Roy Langley, weigh master for the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby, will ring a cowbell at 8 a.m. sharp Sunday morning.
Once that cowbell rings, at the entrance to the official derby headquarters at the foot of Main street in Edgartown, the Vineyard will become an entirely different place.
From that moment on, derby participants can bring in their fish to be weighed in the month-long contest that galvanizes the Island every year.
The 62nd annual Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby starts officially at 12:01 a.m. Sunday and continues until 10 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 13.
The derby likely will attract 3,000 fishermen: men and women of all ages. Some of the participants will come from afar and fish the contest just for a weekend. Others will fish for the coming weekends. Some will fish every day.
For fishermen it is their season, their time to catch the biggest striped bass, bluefish, bonito and false albacore. It is a time on the Vineyard when derby standings are more important than just about anything else.
For an angler’s spouse — it could be a wife or a husband — the change is huge. Anglers who have left their rod and reel dormant for months, except for an occasional foray in the surf, now treat the equipment as the most important tool in their life.
For a month, some wives become derby widows. For a month, children already having a hard time doing their homework for the start of school become obsessed with fish, tides and currents.
During that time, a lot of phones get left unanswered, or cell phones become out of range. Plumbers, electricians, carpenters and even educators are away on a special project with Mother Earth and King Neptune.
The contest offers flavors for every angler. Some participate for the sake of competing. They want to win any amount of the $250,000 in daily and weekly tournament prizes and money. They may fish to win the 19-foot Boston Whaler Montauk, with outboard and trailer; or the shiny new Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck.
There are so many prizes that to list them all would fill a booklet and it does. The derby souvenir booklet is 80 pages and the rules take an additional 10 pages.
Others may just be fishing for dinner.
“This year there is a new wrinkle,” derby president Ed Jerome said. The derby has included a category of awards for team competition. “Adding to the excitement we are allowing two individuals to fish together as a team and combine the weights of their heaviest fish,” he said.
It is a bit like the more traditional derby grand slam. Participants add the weight of their heaviest fish in each of the four categories, boat and shore and there will be recognition to those who have the heaviest. They must register in advance.
“We’ve known for years that there are guys and girls that partner up and fish the contest,” Mr. Jerome said. This is a way to recognize those who are good at it.
“We are always finding new ways to juice up the contest. The derby is about friendship and being excited,” Mr. Jerome said.
There is a discount registration fee for junior fishermen, those under 15 years of age. While the entry fee is $45 in the flyrod division and also for the all-tackle division, the junior all-tackle division is $20. Seniors are also $20.
On Sunday, Sept. 16 the derby is holding their annual Kids Day contest at the Oak Bluffs Steamship Authority wharf. Fishing begins at 6 a.m. and is free to all anglers under 15 years of age.
Very little in the derby goes to waste. With thousands and thousands of pounds of fish being weighed in during the month-long contest, anglers are encouraged not to waste their fish. A voluntary fillet program is always open to allow anglers to donate their fresh fish to a program that distributes the meat to Island seniors.
False albacore, a fish that is known to be scarce and inedible, is protected in the contest. Fishermen are allowed to weigh in only three fish during the whole contest.
Other restrictive measures have been put into place to protect fish from being exploited. The derby posts a minimum size set that is more restrictive than state regulations.
While a fisherman can catch and keep a 28-inch striped bass, to enter it in the contest the fish must be 32 inches in length. The derby has set a minimum size of 22 inches for bluefish and 21 inches for bonito, though there is no state minimum size.
Louisa Gould, who runs an art gallery at 54 Main street in Vineyard Haven, knows the significance of the derby in at least two significant ways.
Tonight she is hosting an art exhibit, a derby art celebration that involves more than 20 artists from here and afar, artists who capture the spirit or the essence of the contest through a lot of different media: paintings, ceramic art, photography and more. Ms. Gould’s gallery will be open from 5 to 8 p.m.
She knows the derby in another way.
“I know none of the derby fishermen will come by once the derby has begun, so I am having it now. I’ve said that to a few of the derby fishermen and they laughed.”
“I think of the derby as quintessential Vineyard,” she said. “Participants in the derby all have a love for the Island and a love for fishing.”
And that pretty much describes the art community participating in her show.
There will be paintings, woodcarvings and photographs. Ms. Gould, who is mostly a maritime photographer, is also the derby’s official photographer. There will be work by familiar artists such as Ray Ellis, Ovid Ward, Washington Ledesma, Thaw Malin and Dimitry Schidlovsky.
“Many of the artists showing are from off-Island and they are coming for this evening event,” she said. Some of the proceeds raised through the sale of artwork will be contributed to the derby regional high school scholarship fund.
Mr. Jerome will be at Ms. Gould’s gallery tonight signing copies of Fishing the Vineyard, the hardcover book written years ago by derby enthusiasts that he edited. Edgartown artist Ray Ellis did the paintings and illustrations in the book.
Derby anglers are pretty easy to spot. A lot of them wear their registration button, this year red and white, in a prominent place, usually on their acquired derby hat.
Derby organizers anticipate the event will run even more smoothly at its headquarters this year because of improved computer software.
David Flood, owner of EnSky in Rochester, N.H., the software author, said that the software is quicker. Because of the link between the derby and its Web site, mvderby.com, visitors to the site will be able to see who is leading in the contest from day to day.
Mr. Flood said that the company also revamped the derby Web site chatroom so less spam gets into the system.
Prospects for good fishing this fall are excellent. One angler told the Vineyard Gazette that he saw more false albacore in one day this week than he’d seen all last year.
“There are a lot of fish around,” Mr. Jerome said. “The bait is thickening around the shore and there are a lot of fish. What will be interesting to watch is Edgartown harbor. With the opening at Norton Point Beach, it is a big question whether the bait will stay in the harbor.”