Anglers close in on Derby home stretch

For the entire fishing community,  Derby denouement is bittersweet.

From left: Ed Jerome, Ed Medeiros, and Cooper Gilkes stand with their massive striped bass during a historic day of Derby fishing 40 years ago. — courtesy John Custer

As the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby draws to a close, folks are hurrying to land that prizewinning fish and top the leaderboards, which already hold some impressive catches. 

For Derby president John Custer, the tournament represents much more than just good fishing or bad fishing — and whether you are putting your name on the board every other day, or struggling to land a weighable fish, it’s all in good fun.

“There are always the really great days, and then some not so good ones — weather dictates a lot of it,” Custer said. 

With over a thousand fish weighed in so far, and many more being plopped on the scale each day, this year’s Derby is closely trailing last year, which saw slightly higher numbers.

“Last year, it felt like the fishing was fantastic, and for a lot of people, I think it was just because they were so excited to be back out on the water,” Custer said. “But this year isn’t that far off.”

On a particularly active Saturday, Custer said, 127 fish were weighed in, and on a Thursday when the fish were biting, 60 fish were scaled.

“That’s a lot for a weeknight. Sometimes you do great, sometimes you don’t — but hey, that’s fishing for you,” he said.

Right now, the Derby Committee is still determining what the closing ceremony will look like. After having a scaled-down outdoor ceremony in the Edgartown School courtyard last year, the committee is set on having the ceremony in its original location this time around — Farm Neck Golf Club. 

“We had an executive committee meeting recently, and we are getting there. Soon we should have it all buttoned up, and will share out more information,” Custer said.

So far, the Derby COVID protocols are working swimmingly. The prize window is open for the mystery, daily, and weekly prizes, and the online store is seeing success (with some new merchandise).

Last year, Custer said, it was a difficult adjustment to switch over to some of the necessary protocols to protect public health, but everyone is well-versed in the process now. 

“Last year, everything was very new, and we really had to figure it out ourselves. But we learned a lot from last year, and were able to use that to our advantage. Thus far it has been a really enjoyable Derby,” he said.

Each year during the competition, the strange and serendipitous stories that are circulated among the fishing community are what become memories that last a lifetime, Custer said.

For instance, it was David Kadison’s 16.54-pound bluefish that topped the leaderboards right out of the gate. 

About a week after the big blue was weighed, Custer was working as weighmaster at Derby headquarters, when Edgartown angler James Joyce brought in yet another 16.54-pound bluefish. 

“He knew immediately what the rule is if there is a tie — the tiebreaker goes to the first fish that was weighed in,” Custer said. “He just laughed and handled it very gracefully.”

As if the two identical fish weren’t odd enough, a third angler came in soon after and weighed his fish — it came out to 16.54 pounds.

“So we had three bluefish come in at the exact same weight,” Custer laughed. A day or two later, a massive 20-pound bluefish was brought in, which made the three-way tie moot in the running.

“But for a couple days we thought we might have the difference between the grand leader, with a chance to win the grand prize, and the second-place fish based on a couple of days,” Custer said.

There are always those Derby stories that last through the ages. Custer mentioned a long October weekend 40 years ago, and a picture of Ed Jerome, Cooper Gilkes, and Custer’s father-in-law as they fished the famous long weekend blitz. 

The group of experienced anglers were out at the Tisbury Great Pond opening, when a historic school of giant striped bass moved through with a ravenous appetite.

“There were multiple 50-pounders caught that day. One guy caught a 50-pound bass and a 20-pound bluefish on the same day. People still talk about it all the time,” Custer said.

Whether you are leading the tournament, with your eyes set on the grand prize, or are trailing behind a bit and just enjoying time out on the water with friends and family — the last week or so of the Derby is bittersweet.

“Especially for committee members. It’s 35 days, and it’s exhausting. Of course, we absolutely love it and look forward to it all year, but it’s hard work,” Custer said. “It’s a great time. Something that the Island supports and loves, and it’s hugely gratifying to make this special event happen each year.”