Pamplona has the running of the bulls. New Orleans has Mardi Gras. Martha’s Vineyard has the Derby. The common thread is an all-consuming madness.
Other than a winter power outage, no other event ripples so widely across this small island located just a 45-minute ferry ride from Woods Hole, Massachusetts. The Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby, more commonly referred to as the Derby, is an annual five-week fishing binge, one that falls somewhere among a descent into madness, a religious pilgrimage and an Iron Man competition. But one special thing about the Derby is that it attracts anglers of all stripes, from the committed to the casual.
Running from early September to mid-October, it is as much a state of mind as it is a contest of who can catch the heaviest striped bass, bluefish, bonito or false albacore, from shore or boat. There are all sorts of ways to keep score, not all of them in the daily or weekly weigh-ins: hours of sleep lost, secrets kept, lies told, friendships renewed, genial rivalries rekindled. And just plain fun had.
Three thousand fishermen enter the Derby each year. Almost half are Islanders — electricians, painters, plumbers, landscapers, carpenters (and editors) who are late for dinner, never show up for dinner, fall asleep at dinner, miss work, and try the patience of their friends and lovers. The most important edge a fisherman can bring to the Derby isn’t fishing equipment, bait or skill. It is a spouse, partner or roommate who isn’t put off by a refrigerator stocked with eels and squid or annoyed by the nocturnal comings and goings of a bass fisherman muttering about tides and bait.
How many times have I reassured my wife on the Derby’s opening day? I’ll be home early. I won’t run all over the island driven by schizophrenic voices telling me the fish must be hitting someplace else. I promise I’ll be a more responsible husband. I won’t wake our baby daughter Marlan when I drag myself in. I’ll only fish sunrise and sunset. Foolish promises, all. Norma laughs, knowing self-delusion when she hears it.
“I’ll see you in October,” she said one year. “Marlan, say goodbye to Daddy.”
And how can I object? She’s seen the madness come over me too many times. She’s seen me come home from fishing exhausted, delirious as if gripped by some rare tropical fever, babbling about where the fish were and where they weren’t, where they might be — and when they might be there — before I drop off to sleep.
I am a victim of a uniquely Vineyard disease called “Derby madness,” first discovered 69 years ago when Martha’s Vineyard was a quiet place far removed from celebrity media. In 1946, Labor Day weekend signaled the end of the bustling summer vacation season. Off-season, Islanders struggled to make ends meet. The Derby began as a promotion to rev up business in the fall when the weather still was good, but visitors were scarce. Nat Sperber, a P.R. man with the local ferry company, came up with the idea to mine one of the Island’s most precious resources — great fall fishing for striped bass. The Martha’s Vineyard Rod and Gun Club agreed to sponsor it. First prize was $1,000, won that first year with a striped bass that weighed in at 47 pounds. Second prize was a building lot in the town of Gay Head, since renamed Aquinnah, which is now worth a lot more than the first prize. Boats, cars, trips, even a hunting lodge have been among the grand prizes dangled before fishermen.
Cast of characters
Though impressive, the prizes have never been the main thing. The hold that the Derby has over otherwise normal people really is hard to explain, especially to the uninitiated. Anchored in the shared experience of crashing waves, long nights and not a little one-upsmanship, the Derby is a grand reunion.
“Seeing, fishing with and competing against the same faces year after year” is what makes the Derby so special, Kib Bramhall, one of the Island’s legendary fishermen, told me years ago. “Wonderful people come back to the island religiously every year to fish in the Derby. Whether they’re seriously competing or just here for the comradeship, they’re here. It’s a cast of characters that’s self-perpetuating.”
Many Derby regulars are characters. Their stories may sound crazy to the man on the street, but other fishermen hear them and nod knowingly. They understand. One year Bob “Hawkeye” Jacobs of Oak Bluffs was looking for false albacore on Edgartown’s Memorial Wharf when the Pied Piper, a small passenger ferry that operates between Edgartown and Falmouth Harbor, docked. Jacobs tossed out a live butterfish and within minutes had hooked a big albie. As the albie ran up into the obstacle-laden harbor toward the Edgartown Yacht Club in overdrive, Bob could only hang on and keep his rod tip up — until his line went tight around the bow of the docked ferry.
Bob asked a fellow wharf rat to run to Bob’s car and get his mask and snorkel, then talked over with his friend the best strategy to avoid violating Derby rules, which prohibit someone else touching the line during the fight. Bob leaned the rod against Pied Piper and loosened the reel’s drag, stripped down to his pants, stepped on the ferry and prepared to dive overboard. Asked by a female crewmember what he was doing, he answered, “I have a fish on,” as if that was all that needed to be said.
Bob jumped into the water, but the line was caught around the ferry amidships — too deep for him to dive without fins. As he treaded water, rethinking his strategy, one of the crew yelled down to him that the ferry had to leave. Always punctual, the ferry pulled away from the dock with Bob’s Derby hope. “I can explain why it was worth the effort to me, maybe, but I do not know that anybody else would agree,” Bob said later. Nobody except another Derby fisherman.
I’ve fished the Derby since 1981, with varying degrees of success and no regrets. Over the years, I have mellowed a bit. I used to plot my Derby strategy like a military campaign. I studied the tides. I eavesdropped on conversations in tackle shops with a furtiveness worthy of the NSA. And I fished very hard.
One night I was asleep in my truck — my home away from home during the Derby — on the beach at Cape Poge, a remote spot on the eastern end of Martha’s Vineyard on Chappaquiddick Island. I was drifting in and out of sleep about 2 in the morning when the rain started. Every now and then I’d wake up and wonder if the water cascading down my window was falling from the sky or rising from the ocean. In one of my more lucid moments, I actually wondered what the hell I was doing sitting in my Isuzu Trooper at Cape Poge instead of sleeping at home in my bed.
At first light I leaned up from my front seat incline, glanced out the window and saw Joe Helbe, an expert fly fisherman from Pennsylvania, casting in the rain from the bar off the beach. I felt better that I wasn’t out there alone, but I also felt guilty that I was dry and rested in my car while Joe was out in the rain — fishing. Insanity loves company, and insane Derby fishermen hate to think that someone else crazier than they are might catch their fish. That year Joe weighed in the only shore fly-rod bass, a 25.95-pounder, reinforcing the adage that 10 percent of the fishermen catch 90 percent of the fish — because those are the guys who are willing to stick it out.
In 1987, as the Derby was faltering, a group of fishermen led by Ed Jerome, longtime Derby president and Vineyard school principal, stepped in and bought the Derby from the Chamber of Commerce for $1. Today the Derby is a healthy non-profit led by a volunteer committee that uses the proceeds to give full scholarships to four Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School seniors. “Our goals are simple,” said Jerome in the 2013 souvenir book welcome message. “Give back to the community, preserve and protect our natural resources, and help young people in their efforts to further their education.”
Over the years, the prize structure and contest species have undergone many changes. For about the first 20 years, the fisherman who caught the heaviest striped bass was the grand prize winner. Later, the grand prize winner was awarded by chance as more species — bluefish, weakfish, bonito, false albacore — were added to the prize structure.
In the interests of conservation, the committee in 1985 voted to remove striped bass from the prize structure, a decision that generated controversy and hard feelings on an island where the striper is king. Bass fishing in the Derby resumed in 1993 after stripers recovered. That year Buck Martin laid a 54.74-pound striper on the weigh station scale.
Today the Derby prize structure is based on the heaviest bluefish, striped bass, bonito and false albacore in boat and shore categories. Minimum size limits and, in the case of albies, bag limits apply. Catches are filleted and distributed to island senior centers.
The Derby is actually several contests squeezed into one. There are divisions for kids, littler kids, adults and seniors. Fly rodders have a separate division. There are special awards that honor sportsmanship, family values and island residency.
No matter the age or choice of tackle, the fisherman who catches the heaviest bonito, false albacore, bluefish or striped bass from shore or boat is a grand leader, king of his or her piscatorial hill and eligible through the luck of the draw to win the grand prize of a boat (shore division) or truck (boat division).
The Derby’s climax is the awards ceremony. Each fisherman in the shore and boat divisions draws a number from one to four to determine the order in which he or she will draw a key out of a small box. Once each fisherman has a key, the Derby president lines them up in numerical order. One by one, each inserts the key into a padlock. As the crowd holds its breath, the key turns — or not — and there is a loud groan or a loud cheer. In 2013 there was a huge cheer when Jena-Lynn Beauregard of Edgartown won a 22-foot center console, motor and trailer, and Sam Bell of Edgartown won a truck.
A total of 3,160 fishermen entered the 68th Derby, which ran from Sept. 15-Oct. 19 last year. They caught 919 bluefish, 358 bonito, 236 false albacore, and 487 striped bass from shore and boat — 2,000 fish in total — using conventional and fly tackle.
The Steamship Authority (steamshipauthority.com) provides daily vehicle transportation to the Island. Plan ahead for ferry reservations. Depending on vehicle size, expect to pay $137 to $157 for a round-trip fare.
The Trustees of Reservation (thetrustees.org) manage beaches on Chappaquiddick and Katama that are open to over-sand vehicles. Beach stickers may be bought on site.
The Chamber of Commerce (mvy.com, 800-505-4815) is a good source of information on accommodations.
Local tackle shops include Coop’s (508-627-3909), Dick’s (508-693-7669) and Larry’s (508-627-5088).
For information on the Derby, go to mvderby.com.
Zen of catching
One day I picked up a hitchhiker who noticed the fishing gear in my car and commented, “Oh, you like to fish. That must be very relaxing.” It was three weeks into the Derby, and I just laughed. “Not the way we do,” I said.
Yet to be honest, both of my Derby-winning fish — a 31.29-pound striped bass in the fly-rod shore division and a 10.81-pound bonito in the fly-rod boat division — came when I was hardly trying. The story of the bonito tells something about family dynamics as the Derby grinds to a close. It was the last day, and I had heard that Gary Look, of Edgartown, had landed a 12.44-pound bonito on his boat off Cape Poge. His fish would go on to set a new all-tackle Derby record and take the grand lead and grand prize. When I arrived off Cape Poge in my 18-foot Tashmoo, there was a crowd of fishermen chasing breaking schools of bonito. I wasn’t about to join the fray, so I tossed my anchor and broke out a ham-and-cheese sandwich. A pod of bonito broke off the bow. I dropped my sandwich, grabbed my fly rod and cast a small, white bunny fly that way. A pod broke off my stern. I lifted the line and dropped the fly behind me. I was on.
After the weigh-in, I dropped in at the home of my good friend Cooper “Coop” Gilkes, owner of the tackle shop of the same name, to celebrate what appeared to be the winning fish. I had been practically living at Coop’s during the Derby while my wife, Norma, attended to raising our daughter and watching over the house where we lived as caretakers. I called her with the big news: “Honey, I caught the winning bonito.”
“Big friggin’ deal,” she answered, and hung up. She’d had enough.
A few days later, with another Derby archived and the madness lifting, Norma, an island girl, presented me with a framed print of a bonito by Vineyard artist Ovid Ward.
My Derby strategy now relies on well-informed dumb luck. I run around a lot less, and I am just as inclined to bottom-fish squid from a chair while waiting for the rod tip to bend as I am to wave the fly rod for hours on end. My frequent fishing partner, Tom Robinson, of Tisbury, is a contrarian. He sums up the secret of our success: “Fish where there are no fish, and if you find fish, move.” Tom, by the way, learned everything about not catching fish from me.
Triumph and tragedy
As one might expect in a tournament with big prizes, cheating does happen, although it is rare. Scofflaws have been disqualified for fishing out of bounds and for violating state fishing regulations. One was kicked out of the tournament when the weighmaster cut open his 55.5-pound striped bass catch — required when any fish takes the lead — and found additional weight in the form of frozen bait in its gullet. The man later blamed his sheer stupidity on a heroin habit.
The Derby has also visited tragedy on families. On the second to last day of the 1993 event, two fathers and their sons fishing in heavy seas in predawn darkness south of Nantucket drowned when the 32-foot lobster boat Tyree foundered. Rescuers recovered the bodies of one of the men and the two boys. The four shared a love of fishing and the ocean that made them fast friends and Derby enthusiasts. The awards ceremony that Sunday was a somber affair.
Weigh station rules
The heart of the Derby is the weigh station, a small wood-shingled shack on Edgartown harbor. Its doors open for five weeks each fall. The weigh station is one of those enduring, authentic scenes of Americana that is unique to the island and the event. Kids drag their fish in wearing broad smiles. Derby veterans are all business, weighing their catch and looking over the leader board. Knots of them gather for some good-natured ribbing and a camaraderie built on years of ambling up to the station to hear the latest news.
The weigh station is open from 8 to 10 each morning and evening during the Derby. The weighmaster, backed by the Derby committee, rules the roost. A chalkboard lists the leaders of each division, but all eyes focus on the eight grand leader spots. Evening is when the weigh station comes alive. Fishermen mix with tourists to watch that day’s catch tip the scale. The arrival of a fisherman toting a big striper generates a buzz of excitement and photos. Islanders walk in nonchalantly with big fish — you’ve got to play the role. Newcomers act as if they were just picked out of the audience of The Price is Right.
No question, the hefty prizes are sufficient motivation for some fishermen to compete in the Derby, but I have no doubt that the majority of fishermen are motivated by something with less material value.
The fisherman who takes a first, second or third daily prize receives a small fish pin. Successful fishermen, from the smallest kid to the most grizzled Derby veteran, wear those pins on their fishing hats with a strong measure of pride. Take away the expensive prizes, leave the pins, and you’d still have the Derby.
Steve Morris, of Oak Bluffs, is a two-time Derby shore grand-prize winner. In 1983 at the age of 20, he took first with a 49.96-pound bass, which won him a sports jacket, fishing gear, plane tickets to New York City and a check for $500. He repeated in 2011 with a 14.86-pound bluefish that brought him a boat, motor and trailer.
“I could’ve gotten nothing but the trophy that I got, and it would’ve been like winning a million dollars,” Steve told me in a conversation years before his repeat success. “I mean just the prestige, just to say you won the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby. It’s a good feeling, and I look forward to it every year. When I was growing up and in school there were no sports, at least for me. There was only the Derby. And I remember walking in there with that fish, and the old weighmaster, Sam Riccio, used to ring the bell the last day of the Derby at 10 o’clock. When that final bell rang, I just sat there and said, ‘Yes sir, I won the Derby.’ It was a good feeling.”