Scaled-down ceremony wraps up 75th Derby

Silver linings shine through unexpected challenges.

Greg Clark (right) celebrates his grand prize award — a brand new Cape Codder boat — alongside Derby president John Custer. - Lucas Thors

It was a different kind of Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby this year, but the values the tournament exemplifies in the Island community remained.

At a scaled-down ceremony underneath a tent near the Edgartown School, 25 anglers turned out to celebrate the conclusion of the 75th annual Derby, and all that the competition represented for participants and spectators.

According to Derby president, John Custer, as officials began to plan for this year’s Derby, they considered ways to make it stand out as a particularly celebratory and memorable event. 

“Because of COVID, we quickly turned to coming up with plans of how we might even be able to hold the event,” Custer said. “That was unsettling and challenging. Today, it feels reassuring and satisfying to be here wrapping up a complete 35-day Derby.”

While there were numerous challenges and adjustments necessary to make the event a success, Custer said it was all worthwhile in the end. 

He said he understands and appreciates the disappointment that some felt regarding the compromises, but acknowledged that there were so many great things that came out of this year’s tournament.

“The 75th Derby will be remembered for many good and positive reasons,” Custer said.

With 3,225 anglers registered, and 1,444 fish weighed, Custer said he considered the Derby a success in all aspects.

And one of the most immense successes of this year, according to Custer, was the record $50,000 in college scholarships from the Derby scholarship program awarded to Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School graduates to support their continued education.

“The Derby scholarship program remains at the core of our mission,” Custer said.

There were other successes that could not be measured in numbers, but instead highlighted how much the Derby means to so many on Martha’s Vineyard.

One such story involved a young angler who had his fishing gear taken, and then had his tackle box made whole again by Derby officials and the Martha’s Vineyard Surfcasters.

“It reinforced why I love being part of this organization and this event. Especially during a year that has been so difficult and unsettling, it was great to be reminded of community, of hope, and of kindness,” Custer said.

He continued to thank the entire Island community for their dedication and support.

“You affirmed that the Derby is one of the most important parts of our community, and even during times of adversity, it is something that people needed and supported,” Custer said. 

One of the major changes to this year’s competition involved sponsors and prizes.

In the springtime, Custer said the Derby committee recognized the economic toll the pandemic was having on businesses that have been sponsoring the Derby for many years.

“The generosity and support of companies that sponsor the Derby is incredible and has been for decades,” he said. “This year, we did not solicit prizes from them, although many sent in items anyway and we appreciate these gestures. This year’s prizes include gift certificates to Island businesses. The Derby saw this as an opportunity to support the business that have supported us, especially during a challenging year for them.”

Before the ceremony, division leaders and special award recipients picked up their gift certificates during a drive-through event at the Edgartown School. 

Before stepping down from the podium, Custer thanked the entire Island community for their support, and introduced Derby committee chairman Joe El-Deiry.

“The challenges involved in holding this Derby were constant, and they grew. There were times we thought it might not happen, Joe led us through those times,” Custer said, 

El-Deiry said that, as difficult as it was to plan and execute the Derby, this year has been one of the most rewarding he has been a part of.

When the pandemic began to change almost every aspect of our daily lives, El-Deiry said the easy way out would have been to cancel the competition altogether. 

“But we chose to commit to coming up with ways to hold the 75th Derby. We changed our prize structure, reduced entry fees, and set up protocols for the weigh station with safety as our top priority,” El-Deiry said.

He mentioned a comment from friend and Derby director-at-large, David Hearn, who said that, despite the many challenges, everyone should take into consideration all the silver linings that came out of this year.

“From being able to fish and breathe some fresh air, to getting to see old friends and enjoying some normalcy,” El-Deiry said.

Some personal positives for him were enjoying the company of fellow committee members, and serving as the weighmaster alongside his wife, who was working the fillet table. Another silver lining for El-Deiry was getting to see his friend and neighbor Ken Beebe, who has been living with Parkinson’s disease, get out on the water and weigh in his first ever Derby fish.

But most of all, the most rewarding part of El-Deiry’s Derby was getting to spend yet another season fishing with his son, Luke. 

El-Deiry noted the immense success of the fillet program, which donated fresh fish to Island elders, and to the Island Grown Initiative to distribute them to Island kids through the school system.

For the key ceremony, which conventionally awards two of the Grand Leaders a boat (for leading in shore fishing) and a car or truck (for leading in boat fishing), this year six Grand Leaders got a chance to win the Cape Codder boat.

The six Grand Leaders each received a limited edition Vineyard Colors print, $500, and an original plaque. Each grand leader weighed in the heaviest fish of each species, boat and shore.

Each Grand Leader put on disposable gloves and pulled a key out of a Derby hat. The keys were then placed in envelopes and opened one-by-one by Custer. 

With each Grand Leader who stood by the podium, and each key that was tried in the lock, the anticipation and suspense grew. 

It wasn’t until the final key was tried that the lock popped open, and Greg Clark was declared the grand prize winner with his 12.34-pound bonito from a boat.

Check out the Derby website for a complete leaderboard and list of recipients of the special prizes.