MARTHA’S VINEYARD — Everyone else was already on the boat by the time Charles Ogletree Jr. arrived at the dock in Menemsha.
“Roads were blocked,” Ogletree said, apologizing for being late. “I told the president I was going fishing and not to block the damn roads.”
The 60-year-old Harvard Law School professor was joking. While he does, in fact, have the ear of President Obama, a close friend and former student who’s vacationing this week on Martha’s Vineyard, even Ogletree is powerless to untangle the traffic caused by the first family’s visit. And that irks him because it delays his time on the water.
Fishing is a passion — obsession, some might say — for Ogletree, and it’s a rare day in the summer that the distinguished academic, civil rights attorney, and presidential confidant isn’t on a boat, usually with a few notable guests, fishing off the coast of the Vineyard for striped bass, bluefish, or tuna.
“I call Charles the Big Papi of bass fishing,’’ said Buddy Vanderhoop, captain of the Menemsha-based Tomahawk Fishing Charters, with whom Ogletree has been angling for nearly 20 years. “He knows what he’s doing.”
Ogletree likes to have company when he fishes, and has several times asked Obama to join him, even if that would mean being surrounded by a noisy fleet of US Coast Guard vessels and helicopters. The president so far has not taken him up on it, but many others have, including federal judges, prominent defense attorneys, businesspeople, and politicians.
On Thursday, under a cloudless blue sky, the crew included Philip Clay, professor of urban studies at MIT; Rutgers history professor Deborah Gray White; Kevin Armstrong, a lawyer at the New York investment firm Pershing Advisor Solutions; family friend Lisette Williams; and Pam Ogletree, the professor’s wife of 38 years.
When he wasn’t reeling in stripers, Ogletree ate a few pistachios, talked briefly on a cellphone, and offered gentle guidance to the others in the party.
“It’s basically a floating club,” US District Court Judge Mark Wolf said. “ ’Tree and I talk about a whole range of things, and we catch a lot of fish.”
Ogletree grew up in the central California town of Merced, and began fishing as a young boy with his mother and grandfather. Using poles they made from stalks of cane — and baited with balls of wheat bread — they would catch carp, catfish, and perch, and eat almost all of them. The oldest of six children, Ogletree got hooked on fishing because, he says, it was something he could do by himself. He fished while a student at Stanford University, and later at Harvard Law, once going ice fishing on Walden Pond in Concord.
“People thought I was crazy,” he said with a faint smile.
A professor at Harvard since 1985, and founder of the school’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, Ogletree’s best-known clients include Anita Hill, Tupac Shakur, and Desiree Washington. He met the future president and first lady in the late 1980s, when they were his students. Over the years, he stayed in touch with both, and today talks to Obama “sometimes weekly, sometimes daily, depending on the issue.”
Initially, Ogletree fished with Buddy Vanderhoop’s brother, Chip, who also captains a boat on the Vineyard. But Buddy, a member of the Wampanoag Tribe of Aquinnah who has been fishing these waters for more than four decades, never seemed to return empty-handed, so Ogletree started going out with him instead.
“We can be out all day, all night, all week, all year, and it’s wonderful,” Ogletree said. “If I get a bite, great; if not, that’s OK.”
Don’t be fooled. He’s competitive about catching fish, and in 2011 won the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby. Thursday, as Vanderhoop’s 30-foot boat was anchored 16 miles off Menemsha, Ogletree couldn’t resist a little trash talk. After reeling in a 25-pound striper, he turned to his wife and said, “Come on, this isn’t the couple’s fish, you have to catch your own.”
He also recounted a recent outing with Wolf when the judge caught a paltry, 5-inch porgie, and sheepishly posed for a photo with it.
“Oh, I sent that picture around the world,” Ogletree says, laughing.
His fishing companions are a diverse crowd that includes fellow Harvard professors, such as Alan Dershowitz and Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr.; current and former federal judges, including Harry Edwards, Vanessa Gilmore, and Nancy Gertner; and just about anyone else who has interest, including Boston Mayor Tom Menino, Police Commissioner Ed Davis, and US Marshal John Gibbons.
“A lot of people bring their problems. They say, ‘I have Ogletree for four and a half hours. I’m going to talk about what’s important to me’,” he said. “And I’m happy to engage in that.”
Ogletree credits at least some of his success as an angler to Vanderhoop, who knows hundreds of fishing spots and is no stranger to celebrity clients, having taken out directors Michael Mann, Spike Lee, and Wes Craven, and Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards. On the water, Vanderhoop preps the rods, baits the hooks, and helps land the fish, always backed by a soundtrack.
“There are three types of music on Buddy’s boat: Blues, blues, and blues,” said Caroline Hunter, a retired teacher from Cambridge who has been fishing with Ogletree for years.
As the boat bobbed in 30 feet of water Thursday, Vanderhoop said there is rarely another charter in sight.
“It’s a big ocean. Find your own place to fish,” he said, tossing some chum in the water.
Only once has Ogletree experienced any drama on the high seas. In 1998, Vanderhoop took the professor, his father-in-law, and Mississippi attorney Dennis Sweet tuna fishing in someone else’s boat. On the way back, the battery failed, and before long it was dark and the boat was in 20-foot swells.
“My sense was that it was over,” Ogletree said. “It was reaching a point of resignation, and we all understood that things could happen that would not be happy.”
As Ogletree clutched a life preserver, something he never wears while fishing, Vanderhoop shot a flare that was spotted by a lobsterman who had briefly gone above deck to smoke a cigarette. The only intrigue Thursday was when a sea gull snared the bait before it sank and was reeled in with the piece of pogie in his beak.
These days, Ogletree and his wife share a modest summer house with another couple on Martha’s Vineyard, nothing like the grand mansions that are visible from the water. But the house does have two large freezers, which are always well stocked with frozen bass and bluefish.
“If you don’t catch anything with Charles, you can always fish out of his freezer,” Hunter said.
Ogletree is still hoping to take Obama fishing before the president’s second term is over, and he’s even willing to guarantee the commander in chief will catch something.
“Oh yes, he’ll catch one whether he caught one or not,” he said, smiling. “I’ll make sure of it.”