Museum exhibit dives into Bass and Bluefish Derby history

Derby organizers Al Brickman (far left) and Ben Morton (far right) arrive in Boston with a prize catch. — c. 1960. Museum Collections.

Friday, the Martha’s Vineyard Museum will host an opening reception for its newest exhibit, “One on the Line: The Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby.”

The exhibition will feature tackle, photos, and tales that illustrate the rich history of the Derby, which begins its 68th year on September 15. I look forward to seeing the show and encourage others to take the time to visit the museum, which is to be congratulated for seeing the value in this long-running Island event.

Anyone who skips this exhibit because he or she thinks the Derby is only about fishing makes a mistake. Striped bass and bluefish, the Derby staples for the past 67 years, and false albacore and bonito, later added to the contest, and the long since forgotten weakfish, are only the glue that binds a collection of characters and experiences — the good, the bad, and the whacky — that offer insights into the Island community.

“This exhibition will trace the Derby’s rich history from its start in 1946 as an event to extend the shoulder season for Island tourism to an annual tradition that has brought people together from across the country,” the museum says in a website introduction to the exhibit.

As we emerge from the busy summer and another presidential visit, it is worth recalling that the Vineyard tourist economy use to shut down after Labor Day. More than 60 years ago, year-round Islanders struggled to make ends meet over the long off-season.

A group of enterprising Islanders seized on the Island’s reputation for great fall fishing as a way to extend the shoulder season, and the Derby was born. The Island, the fishing, and the Derby have changed a lot since the days when one of the top prizes was a house lot in Gay Head. What has not changed is the passion fishermen continue to bring to the month-long contest.

The Martha’s Vineyard Museum will move to new, larger quarters on a hill overlooking Lagoon Pond in Vineyard Haven. The current exhibit is limited by the space constraints of the Edgartown location.

Were it not, I would have had some suggestions for the types of dioramas and interactive exhibits so popular in museums around the country. All would be based on real life Derby experiences.

For example, the American Museum of Natural History in New York City has lifelike scenes of native life. I would create a display that featured a fisherman in a beach buggy. Lures would be embedded in the sun visor, there would be several empty pizza boxes on the seat and the fisherman would be fast asleep.

A digital game exhibit designed to appeal to the X-box generation could replicate fishing for albies from the jetties in Menemsha Harbor. The object, each time the fish run through the channel, is to cast in front of them. The player would have to avoid hooking the lures of fisherman on the other side of the channel. The little figures would yell epithets at each other. Hook a fish and you have to navigate around obstacles as you scramble to the end of the rocks where you attempt to net the fish.

Museum visitors can get a “reel” taste of the Derby at 5:30 pm, Thursday, September 5, when Janet Messineo will give a talk called “Derby Dames: Women in the Derby and the Sport of Fishing.”

Janet, guest curator of “One on the Line,” is a longtime member of the Derby committee, a member of the Derby Hall of Fame and quite a fisherman.

I first met Janet one morning at Wasque Point. A line of fishermen were plugging away hoping to hook a bluefish. There was little happening so I was chatting with a group of guys, the Massimino brothers, I recall, from Jersey as they sipped sambuca and waited for something to happen.

A sprite of a woman walked down and cast out a butterfish on a weight. Bait fishing at Wasque was frowned upon because it interfered with casting. There were several comments, all negative, until the woman’s rod bent and she pulled out a very big bluefish. The next day, many fishermen had switched from casting lures to heaving bait.

The exhibit opening reception is from 5 to 7 pm, Friday, August 30, at the Museum Galleries, 59 School Street, Edgartown. Longtime Derby President Ed Jerome and Janet will greet guests. The reception is free for museum members, $7 for non-members.

Draft Amendment on bycatch discards

Heads up, tuna fishermen. NOAA Fisheries is seeking public comment on a proposed rule which aims to reduce discards of Atlantic bluefin tuna and ensure compliance with international quotas.

“All those involved in the bluefin tuna fishery — scientists, managers, fishers and environmentalists — share a common concern about the large number of dead discards of incidentally caught bluefin tuna,” said Sam Rauch, acting assistant NOAA administrator for NOAA Fisheries in a press release.

NOAA Fisheries has identified bluefin tuna as a species of concern, but it is not listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Copies of the proposed rule and the Draft Environmental Impact Statement are available upon request from the NOAA Fisheries Highly Migratory Species Management Division at 978-281-9260, and online at