Martha’s Vineyard Bass and Bluefish Derby drama doesn’t disappoint

Preston Butler of Vineyard Haven, boat bluefish grand champ, with his mother Donna behind him, celebrate after he won a new pickup truck with the fourth and final key. — Photo by Michael Cummo

Over 35 sleep-deprived days and nights, a record 3,282 fishermen made countless casts, nursed aching backs, untied umpteen bird’s nests, and sometimes caught fish, in the 69th Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby. Sunday, the Derby came to a raucous conclusion with an awards ceremony held at the Farm Neck golf club in Oak Bluffs.

On the Derby stage, a tearful mother hugged her son after he won a desperately needed work vehicle, a Somerville police lieutenant embraced Derby committee members like long lost brothers when the click of a padlock won him a new boat, and a fly fisherman claimed a long vacant crown.

As per the long-standing ritual, each winning fisherman in the shore and boat bluefish, striped bass, bonito, and false albacore divisions drew a number from one to four out of a small box to determine the order in which he or she would draw a padlock key. Once each fisherman held a key, one by one, longtime Derby president Ed Jerome took the key and inserted it into a padlock held next to the podium microphone.
Five men, two women and a seven-year-old boy not much bigger than the winning striped bass, stepped onto the stage, as family, friends, and bleary-eyed fishermen and Derby volunteers anticipated the dramatic conclusion.

Shore winner

The shore division was decided first. Behind Mr. Jerome stood Michael J. Mulcahy of Arlington, who’d hauled in a 15.20 pound bluefish; Creanga “Cosmo” Cosmin of Vineyard Haven whose 38.63-pound striped bass stayed atop the leaderboard for most of the Derby; Sebastian Keefe of West Tisbury and Los Angeles, who, conversely, got to the winner’s circle by weighing in a 7.87-pound bonito just an hour before the Derby closed at 10 pm, Saturday night; and Mary Ann Angelone of West Tisbury, the crowd favorite, who made it to the finals with a 14.65-pound false albacore which she caught on Lobsterville beach, standing next to Phil Horton, the man she would dethrone.

The festive crowd, far larger than the tent at Farm Neck could hold, went pin-drop silent as Mr. Jerome placed Mr. Mulcahy’s key into the lock. The subsequent “click” ignited a blast of cheers. After hugging friends and Derby officials, Mr. Mulcahy took to the podium.

“I guess the 23rd time is the charm,” he said. “I’ve fished this tournament for the past 23 years and everybody on this Island has been wonderful all these years. My friend Roy Langley (Derby weighmaster), my one and only tackle guy Steve Morris, and my Island host who’s put up with me for 25 years and all my nonsense, David Hearn.”  Mr. Mulcahy won an Eastern 22 Outboard, with trailer, compliments of Eastern Boats of Milton, New Hampshire.

Boat winner

The crowd noise subsided as Ed began the key ritual for the four shore grand leaders waiting their turn for a chance at a new Silverado truck courtesy of Bob and Fran Clay of Edgartown and the Clay Family dealerships.
Norman Bouchard Jr. of Vineyard Haven scored the winning bonito of 10.47 pounds. His key didn’t work. Vinny Iacono, son of Chilmark fisherman Wayne Iacono, who won the Derby in 1972 with a 56.9-pound striped bass, qualified for the winner’s circle with a 39.77-pound striped bass that was the longest fish atop the leaderboard. His key didn’t work. Fighting an incredibly strong fish and incredibly high odds, Mason Warburton, who’d already won enough tackle in the mini-junior division to open his own Bass Pro Shop, was on the stage for landing a 13.17-pound false albacore. His key didn’t work, and Preston Butler of Vineyard Haven knew his 15-pound bluefish had won him the 2014 Chevrolet Silverado. Cheers crescendoed to a roar as Mr. Butler hugged his mother who joined him onstage. To make it official, Mr. Jerome put Mr. Butler’s key in the padlock. “This is my worst nightmare,” Mr. Jerome said, quieting the crowd. The “click” of the lock set off another round of celebration. “I just have one thing to say,” a dazed Mr. Butler said at the podium. “I need a truck like nobody’s business.”

After the festivities, his proud mother Donna told The Times, “He’s also a commercial fisherman. He dropped out of college and said, ‘This is what I want to do.’He’s following his passion, to be a fisherman on the Vineyard and he works very hard at it. His truck has over 350,000 miles on it, he really needed this,” she said, wiping a tear.

Notable grand slam
Brice Contessa became the second fisherman in the history of the Derby to score a grand slam with a flyrod from shore. There had not been a shore grand slam on a fly rod since 1995, in large part because shore bonito have been so scarce for so long. But this year Mr. Contessa, manager of The Port Hunter in Edgartown, landed a 6.89-pound bluefish, a 6.09-pound bonito, a 9.51-pound false albacore and lastly, a 17.33-pound striped bass for a combined weight of 39.82 pounds.
Mr. Contessa fished the Derby as hard as it can be fished while maintaining steady employment.“I work full time, but I pretty much fished every day,” he told The Times. “I entered the conventional and fly rod divisions, but I stuck with the fly rod.” Mr. Contessa has 15 years of fly rod experience, by his own reckoning.  Mr. Contessa received a print that artist Dimitry Schidlovsky created for the grand slam category many years ago. But because there hadn’t been a shore fly rod grand slam since 1995, when Chip Bergeron became the first (and only other) to reach the Derby’s most elusive fishing milestone, the artwork that Mr. Dimitry donated had waited 19 years.
Just as impressive, Mr. Contessa’s striped bass, still alive when he brought it in, was successfully revived and released at the weigh station.

Do the right thing

Special awards are usually given for a specific fish, to a specific gender or age group, to honor a Vineyard fishing stalwart who’s moved on to the great Wasque in the sky. The Martha’s Vineyard Surfcaster’s Association (MVSA) Sportsmanship Award has nothing to do with piscatorial prominence, but everything to do with the spirit of the Derby.

“In a few short years this award has taken on a life of its own,” Derby chairman John Custer said. “It goes to an individual, an organization, or a family that represented what the Derby stands for — integrity, camaraderie, playing by the rules, and overall good sportsmanship. We deliberated for a long time. We take this very seriously.”

Mr. Custer went on to describe how a father and daughter, in a singular act, stood out above all the other nominees. “A child hooked up with a big fish, and had a hard time fighting it, and the dad knew if he touched any part of that rod, the fish was not eligible for the Derby. But Dad did touch the rod and when they got to the weigh station it was the first thing they said.”

The fish, a 11.19-pound boat bonito, would have propelled the young fisherman into first place, but was not eligible.

“It was a wonderful way to send a positive message of doing the right thing, so when you see them on the street, congratulate Keith and Lyla Fenner,” Mr. Custer said, to a torrent of applause.

A record high 3,282 fishermen caught 2,305 fish, weighing a total of 19,520.23 pounds. They caught more bluefish than anything else: 946, weighing 7,642 pounds. Bonito were the next most numerous catch (561 fish; 2,678 pounds ), followed by false albacore (520 fish; 4,181 pounds) and striped bass (288 fish; 5,022 pounds).

There was good news and bad news regarding the overall fish stocks. Although the winning shore bass was bigger than last year’s, there has been a steady decline in the weights and numbers of striped bass caught in the Derby since the moratorium was lifted in 1993 and Buck Martin won the shore division with a 54.74-pound fish.

“Bluefish were down, bass were way down, and it’s not just around here,” Mr. Jerome told The Times. “Albies were about the same, but bonito were way up — shore bonito especially. Last year five shore bonito were taken; this year 51 were weighed in.”

Volunteers make it happen
The Derby takes year-round planning and a small army of volunteers to make it one of the premier fishing tournaments in the country. From long-term planning to the instantaneous updates on the leaderboard, from filleting to delivering fish to various Island senior services, the backbone of the Derby is its many volunteers.

“We could not have the Derby without them,” Mr. Custer told the crowd. “Amy Coffey leads an amazing team.”

“The weigh in station is a combination of the old and the new.” Ms. Coffey told The Times. “Out front it’s chalk and sand and fish, just like it was when the Derby started. Behind the scenes there’s a lot of technology. Every fish that’s weighed in is entered into the computer immediately. We post the results at 10 after 10 every night.  One night our site went down and I was flooded with texts from all over the country,” she said, laughing.

Following a short respite, the Derby committee will begin planning for year 70.

For all Derby results, go to