I set my alarm for 3:45 am. Technically, it would be morning but conceptually, it would be the middle of the night. Despite my misgivings at the loss of sleep and the zombie state it would induce, I was determined to look for a good striped bass on the first day of the 69th Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby that began at 12:01 am Sunday.
I expect that fatigue and fishless nights over the next five weeks will deplete the reservoir of enthusiasm I had at the start of the Derby. But the Derby is a little like a Christmas present — there is plenty of excitement and anticipation while the present is still wrapped.
My preparations began Saturday afternoon after I returned home from hanging a deer stand, the first of several I expect to put up in the weeks ahead. The need to prepare for archery season, which begins one day after the Derby ends, is one of the many logistical hurdles I and many other Island fishermen face, that and the lesser responsibilities of home and the workplace.
The task had gone quickly, as the tree and I are familiar with each other. The bark still retained the scuff marks from the previous year, and I had little doubt I would shoot a deer from that spot. I approach every outdoor season — fish, deer, duck, goose, scallop — with a sense of optimism, not because I expect to reap a bounty but because I am happy to be here to enjoy it.
My plan for the opening day of the Derby was simple. I would put the small fiberglass dinghy I had bought for my wife Norma years ago, which had been resting comfortably upside down in our yard for years providing shelter for mice, into the back of my Nissan pickup. Tom Robinson and I would row across West Basin and cast eels into Menemsha channel before the sun rose. Low tide was 6:30 am. I figured we would have about one hour of productive fishing before the current went slack. I hoped one of us would hook a big striper and walk into the weigh station that morning.
A normal person might have greeted that plan with some degree of skepticism. But Derby fishermen are not normal. Tom asked what time I planned to pick him up. I said 4:15 am. “OK,” Tom said.
Before the sun went down I took my light, nine-foot surf rod out of the basement and put it on my truck. Coop built the rod, a birthday present from Norma with my name on it, more than 20 years ago. The reel is a classic Penn 704Z. It is more than 30 years old, but still has what it takes to wrestle a bass out of the surf. It felt right to begin the Derby with that outfit.
Norma is a Derby wife. By way of definition, she does not like to fish but she understands the Derby state of mind. She did not flinch at the sight of a bucket of eels and the noise of a running aerator in the basement. “Just don’t wake me up,” she said about my plan.
My alarm is set to WCAI, the local NPR station. I was concerned that at that hour the BBC would be reporting in hushed, knowing tones from some distant corner of the world. I worried an English accent might not have what it takes to jar me awake. But my internal Derby clock was all I needed. By 3:30 am I was up and tiptoeing out of the bedroom.
My clothes were laid out on the couch at the ready. I turned on the coffee pot and went downstairs for the eels. As I walked up the steps I imagined what would happen if I were to drop the bucket. The fishing columnist smiled at the thought of the story I might write. The would-soon-be-dead husband gripped the handle more tightly.
Tom was waiting when I pulled into the driveway. In fact, he’d been waiting some time. “I thought you said quarter of four,” Tom said.
There were half a dozen cars and trucks parked at West Basin when we arrived. A few guys were standing in the predawn darkness talking by the back of a truck. I assumed the other vehicles belonged to fishermen on the Lobsterville jetty. The Derby has begun in earnest, I thought,
The crossing was uneventful. The fishing was equally uneventful.
I caught one bass about 30 inches long and I hooked another smaller fish in the tail. Tom caught no fish. The sun rose and the wind picked up out of the north. By 7 am, I was rowing us with some difficulty, against the wind, back to the dock.
A north wind often triggers albies to feed off Lobsterville Beach and the jetties. Tom and I had brought rods rigged for albies in the event the fish were hitting.
Derby albie fishing is 96 percent waiting, talking, and casting without any evidence of fish, and 4 percent Red Bull–driven panic when the fish break. In the parking area, Phil Horton and Tim Sherren were comparing notes on the morning. Both fishermen had surrendered to the stiffening wind. Had they seen any albies, I asked. A few breaks here and there, but not enough to keep them battling the wind. The conversation all seemed so familiar, so Derby.
I stopped at the Scottish Bakehouse for a cinnamon bun, arguably the best on the Island and my reward, applying Derby logic, for getting up so early. MIke Stimola of West Tisbury was there. I had not seen Mike all summer and was happy to run into him. He had gone out after midnight and been rewarded, Mike said, with a nice striped bass. He was on his way to weigh it in. We compared notes. I learned later that his fish weighed 19.59 pounds and earned him a third-place daily pin.
It was all so familiar, so welcome, so Derby.
Kids day is Sunday
The Kids Mini-Derby is Sunday, Sept. 21, from 6 am to 8 am at the Oak Bluffs Steamship pier. No casting skill is required, and a simple fishing rod will suffice. Simply bait a weighted hook with a piece of squid or sand eel and drop it to the bottom where, with luck, a hungry scup or sea robin lies in wait.
The mini-derby is strictly for kids old enough to hold and reel a fishing rod, through age 14. It is not for adults. No matter how bad you want your kid to catch a fish, do not fish for your kid. It is against the rules, it violates the spirit of the event, it irritates the people who follow the rules, it teaches your kid all the wrong lessons, and if that is not enough, you risk the embarrassment of being told all of the above by a Derby committee member in front of your kid.
It is also the one and only time fishing is allowed from the pier. The event is free, and open to all kids.
Lost fly rod
The Tisbury police are holding a nine-foot, Lamiglas Infinity fly rod turned in over the weekend. Identify the reel and reclaim the outfit. Tisbury police I spoke with expressed no interest in learning to use a fly rod. Most prefer to catch fish with their bare hands — once it is battered and fried.
69th Derby Grand Leaders (as of Sept. 16)
Boat bluefish: Estey L. Teller, 13.38
Shore bluefish: Clinton A. Fisher, 13.34
Boat bass: Joseph E. Canha, 28.17
Shore bass: Tom E. Barber, 26.53
Boat bonito: Mike J. Balzarini, 7.58
Shore bonito: Kerry Leonard, 6.63
Boat albacore: Mason Warburton, 13.17
Shore albacore: Colin T. Britt, 9.84
(Daily, weekly, and division results are available atmvderby.com.)