Lead weights in fish roil 62nd Derby
Update: In action last evening, Derby committee votes to allow Wlodyka's striped bass
It was a decision that left few people happy among the Vineyard's fishing community - certainly not the well respected Island fisherman who caught a potentially winning striped bass that was disqualified, or the committee members responsible for the 62nd Martha's Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby.
In a special meeting Monday evening, the Derby committee voted unanimously to disqualify a striped bass weighed in by Lev C. Wlodyka of Chilmark. Mr. Wlodyka's fish tipped the scales at 56.56 pounds Sunday night.
That weight was enough to place the fish in the first place boat division slot. But, when the Derby fillet master cut open the fish to examine it, a standard procedure for any potential first place fish, 10 lead weights fell out of the body cavity.
The weights were consistent with the type used in a fishing technique known as yo-yoing, a technique in which a weight is inserted in a piece of bait or whole baitfish to give it a natural presentation. The fisherman then jigs, or yo-yos the bait on the bottom, in deep water.
Lev Wlodyka holds his potentially winning boat division striped bass that the Derby committee voted to disqualify. The fish contained lead weights, of a type used in a fishing technique known as yo-yoing. Mr. Wlodyka's bass is thought to have ingested the weights over time. Photo by Louisa Gould
The presentation is very effective, but the downside is that when a fish breaks the line, it is left with a lead sinker in its belly. In some cases, fishermen also insert a metal skewer into the baitfish to keep it straight and natural looking. In 2001, the Derby prohibited yo-yoing.
Last night, the Derby committee was scheduled to hold a special meeting to consider what if any action to take about a boat bluefish weighed in on Sept. 16, by Glenn Pachico of Tisbury, a former Derby grand prize winner.
Mr. Pachico's fish weighed 13.69 pounds and took over the first place boat division spot, until it was bumped to second by a 14.62-pound fish five days later. Mr. Pachico's fish contained a yo-yo weight.
To the consternation of the Derby committee leadership and many committee members, who said they only learned about Mr. Pachico's fish this week, the committee members on duty at the weigh station that night did not refer the question of the yo-yo rig to the attention of the full committee, because the fisherman was not suspected of using the technique.
Fishermen's differing views
The news that a fish that contained a yo-yo rig was allowed highlighted a difference of opinion running through the Vineyard fishing community. Some fishermen think that a fisherman who catches a fish that already contains a yo-yo rig should not be penalized.
Yesterday, Ed Jerome, long-time Derby president, said that the past few days had been very difficult for all involved. He said the members of the volunteer committee would do their best to uphold the tradition and spirit of the Derby.
According to one committee member, the members are also feeling great pressure from some members of the fishing community to reconsider their decision regarding Mr. Wlodyka's fish.
There are eight Derby grand prize categories for the heaviest shore and boat bluefish, striped bass, bonito and false albacore. The Derby grand slam goes to the fisherman who catches the heaviest combined weight of all four species.
Most fishermen never achieve one. Mr. Wlodyka, a 1997 graduate of the Martha's Vineyard Regional high School, is a five-time grand leader, grand slam record holder, and in 2002 was both the boat and shore bass grand prizewinner. Under better circumstances, Sunday night would have been another episode in Mr. Wlodyka's already remarkable Derby fishing story. With less than two weeks to go in the Derby he had caught a fish that beat Zeb Tilton's 56.51-pound bass, a fish few thought would be displaced.
But when the fish was cut, 10 custom-made weights, amounting to a combined total of 1.68 pounds, fell to the deck of the fillet stand. Mr. Wlodyka's triumphal moment turned into one of despair.
On Tuesday, Mr. Wlodyka told The Times the experience "gut wrenching." Mr. Wlodyka said he loved the Derby and understood the committee members faced a tough decision, but he said the outcome was not fair to him, because he had done nothing wrong.
Mr. Wlodyka, a commercial striped bass fisherman, said there are hundreds of people yo-yoing off Gay Head, and the amount of lead likely being ingested by fish is tremendous. He said that it is something the Derby will have to deal with increasingly in the future, what he described as a "black cloud fish."
He questioned whether it was fair to disqualify a "one-in-million fish" when the committee could have decided to discount the amount of weight found in the fish.
"All I want from them is a rule that makes sense," said Mr. Wlodyka. "I don't want to create any controversy."
He said it was not about the prizes, but about his reputation and defending his grand slam record.
"I would like the derby committee to learn from this experience and to gain something from it," he said.
He pointed to Mr. Pachico's fish as an example of inconsistency, a decision Derby committee members said privately was a mistake. But, that offered little comfort to Mr. Wlodyka.
Suppressing his disappointment, Mr. Wlodyka said that after a few sleepless nights, he was not about to give up. "I guess I have to catch a bigger one and hope that it doesn't have any lead in it," he said.
The Derby is part fishing tournament, part Vineyard block party. For five weeks more than 3,000 people participate in an event organized by a committee of volunteers, made up of members of the Island community.
John Custer, Derby chairman, said the meeting went two and a half hours and was very difficult. He said it is unlikely anyone felt 100 percent about the decision, but in the end the committee had to do was it thought was best for the Derby.
Mr. Jerome said the committee has no issue with Mr. Wlodyka, and that his integrity was never in doubt. He added that his view is that it would not be a good decision to allow the inclusion of fish containing lead or create a mechanism whereby fishermen could deduct any lead found in a fish.
Monday night, the committee voted on two motions. Based on past and present Derby rules and precedents, the Derby committee said the Derby "cannot accept a fish that moves into any position on any leader board that contains what the Derby committee deems significant, unnatural material or matter that alters the weight of the fish."
In the second motion, the committee voted "that the fish weighed in by Lev Wlodyka on the night of September 30, 2007, weighing in at 57.56 pounds and containing 10 lead weights, weighing a total of 1.68 pounds, is disqualified, based on the above approved motion."
Tuesday, Mr. Jerome said the committee remains concerned about yo-yoing and plans to ask the state Division of Marine Fisheries to consider banning the practice.
It did not take long for word of the committee's action on Mr. Wlodyka's fish to ripple through the Derby fishing community. Fishermen used the Derby website forum to weigh in on the controversy.
A writer identified as Steelhead9 wrote, " There are a lot of fish with yo-yo weights in their stomachs that have nothing to do with the fisherman who catches them, as is the case with Lev. Clearly, it is not the fault of the fisherman, but is it fair to allow a fish to be weighed in with several pounds of lead inside it? On the other hand, is it fair to disallow or deduct from a fish something that it did in fact eat? Wow! Tough choices. My opinion is that anything found inside a fish that is non-digestible should be deducted from the fish's weight."
Flashyladyboat wrote, "Not very often can you get all of the Menemsha charter boat captains to agree on something, but in this case, I know that I can speak for each and every one of us when I say that Lev's fish should be allowed, especially since hearing the rumor that a bluefish was allowed to stand after also finding lead in it (the committee should address that rumor immediately on this board). The weight should have been deducted from the total weight and put in whatever place it qualified for. As for future weighted fish, what would be the point of weighting a fish if it was well known that the weight would be subtracted? Any fish that is a candidate for a spot on 'The Board' is opened up for inspection, including whatever may be or not be in the bait that it has ingested. Sorry, but my opinion is, bad call."