Gone fishin’: The annual hunt for Martha’s Vineyard fishing glory kicks off Sunday

In this recent aerial photo, an ever-shifting sandbar that has formed off Wasque Point near the breech is visible in the foreground. Fishermen take their chances when wading out on the bar. — Photo by Skip Bettencourt

The 69th Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby begins at 12:01 am Sunday. It seems like it was just last week I was jigging for squid on State Beach in anticipation of this moment. How did it get here so fast?

Summer was fine, but I was quite happy to say goodbye to the traffic, crowds, and daily Obama golf bulletins. In September, we revert to Derby time. No need to set the clocks back or forward. Time is measured by wind and tides and rumors of fish.

The 2014 Derby features a separate contest for kayakers and some rule changes for fly fishermen. All the information is available online at mvderby.com or in the rules brochures. Kids Day is Sunday, Sept. 21. The awards ceremony is Sunday, Oct. 19.

If you are one of those misguided fishermen who does not buy a Derby button because you think you will not catch a Derby-winning fish, I have some advice: Buy a button. Lightning does strike in the Derby. There are numerous stories of people who went fishing without a button and regretted that decision. They tell themselves it doesn’t matter, but deep down, you can tell just by the way they say it, it does.

Fill in the blank

I have started to compose a news story.

“Fill-in-the-blank” drowned today after he stepped off a sandbar while fishing for striped bass off Wasque on the southeast corner of Martha’s Vineyard and was swept away in the treacherous current. The Coast Guard recovered Mr. Fill-in-the-blank following a brief search.

Mr. Fill-in-the-blank, an experienced fisherman, was not wearing a PFD or any other safety equipment when he waded out on an ever-shifting bar that has formed near the cut in Norton Point Beach in search of a Derby-winning fish.

Prior to the start of the well-known fishing tournament, Chris Kennedy, Martha’s Vineyard superintendent for The Trustees of Reservations, asked fishermen to exercise extreme caution when fishing near the cut. Mr. Kennedy said conditions change on a daily basis.

“Several of our rangers were called out a couple of nights ago at Wasque when our night ranger on Norton Point lost sight of several fishermen who had ventured onto the offshore bar more than a hundred feet off of Wasque while fishing the breach,” Mr. Kennedy told The Times last week. “Their lights suddenly went out, and our ranger didn’t know if they turned the lights off voluntarily or had been pulled off the bar. Luckily the fishermen safely made it back to shore without incident, but several of them had no PFDs or inflatable suspenders in case they went into the water. They were happy, they caught several stripers, but I shudder to think at what potential cost.”

Mr. Kennedy urged fishermen to use caution and common sense when venturing onto bars and jetties, especially at night. “Basic safety equipment, when wading at night, should be the first thing you grab out of the truck before heading down the beach,” he said. “Otherwise, help could be a long time in coming.”

Get the picture? I do not want to fill in the blank. Chris said the bar changes daily. What was safe one day may become dangerous the next.

Pre-Derby planning

Derby veterans know that the five-week fishing contest shares some qualities with a marathon. In a road race, the key is to pace yourself so you will have enough energy in the final miles to finish the contest.

In the Derby, the question of pacing has more to do with the endurance of your spouse — will the contest end before he or she has had it with your fishing schedule to the point that your fishing rods are in danger of being used for kindling?

Besides spooling reels with new line and sharpening hooks, a good pre-Derby fishing strategy should include any activity that will make your spouse think you are a pretty good guy, because believe me, in about three weeks she or he might have some doubts.

I have a suggestion that will whet your appetite for fishing, yet should meet any spouse’s criteria for a fun night out: Go out to dinner and then see the Coastal Cohorts at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse Friday and Saturday night perform “King Mackerel and the Blues are Running: Songs and Stories of the Carolina Coast.

My friend Ed Strong invited the trio to perform because he knows them well, he thinks they are very talented, and he thought their stories and songs, which focus on coastal living and the unique characters it attracts, would find a receptive audience on the Vineyard.

This is not opera. This is fun, entertaining music (sung in English) about events Islanders understand. A YouTube clip of a performance at the University of North Carolina contains the following lyrics: “Summertime is just about gone, all that’s left to think about is the fishin’ comin’ on …” Performances begin at 7:30 pm on Friday and Saturday night. Tickets are $50 for adults; $40 for seniors; $30 for students. Tickets are available online or by visiting the theater at 24 Church St. in Vineyard Haven. For more information, visit mvplayhouse.org.

Lessons from tragedy

From 1998 to 2001, Capt. W. Russell Webster was the commander of Coast Guard Group Woods Hole, now known as Sector Southeastern New England.

During his tour, Captain Webster, now retired, was instrumental in extending the Coast Guard’s emergency radio coverage to a so-called “black hole” behind Nomans Land in anticipation of later upgrades. The temporary fix was to place an antenna on Peaked Hill in Chilmark in 2000.

Captain Webster, a Coast Guard historian, was determined to rectify the lack of radio coverage in part because of what he had learned about the loss of Fairhaven fishermen Hokey Hokanson and his teenage son, Billy, on March 25, 1990.

Billy transmitted a brief, heavily garbled radio distress call. A hoax call immediately followed Billy’s cry for help, and believing that the two were connected, the Coast Guard did not launch rescue units for several days. The Hokansons’ deaths prompted a new anti-hoax law and helped lead to changes in Coast Guard search and rescue procedures.

In a newly published book, “The Sol e Mar Tragedy Off Martha’s Vineyard” (historypress.net), Captain Webster and his co-author and wife, journalist Elizabeth B. Webster, describe the events that unfolded following the loss of the Sol e Mar. This is a short, eye-opening read. To his credit, Captain Webster does not shy away from describing where the Coast Guard went wrong, in this case or several others: Overworked and inexperienced watchstanders, insensitive next-of-kin notification procedures, and a reliance on outdated technology all contributed to mistakes.

The recognition that mistakes were made and a determination to correct them is why the Coast Guard is better prepared than ever to fulfill its mission.

The Websters will be signing copies of their book from 11 am to 4 pm Saturday at the Secret Garden on Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs.