My White Whale Was a 50-Pound Fish in Martha’s Vineyard

Janet Messineo on the "Post Traumatic Fishing Disorder" After Losing a Big Fish

In 2011, Greg Myerson, a fisherman from Branford, Connecticut, caught an 81-pound, 14-ounce striped bass. It set a new International Game Fish Association (IGFA) all-tackle world record. When I read his account of catching that fish, I was imagining being in his proverbial shoes when he hooked it and played it to the side of his boat.

“I couldn’t budge him at first,” Myerson told Field and Stream magazine. “Then he took off on a real good run and I had to tighten the drag because he was burning line fast.”

In another account, he said, “I felt the fish come out of the rocks, take a few long runs. Then I could see its huge dorsal and tail break the surface.”

I could picture his net folding with the weight of the fish. What a feeling of relief and disbelief he must have felt once the fish hit the deck! I can only imagine what went through his mind when he put her to the scale. That fish changed his life forever.

Charlie Cinto holds a record for that 73-pound striped bass he caught while on a charter with Captain Frank Sabatowski off Cuttyhunk in 1967. I met Charlie at a Massachusetts Striped Bass Association (MSBA) sportsman show in the year 2000. He had just moved back to New England after spending many years in Florida. He told me that his dream was to be able to fish the entire monthlong Derby. Many years before, he had come to the Vineyard during the Derby with a small group of fishermen and rented a house, but he could only afford to stay about a week.

We own a small ten-by-ten-foot cabin, with electricity, located right behind our home. It is perfect for a tournament fisherman who only requires a clean bed to sleep in, a place to cook with a tiny refrigerator, a shower attached to the main house, and an outhouse. I invited Charlie to come for the Derby to fish with me, no charge. I was happy but surprised when he came and stayed the entire month.

He told me, “My friends said, ‘You’ll never keep up with her.’”

I learned that I have an off-island reputation for being a total fishing maniac. Charlie was 71 years old at the time and I was 52. Did he keep up with me? Yes, he did.

Charlie is a legendary striped bass fisherman but never fished for bonito and false albacore. I tried to tell him to leave me when the sun came up, so that he could go and get some sleep. He insisted on sticking with me for hours chasing “little green torpedoes.” I was by his side when he landed his first of many false albacore. Now here is a fisherman who has decades more experience than I have, and I was privileged to watch him catch his first of a species.

After spending hours on the beach together, we discovered that we are a match made in heaven. We were both born in January, both of Italian descent, both five foot something in height, and of course both striped bass fanatics.

Fishing together most of the night and part of the daylight hours was an adjustment for both of us. I was not accustomed to fishing with someone every day of the Derby, since Jackie had passed almost ten years before. Charlie is from the days when most men felt that it was a man’s duty to take care of a woman, and he was not used to being with such an independent gal.

The first evening we fished together, we were setting up two rods each with squid and putting them into sand spikes for a night of bottom fishing. Charlie, attempting to help me, was getting in my way while I was putting my bait on my hook.

I kindly said to him, “It’s okay, Charlie, I got this.” He made no movement to go back to tend his rods.

As I struggled to bait my hook once again, I repeated, “Thanks, Charlie, but I can do this.”

The sun was going down and his body was blocking the view of my hook. The darkness was making it even more difficult to see what I was doing and I was having a hard time putting my bait on with his helpful hands in my way. en I lost the grip on my rod and it almost fell in the sand.

I finally said, “Damn it, Charlie, will you just leave me alone!” I’ll never forget the look on his face as he danced back over toward his own gear. He said, “Oh, yes ma’am!” but I could see he was confused. He’s the kind of guy who bends over backward to help everyone. I love that about him, but during our fishing times, he was getting in my way, trying to help me do something I had been doing on my own for decades.

It took some time for him to understand that I know who I am. I know that I’m a woman, a mother, a wife, a fisherman, and I don’t mind him opening a door or carrying a heavy load for me, but when it comes to fishing and getting my bait in the water, I do it on my own.

After spending hours on the beach together, we discovered that we are a match made in heaven. We were both born in January, both of Italian descent, both five foot something in height, and of course both striped bass fanatics. He has been an amazing friend and fishing partner for many years now. He stays busy making lures all year round. He has made a couple of special rods for me, and one of the lures that he makes, “proud popper,” is one of my favorites.

We’ve all heard stories and have seen the photographs of the big fish that get landed, but what about those big ones that win the battle? There are many stories about the “one that got away,” but for some mysterious reason, in more than 35 years of fishing, I myself had never lost a trophy-sized fish. I did lose one fish that was in the 30-pound range one afternoon when I was fishing with Charlie.

One early June, he came to fish the spring migration with me. The Edgartown Great Pond had been opened to the ocean and a few 30-pounders had been landed that day. Charlie had one on the beach and I was patiently waiting with my bait sitting nicely on the bottom, hoping for my turn.

I finally got the hit I was waiting for. My rod bent over and I set the hook. I smiled at Charlie and exhaled to enjoy the song of my drag screaming. Then, all of a sudden . . . slack line.

When I reeled in my slack, I had a little wiggly on the end of my line. No hook, no leader. I had lost the fish on my knot!

I had been using an improved cinch knot since Jackie taught me to fish, but I am always willing to try something new. That day, I was using a knot that Charlie invented.

If memory serves, he said, “Oh yeah, I lost a couple on that knot!” I started to growl under my breath.

Now he said, “You just didn’t tie it right.”

I never used that knot again. I am pretty sure I am over that one by now—pretty sure.

I love fishing with people who are newly stung by fishing fever and are enthusiastic about fishing new spots and breaking personal records.

The following day, the water was full of a heavy, thick seaweed that we call mung and it made it impossible to fish. As hard as we tried, for an entire tide of more than six hours, we could not get through the weed to catch a fish. It was frustrating because we knew that there were some big fish feeding underneath.

*

I consider anything over 40 pounds to be a big fish, and I know that every fish I have hooked in that category, I have landed. Believe me, when you are in the surf, there is no doubt that you are battling a fish of that size. It’s a little like suddenly being hooked to the bumper of a VW bug going 50 miles per hour.

Unlike Greg Myerson, I haven’t had the opportunity to hook many fish that size, but I was fortunate enough to be fishing back in the 1970s when 50-pounders were certainly a possibility. 28- to 32-pound fish were an average day’s catch back then, and there were many fish between 40 and 50 pounds to be had. Unlike today, we never talked in inches; it was always about pounds.

Traditionally, Martha’s Vineyard does not have the most productive surf fishing in August. We call it “the summer doldrums.” When the water temperature rises, the stripers seem to abandon the shoreline.

Looking for cooler water, they take up residence farther away from the beaches, in the deep holes. Over the years I had not spent many summer nights on the beach looking for bass. My time was better spent in the daylight watching for splashes from breaking schools of bonito and catching bait for the freezer to use during the monthlong fall Derby.

I had been working for more than 25 years in my basement taxidermy shop, up to my elbows in fish guts. After I started a shore guide business in 2009, Vineyard Surfcaster, it was a new adventure for me to be out after dark with my clients, stalking striped bass during the warmer months of July and August. I normally fished hard during the spring and fall run of bass and then fished daytime for blue fish when the water temperature rose and the larger fish moved out from the shore into deeper water.

The 2011 fishing season was quite unusual. Fishing in the spring for striped bass and blue fish was slow. The new moon period in June, which is usually spectacular, did not happen. Not for me, anyway. We caught some nice fish, some of them weighing as much as 30 pounds, but not the usual migration of big bass.

Then, on August 9, 2011, I lost a really big fish.

I was fishing with my friend from Connecticut, Aram Berberian. We had worked together at the Home Port and Square Rigger restaurants many years ago, and although he fished summers on the Menemsha jetty when he was a kid, he had recently slipped over that line and gotten hopelessly hooked on surf fishing for striped bass. I love fishing with people who are newly stung by fishing fever and are enthusiastic about fishing new spots and breaking personal records. When Aram visits the Vineyard, we get together to do some fishing.

I had been doing fairly well at the breach at Norton Point and he had never fished that area, so we took a ride out in my Chevy Trailblazer.

When we arrived at about nine in the evening, a few of the regulars were already there: Bob “Hawkeye” Jacobs, Ralph Peckham, and Stevie Amaral. It was a rainy and cloudy evening, and thunderstorms were predicted. These are the conditions that excite me. The wind was blowing southeast at about 20 knots and it was difficult to fish. These were not easy conditions, but I had a partner in crime, so I figured, if he was willing to stay, we’d give it a try.

It was blowing hard. I switched lures quite a few times, but the wind was putting a big bow in my line and I couldn’t feel any of them swimming through the water. I was going through all my containers of lures in the back of my fishmobile, but after casting my heaviest Darters, Bombers, and Danny plugs, not one of them felt right. The other fishermen must have been finding it difficult also, because one by one, they jumped into their buggies and headed back to Katama.

I finally put on a Stan Gibbs three-ounce light-brown-and-white swimmer, sometimes called a Bottle plug. Earlier that week I had been catching sh on the root-beer-colored Darter, so I knew if the bass were around they were probably feeding on squid. Brown and white seemed like a good choice. I caught my first 45-pound bass on a blue-and-white Stan Gibbs swimmer back in 1980 when the conditions were similar. At last I felt connected and I was fishing! I felt it hit the water, dig in, and start to swim.

By then everyone was gone except me and Aram. Steve’s taillights were still fading in the distance when I had the hook-up.

Nice fish! It felt like it was in the 20-pound range. I had it on for a while, but as I got it closer to shore I couldn’t control it. All I could see was a splash of white water as it broke the surface and spit the hook. Damn, that was a nice fish—it is always difficult to get a good hook set when the wind is cranking and the water is agitating like a washing machine. “Oh, well,” I thought, “no big deal, and now at least we know that there are some fish in front of us.” I rechecked my drag to make sure it was tight enough to get a good hook set but loose enough to “let ’em run.”

About a half hour later, Aram was back at the car looking to find a lure that would work best for him. I threw a nice long cast, and before I could feel my plug hit the surface of the water, I was on with a fish. I think my plug must have landed right in its mouth. I barely took a crank on my reel handle and WHACK! I screamed into the wind, “Aram, fish ON!”

All those years I had been saying, “I never lost a big fish.” Now I had a story of losing a big fish.

This fish took off straight toward Nantucket. I heard the high-pitched zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz as my line peeled off my spool. The sound of the drag was music to my ears. I knew immediately that this was a fish of a lifetime.

My heart started pounding and then my first thought was, “Oh my God, I am going to get spooled!” as the line was quickly leaving the spool on my reel. I then thought, “No, that won’t happen. I have a fresh spool of 50-pound-test Power Pro braid on my Sustain 8000.” That’s about 350 yards.

After a long run of about 150 yards, the fish slowed for a few seconds and I was able to take some cranks to recover some of my line. I started to relax but then it took off again, straight out from the beach into the dark. Again, my drag sang as it stripped another 50 yards of line. Again it slowed, so I could recover some line and my spool started to fill once more.

My new ten-foot Century Stealth rod was bent about 180 degrees and my arms were tense with the weight of the fish. I was fervently hoping that, as advertised, this beautiful lightweight rod could handle the pressure of this big fish.

Then suddenly, my line went limp. It was gone! I couldn’t believe it. Gone.

I felt like I had been kicked in the gut. I felt ill with disappointment. I reeled and reeled and reeled in my slack line until I got to the end. My 50-pound-test Power Pro had parted. Cut clean. No plug, no 175-pound-test Tactical Fishing Clip, and the 50-pound-test fluorocarbon leader was gone as well. My braid had parted, not frayed but a clean cut. All I could do was shake my head and utter one F-bomb after another.

What had happened? My mind started to sort through all the scenarios. Was it a shark? No way could I have had a shark on my line for that amount of time with a 50-pound-test fluorocarbon leader. A shark would have cut me clean at the hook on the first run. I have caught brown sharks up to 85 pounds from the shore and knew that it was not a shark. Could it have been a seal? Seals are not known to take long steady runs like that and probably would not have grabbed a plug the second it hit the surface of the water, especially at night. I had been fishing this area for weeks and had only seen an occasional seal.

Was my drag too tight? Possibly, but since I had lost a couple of nice fish the year before when they straightened my 3X hooks, I had learned to lighten up on my drag when using braid. Braid has no stretch to it, unlike mono filament, which has just a little bit of stretch. I had also switched to 6X hooks for occasions just like this. These hooks are six times stronger than a regular hook and should surely not bend no matter how large the fish is. I checked all my guides for any defect that could nick my line, but they were new and smooth. A nick in my guide could make my line break under the stress of a fish. There was no solution to change the outcome of losing this fish.

“Okay,” I told myself, “take a deep breath and let it go.”

I know that when it’s my turn to catch a fish, it will happen, no matter what. So why was it that on that night as I was trying to fall asleep, I kept reliving losing that fish?

What a fish. I am convinced that this was the biggest of my life. All those years I had been saying, “I never lost a big fish.” Now I had a story of losing a big fish.

I am convinced that when it is your turn to catch a fish, you will land it no matter what you do wrong. I have seen it happen time and time again. I have seen fishermen land big fish with old line, rusty hooks, and rods and reels in terrible condition. I’ve seen them land fish with a drag way too tight or too loose. I’ve certainly landed fish many times that should have gotten away because of one thing or another.

I once landed two nine-pound-plus false albacore at the same time on Memorial Wharf. One was hooked in the mouth and the other fouled by his tail in my 12-pound-test line. Landing those two fish was pure luck. I know that when it’s my turn to catch a fish, it will happen, no matter what!

So why was it that on that night as I was trying to fall asleep, I kept reliving losing that fish? In the morning, the second I opened my eyes, my thoughts were fixated on those few moments of hooking and losing that fish. For days after, I could not stop thinking about it, over and over again I was reliving scenario after scenario, before, during, and after that episode. I was begging the powers that be, “Please erase this moment from my mind and help me to let it go.”

I started thinking that I was running out of time and might never in my life get another shot at a fish of that magnitude. I was getting depressed. I wondered if I might have PTFD—post-traumatic fishing disorder.

A few days later, I was talking with Tony Jackson, who also spends time on the same beach. Before I’d said anything about my traumatic evening, Tony said, “Justin Pribanic lost a screamer the other night!” He also said he had heard of a couple of other guys who had hooked into big fish and lost them. at got my attention. I blurted out my story to Tony. Suddenly I felt a little relief. “Maybe, just maybe,” I told myself, “there are other really big sh out there and I still might have a chance of catching the fish of a lifetime.”

There are very few fishermen on the beach late at night during the summer. I fish Chappaquiddick and Norton Point most of the time because they are the only beaches that I can drive on with my four-wheel drive. Ron Domurat is one of the surfcasters whom I see most nights. I asked Ron if he had ever experienced PTFD from losing a big one.

This is what Ron told me. He said about two years ago he had almost the same experience, in the very same place, and thought the same things that I thought. He said he could almost use my words. To this day, he still had trouble believing it was a striped bass.

When the fish hit, it felt pretty good and fought normally, and like many fish, it ran toward shore until it was about 15 yards away. Ron said, “It then took off for about 60 yards but I turned it and regained about half of the line I had lost. It took off again on a slower second run of about 30 yards and I thought to myself, ‘Wow, I’ve got a really good fish here,’ but it didn’t feel unusually heavy and I was winning the battle. I turned it again, again regaining about half of what I had lost in line. Then it took off on a run that I couldn’t stop or even slow until my braid broke cleanly with about 50 yards left on my Van Staal 250. The final run was so strong and powerful, I could barely lift my 11-foot Lamiglas much above a point parallel to the water. I kept saying to myself, ‘ is can’t be a striper, this can’t be a striper,’ and I still have problems believing that it was. Once it took o for good, it never tired, and I can’t believe even a world-record fish would not slow or tire during a run like that. Also, I never felt a tail slap, line rub, and the fish never slowed.

“At the time, it really didn’t bother me all that much because I had so much trouble believing it was a striper. I’ve come up with theories and rationalizations that include hooking a decent fish that was grabbed by a big seal or a shark, or that it was in fact a big shark. But the more I think about it, the more I think that maybe, just maybe, it was something very special. And like you, with stocks crashing and my age working against me, I doubt that I’ll ever get an opportunity like that again.”

Ron continued, “But it wasn’t the first big fish I lost. Two weeks after the 2008 Derby had started, I was on the north shore, waist deep in water and throwing eels on an early-morning falling tide, with the wind howling out of the southwest against the tide. On my fifth cast I had a solid pickup and hooked a huge fish that made a hard run down current. I finally turned it and was working it toward me almost parallel to the shore. When I finally got it to within about 30 yards of me, the 8/0 Gamakatsu hook inexplicably pulled out. I was sick. It was the biggest striper I had ever had on. Scott Tompkins won the boat that year with a fish just over 40 pounds. I’m guessing this fish was in the 45- to 50-pound range. This is what I wrote in my logbook: ‘I was shaking and had to sit down. I couldn’t even fish any more that night. I went on to have a good Derby and won the senior division with a 25-pound fish but the loss of that fish and what might have been will haunt me until I leave this planet.’”

Ron is not new to surf fishing and I believe him when he says a fish was probably close to 50 pounds.

I asked Charlie Cinto if he had ever lost a really big fish and been tortured by it.

He said, “You had to remind me.” Sounds like another case of PTFD.

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From Casting into the Light by Janet Messineo. Copyright © 2019 by Janet Messineo. Reprinted by permission of Pantheon Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

Janet Messineo
Janet Messineo
Janet Messineo is a former president of the Martha’s Vineyard Surfcasters Association. She has written about fishing for many publications, including On the Water, Vineyard Style, and the Martha’s Vineyard Times. She lives with her husband, Tristan Israel, in Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts.





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