When eight-year-old Asa P. Bernard came home from school a week ago Tuesday, his parents had bad news for him. All of the family's fishing gear was stolen. Someone, the night before, had taken all the rods and reels and fishing tackle from the pickup truck parked next to their home.
"I felt like I was a volcano that had just exploded. I was very super angry, super mad and medium sad," Asa recalled this week.
"Every little thing had been stolen," said the boy's stepfather, Daniel Keniston of Vineyard Haven. Someone had taken nine rods and reels along with boxes of gear from Mr. Keniston's 1988 green Ford F250 pickup truck. The family had accumulated the fishing gear over many years.
"I had won two poles, two tackle boxes and reels last year at the derby," Asa explained. "They took that." The thief also took one of the prizes he was awarded in this year's 58th annual Martha's Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby, a handsome bag loaded with fishing tackle.
Asa had won the mystery prize, as it is known, for a big striped bass he caught on Oct. 2. "It took me a lot of time to win that fishing gear," he said. "I think I would like to kick the butt of the person who stole them. Fishing is the most fun thing for me - I remember fishing when I was five years old."
The night after his gear was taken, Asa went fishing again with his father's friends, Peter Pate and his brother Will. But it wasn't the same. This time they had to share fishing rods.
Young Asa is well known at the derby headquarters for routinely bringing in fish, and for his multiple prizes in last year's contest, including a 10.56-pound bluefish he caught from shore. He took a first place in the junior and mini junior divisions, and won the Kids Derby by catching the largest fluke.
So word of the theft circulated quickly among the organizers of this year's derby. Martha Smith, who heads up the staff, and her husband Charlie, the weighmaster, heard the news, and found the thought of Asa deprived of gear and unable to fish on his own unacceptable.
Within days, fishermen inside and outside of the derby began donating gear. Capt. Robert Blanchard of Edgartown Marine Outfitters donated a tackle box with assorted fishing gear. Dennis Arnold, a former weighmaster, and his wife pitched in. Others joined, some giving anonymously.
Last Sunday morning, Asa received a call from Mrs. Smith. "She wanted to talk to my dad, but he was asleep," Asa said. "So, I gave the phone to my mom."
That evening, Asa and his mother, Deana Keniston, went to the weigh-in before it opened for business, while Mr. Keniston stayed home with their 3 1/2 year-old, Atticus. They picked up a pile of fishing rods, reels and tackle. In the wake of the theft, the derby committee also voted to reissue the boy's mystery prize to replace what was stolen.
"I was so happy," Asa said. "I felt like it was Hanukkah, Christmas, my birthday, every little holiday that there is."
"I think he had tears in his eyes," Mrs. Keniston said.
In a fishing season that's been fiscally tough for the family, the significance of the gift cannot be measured.
"It took us five years of marriage to accumulate all that gear," Mrs. Keniston said. "We couldn't afford to replace what was stolen." There is a reason for that.
On the first night of the derby, Mr. Keniston broke his left foot and thus lost his full-time job working for a moving company. His foot may take another month to heal. To bring in much needed income, Mrs. Keniston said she has taken a full-time job while her unemployed husband is home with Atticus.
On many levels the derby gifts have turned the bad news around. Now father and son are back out fishing together.
Ed Jerome, president of the derby, said yesterday it is not uncommon for committee members to pool resources to help those in need. "We want to make sure that all the children have a successful experience participating in the tournament. When ever something goes wrong we try and make it right," Mr. Jerome said.
"Members of the derby committee have always given rods and reels to children so they can go out and fish with their parents."
Asa hopes for another win as the derby winds down. He holds a first place in the mini junior category for having caught the largest striped bass - 13.61 pounds - from the shore. He'll be out fishing with his new gear until the contest's close tomorrow.