I started fishing very young, probably around age four. My father taught me with old bamboo fly rods on the rivers, streams and ponds in Virginia where we lived on a large farm. He wasn’t big on teaching “technique,” but I was big on watching and mimicking the same way he had learned from his father. That’s probably why it was so much fun. He taught me a lot about “catching.” After all that was dinner, and that was largely the point. We started with topwater “poppers” so I could get the rush of seeing the fish hit. My Dad knew that’s what every kid wanted to see. It was as exciting as anything and I wanted to be really good at it like him. He was incredible.
When I was 12, my Uncle Richard rented a house in Montana for the month of July and invited us out to this new area he had found where he said the fishing was spectacular! Paradise Valley was unheard of back then (it was later to be the site of the film “A River Runs Through It,” which would change things dramatically) and our house looked down from the hills across the O’hare Ranch valley to Armstrong’s Spring Creek and the Yellowstone River beyond. The Absorkee Mountains rose up on the far side like a snow-topped wall as high as you could see. The view took my breath away every morning as I sat down to breakfast and watched the sunrise over what looked like a giant patchwork quilt of carefully planted crops showered with small rainbows from the huge automatic irrigation systems that crawled like snakes all day across the ground to give the valley its vibrant colors of crops. We drove an old camper down past the ranch house every morning, through several gates, cattle guards and then across a death-defying narrow bridge with no railings stop you from driving right off if you weren’t paying close attention. Then we’d suit up in waders and set about filling our vests with what would hopefully “match the hatch” that morning. This was where I got my fishing education.
Jim Francis was a rancher that had married one of the O’hare daughters, Bonnie. He was one of only two guides there at that time. He was a magnetic man and a terrific instructor: funny, encouraging and patient beyond words. Spring Creek flyfishing is as challenging as it gets. The fish are extremely tricky because the water is so shallow. They are very exposed and constantly fished over. The flies you need to use can be the size of a mosquito and when dry fly fishing (on the surface) you need to watch them travel over the water and your presentation must be perfect. It takes a painful amount of practice. Jim quickly nicknamed me “Miss Miss” because I “missed” hooking the trout constantly, but before long, I was catching the largest fish he had ever seen. If I hadn’t wanted to earn Jim’s respect so badly, I would have been in tears every time we waded out in that stream.
Before long, I was catching and releasing the largest trout that Armstrong’s Spring Creek had ever produced, both browns and rainbows. Jim would pull his ball cap down, bow his head and patiently follow me downstream as I waded though everyone else’s water below me unable to get the upper hand on my latest “monster.” Most everyone cheered me on instead of getting furious with me because I was so young and maybe because I was the only girl. Flyfishing was in its infancy then, and people were pretty down to earth about it. They didn’t take themselves or the sport as seriously as they do now. I was lucky: any kid doing that today would be crucified!
At that time, my father bought and sold old Pratt and Whitney aircraft parts out of a run down building that was the old train depot in Front Royal, Virginia. He opened up another old warehouse in Hialeah, Florida as an adjunct office. I think he did it solely so he could fish with his brother, my Uncle Duncan, down in Key Largo. I went with him my first school vacation I could and nearly every one thereafter. To this day, I am the only family member that ever went to Key Largo with him. I went every single chance I got.
Fishing the Florida flats for bonefish, permit and tarpon with my dad was like visiting another planet. Those fishing trips hold some of the best memories of my life. Dad would pole uncle Dunc’s flats boat, “Peggy,” through mere inches of water toward huge schools of tailing bonefish. They looked like tiny translucent sails slowly tacking across the horizon and they sent me into an utter frenzy. I’d beg him to keep poling toward them. This was when he tried to explain tides and the dangers of not being mindful of them. The outgoing tide made for very shallow water and that’s why you could cast to fish that “showed” by tailing. He’d try hard to explain that we’d end up “aground” for the night if we did what I wanted. Unfazed, I would beg and beg to get just a little closer so I could cast to them. Sometimes exasperated, he’d give in, and we’d poll until we got stuck. Then he’d make me jump overboard into the mud, which could sink you up to your waist in most places, and push the boat off while he maneuvered expertly with the pole. Sometimes we got lucky and hooked into fish that were just barely in a safe depth of water and I’d be ecstatic. Sometimes we’d just sit, stuck, drink beer and laugh. It was more fun than you can imagine.
The boat rides hooked me as much as the fishing did. Coming and going to the ocean flats outside or the bay flats in back through narrow mangrove lined creeks at breakneck speed was probably my favorite thing on earth. It’s the reason that I decided I was going to take out a loan and buy myself a boat as a graduation present when I got my first job working at WGBH, Boston’s flagship PBS television station. My folks thought I was nuts.
My first boat was a little “cigarette” boat, a Donzi Z 21. It was stoplight red and white with shotgun exhaust. It was really loud and fast and was not a fishing boat. I was at Boston University and had never thought of fishing up there. I kept it on Lake Sunapee and waterskied on weekends. I was still going to Montana and Florida for my fishing fix. But that all changed in 1994 when Lenny (my future husband) and I decided to rent a house on Martha’s Vineyard for the summer and have a “Clarke” family reunion. By then I’d moved to LA, where we were working and living. Lenny had sadly lost touch with his huge family, and I had never met them, so we thought it would be fun to rent a 30-acre farm for the summer and invite everyone over for two weeks. There were 32 of them. “Almost an acre apiece,” Len said. We had the best summer in ages.
I brought my Donzi down from Lake Sunapee where it had been collecting dust. We used to use it for waterskiing during the summers at Maciel Marine in Vineyard Haven in the middle of the island of Martha’s Vineyard. I planned to use it to waterski through that summer on the Vineyard with his family, but when I took DIpper (Lenny’s brother-in-law) out on it, he went nuts when he saw “breaking” fish everywhere. Without any fishing gear, all we could do was watch them feed and crash the surface. Still, the seed was planted, and before long I was looking into the fishing scene on the island in earnest.
My dad came up in September after the reunion ended and Labor Day rolled by. He didn’t want to deal with the crowds and knew the fishing would be good. Sure enough, we started doing some light tackle trolling for striped bass and bluefish. He laughed every time we got on that boat to fish! There was nothing about it that was designed for fishing. He hated it. But it got us where we wanted to go very quickly. He mostly hung on for dear life.
In 1996, Lenny and I got married and bought a house “up island” in Menemsha, a beautiful old fishing village on the west end of the island. My dad and I bought an old 22 Boston Whaler Outrage from a fishing guide down in Edgartown. It had twin 115 Yamaha outboards and they probably had over 5,000 hours on them. That boat broke down almost every day. I quickly learned the importance of having two motors, something that would unfortunately slip my mind in the future. A mistake that should have, and nearly did, cost me my life.
Now I was ready to really fish the Vineyard waters, and that’s just what I did–with a vengeance. Old timers called me a “fishing fool.” They thought I was crazy. I went out in any kind of weather and struggled to get the hang of striper fishing. But my life would change forever after one particularly stormy fall day during the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby. I was out in 15 foot seas with a huge fish on, a broken rod and was about to meet the legendary Wampanoag Indian fishing guide Captain Buddy Vanderhoop. He would mold me into the striped bass fisherman I am today and more. We would share some outrageous times from huge tournament wins to death-defying Coast Guard rescues. The greatest adventure of my life was about to begin.
TO BE CONTINUED