Martha’s Vineyard trout tradition turns 40

Nathaniel Packer, age 13, holds the 16 inch rainbow trout that won him a new bike. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

As dawn broke on Duarte’s Pond in West Tisbury on Saturday morning, Lela Gilkes, wife of kids trout derby chairman Cooper “Coop” Gilkes and longtime record keeper extraordinaire, honked their truck horn three times to signal the beginning of the annual Martha’s Vineyard Rod and Gun Club Kids Trout Derby. The bathtub-still pond immediately rippled with casts from more than 100 boys and girls, some of whom had arrived with their families at 2:30 am to secure their favorite spot.

It didn’t take long for Charlotte Packer, age 11, to weigh in her first fish, an impressive 13 ¼ inch rainbow trout. As soon her fish was measured, Charlotte dashed to a nearby dock to release it. She gently placed the trout in the water and let go, only to watch it slowly turn belly-up. A bystander told Charlotte her trout was DOA, but she refused to give up. “It’s going to be okay, come on boy,” she implored. On the advice of her father, John Packer, Charlotte moved the fish slowly back and forth to pass water through its gills. After a few more minutes, the torpid trout suddenly twitched. “Come on boy, you can do it,” she said, keeping the water running through its gills. After a few more false starts, the trout finally swam away. Charlotte squealed with delight. “It’s going back to its family!” she said, and raced back to her own family to start fishing again. Charlotte didn’t know it at the time, but the fish she revived would win her third place in the 9 to 11 category.

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Over the course of the morning, a steady stream of young fishermen also released their fish from the dock.

Mason Cron, aged six, caught his first fish, a catfish. “He gets so excited, he reels it in every time he gets a nibble,” his mother, Sam, said as her son raced to get his fish measured. “I’m so glad he finally caught one.”

There were many snagged lines and plenty of bird’s nests — a fishing term for a major tangle — to keep the adults busy.

There were 14-year-olds like Walter Green, fishing their last trout derby. There were kids like Loralei Forgette, age 8 and Molly Sylva, age 7; Grace Cotton, age 6 and Rocco Marshall, age 4, who fished their very first derby and caught their very first fish. Rocco, showing an advanced sense of fisherman’s savvy, declined to disclose to The Times the bait he used to land his 11-inch rainbow trout.
Winners in two categories were decided by the slimmest of margins. Nathaniel Packer, age 13, Charlotte’s brother, won the grand overall prize with a 16-inch rainbow trout, just beating six-year-old William Nicholson’s 15¾-inch tiger trout. Three-year-old Jacob Gatchell edged out his six-year-old sister, Allison, by a quarter of an inch with his 18¼-inch pickerel to win the 8 and under division. It clearly didn’t bother big sister, who shouted, “That’s my brother,” as Jacob proudly presented his pickerel to the judges.

Around 7 am, the cuisine in the tournament tent segued from coffee, hot chocolate and doughnuts to grilled jumbo hot dogs, flown in from St. Petersburg, Florida, by Rod and Gun Club member, Tony Iannotti. For the past 40 years, the Rod and Gun Club, with the support of many volunteers, has provided stocked trout, donuts, hot dogs, worms, hot chocolate, and prizes, free of charge, to children 14 years old and younger.

“Hot dogs at 7 in the morning, tangled lines, happy kids and a beautiful day, it doesn’t get any better than this,” Lisa Nivala said as her daughter, Karinne, weighed in a prize-winning pickerel. “The boy next to me helped,” Karinne said, as spectators congratulated her.

Coop totaled up 108 official entrants at the end of the morning.

Even though Lela and Coop arrived at Duarte’s pond long before the tournament began, her energy and graciousness were unflagging. “I love to see so many families together,” she said. “I just love it.”

Facebook fishing friend

“Anyone on Island have a kid or two that would want to fish the derby Saturday morning who for some reason would not be able to go otherwise, I would be willing to teach and and bring to the pond.”

Ned Casey, carpenter and experienced fishing guide from Edgartown, posted this message on his Facebook page last Wednesday. As of Friday afternoon, he had no takers. Then Friday night, Michelle Cacchiotti from Oak Bluffs called and asked Mr. Casey if it was too late to take her six-year-old daughter Elaina. Mr. Casey jumped at the chance.

Elaina came ready to fish her first derby in a pink jacket and pink Nikes, which accessorized nicely with her pink rod and reel. She also wore a distinct look of uncertainty, but Mr. Casey quickly put her at ease.

“Her first question when I woke her up at 4:30 am was, do we have to fish outside?” Ms. Cacchiotti said, watching her daughter take a casting lesson from Mr. Casey.

For the first hour or so, it looked like Elaina might not be long for fishing, as she sat in her Dora the Explorer chair, looking rather bored. Then, her bobber bounced…and bounced again, and suddenly a trout was tugging and splashing on the end of her line. As every fisherman knows, hooking a trout doesn’t necessarily mean catching a trout, but six-year-old Elaina Cacchiotti landed her very first hook-up — a 12-inch brook trout.
“It was kind of gross,” she said, describing her first-ever fish. But she was clearly hooked on fishing. As the morning wore on, Elaina got better and better at casting. She stood on the bank and watched her bobber with laser focus. So much for her Dora the Explorer chair. She didn’t catch another fish — or get another bite, for that matter — but she kept on casting, even after the final horn blew.

Mr. Casey held Elaina aloft during the awards ceremony. She beamed like she was on top of the world.

“She just jumped in my arms, I had to catch her,” Mr. Casey said later, his voice slightly cracking. “I’ve been fishing since I was five years old. It’s given me a lot of good times and got me through the bad times. This was an awesome morning.”


Grand overall prize

Nathaniel Packer, age 13, 16” rainbow trout

Largest fish of any other species: Edward Cherry, age 10, 24 ¼” pickerel

The two top winners each received a bicycle donated by the Rod and Gun Club and Wheel Happy Bicycles.

Ages through 8

1. Jacob Gatchell, age 3, 18 ¼” pickerel;

2. Allison Gatchell, age 6, 18” pickerel;

3. William Nicholson, age 6, 15 ¾ tiger trout.

Ages 9 to 11

1. Krinne Nivala, age 10, 17” pickerel;

2. Landon Cormie, age 10, 14 ½” rainbow trout;

3. Charlotte Packer, age 11, 13 ¼”rainbow trout.

Ages 12 to 14

1. Donald O’ Shaughnessy age 14, 16⅞ “ pickerel;

2. Bryce Cadrain, age 12, 14½” rainbow trout;

3. Elizabeth O’ Brien, age 14, 14½” rainbow trout.