The 78th Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby is now in week two. Other than Christmas and Easter, the 35 days of the Derby are the absolute best days of the year. As much as it is humanly possible, I fish all 35 days each year. Not all day, every day, but at least a portion of each day. And when I can, all day.
On Sunday, Sept. 10, I woke before first light, the sky still black, and waited for some friends to arrive at my home. I’d love to say I waited patiently, but I can’t. The night before, I had loaded my truck with all the rods and gear we could possibly need on the first day of the Derby. I had nothing to do on Sunday morning as I waited.
I paced the kitchen floor for a bit, glancing out the window every five seconds, gave that up to grab a flashlight and walk out to the truck to make sure yet again I had everything we needed, then went back into the house and filled a water bottle with green tea I’d brewed the day before. Iced tea I wouldn’t end up drinking on the beach, but it gave me something to do.
When headlights finally showed on my driveway, I raced out the front door, leaving the flashlight on the kitchen counter, and ran to give the first of many Derby hugs. There is nothing like fishing with friends, especially during the Derby.
Pedro, Kat, and I loaded into my truck, joking and laughing about who would catch the first fish (Pedro), or the biggest fish (Pedro), or nothing but bait fish (that would end up being me). We headed to one of my favorite Derby locations, which has limited parking, hence the need to leave in the dark so you arrive at the parking area while there is still a parking space to be had.
We walked to the beach, headlamp on the trail to avoid the random stump, and spotted Little Coop first, casting into the dark. We wished each other luck and I moved a bit farther down the beach, immediately spotting Kevin Seger, my neighbor and one of the happiest fishermen I know. There was enough distance between Little Coop and Kevin for Pedro, Kat, and myself to take a spot, but I asked Kevin if he had enough room out of respect. Kevin’s response was pure Kevin. He drew a tight imaginary square around himself and said, “This is all the space I need.”
We all chuckled, then Pedro pointed to Kevin’s lure. I’m not sure if Kevin was filled with confidence or speaking a wish aloud, but he stated, “This lure is for catching bones.”
If you follow the Derby, you know that’s exactly what Kevin did. About an hour later, Kevin’s line begins to peel — that wonderful sound of a hardtail taking off with your lure in its mouth. I reeled in as quickly as I could and pulled my phone out of my pocket to take some pictures. When Kevin got the fish close to the shoreline, we all saw it was a bonito. There was a collective intake of breath with no release.
Bones can be elusive. Bonito are the hardest of the Derby fish to catch a weighable. There have been years in Derby history when only one or two, maybe three shore bonito were weighed in.
Kevin had one on his line. His first hookup of the Derby.
We held our breath, willing the coveted fish to shore.
When the bone was safely out of the water, we cheered. Kevin giggled with the pure joy of a child discovering his most-wished-for present under the Christmas tree. An hour and a half later, I can imagine the smile on Kevin’s face as he weighed in the first fish of the 2023 Derby. Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy!
My teammate, Dave Balon, arrived on Monday. I don’t think anyone loves the Derby as much as Dave. He repeats one mantra from the first day of the Derby to the last, “Don’t miss the Derby.”
Dave’s not talking about fishing, though he fishes smart and never quits. Dave’s putting the Derby into perspective: friends first, fish second. It’s one of the many reasons he’s my teammate. Anyone can fish, but not everyone will help strangers, pass out lures to kids on the beach, or encourage every fisherman he comes in contact with. Dave is that person. Dave has true Derby spirit. We need a Derby hashtag that says: “BeLIkeDave.” (BTW, he’s going to kill me when he reads this.)
For the first time ever, after months of us having to rearrange our summer visits, my friend Tammy King (@fishgirlack) left Nantucket to spend two glorious days fishing the M.V. Derby. Tammy is an incredible fisherman. She’s pro staff for St. Croix rods, Van Staal reels, and Hogy lures. While watching Tammy fish could be a much-needed education, the best part of being with Tammy is the hours of laughter and conversation.
We spent priceless hours at Lobsterville, West Chop, Eastville, and on Chappy, sharing our hopes and disappointments, highs and lows, listening and gabbing, discussing world issues, local dilemmas, and fishing conservation. And laughing, an abundance of laughter. Tammy’s back on Nantucket fishing the Inshore Classic. I’m watching their scoreboard and hoping she wins!
During the first week, I hugged as many off-Island friends returning for these magical Derby days as I could. Whit and Tyler, Ron and Lee, Betty and Sherri, Phil and Chris — you get the point.
I’m not going to get started today on the wonderful group of people who make up the Martha’s Vineyard Surfcasters. I have more fun with them than a person could hope for, and I’m grateful for every moment in their company.
As I finish this piece, Betty and Michael are driving up State Road and Kathy is coming over from Oak Bluffs. The four of us are going to Chappy for the day. I hope we catch fish. I hope we all need to go to weigh-in tonight. I don’t know if that will happen. I do know, with 100 percent certainty, that we will have a great day together.
Fish are the focal point of the Derby. Casting for fish, dreaming of fish, hooking fish, landing fish, and hopefully weighing fish in.
While fish are the focal point, friendship is the heart of the Derby.
I hope to see you on the beach.
Editor’s note: The MV Times is happy to bring back our Fishing Report, especially in time for the Bass and Bluefish Derby.
Lisa Belcastro is the director of the Harbor Homes winter shelter, and served as the regional coordinator for the National Alliance of Mental Illness for five years, and continues to volunteer for NAMI. She is passionate about serving in her church community, and leading youth groups and vacation Bible camps. Her life-changing experience with the Venezuelan migrants created a new passion for policy changes for immigrants.
Lisa loves fishing and gardening — being outdoors. She has run a marathon in all 50 states, and is currently on pace to run every Disney race in one calendar year.