The Littlest Wampanoag

008He’s the descendent of a Wampanoag whaling captain… the son of a modern-day waterman. And, at age five, a seasoned angler.
“I’ve been fishing since I was three.” He will inform you matter-of-factly. After watching him in action one summer morning, I’ve no reason to doubt young Xavier (Xavie) Clarke’s word.

Xavie’s ancestor’s portrait hangs on a bulkhead of the ferry plying between  Martha’s Vineyard and Falmouth Massachusetts. Captain Amos Haskins, a Wampanoag Native American – renowned for his expertise in whaling and skill harpooning broadbill swordfish – captained ships at a time when most men responsible for piloting the barks and brigantines were of European lineage.

Xavie’s Wampanoag blood flows from the maternal side. His beautiful mother Nya is of the “People of the Dawn”- a tribe long settled in Martha’s Vineyard when the first English arrived in the 1600’s. The Gay Head Wampanoag were fishermen and farmers, a matriarchal society where land rights were passed from mother to daughter.

Some say these are the people depicted in the first Thanksgiving. No doubt they provided the settlers with food, shared their expertise in farming and taught them the fine points of harvesting the sea. For their trouble, they were annihilated by disease and sold into slavery.

Today the tribe is flourishing on the Vineyard and reclaiming much of its’ ancestral lands.

Mark Clarke, Xavie’s father is a waterman as well. Off the docks at Oak Bluff, Mark’s company, M.V. Oceansports provides an assortment of waterborne adventures on Vineyard Sound during the 100 days of summer. Mark’s an avid angler, raised on the Vineyard – two loves he’s passing to his young son.

It’s five in the morning at the harbor, the tourist still sleep in their rented rooms. By noon the crowds will descend in massive hoards, attempting to fill each vacation hour of this short summer with sun-soaked activities before the first cold blasts of the long Massachusetts winter signals a return to work and study.

While we convert Mark’s para-sail boat by duct taping rod holders to the rails, Xavie scours the dock pilings armed with a long-handled net, in search of crabs.

We’ve gathered early for the start of the Albacore Tuna run, which typically begins in late August, coinciding with a drop in water temperatures. Mark, Drew Arcoleo, Bob Grey, myself and of course Xavie, who’s catch list includes bonito, fluke and a bass list of striped, rock, and largemouth. He’s yet to land an Albie, a pursuit now guided by a determined father.

Yesterday, word came down from Coop, proprietor of Coop’s Bait and Tackle – the epi-center of fly fishing on the Vineyard. “Albies at the Hooter.” Coop told us. “The first of the season.” Coop is excited by the return of the Bay Anchovies, the bait-fish responsible bringing the tuna inshore. “The anchovies reappeared two years ago.” Coop explains, “The Albies love them. Find the bait and you’ll find the fish.”

Mark invites the man along. “You’re more than welcome Coop, we have plenty of room.” Coop ponders, tempted. “No thanks.” He finally replies. “I’ll wait for them to show up off the beach. I’ve gotten picky with age.” Coop pretty much fishes from shore with his 9 weight fly rod. He says, “ there’s nothing like the speed of the strike, and that first run of an Albie.”

Idling out of the marina and unto a windless Vineyard Sound, the late August sun brightens a clear eastern sky, highlighting the few wisps of morning clouds in pink and orange. To the west, the evening stars blink their last, dying in the growing light.
Unlike most five year olds awakened before sunrise, Xavier is quiet. Drawing his hoody tight against the morning chill, he crawls into my lap and settles against the bounce of the light chop, awaiting the adventure ahead with a patience unusual in one so young.

We’re headed to the Hooter (Albie alley) some forty minutes away, hugging the Chappaquiddick shore. The high clay cliffs slope away, replaced by long-deserted beaches, glowing gold in the new day. Xavie shifts for a better view of the coast, climbs into the helm seat behind his father and studies the shore with quick, intelligent eyes. Nya believes Xavie’s earth spirit is that of the Redtail hawk.

Our destination’s namesake is a moaning buoy marking Maskeget channel, where the flood pushes the current through the narrow pass reaching the velocity of a Colorado gorge. On the inside, Seal Island bar is a rest stop for a dozen monk seals crowding close, inching together as the sand shrinks with the rising tide. The recent return of these blubber-rich mammals is spawning an increase of inshore Great White sightings, a widely discussed topic among the beach goers on the Vineyard and all along Cape Cod.

On the outside edge of the cut, an undulating, washboard sand bottom rises and falls between thirty and fifty feet – up to the sixteen on the top of the bar. The depressions hold bait in the current breaks.

“The key here is the speed.” Mark explains as we set our first lines. “Slow, below six knots and you get bluefish. Faster than six and the Albies get to them first.”

We’re dragging thick lipped Yo-Zuris on 40 pound braid. A light tackle swivel connects the 30 pound flora carbon leader and the plug is tied with a uni-knot, the loop left open, giving the artificals more action. The loop will slide shut with a strike, providing shock strength.

Within minutes a rod bends and Xavie goes into action. Holding the over-sized pole, the cute smile dimple on his cheek disappears, replaced by the battle face of a determined angler. With Drew holding the strap of his life vest, Xavie pumps and winds. After a short but hard-fought scrap, the fish is at the boat. It’s a bluefish…nice fish, wrong species.

Mark increases boat speed. Multiple bluefish battles ensue until one rod bends and the drag scream signals a strong run. Mark slows the boat. “Take it Xavie, I’ll bet that’s an Albie.”

The boys’ technique is flawless. Never winding against the drag, he waits until the spool ceases giving line, then pumps and winds. He drops the rod tip and raises it smooth, all in silence. The D.N.A. of his ancestors springs forth in the quiet purpose of those born to hunt and fish.

As the Albie is brought alongside and netted, another species is added to Xavie’s growing catch list. The smile dimple on his left cheek reappears.

Xavier is the young offspring, the littlest Wampanoag.
His demeanor is that of a silent hunter, his technique sound, well-developed in so few years. And Xavie displays an inquisitive connection with the natural surroundings. He’s an “island boy”- of the Vineyard – growing and learning a land his people have inhabited for ten-thousand years. A land the Wampanoag call “Noepe.”