by Steve “Tuna” Tornovish
Tournament fishing is lots of fun here on Nantucket. We have a variety of contests for the local beach anglers, and I enjoy them all. Things get started with the Spring Sea Run Opener, an event that begins when someone catches the first searun striped bass of the year from the beach. That tournament runs until the end of May. The inaugural August Blues tournament is currently underway. It’s been an absolute blast, except that I’m sitting here at my keyboard, lamenting the fact that Gray Malitsky just knocked me out of first place for the biggest bluefish. Ouch. And before we can catch our collective breath from fishing that fun event, the big daddy of them all, the Nantucket Inshore Classic, will soon be kicking off. It will run for the five weeks between Labor Day and Columbus Day. That tournament is the Super Bowl of Nantucket fishing and I just can’t wait for it to get underway!
A couple of things separate Nantucket fishing tournaments from others. The major difference with the Nantucket tournaments is that there’s no prize money involved, so there’s very little incentive for people to do stupid things, such as sliding into the dark side of cheating. Yeah, it seems that the big money tournaments have all had their scandals. For example, there were a couple of idiots who were running away with professional walleye fishing tournaments last year until it was discovered that they were adding lead weights to their fish. Unreal, right?
Nah, here on Nantucket it’s about fun and bragging rights. That’s enough. And charity. The winner of the Spring Sea Run Opener, a tournament participant whose name is picked at random from a hat, gets to decide which approved local charity will receive a generous donation from the entry fees. Talk about not taking yourself too seriously, right? But the concept works so well and is so much fun each year! Proceeds from the August Blues tournament are designated to support research efforts in the battle to end Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. The Nantucket Inshore Classic helps to supplement the scholarship fund for the Nantucket Angler’s Club. Fishing, competition and supporting worthy causes—nothing better that that, I’d say!
For me, tournaments are motivational. They get me off of the couch and onto the beach, chasing after blues, stripers, albies, and bones (bonito). But my sore shoulders tell me that there’s something else that keeps me getting out to the beach and throwing lures into the choppy water for hours at a time. So what is it? What’s the big deal with this fishing stuff anyway? Why are some people so into it? Don’t you get bored? Yeah, I get these questions from time to time. I smile politely and try to explain it to folks, but I never really do it justice. What it really comes down to is this: lasting memories and intermittent rewards.
Let’s start with the intermittent rewards. The concept is this: when a subject receives a reward at random intervals for performing a task, the subject will crave the next random reward much more than if it’s a regularly scheduled event. This theory got a kick start from psychologist B.F. Skinner in the 1950s. Now I don’t know a lot about Dr. Skinner, but I’m fairly certain that a deep dive would reveal that his real name was Big Fish Skinner and that his catching a huge fish was what got this entire process rolling. Dr. Skinner was probably dragged out to a lake one day, kicking and screaming, wanting nothing to do with outdoor activities. Someone, most likely his father, stuck a fishing rod in his hand and told him to just go along with things for a couple of hours and then he could go back to the laboratory or library or wherever young, aspiring psychologists hang out. Young Mr. Skinner acquiesced and, much to everyone’s surprise, hooked onto a big ol’ fish that changed his entire life outlook. Skinner was so happy that he began fishing like a madman, trying to recapture that initial feeling of joy that came with catching his Big Fish and obtaining his two initials for a moniker. This theory seems legit, right?
It makes sense to me. I keep after it because of the thought that the next cast, the new lure, the changing tide, a different wind, or any of an endless selection of variables will connect me with my next big fish. Maybe even a bluefish big enough to retake the tournament lead from one Gray Malitsky! Intermittent rewards are highly addictive, enough so that I’m typing as fast as I can in order to get back to the beach for the afternoon tide!
And I almost forgot—what was part two of the two reasons to go fishing? Oh yeah—lasting memories! I get to witness memories being made on every fishing trip I take with my customers. It’s a most joyful thing. I love watching and, occasionally, playing a small role in the creation of those memories.
I recently witnessed a prime example of this as I was out fishing at Great Point early one morning. David Small, my long-time buddy and classmate (from kindergarten through high school!), was out there as well, fishing with his 36-year-old son, Ryan. Now let me tell you a couple of important facts about Dave Small. First, Dave can cast a fishing lure as far as anyone I know. He puts me to shame! Secondly, Dave works very hard. He’s the head pharmacist for the Nantucket Cottage Hospital. Dave works long hours and is often on call, all of which cuts into his fishing time. Dave took some vacation time to be out on the beach with Ryan, however. It’s something that the father and son cherish.
Ryan explained it like this: “Well, as far back as I can remember, my dad has been teaching me how to be a better fisherman. His passion for fishing came from his grandfather and father. Fishing has always been a huge presence in my life. My father and grandfather always worked really hard to provide for us, so fishing was always our bonding time. We always made it count, and that still rings true to this day. It’s a very important activity to me, a true passion. Nothing makes me happier than fishing with my dad. I love when I’m able to show pictures of fish we catch to my grandfather, Ozzie.”
Well Ryan and Dave certainly had some pictures to share with Grandpa Ozzie after this trip, let me tell ya! But it didn’t start out that way. I ran into the Smalls while fishing various spots around Coatue. The water looked beautiful, but nothing was happening. We decided to try the outside (eastern edge of Great Point). Dave was throwing a Deadly Dick, a lure designed to be retrieved very quickly to mimic a flashy, fleeing baitfish. I was standing fairly close to Dave as I started casting. He yelled to me to take a look at something. A small baitfish had been impaled on his hook as he retrieved his lure. “Peanut bunker,” Dave said. Now that was interesting. If there’s enough peanut bunker around to have one get snagged on Dave’s hook, then there’s most likely…
“Fish on! It’s an albie!” Ryan was hooked up. And then Dave. And then me! From absolutely nothing happening all morning to a triple hookup! Ah yes, the joys of intermittent rewards. The three of us were flooded with endorphins as we each battled our fish to the beach. Mine showed up first—a respectable 28-inch bluefish. Dave landed a very nice false albacore. Ryan was getting dog-walked up and down the beach by his fish. He finally surfed the fish to the shore on a wave and there it was: Ryan’s first ever beach albie. And it was a beauty—29 inches long!
Our fish were quickly measured, photographed, and released to be caught another day. We kept casting. I picked up another bluefish. Dave hooked up again and his latest intermittent reward was quite a surprise: a huge 35-inch striped bass! It was a day that the three of us won’t soon forget.
Ryan cherishes his time fishing with his father. And Ryan’s 7-year-old son, Owen, is continuing the proud Small family tradition. “Owen is getting the fever as well. He was actually one of the first ones to get a bonito this year! While I was back home working, my wife brought the kids out for a week. Owen went fishing with my dad every day. This is a generational thing that I’m truly dedicated to keeping. We are Nantucket through and through. We want to explore its bounties every chance we get.”
Lasting memories indeed. Five generations worth for the Small family!
Steve “Tuna” Tornovish is a Nantucket native who has spent his life fishing from
the beaches of his beloved island. He loves to introduce clients to
the joy of fishing with his Nantucket Island Fishing Adventures: stevetuna.com