On a quiet evening in the late 1970s, Alan Crosley asked his friend Cooper Gilkes to take him fly-fishing. Coop had just opened his one-room tackle shop in Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard and was gaining a reputation as the go-to instructor for those who wanted to try fly-fishing in the surf.
Coop spent most evenings in those early years exploring the amazing inlets, estuaries, and windswept shores of the Vineyard, often accompanied by a rotating band of students, friends, and fellow anglers. So, when Crosley asked Coop to take him out to Dogfish Bar with Kib Bramhall and the rest of the evening crew, Coop readily obliged. They had a rudimentary casting lesson in the sandlot in front of the dunes, and before Crosley had a chance to feel self-conscious, the sun had set, and everyone was fishing.
“At some point in the night, Bramhall turned to me and said, ‘Where’s Crosley’?” Coop remembered recently. “So, I look over to my right and I can see Alan’s silhouette and it’s clear that his rod is bent, so I head over that way. I can make out that he’s moving toward me, and I hear him yelling, ‘Coop, help! Help! I think I’ve got a monster here!’”Coop laughed a bit to himself as he recalled that night, as we stood talking in his shop. There was a faraway look in his kind, gray eyes hidden behind small spectacles as he told each story. It was clear that Coop’s real joy came from stories where others did the catching.
Cooper Gilkes and his wife, Lela.
He’s seasoned now. On his face are years spent fighting fish on windy nights. His handshake is like a vise grip, and he’s got perpetually chapped hands from fishing.
Coop continued, “So, there’s Crosley bombing down the beach past us, clearly hooked up, and I’m trying to calm him down. I hadn’t gotten to fighting a fish in his lessons yet, so the fish had taken him all the way into the backing and was still going.”
Crosley had begun to panic, but Coop calmly took over, grabbed the line, and stopped his friend from moving. “‘Alan, just keep backing up the beach and reel as you go,” Coop recalled saying. Crosley obliged, and as he walked backward, they began to gain on the fish – even as Crosley fell in the dunes.“When I saw that fish come in on the wave, I thought to myself, ‘My God, what’s he got here?’” Coop said. Crosley yelled down to Coop from the dunes, asking about what he’d hooked, but Coop calmly said to him, “Crosley, you’re never going to believe it. Just keep backing up.”
It was the fish of a lifetime for any angler. When they finally beached the fish, it was clear that it was over 50 pounds. The faded photo of Crosley hoisting his first fly-caught striper still hangs in the shop in a place of prominence along with the scores of other “first fish” that Coop has been a part of since he opened his doors so many years ago.
On June 19, 1965, Cooper Gilkes was a rookie firefighter in Laconia, New Hampshire. Greenhorns were usually sent to one of the quieter substations in Weirs Beach on the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee. The annual Laconia Motorcycle rally had descended on the town, and that night, the Hells Angels quickly took over the normally quiet village. They began a riot that resulted in 150 people arrested, 70 people treated for injuries, and two buildings and a car set ablaze, according to a New York Times article that ran the next day. Coop, as a young fireman, was right in the middle of it.
“There were something like 10,000 people in the town that night. We went out to the fire on the boardwalk and a brick was thrown through the window of the firetruck,” Coop recalled. From that night on, he had a sense of foreboding. He spent five more years on the force, but he always knew he wanted something else.
“I grew scales as a kid on the Vineyard,” Coop said, referring to his childhood in Oak Bluffs. He and his cousins were “pier rats,” but when his father was transferred to New Hampshire, he reluctantly left the Vineyard behind. He had been born and raised on the Vineyard, and it called back to him after those rough years at the fire department. Without a job or any idea of what he would do, he picked up his family and moved back. Coop’s first job was driving trucks and then fishing commercially. “But I always had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to open a tackle shop,” Coop said.
The house that he bought in Edgartown was not zoned for a commercial business, but after much cajoling of the city elders, he was granted a commercial-zone tag and opened a shop the size of a woodshed next to his home.
“A friend of mine was selling his lumber business back in New Hampshire. He said, ‘if you borrow a truck, you can have all the lumber you want,’ so we got everyone together and packed some trucks with lumber and had an old-fashioned barn-raising with friends and neighbors. That’s how we first opened the doors.”
Established in 1974, Coop’s is a Martha’s Vineyard landmark.
That was 1974. Coop’s Bait and Tackle has been open for business in Edgartown ever since.
Shortly after the doors opened, Coop’s began to get a reputation as the go-to place for the angling trade on the island largely because Coop was such a welcoming presence and eager teacher. Coop also had another advantage: he was a saltwater fly-fisherman. “Joseph Sylvia took me under his wing when I was a kid growing up here,” Coop remembered. “He taught me to fly-cast and showed me some rudimentary patterns all under the Big Bridge.” The bridge between Edgartown and Oak Bluffs is actually called Anthier’s Bridge on the map, but everyone knows it as the Jaws bridge after the movie that made it so famous.
In the 1970s, as Coop’s reputation as a conventional and fly-angler—and teacher—was gathering steam, Tom Rosenbauer, then a young representative from the Orvis Company, learned of the superb bonito and false albacore fly-fishing on Martha’s Vineyard from a group of guys he’d met on a different trip.They introduced him to Coop, and as Rosenbauer remembered, “We soon became fast friends, and I began a regular pilgrimage to the Vineyard, sometimes three or four times a year. Coop, being the generous soul he is, let me sleep on the couch in his already-cramped living room for days at a time. I also became close to his amazing wife Lela, his daughter Tina, and son Danny, who were still teenagers and living at home.” Rosenbauer rose through the ranks at Orvis in the fly-fishing world. He was the 2019 recipient of the Izaak Walton Award and is a member of several fly-fishing Halls of Fame. Coop credited Rosenbauer with setting him up as an Orvis dealer, but Rosenbauer recalled, “I didn’t actually set Coop up as a dealer since that was not my responsibility. I merely came back to the office and raved about this amazing guy, and since we did not have a dealer on Martha’s Vineyard, of course, everyone fell in love with him, even though the shop (at the time) was perhaps the funkiest Orvis dealer on the planet.
There were piles of old cars, lobster traps, scavenged nets, and about a million 5-gallon plastic buckets right out the back door. And, he still sold live eels. It is still one of the most distinctive Orvis dealers around,” Rosenbauer continued. “It’s more of a social club than a fly shop, which is as it should be.”
The lobster traps are still there. There’s a boat in perpetual dry dock seemingly waiting to be scrubbed up and set back to sea. There are ice chests tucked away outside in hidden places. To the right of the door, Coop prominently displays the “Orvis Endorsed” oval sign. A garden now blooms on either side of the front door, welcoming all to an eclectic place where two sides of life, family and fishing, a foreign concept for some, blend seamlessly.
Established in 1974, Coop’s is a Martha’s Vineyard landmark.
From mid-September to mid-October each year, after the vacationers have all gone, the fishermen descend on Martha’s Vineyard to compete in the famed Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby. Coop had always fished it, but he, along with Ed Jerome, didn’t realize what was in store when Ed led the charge in 1987 to buy the rights to the Derby for $1. “I’m pretty proud of being a part of that,” Coop said. “Today, the Derby is all about the kids. There have been hundreds of thousands of dollars of scholarships handed out.”
The Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass & Bluefish Derby is a pilgrimage for any serious surfcaster.
The Derby is led by a committee and was saddened by the sudden passing of Ed Jerome in 2018. Coop and Ed were good friends, and the loss still haunts Coop, but he fondly remembers the early days of working on the Derby committee.
“We had to beg, borrow, and steal for prizes,” he said with a laugh. “I remember when we got our first Jeep donated. We parked it out in front of one of the tackle shows back on the mainland and we sold out of tickets before lunch that day.”Coop’s work with the Derby continues with each passing year. The Derby has grown exponentially in terms of participation and also in awareness. Coop fished the days during the striped bass moratorium and, with sadness, he said, “It’ll probably have to be that way again,” referring to the dwindling striped bass population and the bleak outlook from the Atlantic Fisheries report of 2019.
After Derby fever subsides each winter, Coop hosts a series of fly-tying classes at the Martha’s Vineyard Rod and Gun Club. The club is the sponsor of Coop’s annual Kid’s Trout Derby that started 45 years earlier in 1975 when Coop’s shop first opened. The day is a spectacular one, featuring wonderful prizes and great family fun. It is held each year at the beginning of May at Duarte’s Pond, and is one of the better-known events in the early season on Martha’s Vineyard.
Less well known is another tournament conceived during one of those winter tying sessions. Coop got to talking with some other anglers and decided that it would be a good idea to host a fly tournament in early June after the kid’s tournament to kick off the saltwater season. But, he wanted the tournament to be about something different. “Our motto is, ‘We Don’t Care,’” he said with an infectious smile, referring to the way that the tournament is conducted and the fact that some people take it too seriously. The tournament begins at 7 in the evening and runs until 2 in the morning. Breakfast is served the next day when the awards are presented. The tournament is all catch and release, and the “winners” each year receive small plaques and a round of applause. What really happens, though, is that everyone’s name is entered into a drawing and more than 30 different prizes, including many new rods and reels, are given out to anglers just for showing up. The entry fees raise money for the Kid’s Trout Derby and other Rod and Gun Club activities throughout the island. Anglers from around the country come to participate each year for the camaraderie, the fun, and the stress-free way that the fishing is conducted.
In the late 1990s, a 10-year-old kid who had just started fly-fishing walked into Coop’s shop. He asked “Mr. Coop” for the best fly he had. Coop walked with the young man to the bins and produced a fly that he’d invented made from EZ-Body and float foam. He called it the “floating sand eel”. He told the youngster that the fly worked only if fished a certain way. You had to cast the fly into current, make one mend, and then let it sit. The young man nodded, and off he went.
Later that night, Coop and some friends were fishing a favorite spot near Lobsterville. The fishing was going well, and they made the most of it. Then, he noticed that same kid, who had come into the shop earlier that day, fishing with his father and grandfather. The youngster came up next to Coop, frustrated and tired because he wasn’t catching fish.
The famous floating sand eel invented by Coop himself.
“He didn’t realize it was me, and so he started saying, ‘I don’t understand. Mr. Coop gave me this fly and told me it would catch fish’,” Coop remembered. “I played along and said to the boy, ‘What did Mr. Coop tell you to do with the fly?’ And the kid said, ‘He told me to cast out, make one mend, and then let the fly drift.’ I replied, ‘Is that what you’re doing?’ And the kid shook his head, and said, ‘No.’ I couldn’t help smiling and said, ‘Well, why don’t you try it the way Mr. Coop told you,’ and the kid said, ‘Okay’.”
The boy cast his line out as Coop watched. He told him when to make the mend, and then stopped him when the boy tried to strip line in. The fly was in a dead drift in the current, and within a few minutes, his rod bent, and a fish was taking line. Coop helped the boy fight the fish all the way to the beach, and when he put his headlamp on, the kid recognized him and cheered. It was a 14-pound striped bass.
The floating sand eel has been the go-to fly from the Martha’s Vineyard shore since Coop tinkered with it at the vise. Anglers from New Jersey to Maine have used it successfully in tidal ponds and estuaries to catch big bass. The recipe is simple and calls for using EZ-Body or Corsair over a small foam body tied to the shank of the hook. The hook is poked through the tubing, and the fly is cinched shut at the back. Eyes can be added if the angler desires. However, the fly is effective only if the technique is effective. “There’s something about the way that fly bobs on the surface until it finally gets drowned. It hangs just below the waterline almost like an emerger, and with a little bit of current, the thing just wiggles the right way, making it great for big fish,” Coop said.
Recently, Tom Rosenbauer said “Coop has taught me, as well as many other fly-fishers, that flies don’t need to be fancy. He has invented many deadly flies that look so plain you hesitate to use them—like Coop’s floating sand eel. But, his patterns are some of the deadliest flies in the business and you now see them all over the Northeast. At least in fly shops that know what they are doing.”
As I waited for Coop near the close of business at his shop, I was greeted with a warm smile from his wife, Lela. She does the books and keeps the lights on in the shop so Coop can keep influencing generations of anglers.
Angler photos adorn the shop, showing off local catches.
The store had two customers when I arrived. There was a man at the cash register with a pile of goods on the counter. I watched Coop explain to the man what each item was, and I realized that he was selling this guy a full Orvis Recon fly-rod outfit: line, leader, and a bag full of his floating sand eels. He intricately showed the man how to put everything together, spooled the reel, then told him exactly where to fish. The next customer wanted a pack of scup hooks. The difference in those sales perfectly sums up everything that Coop has done in his business life. As each customer leaves, he sends them off with his favorite phrase, “Catch a big one.”
In the brief time I spent with Coop, it was abundantly clear how much he means to the fishing community. He brushed this off by saying, “I’ve lived a charmed life.” Those of us who’ve interacted with him know that his charm is in the thousands of anglers who’ve been shown his warmth and hospitality.
Coop’s Bait & Tackle | Open year-round 7am-5pm | 147 W. Tisbury Road, Edgartown, MA 02539 | 508-627-3909