Review: The Big One

Last winter Mark Alan Lovewell, the fishing beat reporter for the Vineyard Gazette wrote that a new book about the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass & Bluefish Derby had been optioned by the Dreamworks studio. Cool, I blogged. I’d pay to see that flick. The author of the optioned book, David Kinney, detected my blog post through the magic of the InterWebs and sent me an email asking if I’d like a copy to review. Sure, I said. Send it along.

I own about six feet of bookshelf space devoted to fishing books. There’s everything from how-to books such as Flounder Fishing and 99 Angling Tips from Lefty Kreh, to big important reference books like Fishes of the Gulf of Maine. In between are the few I pull down every few years and re-read; books like Dick Brown’s authoritative book on bonefish, Thomas McGuane’s 90 Degrees in the Shade, Peter Mathiessen’s Men’s Lives and the late Bob Post’s Reading the Water, the original book about fishing on the Vineyard. Until now, Post’s book has been the one to beat when tackling a subject as steeped in passion as the Derby, one of the oldest and most venerable fishing contests in the world.

It’s not often that a Pulitzer-prize winning reporter (Philadelphia Inquirer) sets his mind to fishing, but David Kinney took the kind of trip most anglers dream about in the fall of 2007; he fished the entire Derby with a fishing rod in one hand and a notebook in the other. In the new tradition set by David DiBenedetto a few years back in On the Run, Kinney inserts himself in the story as the eager student sitting at the knee of the venerable experts. With a big dose of humility and another of humor, Kinney does a great job of explaining the history of the Derby, the culture of the off-season Vineyard (and the on-season celebrity soaked world of waterfront wealth), and the great stories that go with serious fishing. He has pulled off a few feats most angling scribes can’t contemplate, most notably ingratiating himself into a closed secret society that makes the DaVinci Code look like a church bake sale. I can see why Dreamworks took the option on The Big One, there’s enough skull-duggery, intrigue, charges of cheating and lying to drive a dozen plots.

Kinney written a keeper of a fishing book, no mean feat in a genre that tends to get breathless with clichés and pedantic with tips that never seem so smart in actual practice. And spare us from the fishing book that clutters the story with recipes (even, my late mentor John Hersey was recipe-guilty in his Vineyard fishing classic: Blues). This is just a solid story, a great one in parts, thanks to the fortuitous coincidence that Kinney was hanging around with Derby winner and all-around angling ace Lev Wlodyka during “Sinkergate” – the amazing incident where a cow of a striped bass weighed in by Wlodyka was found to contain a pound and half of lead sinkers.

“Instead he reaches all the way into the farthest recesses of the stomach, and as his hand comes out there is a clattering on the dfloor at his feet. It sounds exactly like change falling out of a pants pocket. Martha thinks it is a joke at first, like that time the guy cutting open a leaderboard fish dropped a wrench out of his sleeve as he fumbled around in the stomach. It takes her a moment to see that nobody’s laughing. She looks at Lev and sees his face morph from shock to horror to embarrassment before he speaks.

“What the f#$k?”

“Inside Lev’s fish-of-a-lifetime, D.J. has found a fistful of lead weights.”

That’s a scene just made for Hollywood, indeed, it brings to mind the scene in Jaws when they gut open a shark and out falls a Louisiana license plate.

Kinney infiltrated one of the most close-mouthed, evasive, secretive, mendacious, fraternal secret societies in the world – Martha’s Vineyard fishing fanatics. Steve Amaral, Dick Hathaway, Whit Manter, Kib Bramhall, Nelson Bryant, Ed Jerome, Dave Skok, Chris Windram, Janet Messineo … these are names familiar to saltwater fishing fanatics throughout the eastern seaboard, perhaps the world, and Kinney hitches a ride with them in the fall of 2007, accompanying them and others to the beaches, rips and inlets of the island in search of the Derby winner. Along the way he weaves in sixty-plus years of Derby history, island culture, and current drama. Read this book: if only for the description of the complex culture that exists on the jetties at Menemsha – a place I avoided during that same Derby in 2007, when I used my boat to free myself from the crowd that lives there for 838 hours every fall. There is no better way to greet the spring fishing season in New England than to read a good book that confirms why we stand in the water, up to our knees, hoping against hope and the need for sleep for something to happen out there, in the dark, under the water on the end of our lines.

I leave you with the part that hit home the closest:

“People see Steve [Amaral] bringing in fish and they figure it’s all action for a fisherman like him, but they don’t see him on all those days when he comes home with nothing, all those nights when he’s working the beach and wondering why in the hell he’s out there and not home watching TV in his recliner. “Nothing’s easy in this business. You don’t go to the beach and they jump up on the sand.”

You can buy the book from Amazon.

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