Gabe Bergeron almost had a great story about the one that got away.
Fishing Sunday morning with his father, Mark Bergeron, at the annual Kids' Derby on the Steamship Authority wharf in Oak Bluffs, the nine-year-old angler hooked a large dogfish that locked him in an intense eight-minute battle. But the pratfalls of pier fishing cost the young fisherman his catch.
"His arm was killing him, and then right as the fish was at the pier, the line frayed on the pier, and it got away," the fisherman's dad recounted. "Gabe was all depressed and wanted to leave."
But gentle urging from his father kept the boy in the derby. He heroically cast out a new hook with fresh squid, and to his surprise again snagged something big. A short battle ensued, after which he went scrambling down the pilings to the water's edge. And there it was - the same dogfish - complete with the first hook dangling from its mouth.
The miracle catch, which measured in at a whopping 43-and-a-half inches, landed Gabe first place at the derby, an annual event that brings young fishermen and their parents together at sunrise for a few hours of fun, fish and family. This year's derby boasted a record turnout. Cooper Gilkes 3rd, chairman for the event, said more than 300 children ages 14 and under turned out for the fishing contest, which had been repeatedly postponed due to bad weather.
"It was big, very big," Mr. Gilkes said, "After all the moving and everything I was amazed at how many people came out."
Sunday morning proved worth the wait. The sky was clear and the sun shining. A light breeze kept the crowded pier cool and only slightly ruffled the sea's surface.
Giant fishing rods held by tiny hands dotted the pier. Cries of excitement and peals of laughter mixed with the sound of parents chatting over cups of coffee. Bent rods brought either elation or disappointment as youngsters frantically reeled in, their faces alight with anticipation as they peered down to the water's edge. More than one fight ended in a clump of seaweed floating to the surface. But a deft flick from a helping hand was all it took to clear the hook and send the children casting again.
Brothers Tyler and Russell Shapiro were busy at the far end of the pier, fishing shoulder to shoulder. Their father, Mark Shapiro, stood by to help with baiting and to offer encouragement. Despite the early hour, the three were alert and excited, happy to be out on the water - or at least standing above it.
"This is great. Once you get up and get out of the house it's a wonderful event for the kids," Mr. Shapiro said.
Russell paused from his vigil long enough to describe his favorite part of the derby, his first.
"I like reeling them in," he said matter-of-factly.
At the measuring station, excitement reigned. Throughout the morning little feet scampered back and fourth, clutching their latest catch. Two girls proudly carried a scup swaddled in a blue bath towel to the derby officials, who took official measurements and lavished praise on every angler.
Scup made up the bulk of the fish caught at the derby and are considered by many to be the ultimate childhood fish: easy to catch and plentiful. This year, the recreational scup season was closed August 31, meaning that anyone who kept the silvery fish was in violation of state law. Mr. Gilkes said every effort was made to follow regulations, and all scup were released after being measured.
As the morning wore on some of the younger contestants grew weary, ready to go home and catch a nap. Others stayed keyed up even when the fishing slowed down, chasing each other with brightly colored nets or traipsing all around the pier - an activity normally off-limits as the ships come in. One young girl was dressed in a splendid Cinderella dress and seemed content to merely watch the action. Many of the young boys clearly delighted in an early morning spent with dad and wore matching hats and hooded sweatshirts, their morning chocolate milk aside his steaming coffee.
At 8:30 a.m. the derby came to an end and awards were given out. Each winner received a fishing rod, tackle box and gear from derby sponsor Okuma. Harry West, 10, won the largest scup category, boasting an impressive 13.75-inch catch. He was given a wooden plaque with a mounted replica of a scup.
In the eight and under category, Ethan Mendez, seven, won first place with a 22.75-inch striped bass. Chase Soulagnet, seven, came in second with an 18.5-inch fluke, and Brian Frost, seven, placed third with an 18.25-inch fluke. Connor Chisholm earned first place in the nine-to-11-year-old category, with a 26.25-inch striped bass. Michael Montanile, 11, earned second with a 17.5-inch fluke and Andrew Carroll, nine, came in third, with a fluke of the same size. Jesse Fogg, 12, caught an 18.5-inch bluefish, placing first in the 12-to-14-year-old category, followed by Anthony Figueroa, 14, with an 18-inch fluke and Chris Costello, 12, who earned third place with a 17.5-inch fluke.
Each derby contestant received a commemorative T-shirt designed by Audrey Lewis, 15, who won a design contest held last year at all the Island schools. They also received assorted tackle donated by Okuma.
By 9 a.m. the pier was empty, all the derby contestants heading home for a much-needed nap, to tell tales of the day or to catch some cartoons. Father and son Christopher and Ethan Mendez were walking back to their car, with Mr. Mendez holding his son's prize rod. The two paused long enough for the seven-year-old to mull over what draws him to the sport of fishing, renowned for its tranquility, challenge and camaraderie:
"Mostly," he concluded, "I like to catch the fish."