The 56th annual Martha's Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby begins at 12:01 a.m. tomorrow, a minute past midnight. The first groggy fishermen of the month-long contest will line up to weigh in their catch when the derby headquarters opens at 8 a.m. in Edgartown.
Tomorrow morning's weigh-in is an annual start to an Island tradition. Tomorrow is the beginning of a seasonal change. The weigh-in is an old waterfront shack at the foot of Main street in Edgartown. Close to 3,000 fishermen are expected to join and compete for big prizes by catching the largest striped bass, bluefish, bonito and false albacore.
The contest continues until 10 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 13. Thousands of pounds of fish will be landed by boat and shore fishermen.
You don't have to visit an Island tackle shop to hear about this fever. Many of the entrants in the contest are tradesmen, doctors, lawyers and educators.
Last year's derby winner was Mark Plante, a plumber and caretaker from West Tisbury. Mr. Plante won a lifetime of bragging rights and an 18-foot Boston Whaler and outboard for having landed a 10.37-pound bonito on the last day of the contest.
Stories abound in a lot of shops. "Yeah, we try to block out all the fish stories," said Nicky Fullin, who works at Plumber's Supply in Vineyard Haven.
Michael Hebert at E.C. Cottle's lumber in West Tisbury gets his share of fish tales this time of year, and they sell nails not fishing tackle. "We do hear some fish stories," Mr. Hebert said. "We've got a couple of guys who go fishing."
Cars Unlimited at the Martha's Vineyard Airport is another place where the fishing reports arrive almost daily. David Pothier, who runs the business and is also a vice chairman for the derby, said: "I just had to fix this truck that had to be repaired before the derby started. This place is like Mayberry RFD, that small filling station. Everyone comes in to see what's going on with fishing - they're not necessarily coming to find out if a car is fixed."
Fish stories make it to the front desk of hotels, motels and inns. "We've had guests come in with fish they've caught," said Sherman Goldstein at the Tisbury Inn. "Fortunately, they have also had the good grace to have had the fish filleted."
Derby fever has a way of working its way into the fabric of the community, even into Sunday church services and weekday school classrooms. The derby president is Edgartown School principal, Ed Jerome.
The first person whom fishermen will meet tomorrow morning is 73-year-old Roy Langley of Edgartown, the derby weigh master.
Mr. Langley has been the weigh master for close to a decade. Mr. Langley is sharing the responsibility with Charlie Smith. At 8 a.m., Mr. Langley will ring a bell marking the official opening of the contest. "I am looking forward to the start," Mr. Langley said yesterday. "We enjoy the same people coming back every year. Their eyes are full of enthusiasm."
It is all about community service, Mr. Langley said. "It is good to be part of an organization that raises money for high school scholarships. It is about providing fish fillets to senior citizens, it is about offering a good time to anglers."
Tomorrow morning, Mr. Langley will wear a brand-new yellow apron.
At Island tackle shops, the talk is lively. Cooper A. Gilkes 3rd runs Coop's Bait and Tackle Shop in Edgartown. He is a longtime derby committee member and a former derby winner. "Everyone is pumped up. The fishing will have a slow start, but it will get going," he said. "The bait is starting to show up."
Saturday is Kids Derby day. While some may mark their calendars with tomorrow being the start, Mr. Gilkes said others see the beginning this weekend, when the organizers put together a great fishing contest for all kids at the Oak Bluffs Steamship Authority wharf. The fishing starts at dawn. Anglers win prizes for catching the biggest of any species, from sea robins to striped bass. Mr. Gilkes said he is expecting anglers to catch a lot of scup this year.
False albacore have yet to show up in Island waters. Mr. Gilkes said the fish is playing hooky. There were false albacore spotted along the Elizabeth Islands a week ago. "They've disappeared. I thought they went to Monomoy, but they haven't. In years past they haven't showed up until the first or second week of the derby," Mr. Gilkes said.
Anglers are hoping that this will be a good year for bluefish and for striped bass. Bonito have been around, but even they are scarce.
This is the year when the derby makes a strong appearance on the internet. Earlier this year, the derby commissioned EnSky Corporation of Rochester, N.H., to revamp the software for the organization and their Internet presence. The web address is http://www.mvderby.com and promises current standings throughout the contest.
In a release issued by the corporation, David Flood, president of EnSky, said: "The goal was to create a much richer user experience than the derby's existing site."
Their intent is to make steady improvements to the site based on this year's experience.
Meanwhile back at derby headquarters, "We are ready to roll," said Mr. Pothier. "We still need people to help with the fillet program."
Mike Waters, who has helped the derby as fillet master for the last 11 years, is taking the year off. "I love the derby," Mr. Waters said. "It is so much like a family." But there is illness in his family, and so his priorities have shifted this fall.
Mr. Pothier said the derby is in need of more volunteers to help with the fillet program, an effort which provides free fillets to senior citizens across the Island. Mr. Pothier said anglers interested in helping should call 508-939-9341.
Entering the derby is easy and it can happen any day; some anglers have joined in the last few days of the contest. Many of the Island tackle shops and Menemsha Texaco are taking registrations. Entry is $35 for all-tackle and fly fishing divisions. Senior citizens and junior fishermen are charged $15.