Martha’s Vineyard Bass and Bluefish Derby ends with rousing cheers

Derby false albacore boat grand leader Sam Bell of Edgartown reacted with disbelief after Derby president Ed Jerome (right) used his key to open the lock for a new Chevy Silverado truck at the awards ceremony Sunday as shore bluefish grand leader Ralph Peckham and boat bass leader Stephen J. Pietruska (left) looked on. — Photo by Meg Higgins

The 68th Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby, the five-week marathon fishing contest that is a hallmark of the Island community in the fall, ended with a sprint in several categories. Overall, it was another wow finish with several story lines.

The Derby ended with tears of joy from a father who watched the little girl he took fishing in a freshwater reservoir earn the respect of her Island fishing peers, and with a grandson telling his grandparents how happy he was to have had the opportunity to share his moment of triumph with them. It was also the first Derby in which both grand prize winners were under the age of 30.

More than 3,100 fishermen entered the 2013 contest, a new record, but when the Derby weigh station closed with the ringing of a hand bell at 10 pm Saturday night and the door of the wood-shingled, weathered weigh station on Edgartown harbor closed for the final time, there were only eight grand leaders in the shore and boat divisions.

The pastoral surroundings of the Farm Neck Golf Club in Oak Bluffs, a favored spot for presidential vacation golf outings, are a long putt away from the breaking surf and rolling currents where Derby-winning fish are caught.

Sunday afternoon, the seven men and one woman that crossed the finish line and stepped into the winner’s circle stood on stage at the awards ceremony held at Farm Neck, and with a tent full of Derby supporters, family, and friends, waited nervously for the dramatic concluding ritual.

Each fisherman in the shore and boat divisions would draw a number from one to four out of a small box to determine the order in which he or she would draw a key out of an identical small box. Once each fisherman held a key, one by one, Derby president Ed Jerome would take the key and insert it into a padlock held next to the podium microphone. The expectant crowd quieted. If the key turned and the lock clicked open [see video], he or she would win the grand prize for his or her division.

On stage Sunday were: boat bluefish, Daniel Hiemer (19.69); shore bluefish, Ralph J. Peckham (15.18); boat bass, Stephen J. Pietruska (39.94); shore bass, Jena-Lynn Beauregard (34.63); boat bonito, Bob H. Clay (11.49); shore bonito, Cooper A. Gilkes (6.58); boat albacore, Sam T. Bell (13.24); shore albacore, Bill R. Hansen (13.10).

One of the four grand shore leaders would leave the ceremony the winner of a new 22-foot Eastern center console 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.

Bob Clay, a resident of Chappy and founder of the Boston-area family car dealership with the same name, had stood at the podium many years to say a few words about his family’s long-standing commitment to the Derby. On Sunday, Bob, who caught his fish in the last week, was one of the grand leaders with a one-in-four chance to win the truck.

On Sunday, the Derby committee announced that Everett “Porky” Francis and Bob and his wife Fran were the newest inductees into the Derby Hall of Fame, reserved for individuals who exemplify the Derby’s values and contribute to the community. Prior to the drawing for the new truck Bob reinforced his family’s reputation by saying that should he be lucky enough to win the truck he would donate it to the Island chapter of Habitat for Humanity.

Cooper Gilkes, owner of Coop’s tackle, had gone looking for bait at Memorial Wharf. When his net produced only a few butterfish he decided to put one on a hook and toss it out. It was a good decision.

Coop’s return to the pinnacle of Derby glory (which included first place in the grand slam shore category) only added to his reputation as one of the Island’s best fishermen. The cheers of the crowd when his name was announced reflected the respect and regard he has earned over many years of helping other fishermen, in particular kids.

There was a symmetry to the moment. In 1987, Coop, on a hunch, went to Menemsha and caught a 10.19-pound winning bonito. When he went to turn the key in the lock there was that “click,” followed by a deafening cheer. Now, 26 years later, he was poised to repeat the magic.

Stephen Pietruska, a seasonal West Tisbury resident and commercial fisherman, found himself onstage in the same category for the third time in four years. In 2012, he caught a 44.40-pound striper to take first place. In 2009, he caught a 44.68 pounder on the first day of the Derby that was still the leading fish on the last day. He hoped the third time would be the charm.

Daniel Hiemer, the boat bluefish grand champ, could not be at the ceremony. A German, he was back home with his wife Karen (a Willoughby from Edgartown) and their three-year-old daughter, Analiesa, in Diemelsee-Adorf, in the German region of Waldeck, anxiously listening to the excitement on the phone.

His willing standin was Tony Serpa, son of Margaret Serpa, Edgartown’s longtime selectman and Daniel’s wife’s aunt. Daniel had caught his winning fish, the biggest blue to be weighed in since 2000, on Tony’s boat, so it was a perfect fit.

Jena-Lynn, 29, of Edgartown, fished the Derby hard with her boyfriend, Julian Pepper, an employee and guide at Larry’s Tackle shop in Edgartown. The night she caught her winning fish she was taking a break in the truck when she received a text message, “fish are biting.”

Julian had a 27-pounder on the beach. When a rod bent in the sand spike to a fish, he told Jena to grab it. His courtesy paid off.

A star softball pitcher with numerous athletic awards, Jena-Lynn arrived at the awards ceremony Sunday fresh from another ceremony in Boston the night before — her induction into the Wentworth Institute of Technology athletic hall of fame.

The big moment

One by one the eight grand leaders stepped to the stage. Cheers filled the tent.

As they took their place in the order they had drawn keys, Jena turned to Coop and said, “Oh no, I have number eight.”

Coop reassured her that last was not a bad spot. “In ’87, I had number eight and I won the boat,” he said.

Sam Bell of Edgartown was the first of the four grand leaders in the boat division to hand over his key. Ed Jerome inserted it into the lock. “Click!”

“Oh, my God,” Sam said as pandemonium ensued and friends and family rushed up to the front to congratulate the exuberant, jumping-for-joy 25-year-old.

His grandparents, Tom Teller, retired clerk magistrate of Edgartown District Court and Estey Teller, a Derby winner in her own right, had watched their grandson fight and land his fish while fishing in their own boat. Now they had the chance to hug him.

“Overwhelmed,” Sam said, ” I have no words to describe how I feel.”

He described the battle to boat his fish. “I am glad my grandparents got to witness that because they were right next to us when we landed the fish and this is a special moment for me, them being able to watch on…. This is a great ceremony, I’ll remember this for the rest of my life.”

With the cheers still echoing, the four shore leaders stepped forward. There was no magic for Bill Hansen as the lock refused to budge. Next up was Ralph Peckham. His key did not turn, ratcheting up the volume of the cheers. Only Coop and Jena-Lyn remained.

Ed took Coop’s key. The lock did not budge. The room exploded in cheers and shouts for Jena and her family ran up to the stage. Jena was in tears, her father, Ronnie Beauregard of Jefferson, was in tears, people in the crowd were in tears.

“It’s kind of overwhelming,” Jena said. “Obviously, I would not have been on that fish without my lovely boyfriend, Julian Pepper, the best guide on Martha’s Vineyard. And also for my dad. I mean I grew up freshwater fishing and we’d fool around with bluefish on the beach on vacations, but this is so hard to believe. Thank you so much.”

“Wow, how’s that for an ending?” Ed said.

Derby by the numbers

Most fishermen, even members of the select eight, would agree that fishing was slow. Bonito were pretty much missing in action on the shore, big shore bass were hard to find, and the albies were not here in the quantities seen in recent years.

A total of 3,160 fishermen entered the 68th Derby that began on September 15. By its conclusion, they had caught and weighed in 919 bluefish, 358 bonito, 236 false albacore, and 487 striped bass from shore and boat — 2,000 fish in total — using conventional tackle and fly tackle. That breaks down to .63 fish per fisherman.

In 2012, a total of 3,091 fishermen entered the 35-day contest. They weighed in 1,144 bluefish, 226 bonito, 311 false albacore and 466 striped bass from shore and boat, using conventional tackle and fly tackle.

Derby fishing in 2011 was about the same. The final tally was: 1,163 bluefish; 248 bonito; 331 false albacore; 461 striped bass.

Jena-Lyn’s victory was not a first. Women have been acquitting themselves well in the Derby for some time. In 1972, Jean Hancock of Chilmark set a boat bluefish record of 23 pounds, 4.5 ounces that remains unbeaten. Most recently, in 2005 Molly Fischer of Aquinnah boated a 49.22 striped bass to take the grand leader crown. But it was the first time since 1993, a year in which there was no boat prize when Marilyn Scheerbaum won a $1,000 check, that a woman claimed the grand prize.

Most Derby fishermen adhere to a guiding philosophy that can best be summed up as, “One more cast.” As the cheerful crowd left Farm Neck it was clear that many were already looking forward to next year’s Derby and one more cast.