The Derby weigh station is a stage for daily drama

Amid the excitement and the oohs and ahhhs, a dedicated few work tirelessly behind the counter.

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From left: Kristy Rose, Amy Coffey, and Stacy Nickerson-Hall keep the weigh station running on the night shift. —Barry Stringfellow

Last Sunday night, a half-hour before the Derby weigh station was due to open, Stacy Nickerson-Hall, first-year weigh station manager, was busy making last-minute preparations for the parade of fishermen who would soon arrive.

Outside, conditions were calm — Edgartown Harbor was millpond still, and a pleasant brine bite rode in on a warm, gentle breeze. But inside the weigh station, Stacy was feeling the pressure.

“There’s a sharp learning curve with this,” she said, darting around the aged wooden shack, tending to details like stinky fish-carcass removal, training a new volunteer, and computer issues. “It’s exciting and it’s fun, but it means a lot to so many people; it’s a big responsibility.”

Since 1984, every Derby winner has passed through the portals of this weigh station, to have his or her fish measured and recorded for posterity by a small crew of volunteers. The station is open from 8 am to 10 am and 8 pm to 10 pm every day during the Derby. It has never been closed due to weather, although flooding has required relocation on a few occasions. Before the Edgartown Yacht Club bought the building many years ago, it was a scallop shack.

The weigh station is where families, friends, and spectators gather to see what bounty Vineyard waters have provided in the past 12 hours. The anticipation is palpable. When fishermen enter the station, they invariably scan the leaderboard, even though they’ve probably checked it online several times that day. It’s an honor to get on the big white board. “Did you get on the board?” will probably never be replaced by “Did you get on the website?”

Stacy is the night-shift weigh station manager, while Robyn Joubert oversees the morning shift.

Stacy had volunteered at the weigh station for five years, but never as weigh station manager, a position she took over from 20-year veteran Amy Coffey in May, at the encouragement of her boyfriend, charter fisherman Bobby Garrison. “I had doubts that I could do this, but Bobby said, ‘It’s such an honor to be asked, you can’t turn it down.’”

Fishing runs in Stacy’s family. “My grandfather, Howard Nickerson, was a teacher at the Edgartown School and a fantastic fisherman,” she said. “Doing this job feels like not only is the Island watching, but there’s some ancestors watching as well.”

She’s also had success as a Derby participant. Last year she won the women’s weekly award with a shore false albacore landed at the Gut. The small medallion and fish made from wampum — the Estey Teller Women’s Weekly Award — hangs from her neck. “This is a big deal,” she said. “This is the coolest thing I’ve ever won. I’ve never been so excited to win anything.” The Women’s Weekly Award was designed by Island jeweler Rick Hamilton, gratis. It was started by Olga Hirshhorn and Janet Messineo to encourage more women to fish the Derby. Mrs. Hirshhorn financed the award until her death, and now the pendants are paid for by an anonymous female angler donor.

Stacy credits Amy Coffey, who has moved on to focus on the Derby committee, with teaching her the ways of the weigh station manager.

“Amy had 14 jobs; she divided them up, and I got four of them,” she said. “She used to do the morning and the evening shifts; I don’t know how she did it. She’s one of the coolest people I’ve ever met, and she’s been an incredible mentor. She’s held my hand for the past week, basically.”

Her favorite part of the job is seeing kids weigh in their fish. “The interaction between the kids and their parents is such a heartwarming experience,” she said. “The Derby is really a family event. There are a lot of memories made here.” She said her most emotional moment of the Derby so far was coming home after a long night at the weigh station at 1 am, checking Facebook, and seeing Roger Schaefer’s offer to take mini-juniors out on his boat. “I read his post and burst into tears. That, to me, is what the Derby is about,” she said.

Amy Coffey arrived to offer her support. Smiling and ebullient, she seemed to know everyone in the growing crowd by their first name. After some words of encouragement to Stacy, and a big hug, she took a few minutes to talk about her Derby tenure. She said one of the biggest changes she’s seen is the effect of the Internet.

“It’s changed things immensely,” she said. “It’s really helped us with conservation, because they can look and see their fish isn’t going to place. I don’t begrudge any fisherman for weighing in any fish. But the Internet helps people strategize.”

Amy talked about a trip she’d taken a few days before, which was all women except for guide Danny Gilkes. “I caught a nice 9-pound bluefish,” she said. “I’d already checked the website, and I knew it wasn’t going to place for the day because two bigger ones had come in that morning. I also knew it wasn’t in the running for women’s weekly. Back in it went.”

Amy also thinks the Internet postings on mvderby.com have made people more competitive — especially the women.

“I’ll tell you straight up, we are the worst; it’s nasty,” she said, laughing. “We’re open about it. They guys are more subtle about it.”

Commotion and a blast of applause from inside the shack stopped the conversation.

8-year-old Ben Kokoszka jumped to the top of the leaderboard with his 24.48-pound striped bass.

Eight-year-old Ben Kokoszka of Oak Bluffs emerged from the weigh station, and with help from his father, carried out a 24.48-pound striped bass that put him atop his division. Cameras flashed, people clapped, and Ben smiled from ear to ear. The Derby had created a memory that Ben, and his family, would never forget.

 

Storm clouds on the horizon

By Sunday night it was clear Hurricane Jose would impact the Vineyard. The gentle breezes of the evening were forecast to become 70 mph gusts in a few days.

But it’s certain Jose will not shut down the weigh station. It’s never been closed in the history of the Derby.

“We may not be here, but we will be somewhere,” Amy said. “I don’t know if we’ve ever canceled because of the weather. My guess is probably not, but we’re taking this storm seriously.”

If history holds, Jose will not skunk the Derby either. Amy said to her knowledge the Derby has never been skunked, although it almost happened in 2004.

“It was the last day of the Derby and it was a howling nor’easter,” she said. “It was 10 minutes before 10 when Dan Benedetto came in with a 15½- pound bluefish, and won the shore bluefish for the tournament. Dan is a dear friend of mine. I asked him what possessed him to go out in that weather; he said, ‘I don’t know. It didn’t occur to me not to.’”

If Jose floods Edgartown Harbor, the weigh station will most likely move to Coop’s Bait and Tackle, where there are state-approved scales.

“It’s a real balance between keeping the fishermen safe and allowing them to use their own judgment,” Amy said. “We don’t want to encourage people to fish in bad weather, but we’re not the police. People have to use their better judgment.”

Stacy interrupted the conversation. A volunteer hadn’t shown up for the evening shift.

“Of course. I’ll be right there,” Amy said.

 

Tips from a former weigh station manager

“We really try to educate folks about proper measuring — lay the fish flat on the tape as opposed to bringing the tape up and over the fish,” Amy said. “Proper icing of any fish helps maintain overall size and length.”

She also asked that fishermen consider shrinkage before keeping a fish. Most fish lose at least ¼ inch once landed, and albies will shrink up to two inches in some cases.

Correction: an earlier version of this article stated that Stacy Nickerson-Hall and Robyn Joubert are weighmasters. They are weigh station managers. The weighmaster is Joe El-Deiry.