Derby awards ceremony was the answer to a prayer

Roger Schaefer, the winner of a new Eastern boat, motor and trailer in the 65th Derby, celebrates his good fortune. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

The 65th Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby concluded with a dramatic awards ceremony. The common thread among the many boisterous well-wishers crowded into Nectar’s was the fishing contest, but in fact it was a fishing contest that is about more than catching a fish.

Scott Duhaime knew that was true when he carried his cancer-stricken son Brendan up on stage to receive an award for the second biggest bluefish in the mini-junior division, and the crowd cheered as the little boy inwardly beamed from a frail body too tired to smile.

Roger Schaefer, a man who had lost everything he worked for but still retained the things that are important, won big when his key opened the lock of a brand new Eastern boat %u2014 much to the delight of his 101-year-old grandfather, who celebrated like a man not past 70.

“So many things have changed from when I was a kid but the Derby is still the Derby,” Roger told a cheering crowd.

Michael A. Paone of Newtonville arrived every weekend to fish the Derby. On the same trip, his 13-year-old son Giovanni caught a bass that put him on top of the junior division and dad landed the 37.60 pound striper that landed him a new Chevy Silverado pickup truck, courtesy of the Clay Family dealerships.

Gary Root, 68, of Colrain wore a bemused expression on his grizzled face when he stepped up on stage to receive a special award given to the non-resident senior who catches the heaviest shore bluefish.

“I didn’t know I was going to get an award,” he said with a smile. “It’s only because I’m from off-Island and I’m old. I walk four miles a day to fish.”

Charlie Smith of Edgartown, longtime Derby night weigh master, received a special award: a big hug from his daughter Heather Smith after the presentation of the first Martha’s Vineyard Surfcaster’s Sportsmanship Award.

“Sportsmanship shows how devoted you truly are to something and I can’t think of anyone more dedicated to something than my Dad to the Derby and everything it stands for,” she said in her nomination letter read from the podium (available at

True spirit

The mood of this year’s contest was not lost on Ed Jerome, long time Derby president. In his opening remarks he said it epitomized the true spirit of what the Derby is all about.

It was also, Ed said, “The year of the big wind and the small fish.”

Derby numbers tell a story of enthusiastic and optimistic fishermen (we all start out that way), and tough shore fishing.

The Derby registered a total of 2,797 men, woman and children. That total included 216 fly rodders, some of whom also registered in the all-tackle division.

The Derby weighed in 147 boat bass and 237 shore bass for a total catch of 384 fish. That was the lowest number since bass were reintroduced to the Derby in 1997 and eight fish less than the previous low set in 2008.

According to a review of Derby records, the boat and shore grand leader bass were the smallest fish ever weighed in the Derby’s 65 years.

As for bonito, faggetaboutit! There were 11 from shore and 173 from boat. A total of 131 albies got weighed in, but that figure likely does not represent all the fish caught given the restrictions imposed on fishermen to limit the catch of a fish not considered table fare even for cats.

Thank goodness for bluefish. There were 936 boat and 329 shore bluefish weighed in during the course of the Derby.

Gred Skomal, Derby committee member and Division of Marine Fisheries biologist, told me that except for bluefish (2% increase), all species were down significantly (bonito down 50%, albies down 47%, bass down 9%).

But the scarcity of fish was forgotten on Sunday amid the excitement of the awards ceremony. Each year’s award ceremony reintroduces long time Derby participants to many familiar faces. We have grown used to watching kids grow up in one-year increments on the Derby stage, and recognizing adults who were once those kids, walk up to claim a prize.

One moment Sunday was particularly poignant. The opportunity to cheer for a brave little boy.

Wish came true

Brendan Duhaime, 7, of Bolton has trouble walking and standing. That is why his dad had to help him up on stage Sunday. But the brain cancer that was diagnosed last November and is robbing him and his family of so much has not taken away his love of fishing.

Kevin Lord of Bolton served on his town’s conservation commission with Brendan’s dad Scott. Kevin, a longtime Vineyard visitor, has followed the Duhaime family’s battle on Brendan’s blog (available at and was aware of the young boy’s love of fishing.

“It popped into my head that he is such a fanatical fisherman and the biggest thing around is the Derby,” Scott told me in a telephone call. “And I was going down there, so I thought, let’s see if we can get him down.”

A shore fisherman, Scott needed to find a charter boat that was kid-friendly. A friend with a house on East Chop put Scott in touch with Cooper “Coop” Gilkes, Derby committee member and tackle shop owner. “We’ll take care of him,” Coop assured Scott.

Coop called Derby president and charter captain Ed Jerome. Last Wednesday, Brendan, Scott, and Kevin met Coop and Ed at Derby headquarters where they gave him a hat, tee-shirt and pin. Artist Ben McCormick gave Brendan an album of his fish art. Then they went fishing.

“This is the perfect place to bring a little kid who loves fishing,” Scott said. “And where else in the world are you going to bring somebody where everybody just about is fishing. I thought this would be perfect for him. I thought of it as a little Derby make-a-wish.”

On Sunday Brendan’s wish came true.

Grandpa’s wish

That afternoon the Derby awards came down to eight fishermen on stage, each one wishing his or her dream of winning the grand prize of a new boat or truck would come true.

But first, he or she had to catch the fish that would put them on stage with an opportunity to pick a key. Roger Schaefer came close to throwing his winning fish back. Honest.

Roger grew up in Lexington with neighbors who had a house in Oak Bluffs. So he spent a lot of time on the Vineyard fishing with his pal Adam Darack, now of Edgartown.

Roger was a builder and developer in Colorado. Life and business was very, very good. “I had started five businesses in 15 years,”Roger told me. “I was doing well and I risked everything on my most recent development.”

The economy sank like lead. Roger, 35, lost everything %u2014 his house, life savings, all his assets %u2014 trying to hold on to his business in what he described as the worst two years of his life. But he never lost what mattered most, his family.

“We have a one and a three-year-old child and we had lost every dime we had,” he said. He and his wife Dana moved into his parent’s house in Falmouth and began trying to put their lives back together.

Coincidentally, the Darack’s, his old neighbors who had provided his introduction to the Vineyard and the Derby, wanted to put an addition on their house and hired Roger. He was grateful to have work.

The job began on October 1. Rather than commute, he slept on the job site and he fished. A third place daily bass ignited the fire.

“As soon as I got the fever going again, I was fanatical,” he said.

When he hooked his bluefish he thought it was a bass. He was disappointed to see it was not and considered throwing back what he thought was about a 9-pound fish.

He walked into the weigh station the next day feeling a little bashful about his catch. “That’s a nice fish,” someone said. “Yeah, but I wish it had stripes,” Roger said.

He did not pay attention when the fish went on the scale. He was talking to the weigh station women. “I was definitely the last person in the room to realize I had become the leader,” Roger said. “And when I found that out, I was running down the dock and jumping around because I never really thought I’d see my name on that grand leader chalkboard.”

Roger could not wait to share the news with his grandfather Roger Gentilhomme of Falmouth. The two are very close, and after years of success that had made his grandfather so proud he said it was hard not to feel like he’d let him down.

On Sunday, Roger stood on stage. A section of the badly frayed mono leader he used to catch his fish was in his pocket for good luck. But he had all the support he needed.

As Roger stood on stage holding his two children I leaned over and asked his grandfather what he thought.

“I knew he’d win,” his grandfather,” said beaming. “I’ve been praying hard for him.”

Sunday night Roger drove his grandfather home to Falmouth. “When I dropped him off at his house he said to me that was one of the best days of his life. I was glad to have made him proud again.”

Stocked tackle bag

I ran my own contest that concluded Monday. In a column published Sept. 23, I described how Eben Elias of West Tisbury found a stocked West Marine tackle bag that no one had claimed despite my best efforts to get the word out. When I said I thought it now belonged to him, Eben said he’d like to give it away.

So I invited readers to think of someone who could really use or deserves a new fully stocked tackle bag.

I received eight nominations. The emails reflected many of the personal bonds that make fishing on the Vineyard memorable.

For example, several wives nominated husbands for more tackle. Jennifer Rand nominated her husband Kenny Abbott. “He is the most selfless fisherman I have ever met,” Jen said.

Melissa Moore nominated her husband Adam with this hope: “Lord knows the stuff he’s got hasn’t worked and he tries so hard.”

Karen Manning nominated her husband Mark, “an awesome husband and dad to four children … he never takes much time for himself to enjoy his fishing hobby.”

Conversely, Bill Moody nominated his wife, Whitney Moody. Describing an award she won last year he said, “She went fishing by herself that morning while I was at work. She did everything just right.”

John Nichols of Waltham, a seasonal Island resident born on the Island, nominated his youngest son, Johnny Nichols, 17, who recently enlisted in the Army. “I am very proud of him,” John wrote, “and this would be a nice present for him and get him some recognition for his selfless commitment to his country.”

Mark Shelton nominated his nine-year-old son, Drew, who lives in an urban environment with his mom but visits the Island in the summer and loves to fish.

“Fishing is the world to Drew … He participated this year in the Kid’s Derby and though his 13.5 inch black sea bass was not the winner, he did take home the consolation prizes, one of which was a fishing lure.

“When we got back to the car that morning after the ceremonies, Drew took out the lure and he said, ‘Dad, this is really my first lure. Can you believe it?’ This lure now resides prominently on a shelf in his room.”

The winning email came from Sydney Mullen. She nominated her dad, Jim Mullen. “He loves to fish and he loves the Vineyard and I’m sure he’d love some new tackle,” she wrote.

I contacted Sydney to tell her she was the winner. I mentioned the email about Drew. Sydney wrote back, “Please do share with the ‘runner up.'”

What a great sport. And what a great note upon which to end my last weekly fishing column of the season as I trade the rod for the bow.

Thank you to my fellow Island fishermen for the stories and camaraderie, the readers who encourage me and the fish, even the uncooperative ones.

Order these Derby photos and more here