Nantucket Essays Nantucket History & People

Spreading the Fishing Bug

by Steve “Tuna” Tornovish

Not every type of fishing involves rods and reels. Nantucket has an abundance of quahogs, hard shell clams that live in the shallow sandy areas around the island. When I was in my early teens, it seems that once or twice each summer I’d end up on a trip with Oscar Bunting, a commercial fisherman, to go with him and scratch up those tasty morsels. Oscar looked like he was from central casting’s selection for “The Old Man and the Sea.” He was a very strong guy with forearms that rivaled Popeye’s, a real-life Cap’n Quint. Oscar had a steely look in his eyes that told you he was a serious man but he softened that look with a frequent and wonderful deep laugh. I loved those quahog digging trips with him!

Oscar got a kick out of the goofy kid that wanted to go with him to see how he did what he did. Every part of each trip was an adventure to me, from the drive out to where he kept his boat, the loading of the gear, navigating the water made shallow by the dropping tide and, finally, the digging. Quahogs are collected with a curved rake that has eight to ten sharp tines. The tines would be pushed into the sand and the rake pulled back towards you. Quahogs, partially buried in the sand, make a distinct clinking sound and feel when they hit the tines. The tricky part was scooping the rake up after feeling the subtle ting of the quahog shell striking the tines. The quahogs of proper size were then tossed into a wire basket that was tethered to you, kept afloat by an inflated tire tube. Oscar would always outfish me by about 20 to 1 every time. I swear he could dig quahogs in a bathtub. What a great man he was! Oscar was one of the best fishermen that I’ve ever known.

Fast forward to the current beaches of Nantucket. Ask anyone who knows what’s up about who is the top fisher out there. One name that will quickly rise above all others is Tammy King. Tammy has the skill and drive that all great champions must have. When others drop out, she perseveres. It’s never too cold, too late, too windy, too anything for her. Nope, Tammy is all business when there’s fish to be caught. She is knowledgeable, tough and determined, qualities that she comes by naturally. After all, Tammy is Oscar Bunting’s daughter.

Tammy is a professional beach fishing guide during the season. She’s been featured in an episode of the “On the Water” fishing show. Tammy is on the pro staff of St. Croix Fishing Rods, Hogy Lure Company, Grunden’s, and Van Staal Reels—four of the top products in the world of surfcasting. Her clients love fishing with her. Tammy ran a beach seminar about the fundamentals of surfcasting last fall but she sensed that something was missing. “A lot of women who live here were asking questions when we were on the beach. So many questions. I needed to do something.” And so she did. Starting late last fall, Tammy organized a series of seminars strictly for the ladies, teaching the various aspects of surfcasting. The classes have been a smash hit.

I met up with Tammy recently, just after the Nantucket Anglers Club women’s pond fishing Happy Hookers tournament had wrapped up. “The ladies fished through it all—the rain, the wind, the cold!” Tammy told me. Of course they did: this formidable group of Nantucket ladies is as competitive as can be. The event featured one team consisting of a pair of 80-year-old women: Mouche Potter and Joan Bunting, Tammy’s mother. Mouche and Joan fished hard and were right in the thick of the leader board throughout the tournament. Joan won the Snooky Williams award for catching the biggest pickerel in the two-day event (“I learned a lot about fishing from my mom as well!”) Tammy was, of course, the dynamo that helped power the show.

“With Tammy’s enthusiasm and encouragement, Cathy (Catherine Slattery) and I joined the Happy Hookers tournament!” Heather Unruh told me. Heather and her husband Hal met Tammy through the Anglers Club and were quickly taken by Tammy’s genuine warmth and can-do spirit. “She’s spreading the fishing bug. Tammy has inspired a competitive side in me that I didn’t have before.”

Heather is all in on fishing now. She attended Tammy’s most recent women’s fishing seminar about fishing for striped bass. Heather told me, “Tammy spreads the passion for fishing! Stripers have eluded me. Tammy’s class was just what I needed. The class was amazing—you guys better watch out!” Heather added that one of her biggest takeaways from the class was about where the striped bass are holding: “The big misconception is that you have to cast far out (for stripers). Tammy taught us that the bass are close to the shore. She taught us how to read the beach and see where the fish will most likely be. Also, learning the pace of striper fishing— it’s so much slower than albie fishing.”

Remy Stressenger is another dedicated student from Tammy’s fishing seminars. “I love fishing with Tammy and learning more about this. I watched Tammy teach some friends’ kids last summer and thought she would be fun to learn from. And she was!” Remy said that Tammy quickly diagnosed a fundamental flaw in her surfcasting. “Thanks to Tammy, I learned to use my left hand to pull down (on the rod butt) when casting. It changed everything for me!” Remy caught a bunch of bluefish last season and loved it. “I out-caught my husband last summer! No albies or bonito yet. That’s my 2024 goal!”

Catherine Slattery of Madaket Marine was instrumental in getting Professor Tammy’s classroom together for her winter seminars. Catherine set up the showroom at Madaket Marine and things took off. “Not only is Tammy great at fishing, but she’s so likable. We all learned so much! It started with casting lessons at Dionis. We learned knot-tying, how to repair fishing lures, where to stand on the beach, even how to know fish are around by smelling them!”

In typical Tammy fashion, she made sure that the entire Nantucket community benefitted from her seminars. Her first event raised $2,400 for the Nantucket Anglers Club scholarship fund. The next event benefitted Launch2Life, a program focused on suicide awareness. Another helped to support the Sally Lamb Roberts Mentoring Scholarship. Her last event raised funds for the Robin Harvey Foundation. Yeah, that’s a fairly impressive track record.

The attendees at Tammy’s women’s fishing seminars have all been inspired by the passion that Tammy brings to surf fishing. Heather’s goal is to catch a striped bass from the beach. Remy plans to land a false albacore this fall. Catherine is completely smitten by pond fishing: “I love pond fishing! I wish there were no mosquitoes so I could pond fish year round. I can see how this becomes an addiction! Now I want a 2-pound pickerel between now and next week!”

Tammy loves what she sees happening. She knows that it’s about so much more than fishing. “The women are building up their internal strength. I want to leave them with a different perspective about themselves. This will make women stronger.” Indeed it will, Professor. Job well done! Oscar would be proud.

Follow Tammy on Instagram at @fishgirlack to get involved with Tammy’s classes.

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

Articles by Date from 2012