It is not wise to tempt the Derby fish gods

Grady Keefe tries his Derby luck on the Menemsha bulkhead. — Photo by Jennifer Clarke

Derby fishermen are superstitious by nature. Grubby fishing hats, well-used rods, and identical annual registration numbers are among the talismans fishermen count on to tip the scales in their favor.

And, as every Derby fisherman knows, it is never wise to tempt the fish fates. They are the mystical creatures that prowl Island beaches and take great pleasure in snarling a line just when the albies begin to break, sending the bonito charging down the beach just as a fisherman walks inland, or encouraging a ray to imitate a winning striped bass.

Most of all, one should never, I repeat, never, fish on Martha’s Vineyard during the Derby without a registration button. The following story David Nash of Edgartown passed along in a well-written email reinforces a version of that rule.

Those new to the Derby should know that a fisherman can enter the fly rod category or the all-tackle category, or both categories, but a person without the proper button cannot weigh in a fish.

“So, I’m at my selected beach waiting for albies or better to arrive with fly and spin rods at my side,” Dave wrote. “A guy sets up beside me similarly equipped. Nice guy, I think his name is Gary. We exchange comments about the weather and wonder what might happen with the fish today. We both start fly fishing and after about 45 minutes he switches over to spin. I do the same a little later.

“Things are pretty quiet and then we all notice a swirl on the other side of this guy and a fish breaks the surface but misses a lure (Morgan Taylor’s). Seconds later the guy next to me gets a hard hit and he’s on. The fish breaks out a few feet then hits the brakes and turns abruptly left; then towards shore; then back out; then right — you get the picture — so when the fish is beached I’m pretty sure I know what it will be and the sight of those stripes makes me curious enough to walk over.

“Sure enough a bonito, every bit of seven pounds and I congratulate the guy. He isn’t even looking at the fish and just says, ‘I should have bought that all-tackle pin.’ Yes, he only bought the fly pin. He calls out to a friend and asks if he wants the fish and the guy takes it, bleeds it and buries it in the sand.

“The story isn’t done yet. So the guy is sitting quietly on the beach thinking about his fate and occasionally mumbling to himself. He eventually picks up his fly rod and starts casting. Now, with my derby talents pretty much limited to either finishing in fourth place or standing next to the guy who catches the good fish, I didn’t know what to say when the guy put down the fly rod and picked up the spin rod again.

“I just looked at him and said, ‘Are you sure,’ and those around us were similarly in a state of shock at the sight of this guy casting again with the spin rod. He said ‘the damage was already done,’ but as soon as he made that cast, his friends strongly suggested he put the spin rod down rather than challenge the entities who control such events.

“I was worried they would get violent on his behalf for an instant there. Last I saw, he was still using the fly rod. It gets worse, guess what he did last year? The exact same thing; bought a fly pin and caught a large bone on a spin rod. Maybe next year he’ll get it right.”

Dave said that despite being bled and sitting on the beach for an hour the bonito weighed in at just over seven pounds. As of yesterday, the shore bonito grand leader was 7.65 pounds.

With my rod or on it

The first night I left the house to fish the Derby my wife, Norma, provided these words of encouragement: “For God’s sake, honey, catch a fish.”

It was an admonition similar to the one Spartan mothers gave their sons and husbands when they went off to war, “e tan, e epi tan,” or, “Come back with this shield or on it.”

It was not as dramatic as it sounds. We are using the last of the venison in the freezer and Norma wanted fresh fish for dinner. It had been a slow fishing summer.

But my luck appeared to take a turn when I caught a 17-pound striped bass bottom fishing squid Sunday night. I returned to the beach Monday and hooked what I thought must be the derby winner.

The rod bent and I followed the fish up the beach. Tom did his best to encourage me by insisting it must be a huge bass and I should not screw up. But when the fish did not make a run, and did not shake its head I began to doubt I had a bass.

As the battle continued and I was unable to move whatever was on the end of my line, I thought perhaps I had hooked a drifting lobster pot or couch. But then the fish began to move in the opposite direction of the current. The battle ended after 25 minutes when my line parted.”

“A ray,” Coop said, laughing when I told him my story, “you caught a ray.” I think Coop knows the fishing fates by name.

Sometimes the fishing fates take human form. Dennis Gough called me last week to say he lost his MV Derby Bag with all his fishing lures, Wednesday, Sept. 12, on the Chappy side of the breach.

I checked in with him to see if I needed to include the information in this column. Dennis said a guy leaving the Island returned the bag, but not before he kept it for four days and fished with the lures. Dennis said the guy lost a few plugs, but added, “At least I got it back.”

Distinguished visitors

The nation is at war. For most Americans that reality is a fleeting news cast. But it is all too real for the men and women in our armed services.

From Sunday, Sept. 23, to Friday, Sept. 28, the Nixon family of Chilmark and the Derby committee will host 12 to 15 members of the military currently undergoing treatment at government hospitals in Maryland and Virginia and their guests and medical support people.

The itinerary includes dinner at the Beach Plum Inn, fishing with some of the Island’s best charter skippers out of Menemsha, beach fishing on Chappy and golf at the exclusive Vineyard Golf Club.

This is the fourth year in a row the Nixons, owners of the Beach Plum Inn, Menemsha Inn, and Home Port Restaurant, will host a group of soldiers. The idea for the event, the American Heroes Saltwater Challenge, began when Jack Nixon, now 11, saw a newspaper photo essay about the challenges facing Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, and told his dad he wished some veterans could fish the Derby.

Bob Nixon, a documentary filmaker, and a crew from National Geographic will film the entire six-day event from arrival to departure. They will produce a one-hour documentary of the event that is expected to air this Christmas Eve.

Last year, I profiled the visiting soldiers in a story published on Sept. 28, 2011, “Wounded warriors enjoyed a Martha’s Vineyard Derby respite.” Among the stories was that of Second Lieutenant Tyson Quink, a double-amputee, and his wife Tera Quink, an Army officer and West Point graduate, like her husband. Anyone not familiar with the caliber of our service men and women should meet that couple. Sarah Nixon told me they will return this year.

Hosting a large group is not easy or inexpensive. There are several ways people can contribute to the Saltwater Challenge. Donations of time and or goods are welcome.

For more information or to assist call Jennifer Grace at 508-645-9454 ( or go to