The 68th annual Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby turned out just the way I dreamed it would. I caught the winning fish following a heroic battle in which I overcame all odds to win a place on the awards podium Sunday.
It was the end of the week and the bass fishing was slow. Tom Robinson and I were in a rut. Eat dinner, head to the same spot on the South Shore, cast bait and wait, and wait, and wait. Our Derby had begun in a wave of enthusiasm that had smashed against a wall of reality. We were not catching fish, any fish.
The phone rang. “Where do you want to go?” Tom asked. “Same place?”
“Sure, why not,” I said.
“Yeah, why not,” Tom said with a laugh. “Like it’s going to matter.”
I could have said I wanted to stay home, that I had had enough. But the Derby does not allow for defeatism, only resignation in the face of adversity. It is like walking into Cumberland Farms to buy a microwave dinner because the pizza place is closed and you need to eat something. You know what to expect, but you need to do it.
I picked Tom up and we headed up Island. At a narrow bend in the dirt road on the way to the beach a skunk ambled along. At the sound of my truck’s engine the nearsighted roadside stink bomb on four legs quickened his pace, his little legs churned, his bushy tail waved, but he did not veer right or left — I know it was a male because he did not ask for directions.
“You’d better wait ’til he gets off the road,” Tom advised me.
One night, Tom said, he’d had to follow a skunk for about half a mile on the road out of Cedar Tree Neck. The sides of the dirt road were steep and the skunk would not get off the road. But Tom is a cautious and humane fellow and I am not, not when I am going fishing. I stepped on the gas. There was no crunch. “See, Tom,” I said as though I’d been sure of the outcome all along, “they get out of the way.”
Tom rigged up to bottom fish. He put our bait of choice, a hunk of scup on a circle hook, cast it beyond the waves and settled into his beach chair as he had done so many nights before.
I decided to cast live eels, a bait which is highly effective for striped bass, yet had begun to raise misgivings and a pang of conscience in me. I was surprised by it.
I had begun to think of my eels as little gladiators destined for the arena. I felt bad for the eel I chose to impale on a hook. I wondered if real Roman gladiators really said, “We who are about to die salute you,” or was that just the product of a good Hollywood scriptwriter. I thought, if I’d been a gladiator it sure would have been hard to utter those words with conviction. I wondered what my eel-gladiators would like to do to me. I knew I had too much time to think if I was even thinking about my eels.
I walked to the surf line and cast my wriggling gladiator out into the darkness. I imagined a 60-pounder holding in the currents. I could see the fish. I willed it to my hook.
The strike was tremendous. There was a geyser of spray and foam. I kept my focus. The first run nearly emptied my spool. The second was shorter and the third shorter still. Rod tip up, don’t touch the drag, stay calm — I reminded myself.
Once the fish was spent, I let the surf deposit the striper on the beach, and I ran to pin it to the sand so it could not wash back into the water. It looked enormous. Tom was shocked (and likely thinking he’d wished he’d caught it).
“We need to go to the weigh station right now,” I said to Tom. We knew we would be racing to make the final weigh-in.
“Leave the rods,” I said as I dragged the fish up the beach, trying to catch my breath.
We hopped in the truck and I raced back up the dirt road. “Look out,” Tom said, but it was too late. I hit the skunk square on. A yellow, toxic cloud enveloped the truck. The gas clung to the undercarriage, liquid revenge from the still squirming skunk.
I rolled down the windows but it barely diluted the organic, Island-grown tear gas. I could barely see. Tom was gagging. I drove on and we hit pavement and I took a right.
As we approached the West Tisbury line, Tom suggested I slow down. “But we need to get to the weigh station,” I said.
Bam! I hit a deer. The 10-point buck was dead as a stone. Tom was okay. I was okay. The radiator was steaming, but the truck was still running.
“Tom, help me,” I said.
“What are you going to do?” he asked.
“I’m keeping this deer,” I said. We lifted the dead deer into the truck bed. “Let’s go,” I said.
I kept looking at the clock. I knew we could make the 10 pm cutoff, but it was going to be close. Then I saw a glow through the trees.
“It’s a house fire,” Tom said.
I pulled into the driveway. A mom and her two small children stood in the driveway as flames shot from the window.
“Kitty’s still inside,” the little girl said.
I could hear sirens in the distance, but there was no time to waste. I did not think about what I had to do. I ran inside the burning house. There was kitty, standing at the top of the stairs. I grabbed the cat as flames licked at my elbows. The cat scratched me — I never did like cats — and I ran outside gagging.
“Tom, let’s go,” I said.
We parked outside the Derby weigh station with just minutes to spare.
The Derby committee members took one whiff, looked at the front end of the truck and me and started to laugh, and gag. When I walked in with my fish they began to cheer.
At least, that’s how I dreamt my Derby would end.
Derby awards Sunday
The 68th Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby ends at 10 pm, Saturday night. I would not be surprised if the eight grand leaders in the shore and boat bass, bluefish, bonito and false albacore categories watch the weather report and the daily results over the next several days with great interest.
The Derby committee will hand out awards on Sunday, October 20. One grand shore leader will leave with a new boat and one boat grand leader will leave with a new truck.
The ceremony will take place under the big top at lovely Farm Neck Golf Club off County Road in Oak Bluffs. The fun begins at 1 pm and includes free food, prizes, a raffle, and silent auction.