Gone Fishin’: At Derby Kids’ Day, ‘little fishies’ become ‘big fishies’

Sunday morning, platoons of kids and adults took over the Oak Bluffs Steamship Authority dock in an annual event that spans decades.

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Parents and children gathered on the Steamship pier in Oak Bluffs for the kids fishing derby on Sunday morning. — Stacey Rupolo

Finnegan Hall, 3½ years of age, was in a hurry. He had caught a scup, and he was determined to get it back into the water as quickly as possible after his trip to the measuring table. “Daddy, I want the little fishy to grow up to be a big fishy,” he told his dad, Louis Hall of Vineyard Haven.

The scup was unceremoniously dropped over the side of the Oak Bluffs Steamship Authority pier, one of numerous fish that included fluke, sea bass, shark, and — a first — an American eel caught and released that Sunday morning in an annual bouillabaisse of a fishing tournament.

For more than three decades, the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby committee has hosted a one-day tournament within a tournament. The Derby Kids’ Day is open to any kid able to hold a fishing rod up to kids 14 years of age.

The Derby distributes T shirts to all the youngsters, and prizes in various age groups based on length of the fish caught. Throughout the morning contest, which began at first light and ended about 8:30 am, kids of all shapes and sizes with fish of all shapes and lengths ran — or walked, depending on their willingness to hold a squirming object — up to a table where a team of volunteers dutifully recorded its length and the young fisherman’s name.

Kids and adults lined every foot of railing along the pier on the one day of the year when fishing is allowed. Many of the adults with kids in tow that morning had once been “little fishies.” And here they were, now “big fishies,” passing on the fun and camaraderie of the Derby to another generation of youngsters.

Derby chairman John Custer, principal of the Tisbury School, said the fishing had been good right from the start. I asked him what he liked about Kids’ Day.

“Personally, for me, now as a dad and a principal, just seeing kids with their families — seeing kids with their parents, aunts, uncles, cousins — I love that part of it,” John said. “Of course, I fished it when I was a kid; and I remember that. I remember Coop. So that’s appealing to me too, the tradition. It’s still in the same place, and it still pretty much feels the same. I love that, so everything about it appeals to me; it’s just fun.”

Cooper “Coop” Gilkes and his wife Lela have been mainstays of the Kids’ Day from its inception. Coop kept an eye on the kids, offering help where needed, while Lela sat in his truck and tabulated the results.

“That walk’s gettin’ longer and longer,” Coop said as he walked back from one of his many trips to the end of the pier on a morning that began for him well before dawn.

Asked for his assessment, Coop said, “Lots of kids. The fish are cooperating. No rain — it doesn’t get any better than this.”

Asked what she liked most about the tournament, Lela said, “Seeing the smiles on all these kids’ faces as they bring in their catch.”

“How many years have you been doing this?” I asked.

Lela just laughed: “I have no idea.”

Committee member David Nash liked the intensity. “They’re real fishermen at that age — they get it,” Dave said, noting that the kids seemed to break down into two groups.

“It’s either one or the other. They’re either bored out of their minds and want to go home, or they love it, they can’t wait, they want to make another cast; they want to catch that fish; they want to run another four-inch scup to the weigh-in table.”

Bob and Peter Boyhan, brothers, sat at the measuring table helping out. Bob lives in Newport Beach, Calif. Pete lives in Bergen County, N.J. The guys are on the Island to fish the five-week Derby, their 31st.

“It’s the kids,” Bob said when asked what was fun about the morning. “Peter and I have been fishing the Derby for years, but when we were kids we lived two blocks from a reservoir, and we’d spend our mornings in the summertime fishing. To us, it’s giving back a little bit. It’s been so wonderful for us.”

“What isn’t fun about this?” Derby president Ed Jerome said when I asked him the same question. “Watching all the smiles on the kids’ faces.”

Ed pointed out that the playing field is level: no boat needed. No strong arms to lift a heavy fish.

For Ed, longtime principal of the Edgartown School, many of the faces are familiar because once upon a time, they were his students. “It’s coming full circle,” Ed said.

Little fishies become big fishies.

Kids Day results

Overall winner: Hannah Gibbs, age 13, 19.75-inch shark.

Largest scup: Luciano Baldwin, age 10, 13-inch scup.

8 years old and younger division: 1. Roy Lockis, age 6, 18-inch Atlantic eel; 2. Mikey Waters, age 7, 16-inch sea bass; Ben Parker, age 5, 15.5-inch fluke.

9 to 11 division: 1. Landon Medeiros, age 9, 17-inch fluke; 2. Paul Saucier, age 10, 16.5-inch sea bass; 3. Dylan Kral, 9, 15-inch flounder.

12 to 14 division: 1. Zach Murray, 12, 15.5-inch sea bass; Brendon Wood, age 12, 14.5-inch sea bass; 3. Ryan Giordano, age 12, 14-inch sea bass.

For big kid Derby results go to mvderby.com.