For the casual fisherman, fishing the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby is like going from sandlot baseball to the major leagues.
He realizes that a welter of customs, laws of natures, tips and superstitions have developed over centuries of Island fishing and more than six decades of derby competition to create a mind-boggling fishing culture.
This casual fisherman felt that it would take an act of God to prepare him to compete with the best.
Fortunately, a sort of godlike figure emerged from the darkness on the beach several nights ago in the form of a veteran angler whom we shall call the grumpy old derbyman. He agreed to participate in the sorting out of customs and superstitions on promise of anonymity, threatening a flogging with squid jigs if he was identified.
Miraculously, a host of other anglers agreed to weigh in with tips and superstitions soon after his appearance.
“Memorize this poem,” the derbyman intoned: ‘Wind from the east, catching is least. Wind from the west, catching is best.’”
He also suggested that an east wind blowing is the perfect time to take the derby widow or widower out to dinner, thereby buying more time on the beach when the wind is right,
The derbyman also recounted a list of customs and superstitions, some now out of favor, practiced by oldtime and current derby fishers. His list contains some common sense, some wisdom and maybe a scup-ful of nonsense:
• Never fish the day before the derby. You could waste a winning fish.
• Wear your derby pin upside down until you weigh in, a custom that’s a cross between wearing a dunce cap and a method for avoiding embarrassing questions about your weigh-in status.
• Always change your line two weeks before the derby begins and practice casting with it to get the kinks and incipient bird nests out of your reel.
• Scout the fishing prior to the derby, on the beach and offshore. The derbyman estimated that “at least 50 per cent of serious fishermen” scout for hot spots.
• Avoid your hot spot for the first week. Everyone knows you’ve been scouting and they’ll just follow you.
• Never, ever, take bananas on a fishing boat. The origins of this superstition are unknown but stories abound of anglers planting bananas aboard skilled competitors’ crafts.
• If it worked once, keep on doing it until it doesn’t work anymore. “It” covers a wide range of superstitions from wearing the same clothes, to taking off some clothes, to taking favorite routes to fishing spots, and, of course, to keep using lucky lures and bait shops.
• Do not wear your derby cap after the derby. Constant wear erodes the good luck from your hat and makes you look like an amateur in February, the time of year you see everyone on the Island every day.
• Avoid black cats crossing your path, a favorite among oldtimers, the derbyman said, lamenting the proliferation of skunks on the beaches that has nearly made this superstition extinct in recent years.
• Get the same pin number every year if you can. If you can’t, make sure your favorite number is represented somehow.
Pin numbers are important to derby contestants. Maryanne Jerome of Edgartown, keeper of derby pin data, estimated that “at least 250 to 300 pin numbers are reserved each year,” almost 10 per cent of the 3,200 pins issued. Unofficial reservations are an even larger part of derby culture, perhaps an additional 20 per cent of pins.
The feel-good pin story this year is Ryan Evans of Vineyard Haven surrendering pin 204 after he learned from Larry’s Tackle Shop in Edgartown that the number has been issued for several years to the brother of a deceased derbyman who also had the number for years. Julian Pepper at Larry’s said the number was inadvertently assigned.
“When the guy came in for his brother’s number, we called Ryan and explained the situation. He came right in, turned in pin 204 and got a new number,” Mr. Pepper said.
Larry’s Tackle is assigned pin numbers 1 to 500 and the first 100 are all but reserved, Mr. Pepper said.
Derby volunteer Ann Howes recounted her husband Ted Howes’s annual ritual that did not involve reserving his number in advance.
“He wanted the same number every year and he tried to be first in line. As soon as registration opened, he was there,” Mrs. Howes said. “And he got the same number for 39 of the 40 years he fished the derby.”
Mr. Howes recorded a second place in the derby in the early 1960s.
And derby volunteer Shirley Craig has been pining for number 13 for years. “So I just try to get a combination of numbers that add up to 13,” she said.
For backup luck, Ms. Craig carries lucky rocks found on the beach. Lucky rocks, she explained, are defined by a white band completely encircling a rock of any color.
Clothing is a major derby superstition. This past Saturday night, Paul Schultz was encountered on Norton Point Beach after weighing in a likely Super Saturday bluefish winner.
“I’ll be wearing these socks again tomorrow if it wins and I’ll wear them until the fishing gets bad,” he said.
His fish won. Anglers are advised to stay upwind of Mr. Schultz for awhile.
Removing a sock was a strategy Janet Messineo of Vineyard Haven used. “I forgot to put my left sock on one night under my waders and caught a beauty. The next morning I was dressing to fish and thought, ‘Hmm, maybe I’ll leave my left sock off.’”
The strategy ended, she said, when “my foot was getting cold and wet.”
Anglers fall into purists or pragmatists when it comes to using bait or lures.
“We fish lures,” Menemsha 2007 grand-slammer Tom Langman said flatly.
“I’ve seen Dick Hathaway (holder of the record bass for almost 30 years) casting lure alongside his bait pole,” the derbyman recounted.
Mike Harrold of Oak Bluffs paused from filleting duty on Wednesday to ask rhetorically: “Am I superstitous? I’m a fisherman. Any more questions?”
Mr. Harrold suggested the benefit of superstition is that “the superstition allows me to believe that I can have control over something when I’m fishing, even though I don’t.”
Stan Rome, of Edgartown and Belmont, Mr. Schultz’s laconic fishing partner, has a pragmatic approach to superstition. “My superstition is to put my time in when the fish are running,” he said.
Superstition aside, the derby has its own fishing culture.
Ally Moore of Oak Bluffs provided a thoughtful summary: “I think there is a culture, kind of a code. For example, I won’t intrude on a small school a fisherman has discovered. If it’s big enough so that I don’t intrude, I’ll fish it. People have extended the same courtesy to me as well.”
Mr. Moore believes he and his fellow anglers feel there’s a karmic relationship with good fishing etiquette. “I will throw back a good fish and others say the same thing,” he said, noting the similarity with Native American hunting customs which honor animals killed for food.
Indeed, Ms. Messineo returned a 35-inch bass on opening day of the derby. “I knew it would be okay, maybe a winner but it just didn’t feel right. It wasn’t superstition,” she said.