively, you can get to the island by water taxi (the Seahorse, 508-789-3250; www.cuttyhunkwatertaxi.com
; the price per person varies depending on the number in the party).
There are several places to stay on the island during the fishing season. The dark-paneled interior of the Avalon House (508-997-8388) resembles a luxury ship's cabin. Its 10 rooms are about $100 a night; it is open through the end of October and reopens in June. Nearby is the Cuttyhunk Fishing Club Family Bed and Breakfast (508-992-5585), which has already closed for the winter. It reopens in mid-May. Its modest but comfortable rooms start at $135 a night.
Among the many charter captains you can meet at the Fish Dock, Bruce Borges is a light-tackle guide who also offers lodging in his barn, which sleeps three. (508-999-1263, summer; 239-283-9625,winter). A day with him and his boat is $450. A night in his barn is $175 for two to three people.
Duane Lynch of Sea Hawk Charters, (508-997-6387; www.fishcuttyhunk.com
) is a charter captain for striped bass and can shuttle people from Padanaram on the Massachusetts coast, $80 each way. A half day (single tide) of fishing is $300.