When Martha Smith and her then-boyfriend Charlie began dating 15 years ago, they spent a lot of time at the annual Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby headquarters at the foot of Main street in Edgartown.
She ran the derby headquarters, two hours in the morning and two hours at night, and coordinated the volunteers. He would watch, stepping in occasionally to help. “I hung out at the derby headquarters to be with her,” Mr. Smith said. “I think I was there just about every night.”
Their courtship and eventual marriage — on Valentine’s Day, 1995 — were tied to derby. Now, after years of helping the annual month-long autumn event, the two have stepped down.
Saturday night was the last time they would officiate at the weigh-in station. Their retirement was observed by derby officials and friends serving cake and ice cream.
Mrs. Smith, a full-time real estate broker, began working at the derby headquarters 20 years ago. She came to help Carol Koser, who previously ran the month-long operation. In those times there were fewer than 2,000 fishermen competing; this year there were over 3,000. Back then, the derby had just made the conversion from paper to computer weigh-in slips. It was a bumpy start.
“In those days it was Sandy Arnold, and her husband Dennis. Dennis was the weighmaster. Frannie Gentle came in to assist,” Mrs. Smith recalled.
“My kids fished the derby and I thought it was a privilege,” she said. “It was a four-week commitment, it was a small operation.”
Mr. Smith said his interest in becoming a weighmaster started with Martha. He works for the Edgartown Highway Department. He has worked for the town now 19 years and is a foreman. Today, at 57, he has 37 years as a volunteer firefighter, nine of them in Vineyard Haven, where he used to live, and the rest in Edgartown. For 19 years he has worked as a captain in the Edgartown department. In August he was named a senior captain.
During those early derbies, the two plotted and schemed over ways to be alone together, out fishing. They’d fish from the shore or they’d fish out in boats. And there were times of conflict, when they’d be out catching fish but it was time to be back at the weigh-in station.
“I was thrilled he loved to go fishing. Fishing isn’t everyone’s cup of tea,” she said. Both are parents of grown children from previous marriages. They had a lot to share.
Mr. and Mrs. Smith together worked at the derby without interruption through the years. They cheer the angler who didn’t catch a big enough fish, and praise a winner. They remember being at the weigh-in on the quietest night, when a hurricane threatened from the south. And they recall times when there were so many anglers with fish, they lined up outside.
Every fish in the contest is weighed in by a weighmaster. Fourteen years ago, Mr. Smith was made one. He worked evenings and Roy Langley worked mornings.
In that two-hour span from 8 to 10 p.m., Mr. Smith said, he often weighed in as many as 130 fish, and it happened two or three times a week.
So much of Mr. Smith’s effort is working with the angler, not the fish. Joy often came in watching a youngster weigh in a first fish. The weigh-in is the culmination of a daylong journey out in a boat or out on the beach; there is always some drama at the station when the fish and fisherman arrive.
Mrs. Smith said the weigh-in station has its own culture. Ages range from a couple of years old to senior citizens, experience varies, but there is fellowship.
Levity is key in the old fishing shack. Mrs. Smith said during those busy nights she watched her husband, with great skill, dissolve tense moments into laughter.
If they were having so much fun, why leave? Mr. Smith said the idea of quitting has lingered for years. The derby would come to a close and they’d think, this would be the end. Then another year would come along and they’d be back. This year is different; they told officials weeks ago this would be the last and they’d be around to help in a transition.
Like so many participants and organizers in the derby, the Smiths now shift their attention to other details of life, other avocations. Next fall, the 63rd annual derby will be different. Mr. Smith said they plan on spending more time on their 32-foot powerboat, fishing. They will spend future derbies fishing and trying to win.