Afloat: Blues guitarist by night; fishing captain by day

Providence Journal 09:41 AM EDT on Monday, July 17, 2006


Providence Journal Staff Writer

The now Mrs. Liz Vittulo smiles as Cap'n Neal is seen holding a "Big One" that DIDN'T get away! ><////|^|\\\| i >

"Today we're headed south," barks Vitullo from behind the wheel.
ON NARRAGANSETT BAY -- It's a bit after sunrise as Capt. Neal Vitullo maneuvers his boat out of the Warren River , heading into Narragansett Bay , on the search for striped bass.

On this drizzly morning, the day after the Bristol Fourth celebration, the Bay is calm and quiet; a few lobster boats and quaghoggers out working, a large gray Navy vessel, anchored in the Bay for the parade, ghost-like in the morning haze.

The previous day's pleasure boaters are sleeping off holiday parties as Vitullo guns his 26-foot Glacier Bay catamaran "Played For It," zipping past the mansions and manicured lawns of Rumstick Point, then Poppasquash Point and down toward Prudence Island.


A Warren native, Vitullo has been fishing these waters since he was 9 years old, when his father took him out. Over the years he has honed his skills to become known as one of the best striped bass hunters on the Bay.

Vitullo, you see, is that luckiest of men: he has turned his twin avocations -- fishing and playing blues guitar -- into vocations.

Hence the name of his $90,000 boat "Played for It" -- a prize gained from many, many gigs in nightclubs across New England and as far away as Europe . Among the region's rock-and-roll and blues aficionados, he is known as Young Neal, the rockin' star guitarist of the band Young Neal and the Vipers.

It leads to some long hours, but Vitullo, 44, says he loves the dual life, particularly since he gave up the after-hours roistering that seems an occupational hazard of musicians. "Come August, I'll be 14 years' sober," says Vitullo. "I could have become a victim of rock and roll, the whole lifestyle, but luckily I stopped."

These days, after a late-evening gig at the Newport Blues Cafe in Newport or Captain Nick's on Block Island , Vitullo's after-work routine is to crash in his van for a few hours of sleep so he can be alert and ready for the next morning's fishing charter.

"You get used to it," says Vitullo. "All I need is a few hours' shuteye and I'm ready to go. I love the blues and I love fishing. And the way this works is you've got to sell peanuts while the circus is in town."

Vitullo runs charters for people serious about catching fish. If your idea of fishing is a boozy fraternity party, he's not your charter captain. He doesn't mind a guy having a beer or two, "but if I see guys showing up at the dock with cases of beer, I tell them to leave most of it on shore."

The three Kings -- Albert, B.B. and Freddie -- are his blues heroes. Vitullo has played on the same stage with blues legend B.B. King on eight occasions.

"Once he thanked me for opening for him," said Vitullo. "That was one of the biggest thrills of my life."

On board this morning are Liz Halpin, a West Springfield, Mass. , first-grade teacher and her son, 8-year-old Conor, wrapped in an oversize Red Sox jacket and a shirt with the name SCHILLING emblazoned on the back, emblematic of Conor's favorite player, pitcher Curt Schilling.

It is Conor's first saltwater fishing trip.

Also on board is Buckey, a 3-year-old Labrador retriever known affectionately as "the fish dog." Buckey is Vitullo's constant companion on the boat, known for licking the freshly caught bass and occasionally scarfing up a piece of a pogie that was destined for use as bait.

In the world of saltwater fishing, charter captains such as Vitullo have all the electronic gizmos -- fish-finders and depth-measuring devices -- but they rely on the intuition experience has taught. They have their favorite spots, and they have cell phones nowadays, too, to call friendly competitors in the game of harvesting prize catches.

On this overcast morning, Vitullo settles into a spot off Prudence at the edge of the Bay's deep shipping channel. He baits, or "chunks" the silver hook with a generous slice of pogie, then drops the weighted line into water about 60 feet deep.

He beckons for Conor to take over and shows the youngster how to hold the reel, let the line out slowly and wait. At first, Conor gives either a bluefish or a striper a free breakfast; a check of the hook shows it picked clean.

"Well, we know they are down there, now we just gotta catch them," says Vitullo. So he baits another hook and into the Bay drops another line. This time, the fish bites and Vitullo quickly instructs Conor on how to hook and fight the fish.

"Ok, now start reeling . . . it's a big one, it's a striper . . . move over, now pull," shouts Vitullo to Conor. About 20 feet from the boat, the hooked silver fish leaps above the surface, battling all the way.

Vitullo jumps to get the net. "The net never comes out until we have one, that's a good luck thing."

Now Vitullo moves about the boat, animated, like a football coach, barking orders at Conor, helping him land the striper.

"We got him," says Vitullo as he helps Conor pull the striper toward the net.

There are few things in life more gratifying than watching the smile of an 8-year-old boy, wet from the thickening rain, as he catches the biggest fish of his life. "Wow" is Conor's verdict.

Later, Conor hooks another large striper, but the wily fish gets away.

"That's either a long-distance release or angler error," says Vitullo, much like the official scorer in a baseball game decides to award a batter with a hit or charge the infielder with an error on a blown play.

"Let's call that one a long-distance release," Vitullo says.

As those in Vitullo's boat haul in striper after striper and land several blue fish, other boats cluster near the fertile fishing ground he has staked out.

"We call those guys bent-rod fishermen," says Vitullo. "They swarm and fish where they see other guys bending rods and catching fish."

Vitullo's boat will nab nearly 20 stripers before noon. To be taken legally, a striped bass must measure at least 28 inches. Vitullo pulls one in that is close, so he dutifully measures it.

It comes out to 29 inches, but Vitullo is sympathetic. "Today is your lucky day," he says to the striper as he tosses it back into the Bay, where it quickly swims away.

The biggest striped bass Vitullo says he has caught weighed 55 pounds. On this rain-filled morning, Vitullo keeps the three biggest stripers and filets two for his passengers. Few things taste better than a grilled striped bass the same day it came from the Bay.

Vitullo has a wildlife biologist's appreciation for the feeding cycles of fish and an environmentalist's feeling for Bay pollution. He remembers when he was young, the Warren River was clotted with industrial and sewage waste.

"You could never see the bottom of the Warren River when I was a kid," says Vitullo. "Now, in the fall, you can see all the way to the bottom."

"I've traveled a lot, I've toured Europe, but I always come back here," said Vitullo, as he headed his boat back to Striper Marina in Barrington . "I love the view from my office."