Gone fishin’: The 71st pursuit of Bass and Bluefish Derby glory begins

Martha’s Vineyard gives itself up to the Island’s fishing Olympics, and one geezer is ready to claim his share of gold.

Martha's Vineyard's 71st Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby poster.

The 71st Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby begins Sunday, Sept. 11. For those readers unfamiliar with this five-week fishing contest, think of it as the Island’s fishing Olympics — without bribery, doping (unless Red Bull counts), big-money endorsements, multimillion-dollar stadiums, or Busby Berkeley opening ceremonies. The surrounding ocean is our athletic venue.

The modern Olympics obsesses over flag-waving and each nation’s medal count. What nationalism exists in the Derby breaks down to two categories: Islander (a category built on subcategories riven by ancient tribal feuds based on family name and town of origin) or off-Islander.

Islanders bring their own particular logic to Derby competition, which can be summed up in the phrase,“I’m an Islanduh.”

I will paint a picture. A fisherman is anchored in his boat off Tashmoo waiting patiently for a shot at a false albacore (commonly referred to as albies, one of four Derby categories). Fish break periodically in the general vicinity. Suddenly, a pod of albies appears off his bow. He prepares to cast when a 14-foot Boston Whaler propelled by a 350-hp Yamaha four-stroke as heavy as the boat it is mounted on careens in front of him, and four guys in Derby caps begin casting over his line.

With utter amazement and shock, he asks the guy in the bow of the Whaler, “Why’d you do that?”

The reply: “I’m an Islanduh.”

He is a great guy. He didn’t mean to do it. He just couldn’t help himself. I understand. I was once one of them, but now I am not.

Derby fishing begins just after the stroke of midnight at 12:01 am, Sunday. Undoubtedly, at that precise moment around the Island the soon to be sleep-deprived will begin to cast in pursuit of Derby glory. I will not be among them.

I have lost the ability and the desire to stay up past midnight in pursuit of fish, and I am no longer willing to trade the certain prospect of a good long snooze for the uncertain promise of a big striped bass. Where I once planned my Derby strategy like a general mounting a campaign, I now rely on sheer good fortune, based on the theory that if I fish often enough in good spot, maybe I will get lucky.

I should note that for the first year in my life, I registered in the Derby as a senior. Initially, I figured that would give me an advantage, because now I will compete against a bunch of geezers. Then it occurred to me that I am in the same category as guys like Jim Cornwell of Edgartown, who at the age of 79 can still outfish guys half his age — and he wakes up early.

Coming to grips with the senior category will take some mental adjustments. It is one thing to ask for a senior discount at Shirley’s Hardware — no one is looking — but to stand on stage at the Derby awards ceremony in the senior division in front of hundreds of people? I think not.

Yet I still relish the thought of Derby accolades. I dream about walking into the weigh station — the piscatorial Brigadoon that appears every fall on Edgartown Harbor — carrying a big striped bass as the assembled tourists ooh and ahh and the hardcore fishermen feign disinterest, but listen for any scrap of information that might provide a clue about where the fish was caught.

There are big stripers, and there are big Derby stripers. In recent years, anything over 30 pounds has been a big fish, but a 30 is not the stuff that Derby dreams are made of. Watch a fisherman walk into the weigh station with a 50-pounder, and you will understand.

The Derby prize structure is based on four categories of fish: striped bass, bluefish, false albacore, and bonito, in the shore and boat division. There are age groups and male and female categories [For more information go to mvderby.com].

The Derby committee, made up of volunteers drawn from the Island community, is responsible for the five-week contest. Their work takes place throughout the year.

The committee this week reminded fishermen that they must have a valid saltwater fishing license. In some cases, out-of-state licenses are valid where there are reciprocal agreements.

The committee also announced some rule changes. These include a change in the daily mystery prize, previously awarded by luck of the draw to a fisherman who had weighed in a fish.

“Mystery Prizes will now be awarded through luck of the draw to anyone registered in the Derby,” the committee announced. “No fish needs to be weighed in to be eligible.”

In the past, fishermen would often weigh in a fish that was not competitive in order to try and win a mystery prize. This is a good change that will eliminate the incentive to keep a fish that would otherwise be released.

The team competition has been amended to its original setup, with four fish (one of each species), not eight, eligible to count toward a team’s total. Once again the aim is to cut down the number of fish taken.

Boat fishermen are also reminded that they may not carry any Derby-eligible fish outside Derby boundaries, even for the purpose of refueling at adjacent harbors.

I spoke with John Custer of Tisbury, longtime Derby chairman. John is also the principal of the Tisbury School, so he has lots of the playground skills needed to cope with Derby fishermen.

John said the committee spent a considerable amount of time over the winter discussing potential changes that included modifying the regulations with respect to striped bass, which have seen their numbers drop. After considerable thought, and discussions with marine fisheries biologists, they concluded that the science didn’t support any changes, and the current impact is minimal.

John also shared his takeaway from the survey the Derby conducted over the winter: “Most people are pretty happy with what we’ve been doing and the way it is,” he said.

He added that the committee does its best to keep everyone happy, but with more than 3,000 fishermen registrants, it is an impossible task — I’d put the threshold at 10.

Good luck in the Derby, and fish safe — wear your PFD.

For the ladies

As a prelude to the Derby, Abbie Schuster, a professional fly-fishing guide and outfitter, has organized a Women’s Fly Fishing Day on Saturday, Sept. 10, from 2 pm to 5 pm at Lighthouse Beach in Edgartown, followed by happy hour at the Port Hunter on Main Street.

She will provide rods from Orvis and reels from Cheeky, so no equipment is necessary, she said. The event includes casting lessons, beach fishing, and a raffle. The cost is $25 per person. For more information or to register, email Abbie@kismetoutfitters.com, or call 860-944-5225.