Capturing a Derby day to remember

Bailen Darack hauls a freshly caught 14.88-pound Bluefish to the Derby weigh-in station.

Editor’s note: While Barry Stringfellow has “gone fishing,” we bring you the guest commentary of Adam Darack.


Derby time: It’s my favorite time of year. The Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby is something I consider to be a five-week holiday, and is “my summer.” Every hour, almost every day, I check the wind, tides, and weather. My oldest friend and amazing fishing buddy Roger Schaefer and I have our own language surrounding fishing spots and radio channels to communicate on. Strangers listening to us during these five weeks must think we’re crazy. Their assumption would likely be accurate. It’s an earned and shared insanity with most Derby participants.

My children were introduced to the Derby when each of them hit the lower age limit of mini-junior (4 years old). My son Mateo is now 12, and his interest in fishing comes and goes, but it’s currently not his passion. That’s fine, though; he pursues other things with amazing focus and success, and he’s an incredible kiddo who gives me endless pride. Hope he comes back to fishing, but I’m not one to push or force it. As long as he’s pursuing his passions, I’m happy. My daughter Bailen, age 9, is in her first year in the junior division after “graduating” from being a mini-junior. This girl, while she loves hockey, especially playing goalie, is one of the hardest-core fisherpeople I’ve ever seen. She would go 24/7, and can fight a fish about as well as anyone I’ve ever seen. The Derby always gives us great stories, and I have one from last weekend to share.

Sunday, I was watching the Patriots, and the way the game was going, I felt I was better served listening to it on the radio while getting ready to fish instead of sitting inside watching it. The Pats weren’t playing well, but I never count them out. With Brady at the helm, who in their right mind could? My kids were at their mom’s, and I drove over to pick them up so we could head out on the boat to fish and enjoy the amazing weather. Brady’s magic prevailed, and the Pats sealed the win over the Texans at the same moment I pulled into the driveway. I took a moment to compose myself before walking to the door to get the kids, as I had been screaming in the car, celebrating the last-second win.

Bailen Darack, left, heads into the open ocean with her dad, Adam Darack, right. — Courtesy Adam Darack

My son decided not to come, but my daughter was all in. We drove to our boat, loaded it up, and headed out. What a beautiful afternoon to be on the water. Tropical Storm Jose had kept us landlocked for close to a week, and it felt refreshing to be out there again. We trolled one spot, then another, and though the conditions were ideal, we couldn’t find any fish. With the lighting and conditions, I wanted to capture us being out there. I am typically a horrible selfie taker but decided to snap a couple while trolling.

Before I got a chance to see how the pictures came out, I saw Bailen jump at one of the rods as it forked over, the drag screaming while the line sprinted off the reel. I threw my phone on the console, popped the boat into neutral, and said, “You might want to leave that in the rod holder and reel it in; looks like a pretty solid fish.” I wasn’t surprised when she immediately did the opposite: pulled the rod out of the holder and began fighting the fish. As the fish came within 50 feet of the boat, it jumped, and appeared medium-size and unremarkable. I knew it was a bluefish from the way it was fighting and its jump, but what I didn’t realize was all I saw was about half of the fish.

Bailen continued to bring the fish to the boat, and when it was 15 feet away, the fish came to the surface. It quickly dove, and in the glimpse I saw, I thought it was two fish swimming next to each other, as the silver flash in the water looked too big to be what I had seen jump. At a depth of approximately 20 feet from the water’s surface, the fish darted toward the stern of the boat. That’s trouble. The line can wrap around the propeller and break fairly easily. I yelled to her to jump up on the back corner of the boat and hold the rod out over the water to keep it away from the prop. I was holding onto the back of her lifejacket securely, so I told her not to worry, she wasn’t going to fall in.

She stood there on that corner for a few minutes until the fish was exhausted (as was she) and started to come to the surface. Bailen was standing in a safer spot now, so I grabbed the net. When the fish appeared from the depths, my jaw dropped. It was a monster. I dipped the net into the water to try to get it, and the fish spun, nearly tangling the lure in the net. When that happens, much of the time you are left with a tangled net as the fish shakes free of the lure and swims away. I pulled the net back, then dipped it again and had the fish secured.

When I pulled it onto the boat, Bailen and I looked at each other while grinning ear to ear. It was the biggest fish she’d ever caught. We did a silly tap dance on the boat to celebrate, but then I wanted to get it on ice right away. I texted my friends Steve and Susan Bowen, who own Waterside Market in Vineyard Haven, to see if I could swipe some ice from their icemaker. They were happy to oblige.

We sped back to the dock, loaded the fish into a cooler, drove to Waterside, and got our ice. At that point I was able to relax. The fish wasn’t going to lose weight by drying up, and we had an hour until weigh-in. We grabbed a slice of pizza, and Bailen was in a tizzy over this fish. This was full-on Derby fever delirium and too cute for words.

Using her signature flair, Bailen Darack hugs her fish on the way to the weigh-in station. —Adam Darack

We drove to Edgartown at 8 pm. Bailen has a technique all her own for carrying fish to a weigh-in. It’s her tradition, and her preferred technique. She hugs them. Literally. This fish’s head was level with hers, and the tail was below her knees. At the weigh-in, we saw Kelly Sullivan, a friend and the band teacher at the Tisbury School, who was weighing in her first-ever fish. They waited in line together, and when Bailen’s bluefish was put on the scale, Bailen’s pride and sense of accomplishment seeing it weigh in at 14.88 pounds brought tears to my eyes. Kelly’s fish was a beast too, and the two ladies celebrated at the weigh-in table together. Where and when else can students, teachers, and friends all merge like that? We live in an incredible place, and the Derby is merely a conduit that allows for these moments to happen. When I finally looked at the selfie, I’ll be honest: more tears. It captured our joy of just being out there on the water.

Bailen’s fish propelled her into first place in the junior boat bluefish division; I told her there’s a lot of time left, it’s definitely possible she could get bumped from that spot. That said, I told her nobody, I mean nobody, could ever take the whole Sunday fishing experience from her, and that was better than any prize. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady could not have scripted a better Sunday than she had.

To me, the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby isn’t about the fish or tangible prizes. Never was, never will be. It’s about these incredible five weeks per year when we actually make the time to appreciate things like living near the ocean, the Island community, spending quality time with special people in our lives, making memories, and having stories to tell for years to come. Happy Derby season, everyone; hope you make a boatload of treasured memories.