72nd Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby begins this weekend

Don’t make plans with fishermen friends and family for the next five weeks, unless it’s plans to go fishing.

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"Silver Morning at South Beach" - courtesy Vineyard Colors

Don’t be surprised if over the next five weeks, you have a hard time reaching your plumber, your lawyer, or certain MV Times reporters, because the Derby — The Super Bowl, World Series, and Stanley Cup of Martha’s Vineyard — begins at 12:01 am this Sunday, and runs until 10 pm on Saturday, Oct. 14.

Don’t fear the zombies in waders you may encounter with “bass bags” under their eyes. They’re in pursuit of caffeine, and maybe a plate of eggs, not human flesh. The “bass bags” come from the pursuit of big stripers, which keeps them out all night, until the bonito, blues, and albies show up at dawn.

There are few places on the planet with the piscatorial plentitude of Martha’s Vineyard. And it’s on full display during the Derby, where at this time of year, prized sportfish can be caught 24 hours a day. Bad weather is embraced by the hardcore fisherman. Some old-timers say they had their most memorable bass fishing on cold nights with lashing winds and horizontal rain.

The Derby prize structure is based on four categories of fish: striped bass, bluefish, false albacore, and bonito, in the shore and boat division. There are age groups and male and female categories. (For more information and daily results, go to mvderby.com.) There’s also info on the Kid’s Mini Derby, for youngsters age 4 to 14, on Sunday, Sept. 17.

The Martha’s Vineyard Surfcasters Association has donated a net at the Oak Bluffs fishing pier to help young anglers (and old) land the big one.

Note to anglers — when you sign up at your tackle store, take cash or a checkbook; plastic is not accepted.
The Derby committee reminds fishermen that they must have a valid saltwater fishing license. In some cases, out-of-state licenses are valid where there are reciprocal agreements.
Contestants should also take a close look at the minimum sizes and catch limits. The 32-inch minimum for striped bass is four inches longer than the state minimum. Only three albies can be weighed in per badge during the Derby. Bone up before you hit the water.

Bounty of booty

There are prizes aplenty at the Derby. The grand prizes are a 2017 Subaru Crosstrek from Clay Subaru and a Cape Codder 19 boat with Tohatsu outboard and trailer, compliments of Cape Codder boats. Gear galore will be given away at the awards ceremony on Sunday, Oct. 15, at 1 pm at Farm Neck Golf Club. Weekly and daily awards will be given throughout the tournament. For an extra 10 bucks, anglers can sign up for “Super Saturday” events, where specific fish are targeted on successive Saturdays, with cash prizes up to $300.

Last year “Mystery Prizes” were added, which are awarded through luck of the draw to anyone registered in the Derby, with a fish or without.

The Derby committee has made a few changes this year. Super Saturday has been changed from a winner-take-all $500 prize for boat and shore catches to prizes for first, second, and third place, beginning at $300.

“We’ve also created a new mini-junior division,” Derby committee treasurer Chris Scott told The Times. “It’s for kids from 4 years old to kids no older than 8 years old on opening day. We want to encourage them to get out there.”

Mr. Scott said there will be weekly prizes for mini-juniors and juniors, $50 and $25 gift certificates good at all tackle shops that register Derby entrants.

The daily prize in the all-tackle division comes with a cash prize of $20 for first place, $15 for second, $10 for third, and $5 for fourth. Daily prizes in all categories come with a gold pin, which are far more valuable than their weight in gold.

Derby by the numbers

The number of Derby entrants in 2016, 3,339, was up 2 percent from 2015; however, 20 percent fewer fish were weighed in, according to a report by Greg Skomal and Phil Horton. The 2016 fish total was 51 percent less than the all-time banner year of 2004.

Albies dropped off sharply last year; only 237 were weighed in, a 52 percent drop from the 493 weighed in in 2015. Bluefish and bonito were down slightly, and stripers were up slightly.
Starting in 2012, when shore fishermen weighed in 68 percent of the striped bass, the wader warriors have been besting the boaters in the striper category.

Stalwart steps down

John Custer, principal of the Tisbury School, and Derby committee chairman for 11 of the past 15 years, is stepping down after this year’s Derby.
“I’m still going to be involved, but not as involved,” he said. Custer said the spirit of the Derby is about the fellowship and the friendships made over the years, which is well captured by the cover of this year’s souvenir program. The image, titled “A Silver Morning at South Beach,” shows four bundled-up surfcasters. Two of them are all business, working a pole in hand and another in a sand spike. The other two fishermen are shooting the breeze; neither has a line in the water. Judging by the depth of the sand accreted over their feet, they’ve been talking for quite some time.
“It’s all about the camaraderie,” he said. “It’s something we don’t value perhaps as much as we should. That to me is much more important than the prizes. It’s a great event, it’s all about fishing, and it brings people in from all over the country. For some people it’s their annual vacation. But let’s face it, a relatively small percentage of fishermen are catching most of the fish. That’s great, it’s the way it is. So why are over 3,000 people signing up for this event? I think it’s because they enjoy renewing friendships, fishing with family members, and it gives them a great excuse to do it five weeks a year.”

Former MV Times editor Nelson Sigelman, who chronicled the Derby for more than 26 years in print, and served on the Derby committee for about 10 years, wrote an email to The Times about the demands of a Derby chairman. Nelson joined the committee after an invitation from chairman Don Mohr of West Tisbury, a venerated fisherman and gentleman who died in September 2012.

“I soon learned that the prestige of being on the committee came with a lot of hard work and responsibility, most of which fell on the chairman,” he said. “It was he, or she, who was responsible for getting a group of fishermen who could argue for hours over the merits of sand eels or squid to agree on Derby policies and rules. In a room where some individuals thought the way to make a point was to shout, Don’s background as a former Marine drill sergeant proved an advantage — he could raise his voice louder than anyone else.

“In the same vein, John Custer’s background as a teacher and principal — he is someone who knows how settle playground disputes and after all, the Island during the Derby is a big playground — has served him well. John’s tenure as chairman has been marked by thoughtfulness and sensitivity. An Islander who grew up fishing the Derby, he understands the values and tradition that are at the foundation of this community fishing celebration. He leaves the Derby in very good shape.”