Martha’s Vineyard Derby – dreams come true and unexpected endings

Steve Morris celebrated after winning the Derby grand prize of a new Eastern boat Sunday, as the next three shore grand leaders in line looked on. Left to right: Alex Bettencourt, Steve Pierson and Pedro Guzman. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

The 66th Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby ended Sunday afternoon with a dramatic awards ceremony before a raucous and cheering crowd of fishermen and their supporters crowded into Nectar’s Restaurant.

Almost 3,000 fishermen entered the five-week contest that began on September 11. There were many fishermen who dreamed they might find themselves on stage among the eight grand leaders, and there were other fishermen who were sure they did not stand a chance.

On Sunday, Steve Morris was right and Richard Penney was wrong.

The Derby is several contests squeezed into one big fishing contest. 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.

But, on Sunday afternoon it all came down to this. No matter the age or choice of tackle, the fisherman who caught the heaviest bonito, false albacore, bluefish or striped bass from shore or boat was the grand leader, king of his or her piscatorial hill.

One of the four grand shore leaders would leave the ceremony the winner of a new Eastern outboard boat, motor, and trailer courtesy of the Derby and Eastern boats. One of the four grand boat leaders would leave the owner of a new Chevrolet Silverado truck, courtesy of the Derby and the Clay Family dealerships.

One by one the eight grand leaders in the shore and boat divisions took the stage. They were: boat bluefish, Charles J. Ogletree (15.50); shore bluefish, Stephen C. Morris (14.86); boat bass, Richard A. Penney (46.15); shore bass, Steve G. Pierson (34.92); boat bonito, Domingo “Mike” Canha (9.79); shore bonito, Pedro Guzman (7.39); boat albacore, Jaemon Gillies, 14.77; shore albacore, Alexander O. Bettencourt (15.38).

Harvard professor and seasonal resident Charles Ogletree was the only grand leader not present. He was in Washington D.C. at the ceremonies marking the dedication of the new Martin Luther King memorial.

Charter captain and friend Buddy Vanderhoop, the man who put Mr. Ogletree on his winning fish, stood in.

The prospect of Charles Ogletree driving his pal, President Obama, around in a truck with a Derby logo was a tantalizing thought.

No dream

Ed Jerome, Derby president, explained the process.

Each man in the shore and boat divisions would draw for a number from one to four that would determine the order in which he would draw a key. If his key opened the padlock Ed held next to a microphone, that man would be the winner of the grand prize.

Steve Morris of Oak Bluffs, 48, owner of Dick’s tackle shop, was familiar with the stage. In 1983, Steve, then 20, won the striped bass shore division with a 49.96 pound fish. There was a sense of déjà vu.

In 2007, Steve’s son Chris, then 13 years old and now a senior in high school, won the shore bluefish division and the grand prize of a new Boston Whaler.

Steve drew number one and stood first in the row Sunday. He handed Ed his key. Ed inserted it into the lock and gave it a quick twist. Nothing happened.

Disappointment crossed Steve’s face, but it quickly disappeared when Ed gave the key a wiggle and the lock sprang open.

“Everybody always asks me, what did you win when you won in 1983,” Steve said to the cheering crowd. “I got a pair of round trip tickets on PBA airlines, I got a sports jacket from Brickman’s, I got a rod and reel combo — I still got it — and now I’ve got an Eastern boat.”

Next up was the boat division. First in line was Mike Canha. Supporting cheers quickly faded to groans when the lock didn’t budge.

The Derby stage was a completely new experience for the next fisherman in line, Richard Penney of Carver. When he was a young boy, he visited Menemsha with his father on the family boat.

An electrical engineer by profession, he went into the military and returned home to start a security company.

Richard, 52, has been visiting Menemsha for the past 14 years to fish. When he caught a 46.15 striped bass, he had to rely on Island friends for a place to stay so he could weigh in his fish the next day. His fish and the winning key capped Richard Penney’s derby experience.

“Well, a little unexpected on my part,” Richard told the cheering crowd. “… I want to tell all the fishermen out here that it’s just an honor to fish with you. I want to thank all my friends in Chilmark and Menemsha Harbor that have given me all the support and well, if your home is where your heart is, then this is my home.”

Outside in front of his new truck, I asked Richard what he thought as he stood on stage. “I didn’t think I had a shot,” he said about the chance to pick the right key.

But he had reason to believe. “My wife Donnell was at my side when I caught my fish, and she was with me today,” he said. “She’s my lucky charm.”

Nearby in the parking lot, the Morris family posed in their new boat. I asked Steve to describe his initial reaction when the lock failed to move.

“I was like, it didn’t click,” Steve said with a broad smile. “In my dream it clicked. It happened last night in my dream. It clicked and I won the boat.”

On Sunday for many happy fishermen the 66th Derby was a dream that came true.

Derby numbers

A number of fishermen who climbed up on stage Sunday reinforced the adage that 10 percent of the fishermen catch 90 percent of the fish. Grand leaders Steve Morris and Mike Canha were the most visible examples of that.

For charter captain Buddy Vanderhoop, who guided Mr. Ogletree to a grand leader finish, it was the second year in a row that a client on Buddy’s boat caught a grand leader fish. Buddy told me that he had helped put a fisherman up on stage eight out of the past 13 years.

Derby fishing in 2011 was slightly better than in 2010. The final tally was: 1,163 bluefish; 248 bonito; 331 false albacore; 461 striped bass.

By comparison, last year the final tally was: 1,265 bluefish; 184 bonito; 131 false albacore; 384 striped bass, the smallest number of bass since they were reintroduced in 1997.

I went back a few more years to 2006 for these numbers: 1,364 bluefish; 142 bonito; 107 albies; 689 striped bass.

Derby season

Sunday, David Pothier of Oak Bluffs and I were inducted into the Derby hall of fame. About a week ago at dinner, I told my wife Norma the news of my selection. “The Derby has been a big part of my life,” I told Norma. “But for the Derby I might not have moved to the Vineyard and we might not have met and married.”

Norma reminded me that but for the other 11 non-Derby months of the year we might not have stayed married.

“Honey,” she said. “It’s amazing we even had a daughter, you used to fish so much.”

I don’t fish the Derby as hard as I used to but there are a lot of things I don’t do as hard as I used to. But over the years the Derby has remained part of our lives. It is fishing’s grand reunion and on the Vineyard it is as distinct a season as winter, spring, summer, and fall.

I have told many Derby stories over the course of almost 20 years of writing a weekly fishing column in The Times. Writing about the Derby is surprisingly easy and fun. Derby fishermen do crazy things that always seem quite normal to other Derby fishermen.

In the 59th Derby I ran into Bob “Hawkeye” Jacobs of Oak Bluffs at the weigh station. Bob told me a story about how he had hooked an albie while fishing a butterfish from Memorial Wharf in Edgartown just after the Pied Piper ferry docked.

Bob’s line got hung up under the midsection of the boat. He could feel the big albie pulsing at the end of his line.

So what did Bob do? He asked fellow wharf rat Dennis Gough to watch his rod and he got a mask, fins, and snorkel out of his car.

When Bob hopped on the ferry a crewmember ran up to him and asked, ‘Sir, what are you doing on our boat?’

Bob said, “Yeah, I have a fish on.”

For every fisherman the only explanation that is ever needed is: It’s the Derby.

Many fishermen have shared their stories with me over the years and many readers have told me how much they enjoy reading those stories. My induction into the Derby Hall of fame is your induction into the hall of fame.

This is my last regular weekly column of the fishing season. Thank you all.

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