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7.1.09

A Conversation with Buddy Vanderhoop

The renowned fishing charter captain and member of the Wampanoag Tribe talks frankly about growing up fishing on the Island, his celebrity clients, shooting cormorants, and his tribal roots.

William Diamond Vanderhoop Jr., universally known as Buddy, is the proprietor of Tomahawk Charters in Aquinnah and one of the more colorful members of the Wampanoag Tribe. We sat down last fall after the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby at his home on Old
South Road in Aquinnah, which he built twenty-eight years ago and now shares with his wife of thirteen years, Lisa, and their dog, Amos. (Lisa, a photographer, is best known on the Island for her Vineyard Seadogs calendars.) Buddy, age fifty-eight, has three grown daughters: Heather Nicole, Amy, and Emily, who live out West.

Within moments of meeting Buddy, it was clear that a direct transcript of our interview would be the most entertaining way to introduce him to readers. Buddy is a remarkable storyteller, whose tales at times may veer into tall; “Well, I am a fisherman,” he says. His voice is slightly gravelly and level; his sentences last for paragraphs but never seem run-on, because he is measured in tone, never rushed. And he has a disarming twinkle in his eye when he’s amused. Which is often.

In the beginning

Buddy, how is it that everyone knows your name?

Well, I’ve been a charter captain for about twenty-five or twenty-six years now.

I started fishing when I was about four years old with my dad. We used to go out and catch stripers and tautog and fluke. And when I was six years old, before West Basin Road was put in there, me and my four-year-old brother walked from Lobsterville all the way around to the west jetty. We had a couple of my dad’s fishing lures. There was a yellow and pink Atom swimmer; I cast it out and I caught probably a twenty-five-pound fish – it was almost as big as me. We got it on the beach and it was the most exciting thing I’d ever even dreamed about. I said to my brother, “We gotta go now.” So he carried the fishing rod and the tackle box, and I struggled with the fish. I dragged him all the way down the beach, down to Lobsterville Road, then I dragged him home from Lobsterville Road. We had to stop about every quarter mile because it was so heavy, and by the time I got home, it didn’t have a tail left because I’d dragged the tail off. But I got that fish home, and I was just – I was the king. I was so proud of myself. That’s what started it all, I guess.

I did a lot of beach fishing from the time I was six until all through junior high school. We’d get dropped off at my mom’s house [after school], then we’d jump on our bicycles and we’d run up to the Aquinnah Shop – that was the family restaurant – and we’d run right down the Cliffs there, and we used to catch striped bass every single day during the fall season after school. We’d catch so many bass, sometimes it would take us five or six trips back up and down the Cliffs to get the fish up.

What happened with all that fish?

We used to give it away to all the local Indians around town. But my father, you know, he’d be working down-Island – he worked for Andrews and Pierce Trucking, which was a delivery service (they didn’t have UPS in those days) – and so, you know, he’d get home from work and all of sudden there’d be six or eight or ten fish there for him to have to clean. After about three weeks of him cleaning fish every day, he said, “This has gotta stop. Either you’ve got to stop fishing or learn to clean the fish yourself.” So I started filleting fish when I was ten or eleven years old, and I’ve been filleting fish ever since.
Stripers were always my main target fish. They’re such a big and exciting fish. I got my first fifty-pounder when I was thirteen years old, down at Squibnocket. My grandfather was the caretaker at Squibnocket for forty-seven years, and even after he retired, the Hornblowers used to let me park at the bass club. When I was in my twenties, on my birthday every year, my buddies would take me out to fish Squibnocket to deter me from the girls getting the place ready for a surprise party. I caught a fifty-pounder there, every year for five years in a row, on my birthday. It’s unbelievable.

As a matter of fact, I used to have a telephone pole out in front of the driveway here, it was the fifty-pounder club, and if you caught a fifty-pounder, then I would mount your fish’s head on the pole. And as a matter of fact, the cover of Johnny Hoy and the Bluefish’s first album, Mystery Road, is that telephone pole with my striped-bass totem: They were all decrepit – they’d been out there for months – but he took a picture and that was the cover.

At one point I think there were sixteen heads on the pole. I had a bunch, my friend Hollis Smith had a couple, my friend Steve Dufresne had some, there were a lot of people who had fifty-pounders on my totem pole out there. I guess it may have irritated the phone company, when they had to come up and do some work on the pole, to have all these rotting fish heads. It looked really cool. They stayed there till they rotted off, it was pretty awesome.

Charter captain to the stars

Back in 2000, Spike Lee got a fifty-seven-pounder – his first time out fishing. It was the biggest fish caught in Massachusetts that year, so he got the Governor’s Cup. When we got in, just out of coincidence, [photographer] Alison Shaw was walking on the dock, and she said, “Wow, look at the size of that fish! Can I get a picture?” And I said “Sure, Spike, hold your fish up.” He said, “I can’t hold that fish up! You hold it up, and I’ll stand beside you.” So I held it up, and we made all the major papers in the country and People Magazine, so that brought in a lot of charters for me. I got the [former] owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers; a lot of sports people hooked up with me to go fishing. It was really cool.

They call you the charter captain to the stars. Is that day with Spike Lee when it started?

No, that had started a long time before. I know a lot of people. Like through James Taylor, and the Taylor family, I know a lot of music people. I know a lot of sports people; I know some of the Celtics and some of the Boston Red Sox, and I take [Red Sox vice-chairman] Dave Ginsberg and [owner] John Henry. I’ve done a lot of fishing shows with Trevor Gowdy. Trevor is long-time Boston Red Sox announcer Curt Gowdy’s son, and Curt started [the original reality sports-fishing television show] American Sportsman with Bob Nixon, who’s a good friend of mine.

Talk about how that started.

Well, Trevor’s been a friend of mine for about twenty-five or thirty years, and he’s always said, “Buddy, your fishing abilities are great, so let’s just put some celebrities on your boat and bring a film crew down.” So I did. I brought [Jim] Belushi out the first trip.

Were these folks who were already chartering with you?

Yes, quite a few of them. Belushi first went out with me, jeez, mid-eighties. I had Jim Belushi and [movie producer, writer, and director] Michael Mann out with me, and they caught a lot of fish. It was a really hot day and even on the water it was probably high eighties, low nineties, no wind whatsoever, and my wife has pictures of Jim Belushi and Michael Mann fishing in their underwear. I threatened to put that in the Enquirer. [Laughing.] They said, “If you do, we’re going to sue you.”

I take out the [production] VP of Warner Brothers, Bruce Berman. Between Bruce Berman and Michael Mann, a lot of people from Hollywood come here in the summer and they broadcast me as: “If you go to the Vineyard, you gotta go fishing with Buddy.”

I’ve heard some stories about you and Keith Richards. Care to share?

I’ve known Keith for thirty years: We used to party at the Outermost Inn back in the late seventies. About five years ago, Keith came back to the Island, and I was up at my mom’s restaurant, the Aquinnah Shop, and Keith was walking down from the overlook with a bunch of his friends from London, and he says, “Buddy! Buddy Vanderhoop! What are you doing? I’m here for the whole summer. Let’s go fishing.” So Keith shows up at my boat at 7 a.m., and he’s got a ten-ounce cup in his hand. I say, “What’s in the cup, Keith?” He says [attempting a British accent], “Oh, vodka and grapefruit. Grapefruit’s a morning drink, you know.”

So we went out, we started catching lots of fish, and after every fish he caught, he’d have a cocktail. By the time we got back to the dock at noontime, he was plastered. I have pictures of him laying down on the dock with the fish, with a big shit-eatin’ grin on his face with his cocktail. [Laughing.]

After I filleted their fish, he said, “Buddy, this afternoon, I’m going to freak you out.” I said, “I don’t think so, I’m going to be out fishing.” And he said, “You’ll see.”

I didn’t think anything about it. I got my clients on the boat, we left, and we started catching fish. I was fishing right at the end of Zack’s Cliffs [in Aquinnah], and all of a sudden, around the bend of Squibnocket Point, comes this – I think it was an early 1940s vintage B-17 bomber. My clients were still in the back fishing, and all of a sudden the plane goes into a dive and came within probably one hundred feet of my antenna, and then the pilot crammed all the power of the four engines, and it made such a roar when it buzzed that my clients all hit the deck. Keith Richards was in the front glass gun turret, laughing his ass off, and his son Marlon was in the gun turret on the top, and his friends from London were in the gun turret in the back, and they were just cracking up. They buzzed me four times. It was – pretty unique. It had never happened to me before.

Or since, probably.

Right. When he’s here I go over to his house for dinner three or four times. Very dedicated family man, does a lot of things with his kids. He wanted to go fishing with me last year, but it was the end of their tour, and Mick [Jagger] said, “No, we have to practice.” I said, “Practice? You been playing that same stuff for forty years!”

Is it true there’s some interest in your doing a television show together?

Keith wants to do a fishing show with me off the Great Barrier Reef. He wants to catch great white sharks – he just wants to catch and release. So it’s in the works with Trevor Gowdy.

And now, one of my best friends has just recently been promoted to head producer of ESPN-East, James Ebron. This isn’t in stone yet, but [fishing charter captain] Jennifer Clarke and I are going to do a show together with ESPN with the Boston Red Sox. I’m going to take out the players and she’s going to take out their wives. We’re going to have a competition.

Crazy about cormorants

In 2003, you got in trouble shooting some cormorants.

Yes, I did! [With great cheer.]

I’ve run the Aquinnah Wampanoag herring run for thirty-three years, and cormorants are so thick now that you get five hundred cormorants around in front of the creek. We close the gate so that the pool fills up, then we seine the pool and take between four to five thousand fish off-Island to different bait stores – we’re the only people allowed to take bulk herring and sell them. It’s tribal land and whoever has the lease for the creek can do what he wants three days a week. About the time the stripers show up, around the first of May, we start taking herring for bait – we catch ’em three mornings a week and let them run free four days a week, because if you don’t, you’re going to exterminate all the fish that are spawning up there.

But, what’s been happening in the last ten years is the fish are coming into the pool at night, then first light comes, and you got five hundred birds out in front, and then you got fifty to a hundred birds in the pool. Each one of those cormorants eats between ten and fifteen pounds of fish each a day, so they’re just in there gorging themselves on these fish that are penned up, that we’re depending upon making money with. And what they can’t eat is driven back out of the pool, so we end up with nothing in the pool. This happened day after day after day after day, so I really got pissed off, and I went down there one day with my twelve gauge. It’s so much fun to shoot ’em!

And you know, they used to have a bounty on ’em in Maine – they were fifty cents apiece – because they were just devastating everything up there. But that was twenty years ago. Since then, they’re protected all over the United States. They’re not even an indigenous bird; they came from Asia. They have no predators here – except me.

When I was a kid, during the course of the whole season you might see one hundred, and now, you can go to Menemsha and see two hundred at any given point. If you sit around Menemsha harbor and just watch the birds, every time they go down they come up with a baby flounder or an eel. And look what they did: They closed down Sengekontacket Pond to shellfishing because there’s so many birds there, shitting in the water.

So what happened after you shot the birds that time?

Because it was done on tribal property, the state couldn’t prosecute me, but the tribe banned me from the herring creek for a year. [So my brother took over.]

Was there a bad feeling in the tribe about it?

Well, they were sort of pissed off. They knew how bad it looked in the newspapers.

(At this point Buddy’s wife, Lisa, joins the conversation briefly.)

lisa: I think it was more a PR thing. I can’t tell you how many phone calls we got.

buddy: People saying, “You should get a medal for doing it.”

lisa: Yeah, 99 percent of them were like, “Yeah, Buddy! Right on! You’re doing something we only dreamed about!” And it was intergenerational – it was young people calling, it was ninety-nine-year-olds calling, saying [imitates old-geezer voice], “Eyup, wish I ’ad shot ’em.” There was only one guy who said, “Well, I think it’s just awful.” But that was really the only one out of about a hundred calls.

buddy: Yeah, at least a hundred phone calls. [The cormorants] were just standing in the way of me making any money, for weeks. And it was so frustrating that I felt I had to do something about it.

Since then, has anything changed with the cormorant situation?

buddy: No. They’re still eating all the fish. There’s been a moratorium on herring for the last three years, and they’ve just extended it for another three years. The state and the federal government haven’t acknowledged the fact that mid-water trawlers catching the alewives [herrings] offshore before they get back here to their spawning grounds is part of the problem. But the other problem is the cormorants eating not only the adults, but, when they hatch out, the fry. They’re just gorging themselves on the fry – at Squibnocket Pond, all the way down through the creek, out into Menemsha Pond. I go to all the herring meetings.

lisa: These are supposed to be knowledgeable environmental policy-makers, and [everyone who lives and works on the water] is saying, “Listen, we’ve seen major degradation of the waters and taking of the young herring because of the cormorant problems.” And these guys – buddy: – the state –
lisa: – all these guys did was they put up graphs and said, “Well, we think there might be a correlation, but you know what? We think we need more studies.” And they were talking about doing studies anywhere from a time frame of the next two-to-three to five-to-ten years.

buddy: But the problem is happening now.

What would you like to see happen with the cormorant situation?

buddy: Well, there’s an easy way to make them not propagate: Go over to their rookeries – Sengekontacket Pond, the little rock-islands in Squibnocket Pond, and Noman’s Land, there’s a population of probably ten thousand of those birds on the northeast corner of Noman’s – you can have a crew of people go over there with spray bottles full of olive oil and spray the eggs. If you break their eggs, they’ll lay more, but if you spray them with olive oil, they’ll sit on them all summer long whether they hatch or not, and they won’t hatch, because the oil kills the embryo inside because it can’t breath. That’s a real simple solution to stop them from multiplying.

But in the meantime, you gotta get rid of some of these birds that are here. If you could get permits, say, for five hundred a year, everybody could shoot five hundred a year. [Grinning.] I could do cast-and-blast charters: Go catch your limit of fish, then blow away about a hundred birds.

The tribe and the old, old days

Your website has a page dedicated to your Wampanoag heritage. What does it mean to you to be a member of the tribe?

My heritage goes way back. They’ve found artifacts that they’ve carbon-dated to ten thousand years ago and they were my ancestors, obviously. And you know, my grandfather used to play with Tashtego, who was a real guy from Gay Head [not just a character in Moby Dick], and he told me stories.

Herman Melville came over from the mainland and he interviewed a whole bunch of the Gay Head whalers, because they were the best harpooners and the most fearless whalers in the world. Everybody wanted a Gay Head Wampanoag on their whaleboat because they were the best. He mentions that a lot in Moby Dick. My great uncle Amos Smalley killed Moby Dick, and as a matter of fact [getting up to retrieve something] when I was ten years old, my uncle Amos gave me one of his teeth from Moby Dick that he’d scrimshawed [displaying it].

He gave that to me on my tenth birthday. I used to go visit him and Aunt Marie, his wife, almost every weekend. I’d go over there because they’d give me candy, and also, every time I went over there he’d give me fifty cents, because he had no children. And fifty cents in those days would buy you a hotdog, a coke, ice cream, and a candy bar.

Excellent use of your investment.

That’s right. This [the scrimshawed tooth] is still my favorite little treasure. Uncle Amos was a crappy little artist. [Laughing.] Back in 1958, we got the morning off, ’cause Dave Garroway had Uncle Amos on the Today Show, showing how, when, and where he killed Moby Dick.

There was a whale called Mocha Dick that may have inspired Melville, was that the one he got?

No, he got an albino sperm whale, and he had been harpooned several times, he had scars all over him, but he got away every time – until he met Uncle Amos.

When you go out to sea – you know, a short trip back in those days was four years – so when you go out for seven to eight years, you got a lot of time on your hands, so when you don’t see any whales, you got time.

They’d come back with like five thousand dollars, which was major, major, major money back in those days. And then they could retire for the rest of their time and then do lobstering. Lobstering wasn’t that lucrative because – well, that’s why they named Lobsterville, Lobsterville – because there were so many lobsters. My grandfather used to say they used to go out and haul their pots twice a day, and there used to be so many lobsters in there, you couldn’t fit another one in edgewise.

But lobsters were only eaten by poor people and prisoners, and they were used for bass bait. And here’s a funny story: Swordfish wasn’t eaten till the late thirties. We used to harpoon swordfish for lobster bait, because the swordfish was so oily [that nobody wanted to eat it]. Then you’d get between one and three cents a pound for lobsters, and then you’d use lobster tails for bass bait. In turn they used to sow the striped bass into the field for growing vegetables, and then they’d put their vegetables away for the winter in a root cellar. It would be pretty costly to do it that way these days. [Laughing.] “Hey, I’ll take fifty pounds of swordfish. I gotta go bait my lobster traps, because I need to go catch some bass, so I can grow my vegetables.”

So let’s go back to your relationship with the tribe.

A couple of trips a season, I used to take out the tribal children to go fishing. They used to have grant money to charter my boat and my brother’s boat, and we’d take ’em out and just introduce them to fishing, just to give them some knowledge of what happens out there and what’s happened since the beginning of time here on Martha’s Vineyard. A lot of them took up fishing. They don’t have boats, but it got them into fishing, which, you know, keeps them busy and off the streets and out of trouble.

I used to be the repatriation officer for the tribe, which means I used to go pick up the skeletal remains, which are at different museums throughout Massachusetts. It’s illegal for [the museums] to have their bones and funerary objects. One time, this was back in probably the mid-nineties, I went over to meet Slow Turtle, a Mashpee Wampanoag. He’d gotten this mother and her two infant children that they had at the Peabody [Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University]. A lot of these skeletal remains and funerary objects were just kept in the basement and nothing was ever done with them, so I used to bring them back here, and we’d put them back in the grave site and have a little ceremony with the medicine man, Luther Madison, and the chief, Donald Malonson.

I had my own boat, the old Tomahawk, and I went over to New Bedford, picked up the funerary objects and the skeletal remains, and I was headed out of New Bedford harbor, just getting under way. It was a very foggy day, and I was doing probably twenty-five knots and all of a sudden, a really strange feeling came over me like I’d never felt before. I slowed the boat down, because this weird eerie feeling had come over me and I thought, “What the –? What’s going on here?” – and the minute I slacked the boat back, less than fifty feet away from me there was a huge tanker that I would have run into. They wouldn’t see me on their radar, and I didn’t have a radar in my boat at the time, but it probably would have killed me and sunk my boat. I turned off to starboard and it went past me. I think it was the lady, the mother of the two children saying, “Hey, you gotta slow down or something really bad’s gonna happen.” That was…a pretty…strange…thing to happen. She wanted to come back to Gay Head.

The next day, we had a ceremony with a lot of the tribal members, and the chief medicine man, and reinterred her to the grave site down at the old Indian cemetery.

When you have a ceremony like that, is it purely Wampanoag or is it Christian as well?

Pretty much Wampanoag. The medicine man and the chief have words to say to the Great Spirit, welcoming [the deceased] back to their homeland and putting them back to peace, after sitting on a shelf in a museum basement for so long. It was probably a relief to their souls to be back where they came from.

lisa: But all that being said, you’re all Christian. Luther used to go to the Baptist church all the time.

buddy: Well, [Christianity] was brought here by the Mayhews back in the 1600s. But there is still a tradition between the Great Spirit and Mother Earth [from] before Christianity was introduced to the Indians. Our particular tribal sect of the Wampanoags has the oldest legends of any tribe in the world. That’s why we got recognized so easily and readily, because of our heritage. And they were holding regular tribal council meetings since before the setback of the 1870s [when all Vineyard Wampanoag families were relocated to Gay Head and allocated tracts of land there]. The different tribes from the Vineyard, the Chappaquiddick Wampanoags, the Christiantown Wampanoags, and the Aquinnah Wampanoags, they used to leave messages for each other in the eye socket of Toad Rock [near the eastern end of Moshup Trail in Aquinnah] – that was a pretty cool thing.

And in the last twenty years they’ve found a bible that was written back when the Mayhews came here, in our dialect, which is different from Mashpee’s. [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] worked alongside Harvard putting the language, which hadn’t been spoken since the 1800s, back together and now they teach the language down at the tribe twice a week. I haven’t had time to go learn it, but my brother Chip, my stepbrother Woody, they speak fluent Wampanoag. It’s great.

Is that something that would only be available to the tribal members?

Yes.

What’s the story with a casino? Is there a connection with the one for the Mashpee Wampanoags?

No, the Mashpee have their own thing. They’ve been in the media, media, media. That’s not the way to do it. We’ve learned over the last fifteen years not to go through the media and you’ll get a lot more accomplished. We’re actually going to probably have a casino before they do. We’re not going to [build a casino] here; we’d probably do it in Fall River, Freetown, somewhere like that – the plans are already drawn up for the buildings and everything.

Has it ever been a bone of contention domestically, that one of you is part of the tribe and one isn’t?

lisa: No, not at all. We have feisty interactions, but it’s not a bone of contention.

The Island has changed a lot. What do you like most and what do you like least?

buddy: The least is the amount of people that do come here, but we could not survive without the hoards of people. We couldn’t survive without ’em, but that’s why I stay up in Gay Head all summer!

Since the interview: Buddy is now on the board of the newly formed Martha’s Vineyard/Dukes County Fisherman’s Association, a group of commercial fishermen who have banded together to make sure their concerns are collectively voiced to the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. Buddy says, “This is a very good thing for the Island. Where they wouldn’t listen to just one guy before, now we’re in a position where the hierarchy, the powers that be, will listen.” Among other efforts, the new association is working against House Bill number 796 (introduced by Representative Matthew Patrick of Falmouth) to prohibit commercial striped bass fishing and the sale of striped bass in Massachusetts. (The bill would allow some recreational fishing, with restrictions.) Interested parties can contact Warren Doty at 508-564-0150.