Gone fishin’: Move over, Roy Rogers, the Derby has Phil

The 71st Derby officially began when Tim Peters of Oak Bluffs laid a 10.85-pound blue on the scale.

Bailen Darack of Vineyard Haven holds up a 12.02-pound bluefish before weighing it in at Derby headquarters in Edgartown Sunday night. – Adam Darack

Sunday evening I made my first fishing trip of the 71st Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby, accompanied by the lyrics and music of charter captain Phil Cronin. The westerns had the singing cowboy — the Derby has its singing fisherman.

I met Phil many years ago when he was standing on the end of the Tashmoo jetty, ever-present cigar in his mouth, fly-fishing for albies. A seasonal resident of West Tisbury and still employed by the U.S.O., what  initially impressed me was that unlike many fishermen (this writer included), Phil was not territorial about the coveted jetty-end perch. He was always welcoming, always willing to make space, and an overall genial guy.

When Phil retired, he put his skills to good use helping other people enjoy fishing. I knew he was a talented fisherman, and I knew he was a good photographer because he would often send me shots of people with fish. What I did not know is that the guy played the guitar, wrote songs, and sang — or that he aspired to be the fishing version of L.L. Cool Derby.

In March, Phil dropped off a CD envelope, titled “The Vineyard Derby Calls: Martha’s Vineyard Fishing Songs of Capt. Phil Cronin.” The cover photo shows Phil’s son Jay standing on a rock in waders fly-casting under the glow of a setting sun. There was a note inside in which Phil explained the project, which began in 2013.

Phil said, “When I wrote the song ‘The Vineyard Derby Calls,’ I decided that I would continue to write ones about Island fishing, and set the goal of composing a song about each of the species we target. The CD is the culmination of that project, and includes songs about striped bass, bluefish, Atlantic bonito, and false albacore … The whole project was my way of paying homage to the Island fishing culture that had become such an important part of my life.”

[Check out this life performance]

The CD sat on my desk. I was waiting for the right moment. It came Sunday evening when I picked up Tom Robinson and we headed for the south shore. I popped the disc into the CD player. Phil was strumming the guitar and singing away.

“My rods are on the rack, I’m headin’ up-Island; don’t know when I’ll get back, I’m headin’ up-Island; the new moon arises, a thick fog disguises, I’ll walk that sandy trail, like a fingertip on Braille, listening to the sound, as the surf comes rollin’ down in search of Moshup’s lonesome bass …”

What followed was a seven-song, 24-minute love letter for everything fishing- and Derby-related on Martha’s Vineyard. And that includes “Albie Fever,” “Vineyard Bones,” Sugar Sand Trail,” and “Chappy Shark Time,” a rap song about fishing for brown sharks.

I do not expect to see any of these songs on a jukebox in Nashville. But this CD is a unique and heartfelt paean to a unique Island institution by a man who makes no apologies for his love of fishing.

“This album is dedicated to the many wonderful anglers, young and old, that help further the fishing culture of the Island,” Phil wrote on the cover envelope. I count him among that group.

You can check out the songs on any of the popular digital music sites, Phil said, and there are copies for sale at local Island tackle shops.

I suspect if I had any musical talent, which I do not, the titles in my album might include: A Red Bull Derby Sunrise; She Gave Me a Derby Divorce; and Leaky Waders Make Me Sad.

Phil’s lyrical inspiration notwithstanding, on Sunday night Tom and I caught enough weed to tip the scale at the Derby weigh station, but little else.

Irrespective of our late start, the Derby officially began at 8 am Sunday, when weighmaster Roy Langley slid open the door of the well-weathered shack on Edgartown Harbor and rang a classic hand bell, signaling the start of five weeks of fishing madness.

There are various levels of bragging rights in the Derby, and on Sunday morning the honor of being the first fisherman to weigh in a fish went to Tim Peters of Oak Bluffs. His was the first bluefish to be placed on the weigh station scale, a 10.85-pound beauty. More fish will follow, but for one brief moment, Tim Peters led the Derby.

The contest began on a somber note. Longtime Derby president Ed Jerome asked those present to pause for a moment of silence and remember those killed on Sept. 11, 2001. It is sobering to contemplate that 2,996 people died that day, nearly as many people as will register in the Derby.

Kids Day is Sunday

The Kids Mini-Derby is Sunday, Sept. 18, from first light 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.