CUTTYHUNK — Stan Martinek is a native New Yorker, something that is obvious after just a few words.
“Queens,” he says. “Astoria.”
When Stan was 2 years old, his father, a Marine, was killed on Iwo Jima. Growing up, Stan Martinek never had a dad to take him fishing, so he took himself fishing.
As a kid, he would do anything to steal away and cast a line. It was almost preordained that he would join the Navy because, as a city kid, he was happiest around the water. He did six years at sea.
The day he got out of the Navy, he met a girl named Rosemary Sangirardi. She was 17. And really cute. She worked at the J.C. Penny in Manhattan with Stan’s sister. Their first date was at a bowling alley in Woodhaven, Queens.
“I heard you like to fish,” Rosemary said, startling him a little and then more than a little. “I bet you’ve never trolled for bass under the Wantagh Bridge.”
She had a hook in Stan with that one.
“All she had to do was reel me in,” Stan says.
On their second date, they caught bluefish off the eastern point of Long Island and fell in love.
They got married, 43 years ago. They moved into a two-bedroom house in Queens and the landlord, a New York City bus driver, told them there was a small club around the corner where some people used to throw fruit at a local kid named Tony Benedetto who sang on amateur night.
“They threw fruit at Tony Bennett,” Stan Martinek says. “Can you believe that?”
Stan made a living laying down railroad track all over New York. Rosemary rose through the fashion industry, eventually becoming president and CEO of Tommy Hilfiger Handbags.
Through it all, they went fishing. Sometimes, when she couldn’t get away from work, or when she thought Stan needed to be alone with his fishing buddies, Rosemary encouraged him to go off without her. Once, when she drove him to the airport for a 16-day deep sea trip out of San Diego, Stan cried like a baby; he didn’t want to go without her.
He’s caught marlin in Hawaii, and hauled in tuna off Provincetown. He throws almost everything back. It is the thrill of the hunt, not the lure of the feast, that most interests him.
But he did keep one fish. A 41-pound striped bass he caught off Great Point in Nantucket, in 1971. He mounted that fish and hung it on his wall. And he has spent the last 43 years, coming to Massachusetts, trying to catch a bigger striper.
Which is why last week he came to Cuttyhunk, a small island sandwiched between New Bedford and Martha’s Vineyard. He had always wanted to fish the waters off Cuttyhunk, a sleepy, friendly island with fewer than 50 year-round residents.
The other day, at dusk, Stan Martinek and I were sitting together on the bluff outside Bonnie Veeder’s venerable Cuttyhunk Fishing Club, looking across the water toward Menemsha, and I asked Stan who he was going to fish with.
“Just myself,” he said. “My wife couldn’t make it. And all my fishing buddies are dead.”
Stan Martinek is 72. None of his fishing buddies made it to their 70s. One died when he was 53. Cancer. Stan went to the hospital when the end was near. He hugged the guy one last time and told him he loved him and that was it.
“I consider myself lucky,” Stan said. “All my friends died so young. And here I am, still in love with the love of my life, a woman who likes to fish and likes me to fish. I’m still chasing something bigger than the 41-pounder. Sometimes, I feel like I’m fishing for all of my buddies because they can’t.”
He leaned forward in his chair, as if he could see something in the distance, over the sound. Then he fell back into the chair and sighed.
“It’s hard to explain,” he said, almost to himself.
The next day, Stan Martinek put on his waders, loaded his bait, and climbed down the stairs from the Fishing Club, to the rocks below the bluff.
He made a few casts and wasn’t there long when he felt the old familiar tug. He instinctively pulled back hard. In no time, a huge striper was flapping in the shallow water at his feet.
“I didn’t have a chance to weigh her, because I was afraid she was going to die if I didn’t get the hooks out and get her back in the water,” he said. “But she had to be 45 pounds. She was a beauty.”
But he let her go so we’ll just have to take his word on it. Stan didn’t even think about keeping her, to mount her on the wall next to his previous personal best.
“She was a spawner,” he said. “She needed to go back in the water.”
The next day, when he called Rosemary, he casually mentioned that he had landed a 45-pounder.
Rosemary didn’t ask how he knew it was 45 pounds. She knew he was telling the truth. Not because she’s his wife, but because she loves to fish and knows what it’s like to chase something all your life and finally catch it.