Gone Fishin' : A big fish is not the sole measure of a true Derby champ
The 64th annual Martha's Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby begins Sunday morning. Almost 3,000 fishermen are expected to enter the five-week contest.
Some of those who register in the Derby will fish for only a few days. A smaller number of fishermen will fish every waking hour, and some sleeping ones.
Over the years there have been many Derby winners. Fishermen who through sheer luck or perseverance or a combination of both of those elements catch the heaviest fish.
But Derby champions, men and women who exhibit a combination of skill, class and an understanding of their place in one of Martha's Vineyard's great cultural traditions are much more rare.
I bring this up on the eve of the Derby because there is a contingent for who the Derby is all about the prizes. The desire to win daily cash payouts, reels, and tackle blinds some fishermen to many of the elements that make the Derby more than a fishing contest.
This year, in addition to the daily and weekly prizes, the Derby will give away a 2009 Chevy Silverado 1500 truck to the boat division winner and an Eastern 24-foot center console boat, 135-hp Honda motor, and trailer, an upgrade over last year's 20-foot boat, to the shore winner.
It would be nice if someone like Paul Harris of Weston, Connecticut, the 2008 boat bonito champion, wins.
Paul, a long-time Oak Bluffs Campground summer resident, has been fishing the Derby with his buddies for many years. It was the long Columbus Day weekend and the guys were here to fish.
Paul wanted to go bass fishing. His friend Eamon Solway of West Tisbury suggested they go bonito fishing and that is what they did.
With Eamon at the helm, Paul, David Solway of Easton and Ron Meza of Philadelphia, Pa., headed out.
Sometimes Derby winners are caught on changes in plans and old line. Paul caught his fish using a reel with line that had not been changed for more than a year.
For the totally uninitiated, the way the Derby awards ceremony works is that the eight grand leaders - the fishermen who have caught the heaviest bonito, false albacore, striped bass and bluefish from a boat or the shore - stand on stage and pick a number from a box to determine their order in line and then pick a key from a box.
The person who hands Derby president Ed Jerome the key that opens the lock he holds up next to a microphone (so the hushed crowd can hear the click when it opens) wins the grand prize; a boat for the shore division and truck for the boat folks.
When Paul handed Ed the lucky key he stepped up to the microphone and told the cheering room the Derby was "about a bunch of friends who come up every year and fish the Derby. Brothers and nephews and really, really good friends."
But what happened in the weeks following the Derby illustrates the type of people who make the fall fishing classic a different kind of fishing tournament. Paul never considered his catch to be a singular achievement.
In a telephone conversation Monday as he and his family packed up to return to Connecticut Paul said that the days from the time he caught his fish to the awards ceremony on Sunday afternoon were pretty exciting.
He had never attended a Derby awards ceremony. "It was a pretty amazing day," Paul said about being handed the keys to a new truck he had never expected to win as well as a Derby print and boatload of tackle.
As far as Paul was concerned, he was standing on stage representing all of his friends. The prizes belonged to them all.
Past Derby grand prizewinners have sometimes been more in need of the cash a new truck or boat represents. Hefty taxes can also factor into the equation of whether to keep the grand prize. The state has a way of dampening any big win.
Paul, an architect, spoke to his fishing friends, including Paul Walters of Rowayton, Conn., who had joined the crew the day after his big catch, about what they wanted to do with the truck. No one needed a truck and the more they learned about the history of the Derby, how a group of Islanders had saved it when it seemed in jeopardy and turned it into a nonprofit corporation that raises money for scholarships, the more they knew what they wanted to do.
Paul called Bob Clay of Chappaquiddick, who with his wife Fran, represent the Clay Family car dealerships, and are one of the Derby's two generous grand prize sponsors. How might the cash value of the truck be put into the Derby scholarship fund, he asked Bob, who was characteristically enthusiastic about the idea.
Bob spoke to Ed about how they could make it work. Bob and Fran and the entire Clay Family provided a value well above what Paul said he ever would have expected.
The result was a chance to make a very sizeable contribution to the Derby scholarship fund at a time when the stock market's plummet had cut deeply into the Derby's endowment income.
"We all thought that that was pretty exciting," said Paul. "It gave us a chance to give something back as opposed to just coming up and registering and just paying our registration fee. We were excited about it."
The men wanted no fanfare and asked Ed that he keep it as quiet as possible. This summer I happened to hear the story of their generosity in passing and it seemed to me that more people should hear the story.
"It was just a wonderful gesture," Ed told me on Monday as he prepared for another Derby.
Paul and his friends also split up all the prizes Paul won that day. I asked Paul if there was any prior arrangement to share all winnings.
"No," said Paul, as if the need had never even occurred to him. "We fish and do stuff with each other all of the time. It is like racing sailboats. You are out there and it is a team sport. When you are out there on a fishing boat with your best friends and any one of you catches a fish the whole boat wins."
He added, "I was fortunate enough to reel the fish in."
Paul described his catch as a luck-of-the-draw. "We are just thrilled to be a part of the whole thing," he said. "It is just something that none of us will ever forget."
In a likely reference to the party that followed, he added, "nor will my neighbors in the Campground."
Paul is looking forward to visiting Martha's Vineyard several times over the course of the 64th Derby. As always the fishing will be about spending time with friends and family. "Now my young girls, Charlotte, 12 and Caroline, 16, want to come and fish the Derby with me," he said.
A fine gentleman
Billy Norton of Oak Bluffs had large gnarled hands that seemed out of proportion to his thin, wiry frame. A plumber by trade, his hands reflected a life of hard work and outdoor pursuits.
I most often ran into Billy while fishing. He was an excellent fly tier and fisherman and was always willing to share his knowledge.
Billy had a courtly down-to-earth manner and was a fine gentleman. He died Monday and Martha's Vineyard is the less for it.