Meeting my Mentor, Captain Buddy Vanderhoop
Captain Buddy Vanderhoop fished The Tomahawk, an old 25-foot Surf Hunter. It broke down more than my whaler. Lucky for him, he could usually find the problem, bang on what he thought it was with his grandfather’s mallet and get her back up and running in no time. His motto was, “Bass is our Business, and Business is Good!” He had one gold tooth, smoked cigars like a chimney, and listened to vintage blues music at a volume you’d swear would scare away every fish within fifty miles. He out-fished everyone. He was known everywhere. With his gravelly voice, distinctive laugh and knack for hooking and landing 50- and 60-pound stripers frequently, he was hard to miss.
It was 1997. I married Lenny and bought the house and the Whaler the year before. Lenny was out of work, so we weren’t in LA for the first fall in years… we were home on the Vineyard, Amen. It was a cold October and the wind was blowing like hell. I had somehow coerced the incredibly kind Menemsha Harbor Master to give me an empty slip for the month in the same harbor where Buddy kept his boat. The “Derby,” which I knew nothing about at the time, was well underway.
At dawn I headed out onto the water. I could barely make out shapes of shore fisherman on the beach in the early light, but I heard their voices. Every one of them told me to turn around: it was too rough. There were easily eight footers rolling onto the jetties. I couldn’t clearly see the waves, just the whitewater on top. It didn’t concern me much. I was soaked through before I had cleared the break wall. I didn’t care. I throttled up, pointing the bow toward Gay Head Light and the “rip” of Devil’s Bridge. It’s a place that’s aptly named after sinking hundreds of ships, including the SS City of Columbus on January 18th, 1884, which prompted one of the greatest rescue efforts by the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head. Those rescuers were Buddy Vanderhoop’s elders. His mother still has pictures of the tragedy. There were only 29 people saved, and 100 froze or drowned–right on the spot I would be drifting over hoping to catch a monster bass.
There was a guy helping us with leaks, paint, and all kinds of other troubles with our new home, and he was the only local fisherman I knew. He was out there fishing already, albeit not very happily, due to the conditions. We were both taking waves over the bow, over the sides and every way we turned. The tide was screaming against the wind, so after your drift over “the bridge,” you had to turn and beat your way back through a wall of whitewater to do it all again. There’s nothing quite like fishing a big rip where water piles up between two radically different depths on a ledge of boulders, and in this case, sunken ships.
By my third drift, I had hooked into a decent fish using an eel for bait and what little knowledge I possessed. I fought the fish for awhile. Suddenly my rod broke! I froze. I didn’t know what to do, but I certainly didn’t want to lose the fish. With one hand holding the line, I called my friend on my VHF radio. It was the only electronic equipment I had. He said I should cut the line, let the fish go and head in. He was in the process of leaving as the rip was getting too tall and too dangerous. I said I wanted to land the fish, stay out and catch more, but I didn’t have another rod aboard. I was having the time of my life! After some grumbling, he said he’d call Captain Buddy Vanderhoop on the radio, introduce me and ask him to lend me a rod. He thought he’d have an extra, and he knew he was crazy enough to stay out there and fish out his morning charter.
After his garbled introduction, I tried calling Buddy and did my best to introduce myself and ask to borrow a rod. He told me to come on over to his boat and he’d lend me one. I motored over and Buddy shimmied out onto the bow to hand me a rod. It wasn’t an easy transaction. He was laughing like hell over the blues music playing on the boat. We were bobbing up and down ten to fifteen feet and I heard him say I must be pretty damn crazy to be out there in the first place, especially in a little boat like mine and in water as rough as it was, but he was happy to help. He never implied I should go in like everyone else. He just thought I was nuts, a kindred soul I guess. Anyway, I caught fish all morning. When I got back to the dock and finished tying up the boat, I looked over my shoulder and there he was watching me, still laughing his ass off. I handed him back his rod and he sat down on the piling and started to talk.
That was the first time I met him. We became instant friends. Buddy proceeded to teach me everything he could about striped bass fishing. He only gave me ranges for a few of his fishing spots, because I didn’t have anything but a compass on my boat. “Ranges” are objects that line up when you’re in the right spot. You use them to tell someone how to position their boat over rock piles, deep holes and other areas that hold the fish. For example, the chimney on a house ashore lines up with a specific rock on the shore. It’s the oldest method of giving someone a spot, and it was already obsolete when we did it. But I had no GPS or fish finder on that boat. It was my first fishing boat ,and I didn’t know about buying fish finding equipment at that point. I’d never discussed it with anyone. Buddy told me I might as well wait and get “electronics” on my next boat. I guess he knew before I did that I’d want a bigger boat.
My mom came up for a visit later that month. I decided to charter Buddy for a trip so she could have a really great day. When we got aboard, he asked me if I’d registered for the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby. I told him I had. He asked what I’d weighed in, and I told him mostly bluefish, bonito and false albacore. He wanted to know why I hadn’t weighed in any striped bass, and I told him they hadn’t been really big. He roughly figured out my combined weight for what I’d caught and told me we just needed to catch a big bass (over 30 pounds) that day and I could win the “Grand Slam” for the Derby. That was the highest combined weight of all four species of fish in the tournament. It carried almost as much prestige as catching the biggest bass. “Okay,” I said, “Let’s try.” He looked at me and said, “We’re not out here to try, we’re out here to win!”
It was rougher then hell that day, too, and it was the first of many times Buddy would tell me, “Big bass love big water.” An hour later, we had my Grand Slam winning bass aboard. In typical style, my mother had released what would have been the Derby winning bass in the fly fishing division (a move Buddy still bemoans), and I was begging Buddy to stay out just a little longer. He thought we should head in because it was getting too big and he explained that when the tide turned on us it would be un-fishable. As it was we were in for a very long, rugged ride home. So we headed back to the harbor with the waves on our side. I remember thinking they were as big as houses and we were just sliding and surfing through them. Buddy definitely had his eyes focused, I could see that. But there was no fear with him at the helm. There never would be. He was the best.
That was the first tournament win for me: The Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby’s Grand Slam in 1997. I later found out that a woman had never won it. I won it again in 1999, along with the Derby itself, after catching the biggest striper of the tournament. I called Buddy on the radio and he met me down at the dock the day I brought that winning fish in to congratulate me and share in the moment. In the end, I couldn’t believe I won. He said he was sure I would. I was so grateful for everything he’d taken the time to teach me. It would take me farther than I could ever imagine in the years to come.