Bonito provide a photo finish in 61st Derby
Somewhere in Czechoslovakia there is a bartender who has heard about the Martha's Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby. I do not think he found the word for false albacore in his dictionary.
On Martha's Vineyard, where people understand the language of Derby fishing very well, the arrival of big bonito on Saturday, the event's last day, provided the excitement that was missing for most of the five-week tournament.
More than 3,000 fishermen joined the Derby, all hoping to strike it big. But only eight fishermen possessed the unique Derby alchemy that turns varying measures of skill, perseverance, and luck into Derby gold.
William Pate (left), shore bluefish grand leader, stands in front of his new Boston Whaler with Joe Reed of Nauset Marine and Derby chairman John Custer. Photos by Ralph Stewart
At the Derby awards ceremony Sunday afternoon held at the Outerland nightclub at the airport eight fishermen stood on stage. They knew that when they left the stage one of them would be the owner of a new truck and one would be the owner of a new boat.
Each of the eight was a grand leader, meaning he had caught the heaviest bonito, striped bass, false albacore, or bluefish; four were in the shore category, four in the boat category. That was no small achievement given the generally lackluster fishing, particularly from the shore.
For the first time in a very long time the majority of grand leaders - seven of the eight - were Islanders. But Leo Lecuyer of Blackstone, the shore striped bass grand leader, was no stranger to the stage.
Geoff Codding (second from right), boat false albacore grand leader, stands in front of his new Nissan Titan XE with Fran and Bob Clay of the Clay Family Dealership. Derby president Ed Jerome is at right.
Last year, Leo caught a 45.18-pound striped bass the first night of the Derby that remained at the top of the shore bass division the entire length of the tournament and won the boat grand prize.
On the fifth day of the tournament he caught a 40.19-pound bass, not particularly big by Derby standards, but big enough. Now he was back again with a chance to win another boat.
The guy who really went the distance was Richard Hall of Vineyard Haven. He caught his winning 14.63-pound shore albie on the first morning of the Derby.
The fishing Willistons of Oak Bluffs (Emily Anne, Lauren, Sara and Bob) won the David Furino Memorial Award presented in memory of the popular high school student.
The day after he did it Richard admitted to me that when he returned home that morning he had a drink to calm his frayed nerves. I do not know how he got through the Derby.
On Sunday afternoon Richard was not on the stage. He was visiting Czechoslovakia on a trip planned before he caught his albie.
On Saturday Richard called his friend Oh Keong and asked him to go up on stage for him and pick from a box of four keys, one of which would open the Derby lock. Sunday afternoon Oh played the role of a grand leader very well. He was very, very nervous.
Richard was on the stage courtesy of Verizon. Oh held a cell phone and relayed what was happening to Richard thousands of miles away in Europe.
Top-rod winners Chris Morris of Edgartown and Eddy Lepore of Vineyard Haven.
Joe Canha of Vineyard Haven had no time to be nervous. On the last day of the Derby he was fishing with his brother Mike and caught an 11.42-pound boat bonito to take over first place.
Proving that Derby lightening does strike twice, in 1997 Joe also caught a winning bonito the last day of the Derby. He hoped that the second time would be the charm.
Joe's bonito also knocked Geoff Codding from first place. For Geoff it marked the eighth time in his Derby career he found himself bumped from the grand leader spot to second place.
Luckily, Geoff was also the boat albie leader. But the odds for winning the truck had gone from two-in-four to one-in-four.
Among the many people rooting for Geoff was Lev Wlodyka, Geoff's fishing partner and a former multiple Derby grand leader. "He's had eight second places," Lev told me as he walked into the awards ceremony. "It's time he won one."
Hard fishermen appreciate fishermen who have paid their dues. At 82 years of age, Don Sexton of Chilmark had certainly put in his time along Lobsterville Beach where he cast a lime green Spofford's needle fish and came up with a 9.84-pound bonito during a Derby when even seeing a bonito from shore was a rarity.
If Derby fishing is about putting in the time it is also about unadulterated luck and dreams of Derby glory. Luck is the element that provides hope for those fishermen who must sandwich in fishing time between work and family.
Will Pate of West Tisbury, manager of the RW Cutler Bike shop in Edgartown had plenty of time to dream about the shore grand prize of a Boston Whaler Montauk. The boat was parked directly across from the shop next to the Derby weigh station.
Don Sexton of Chilmark, shore bonito winner, holds an armload of prizes.
Night after night, he put in his time. And one night he managed to catch a 13.87-pound bluefish from the shore.
Francis Fisher of Edgartown held the boat lead with a healthy 17.36-pound bluefish. Gay Head was awash in bunker chunks and boat fishermen looking for a big bass. Despite the intense competition, David Hearn emerged at the end with the leading 43.8-pound boat bass.
On Sunday, the eight grand leaders walked up on stage in various states of deer-in-the-headlights Derby grand leader postures for the ceremony that would decide who would win the truck and who the boat.
Bob and Fran Clay of Chappy, the retired owners of the Clay Family Car dealerships and the couple responsible for the grand prize of a Nissan Titan pickup truck, were seated in the front row. Bob asked if the four boat division winners were all Islanders. I said they were.
"I'm very excited about that," said Bob, a hard fisherman and nice guy. His sentiments were echoed by the crowd, judging by the cheers when Derby president Ed Jerome described the process by which each grand leader would pick a key that would then be inserted into a lock.
First up were the boat winners. The first person in line was Geoff Codding. He handed Ed his key. "This is for the truck," said Ed as he inserted the key in the lock and turned it: Click!
Cheers erupted in the room as Geoff shook his head in amazement and exhaled. He was speechless.
Now it was the turn of the shore winners. First to walk to the podium was Don Sexton. Ed tried his key.
"Nope," said Don as the lock refused to budge.
Roland (aka Babe) Perreault, winner of the senior nonresident bluefish category, stands with his fiancé and fishing pal Sherry Mele.
Willy Pate, the father of three girls and one boy, was next. "C'mon Willy," shouted people in the crowd. The room grew quiet as Ed tried the key: Click!
Willy appeared momentarily stunned at his good fortune.
In turn each man stepped to the microphone and said thanks briefly and sincerely for a Derby that meant more than any prize would ever represent.
The Derby had always been a part of their lives. Coincidentally both men had been recipients of four-year scholarships provided by the Derby each year to two Martha's Vineyard Regional High School graduates.
The Derby scholarship program is at the heart of the contests. After the ceremony Ed told me that next year the Derby plans to give away $30,000 in scholarship aid.
The move to the Outerland from the Atlantic Connection due to its closing provided a large, comfortable venue for the awards ceremony and plenty of room for fishermen to exchange opinions and stories.
Generally speaking the conversations at the conclusion of the Derby awards ceremony revolve around fishing. The big ones people caught and the ones that got away.
For most of us there was not much to talk about. I could hardly embellish my one Derby fishing story, a black sea bass that weighed about two pounds.
Father and son Chris and Robert Gibson of Oak Bluffs won the Beaulieu/Loud Memorial award, given in memory of the two fathers and their two sons.
"Once again the cream rose to the top," said John Schillinger, the 2000 albie grand leader and a man who knows what it takes to win the Derby.
Jeff Sayre of Oak Bluffs, a fishing guide and past fly rod champ, agreed. But when it came time to swap fish stories they provided one measure of just how poor the fishing had been.
"I got a deer this Derby," said Jeff. "So did I," said John.
As the details were swapped it turned out that both men had hit deer in the same area of Aquinnah in the morning on the way to the boat launch in pursuit of a Derby winner.
John hit the deer with his truck and ran over it with his boat trailer. It was not exactly an albatross but he took the incident as a bad omen.
Ally Moore of Oak Bluffs, winner of the shore fly rod striped bass division, sits on one of his prizes, a pontoon raft, with his nephew Gordon Moore and daughter Emily Rose.
"Talk about bad karma," said John. "I told myself, I just killed a deer, I'm never going to catch a bass."
Curious, I asked him, "Did you catch a bass?"
"No," said John. "It screwed up my whole day."
Lost and not found
I received an e-mail from the Derby chairman regarding a lost fly rod. Frank O'Rourke, an off-Island fisherman, said he was so involved in eating a Humphreys tuna sandwich that he failed to properly secure the fly rod he won in the 2003 Derby to the roof of his truck.
His cherished Derby T3-909 Orvis rod and reel was lost somewhere between the gut and East Beach. If you found it, please e-mail Frank at StripedBass@aol.com.
Women fly fishers gather
The Derby ended and the fishing improved. I do not recommend putting away the fishing gear just yet.
The Vineyard's good late fall fishing and uncrowded waters will be the backdrop for the 2006 International Women Fly Fishers (IWFF) festival that begins today and is located at the Harbor View Hotel in Edgartown.
Founded in 1996, the IWFF is an international women's fly fishing organization with over 300 women members, and according to the web site (www.intlwomenflyfishers.org) "a few very supportive men."
The four-day event includes plenty of time fishing, instructional workshops with well-known experts, and a banquet and auction. Anyone interested in joining the fun should call fly fishing record holder Karen Kukolich of Edgartown at 508-627-8556.
Congratulations to all the fishermen in the 61st annual Derby. This is my last regular fishing column of the season. It provides an opportunity to say thank you to the many people who shared their stories and photographs with me and say thank you also to my many readers for their words of support.