Gone fishin’: Old photo rekindles memories of a big fish

When Robert Ciancio was 13, he caught a 45-pound striper in the Derby. That was 54 years ago.

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Robert Ciancio's Derby 54-year-old weigh in slip and buttons. — Nelson Sigelman

In a story published Sept. 8, “Derby fever,” The Times ran a series of old photos taken during the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby. One photo taken at Derby headquarters in front of a banner announcing the 17th Derby showed a young man holding a very big striper flanked by two other men, also holding big bass.

Four days later, I received an email from Robert Ciancio. “The Derby picture is me and Donald BenDavid,” he said, “and if you look closely you’ll see my father helping me hold the fish up. I still have the fish. It was 45 pounds, 6.5 ounces.”

I was curious and called Bob. A little later I met him at his very interesting home — filled with stuff from everywhere — in Edgartown. With respect to the photo, his fish, now on the wall in his study, had not aged. I cannot say the same for Bob. But then again, he was 13 years old at the time, and had not been encased in a fiberglass mold for the past 54 years.

Bob caught the fish with his father, Carmen Ciancio, at Tisbury Great Pond opening fishing sea clams on the bottom, a bait not often used these days but probably still just as effective. He lost a big fish, rerigged his line, and caught the fish he is holds in the photo.

“My father made me bring the fish in myself,” Bob said with a hint of pride in the ethics that governed the beach in the past. “Once it broke the surf, he helped get it out of the surf.”

Carmen was a carpenter, a trade his son followed. “We used to fish together a lot,” Bob said, noting a later falling-out.

The regular guys were always on the beach in those days. In that respect, he said, not much has changed: “I’m sure if you went out there today it would be the same.”

His fish took first place in the juvenile division and third place overall in the senior category in the shore division. He still has the original weigh-in slip, his Derby button, and the No. 1 button awarded him in the 18th Derby for finishing first in the youth division.

The slip recorded the approximate time and date of the catch (7:30 am, Sept. 30, 1962), the make of rod (Harnell), reel (Garcia), line weight (15#) and lure/bait.

Asked what the Derby meant to him as a kid, Bob said, “It was all about fun. Camaraderie, all the normal things. All the same people that you would see — and we were able to go virtually anywhere in those days. There were very few places you needed permission to go to. We could drive the beach without stickers.”

The modern Derby has numerous divisions, four eligible species (bass, blues, bonito, and false albacore) and two divisions, boat and shore. The grand prize in each division, a boat and a truck, is awarded in a random drawing among the top four finishers. It was simpler 54 years ago — catch the heaviest striped bass or bluefish and you won the Derby.

In 1962, Harold Benway of Vineyard Haven won the bass category with a 52-pound, 4-ounce fish. Michael Pagano of New Bedford was first in the bluefish category with an 11-pound, 11.5-ounce fish, small by modern standards. But there was no question, then as now, that the shore striped bass winner commanded the respect of Derby fishermen. Anyone who has ever pulled a big bass from among the rocks along the north shore or timed the crashing surf to pull a bass up on the beach along the south shore would understand why.

The change in the Derby prize structure did not sit well with Bob. He still fishes, but does not enter the Derby.

“It’s not the biggest fish wins, it’s a lottery,” he said. “And I just don’t think that’s fair.”

He added, “People have fun with it and all that — that’s all positive, but it’s no longer the Martha’s Vineyard Bass and Bluefish Derby.”

I respect Bob’s view, but I don’t agree. At its core, the Derby has never been about fish or prizes — it is about the fishermen. If it were up to me, I would simplify the prize structure, but I still fish the Derby. I hope someday Bob will fish the Derby too.

Parking complaints

On Sunday, Sept. 11, the start of the Derby, the albies blitzed Menemsha and Lobsterville Beach, and the fishermen blitzed West Basin. They parked along a split-rail fence in spaces reserved for those with Aquinnah resident stickers. Fifty-dollar parking tickets were handed out.

When Aquinnah Police Chief Rhandi Belain realized it was the start of the Derby, with the agreement of selectmen, he voided the tickets. It was a generous and neighborly act by a chief who understands his Island community. Selectmen later agreed to suspend parking restrictions for the Derby.

On Monday, the Aquinnah selectmen met with several residents who were unhappy because they could not find a parking spot at West Basin to go to the beach or fish.

I attended the meeting. In written remarks submitted to selectmen, I urged them “to maintain the longstanding Island tradition in which the up-Island towns have opened beaches after Labor Day.”

I said, “For 71 years, fishermen have roamed the Island in pursuit of Derby glory. Decades ago they could go pretty much anywhere on the Island. Lot by lot, beach-access opportunities have dwindled. I do not think you should help hasten that change.”

The selectmen struggled to find a compromise. They will reserve some spots for residents and allow fishermen to park on the road shoulder. Fishermen must not walk across or encroach on the dunes. Cooperation and respect will be the key.

In a follow-up email to Aquinnah town administrator Adam Wilson, I urged him to come up with an easily understood and reasonable parking policy intended to accommodate town residents and visitors that opens spots at night when the bass fishing is good.

For example, the sign could read: “Resident parking only 9 am-5 pm, May 1-Sept. 3.” And I asked him to create at least six nonresident spaces for vehicles and boat trailers at West Basin.

The launch ramp was built with state funds, and it would be reasonable and neighborly to make some small accommodation for down-Island boaters who trailer up-Island.

Creating more parking restrictions will not improve the small-town quality of life Aquinnah residents enjoy, or enhance our sense of Island community.

Derby leaders

Bass: (boat) Nils Leaf, 30.51 lbs; (shore) James C. Cornwell, Jr., 28.58 lbs.

Bluefish: (Boat) Ed Amaral, 17.83 lbs; (shore) Evan Hammond, 15.11 lbs.

Bonito: (boat) Tommy S. Reynolds, 9.78 lbs; (shore) Michael D. Ludwig, 5.66 lbs.

Albacore: (boat) Townsend R. Morey, 10.45 lbs; (shore) Donald F. O’Shaughnessey, Jr.,10.79 lbs.

For up to date results go to mvderby.com.