In Derby's waning days, Island girl measures up
With less than a week to go before the end of the 60th Martha's Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish derby a 12-year-old up-Island girl kept a firm grip on her fishing rod in a driving rain and heaving swells to overcome a 49-pound striped bass and show that the Vineyard fishing classic is not just a big boy's game.
Officially, the 51-inch long bass tipped the Derby scale Sunday night at 49.22 pounds. On Monday, Molly Fischer of Aquinnah, a West Tisbury School seventh grader, was the overall grand leader in the Derby boat bass division, as well as the leader in several other junior and women's categories.
The only person possibly more excited than Molly and the crowd of delighted derby fishermen and awestruck onlookers who watched her struggle to drag her fish up to the derby weigh station scale Sunday evening was her proud dad, Albert Fischer III, an Island caretaker and lifelong sportsman.
Molly drags her fish up to the scale.
Real Derby fishermen, the hard fishing folks who give the Derby its heart and soul, understand the part luck plays in derby success. But they respect a fisherman who shows heart.
Molly proved she was no fair-weather fisherman and deserved to wear the small gold pin on her cap signifying a first place daily winner.
Sunday the wind was blowing strong out of the northeast under a slate gray sky that threatened rain. Occasionally, it made good on the threat with a drenching shower that only added to the dreary conditions. For many people it was a good day to stay in and watch football or movies or sleep or do any number of things - unless you were a Derby fisherman. And if you were, there was only one thing to do and that was to go fishing.
The annual Derby is not easily explained to people who are only familiar with the Martha's Vineyard glimpsed during the frenetic summer months. On the surface the Derby appears to be just a fishing contest, but the social and cultural ripples that spread across the Island over the course of the five-week tournament are a uniquely Vineyard phenomenon, one that touches far more than the thousands of entrants (2,840 as of Friday), an astonishing number in its own right.
On Sunday afternoon Molly, her fishing pal Jack Schlossberg, 12, of New York City, and Albert went out fishing with Menemsha charter captain Scott McDowell aboard his 31-foot JC, Slapshot II.
The water was rough off Gay Head so Scott, one of the Vineyard's most experienced captains, headed for a spot around the corner that would be somewhat sheltered from the wind, although he would still have to contend with the large seas churned up by a series of low-pressure areas flowing up the east coast.
"The swells were really quite impressive," said Albert.
Molly Fischer and her proud father Albert Fischer 3rd attracted lots of attention when they walked into the Derby weigh station Sunday night.
Several other local charter captains were also in the vicinity, their boats disappearing and reappearing in the heaving ocean.
From the radio chatter it appeared the fishermen on board the various boats were catching moderate size striped bass. Molly had reeled in a small fish of about 16 pounds caught trolling a tube lure, a standby of the charter fleet, that resembles a long length of garden hose with a hook on the end that for some reason is irresistible to striped bass.
The standard procedure for many charter boat fishermen is to stick the rod in a rod holder and wait for a fish to hit. But when you are a fisherman you prefer to hold the fishing rod.
Molly was cold and soaking wet when she yelled to her dad that she had another fish on her line. Jack quickly reeled in his line to avoid any entanglements.
"At that moment the sky just opened up and it poured," said Albert, who along with Scott and Jack took refuge from the pelting rain under the boat canopy.
Molly put her boat rod in the Gimbal belt, a device that holds the rod butt secure and allows an angler to exert leverage on a big fish, and began to battle the striper.
It was an elemental battle played out against the backdrop of driving rain, blowing wind, heaving seas and stormy skies, said Albert, and it was beautiful in its bare naturalness.
Molly ignored the rain and stayed focused on the fish at the end of her line. "My fingers and arms and legs were already numb because I was so cold," she said, describing the effort to bring in the fish, "so reeling it in wasn't that bad because I couldn't feel anything, but it took about 15 minutes."
She did not think it was a big fish until she saw the striper's head. At which point, she shouted, "Oh my God." She said the fish looked like an alligator coming out of the water.
The men knew it was a big fish but not how big until Scott was able to gaff it and bring it into the boat. A hand-held scale read 50 pounds even.
Molly said she was surprised at the size of her catch. "My friend Jack usually catches the bigger fish," she said.
Being a good sport, Jack, who had held second place in the junior bass division until his friend pushed him down one notch, congratulated Molly. But when the young boy sat back down in the chair Scott and Albert were a little concerned about his spirits until they saw him turn to Molly and ask, "So, how were you holding your rod?"
When the Fischers arrived at the weigh station, Molly insisted she could bring the fish in without any help from dad. The physics involved in a 66-inch high girl dragging in a 51-inch long fish required no small amount of dexterity and strength. It also attracted a lot of attention.
The derby weigh station on Edgartown Harbor is a Vineyard cultural crossroads, a place where well-dressed tourists, wedding party strollers, local Edgartonians and hard-core on- and off-Island Derby fishermen intersect in a spirit of sometimes mutual bewilderment and wonder around fish.
On Sunday Molly was enveloped by it.
"Cameras were going and everybody was excited," said Albert. "The women especially were so excited, the joy everybody had for this child was just wonderful."
Molly brought her fish to the weigh-station table. Charlie Smith, weigh master, picked up the fish in his tattooed arms and laid it on the scale.
"When the scale hit 49.22 the place just erupted. People were cheering and clapping," said Albert. "It was just absolutely wonderful."
At some point every father of a young girl who has ever contemplated the rocky road ahead wishes he could turn himself into an invincible shield to protect his precious daughter from the pain and disappointment - and poor choices in boyfriends - he knows will someday come her way. But we cannot, so we do the best we can do and try to offer advice and insights that we know provide flimsy protection against fortune's slings and arrows (and those boyfriends).
When he got home Albert told Molly she would have her ups and downs in life but that Sunday was truly a moment to treasure. He also told her that she could easily get bumped if someone brought in a heavier fish, always a possibility.
On Monday, Molly joined the Derby grand leaders in the other seven categories in the nerve-wracking ritual of checking the daily standings. As of Wednesday, she was still on top in the boat bass division.
Molly said what she likes best about the Derby is being outdoors and fishing with her family and friends. But the transition from sixth to seventh grade this year brought added schoolwork. She had not had much time to fish this Derby and was happy to get a chance to go out on Scott's boat with her dad and Jack.
"I almost didn't sign up for the derby because of school and right now I'm real glad I did," she said Monday, still basking in the glow of Derby glory and waiting for 10 pm Saturday to arrive.
Derby awards ceremony
The 60th Martha's Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby officially ends at 10 pm, Saturday night when the weigh master rings a cowbell and closes the sliding wooden door, much to the relief of the eight grand leaders and their friends.
The awards ceremony begins at 1 pm, Sunday in the Atlantic Connection on Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs. A drawing will be held among the four grand leaders in the boat category to determine who wins a 2005 Chevrolet Silverado. One of the four shore leaders will win a 19-foot Boston Whaler, 150 HP Mercury engine, and trailer.