Despite stringent health protocols surrounding masks and distancing brought upon by the pandemic, Islanders are rejoicing in knowing that the fish are hungry, and the 75th Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby is underway.
Although striped bass aren’t an eligible fish species in this year’s Derby, and the weigh station won’t serve as a community gathering spot for anglers, folks are still enjoying fishing with family and friends.
On the first official day of the Derby, President John Custer served as the weighmaster, and weighed in only two fish in the first two hours. But by Sunday night, Custer said, around 57 fish had been weighed in.
“It was a slow morning, but it was so gratifying to open those doors. We have gotten so much feedback from people about how much they appreciate that the Derby is still happening,” Custer said. “It seems like our community needed something. Luckily, you can participate in the Derby and still socially distance. People are understanding of the changes, and are just happy to be fishing again. You can fish the Derby in the same manner as you have fished it, more or less.”
According to Custer, the Derby committee was skeptical about whether or not the Derby would be possible this year. But, based on health guidance, Custer said the committee decided to hold the tournament, and he is proud of that decision.
“We are very confident about how we are doing things safely,” Custer said. He gave the logistical and planning credit to Derby committee chair Joe El-Deiry, who he said is “so incredibly committed” to carrying out a safe and enjoyable Derby.
“I was chairman for 11 years, and I never had a challenge with anything close to what he is facing this year,” Custer said.
Custer thanked the town of Edgartown for supporting the Derby team in their efforts.
Although the changes to the Derby, like no morning coffee at the weigh station, and strict one-person occupancy inside the station, are a lot for anglers to adapt to, Custer said people have had time to understand the reasons.
“We are lucky that, in a sense, people have had months of adapting to these different, constantly changing conditions,” Custer said. “So while the process is new to us, people have been adapting to these types of big changes since March.”
Custer said he is sad he can’t welcome old friends and new fishermen into the weigh station to browse the Derby gear or have a laugh, but he understands why. “We accept that there are just some things we can’t do this year, and that’s OK. We can still have the Derby, just under different circumstances,” Custer said.
Registration is looking better than anticipated for this year, with figures hovering around 2,000 participants.
“We were prepared to not see the numbers we are used to, but I am really pleasantly surprised at how many people are participating,” Custer said.
Even though stripers won’t be counted this year, Custer said there are plenty of bonito, albacore, and bluefish in Vineyard waters.
“The other night, we saw a 10-pound bonito get weighed in, so there are some big bonito out there. There’s also a ton of albacore swimming around, so the fishing is good so far,” Custer said.
Custer stressed how the passing of Roy Langley, longtime weighmaster and Derby Hall of Famer, has weighed heavily on the Vineyard community, especially fishermen: “We lost a really important member of the Derby family, Roy Langley. He was Maryanne [Langley] Jerome’s father, and Ed Jerome’s father-in-law. Every year, Roy looked forward to ringing the bell. That has now become my privilege, since I am the Sunday morning weighmaster. When I rang the bell this Sunday to start the Derby, I mentioned him, but didn’t know he had passed the night before. We are thinking of Roy, and of his family.”
El-Deiry said he knew Langley for 25 years after working with him at John Keene Excavation, and always had a “really great relationship” with him. When El-Deiry fished his first Derby on the Island, he said, he remembers how welcoming and kind Langley was.
“He would always have a huge smile, was super-friendly, and just wanted to see how things were going with everyone,” El-Deiry said. “The weigh station became kind of like a second home to him, and although he will be missed, he lived a phenomenal life.”
El-Deiry said everything is going smoothly at the weigh station, and folks are being respectful of the health protocols. “All the participants have been phenomenal. We have had no issues with people questioning why we are doing something in a certain way, or wondering why they can’t buy some Derby merchandise at the weigh station,” El-Deiry said. “Yes, there are some things that have changed that people wish were the same, but the alternative is not having the tournament at all.”
El-Deiry said that, currently, Derby registration is just about 100 participants shy of where figures sat for last year’s Derby around the same time.
“It really speaks to how the community feels about the Derby, and how important it is to people,” El-Deiry said. “I cannot wait to get out on the water and experience a little bit of Derby madness.”
The Derby weigh station will be open for fish weighing every day from 8 am to 10 am, and from 8 pm to 10 pm.