When it comes to gaining an edge to win the Martha’s VIneyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby, you have have to make sure your tackle is in order, study the tide charts, understand what fish are feeding on … and don’t forget your lucky socks.
For many fishermen, ritual and superstition play as big a role in preparing for the Derby as selecting the right bait. And to find out what special mojo Derby fishermen use to appease the fishing gods, we took a tour of some Island bait and tackle shops. Our first stop was Dick’s Bait and Tackle in Oak Bluffs.
Doug Asselin was behind the counter, and I asked him if he knew of any special rituals that fishermen used around Derby time. Asselin lit up with a big grin, “Oh, do I ever. Fishermen are unbelievably superstitious.”
The first ritual, and one that seemed to head the list at all the shops we visited, was getting a special number on the Derby button.
“You should see how long some guys take to pick a number,” Asselin said. “They stare and stare at those buttons, it’s a big deal.”
Another common ritual is to put the button on upside down until the fisherman gets the first fish, and then turn it right-side-up. We heard this from several people.
“The lucky hat,” Asselin said; “if someone hits it big in the spring with a particular hat, they’ll stay with it for the Derby, and otherwise forget about it.”
Some rituals have to do with equipment, like a fisherman who will only use his grandfather’s rod. Other fisherman will say, “I’m going to make seven more casts before I leave,” said Asselin, “And if he gets a fish on one of the seven casts, he’s texting his wife and telling her it’s going to be a long night.”
A lot of fishermen have a lucky spot, and it can be very specific. “For some guys, it comes right down to the rock,” Asselin said. “It has to be the seventh rock to the right, or it’s no good.”
My next stop was Larry’s Tackle Shop in Edgartown, and when I asked Julian Pepper behind the counter about Derby rituals, the guys in the shop started laughing and pointed to Mike Trance, who was spooling some line onto his reel. “Oh yeah,” laughed Trance, “I guess you’re looking for me.”
Encouraged by Pepper and Cameron O’Connell, who also works at the shop, Trance began to tick off some of his rituals. “Well, to begin with, I always spit my dip into the water before my first cast, otherwise I’ll never catch a fish. I also always shake hands with my fishing buddies before we start to fish,” he said.
“Tell him about the shooting stars,” said O’Connell.
“Oh yeah,” said Trance. “One time I was fishing and I saw two shooting stars … and I hooked up with a big striper right after the second one. There’s no reason I should have caught that fish — tide was all wrong — but I did. So I always make sure I get my line out there when I see the second shooting star. Here, let me show you …” Trance pulled out a picture of the fish on his phone, which O’Connell had snapped.
Then, almost as an afterthought, Trance said, “I also always kiss my fish before I let them go.”
“How about you, Julian? You must have some rituals,” I said to Pepper. “Well, not so much,” he said, and then continued, “Of course I’ll only buy my pin on an odd day and at an odd hour. I guess that would count,” he laughed. “I also never put my button on my hat or my jacket. I always put it on the visor of the driver’s side of my car.”
My third stop was at Coop’s Bait and Tackle in Edgartown, and Cooper Gilkes, the owner of the shop, came out from the back room and said, “Rituals, I’ve got a couple of those.”
“Before the Derby starts,” said Gilkes, “my wife will wash my sweatshirt, but that’s the last time it gets washed until the Derby is over. By the end of the Derby, that thing will start walking by itself.”
Next, Gilkes told me about a ritual that nearly got the best of him. “I always throw back the first albacore I get, no matter how big it is. It’s a sacrifice to the fish gods. One year I got a pretty good-size albie right at the beginning of the Derby, but I threw him back anyway. Then it got right down to the end of the Derby, and I could have used that fish for the grand slam. On the last day, I got one that was even bigger.” So Gilkes’ superstition actually paid off in the long run.
I bumped into some friends, Elliot Tholan and Tristan Atwood, and they told me their ritual was that they always started the Derby with an all-nighter.
I got an email from our fishing columnist, Janet Messineo. “I have so many rituals and superstitions,” she wrote; “most fishermen do. Of course a favorite hat is key. I also put a lot of stock in the socks I wear under my waders. I wish on stars … when I see a falling star, I believe that if I can pull from my mind the picture of the biggest fish before the star burns out, I will catch one. Does it work? Sometimes.”
I also got this text from Miles White, 2015 Derby winner: “I think the main ritual I do is to start going to spots I plan to fish to see what’s around, setting my alarm a little bit earlier every day before the Derby so when the time comes, I don’t need one, and always releasing the first fish I catch, no matter what it is or how big it is, and putting new line on my reels. Most Derby success happens when opportunity meets preparation, and what I do now is prepare. But I may start a new ritual this year. I may go stand out on the Menemsha jetty, pointing out to the sea like the late Babe Ruth calling his shot.”
A fisherman’s got to do what he’s got to do.