This year is the 68th anniversary of the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby. Stephen Amaral, 78, of Oak Bluffs, has fished in 67 of those derbies.
Sometimes people don’t believe him when he says he’s fished in every derby but one, he said on a recent Wednesday afternoon, seated at his dining room table and surrounded by derby photographs and newspaper clippings. There’s no way, they say. What were you, two?
Actually, he was 10. His father, Augustus F. (Gus) Amaral weighed in the first bass in the first derby, back in 1946. Some people are skeptical of this, too, but there is a picture on Mr. Amaral’s dining room table to prove it. His brother Ed is in one corner of the frame, holding a pole.
From the beginning, Mr. Amaral said, the derby was a success. It was started as a way to extend the season; once Labor Day passed, the streets of Oak Bluffs were completely empty. Enough people came that first year, he remembered, “that I couldn’t put a number to it.” He still has a 10-cent program from the first year, offering tips on How To Reach The Hot Fishing Spots on Martha’s Vineyard.
The next year, the Boston Sunday Globe ran a photo spread featuring the derby. Mr. Amaral and brother Leo, then 11 and 10, appear in one photo with Gus. They’re shorefishing at Squibnocket with a long line of other shore anglers in the background.
Gus owned Amaral’s Fish Market in Oak Bluffs, where the Periwinkle Gallery now stands on Dukes County avenue. The brothers went straight from school to the market to help open scallops and pack them in five-gallon tins. They weighed out the scallops in a bucket scale, which now hangs in Mr. Amaral’s garage. It’s off by 20 ounces, but still works otherwise. In 1952 and 1953 Gus rented out Daniel Manter’s family camp at Quansoo during the derby, and the whole family, including mother Gertrude and sister Eleanor, stayed up in Chilmark. The Tisbury Great Pond would be cut and the water flushed, and “when they opened that up, man, it was great fishing, you know.”
In 1955 Mr. Amaral enlisted in the Army. A fading yellow Gazette clipping shows his photo with a “Bound for Korea” caption. He was stationed at Fort Dix, N.J., but still made it home for the derby that year, on leave. But the next fall he was overseas. There would be no derby that year.
He hasn’t missed one since, 57 in a row, and has no plans to stop. Mr. Amaral has been out fishing every single night this year since the opening bell rang on September. He has already netted a hat trick in both shore bluefish and shore striped bass. He’s won all the daily prizes there are to be won in both categories and he’s leading the senior division of both categories.
In 2007 Mr. Amaral was inducted into the derby hall of fame.
For all of those years of fishing, Mr. Amaral has never taken home the grand prize, a testament to the whims of fishing. Sometimes, as was the case this year, his striper or blue would lead the contest for a couple of weeks, but ultimately get bumped. Other times the winning fish would be caught when Mr. Amaral was standing next to the person who landed it.
“I’m the guide,” Mr. Amaral said. He can offer advice and tell somebody where to fish, but “I can’t tell you how big a fish you’re going to get.”
Mike Alwardt, his fishing buddy of more than 20 years, caught the second-largest shore striper (57.82 pounds) in 1995. When they brought the fish to weigh-in, Mr. Amaral rolled up his sleeve and stuck his hand down the fish’s throat to prove there was nothing in the gullet. He didn’t want the fish to be cut into, ruining the prize. “I thought Mike was going to mount it,” he explained.
In nearly eight decades of fishing, Mr. Amaral has had just one catch mounted — a 56.5 pound striper. It hangs in his dining room, just opposite a shelf containing family photographs, fishing trophies, a golf trophy and a limited edition hand-carved Stan Gibbs striped bass (number 40 of 92). “This one here, oh my God,” Mr. Amaral said.
The fish was caught in 1979, days after the derby had already ended, and it would have beat the derby winner that year of 55.3 pounds. The fish was part of a monumental striper run that had begun in the final days of the derby. He was out shorefishing one night and the bluefish were eating all of his eels so he decided to switch to a plug.
“I started casting, all of a sudden Bang!,” he said. It was a striper, 30 pounds and big enough for weigh-in. At the time, regarding the location, he thought “Ah, it’s just luck.” But the next morning, he went back to the same spot on the South Shore and caught a 36 pound bass on the final day of the derby. There was a daily prize for that one, he remembered.
The contest ended but Mr. Amaral kept fishing the same spot. The day after the derby closed he landed a 53-pounder.
“My biggest bass off the beach, the day after the derby was over,” he said. Was he mad? “Oh, I was,” he said. “I think I could have won it.” That fish would not have won the 1979 derby, but the next night he landed his 56.5-pound striper, which would have won.
“He hit right up close on a seven-inch Danny swimmer plug,” Mr. Amaral said. “He was a big boy, he took the line out and he’s draggin’ and everything, and I says, ‘Mister, you can go to Edgartown if you want, ‘cause I’m going to follow you right down the beach.’”
When he landed the bass, after it was on the beach, all he could think was “Oh my goodness.”
The same group of fish, he said, swam from the South Shore around to Squibnocket and Gay Head. Mr. Amaral followed them there the next day and caught three more bass. “Up until that time, I’d had 49 and three-quarters, 48, but I never had landed a 50,” he said. “With fishermen, you know, if you have 49.5, you can’t say 50.”
And yet in the span of three days, after the derby had just ended, he had caught five fish over 50 pounds.
“Unbelievable, the things that have happened over the years,” Mr. Amaral said. His face broke into a grin and his eyes crinkled behind his glasses.
Mr. Amaral continued to fish with his brothers and his father even when Gus and Gertrude moved to California in the late 50s — the Amaral parents came back each year for the derby. Mac, a chocolate Labrador, often came along on fishing excursions and was charged with carrying the eel bucket from spot to spot. A Kib Bramhall photograph of Gus and Mac with his pail appeared in the Saltwater Sportsman calendar and now hangs in Mr. Amaral’s entryway, next to a photo of Mr. Amaral with Mike Alwardt the night Mr. Alwardt weighed in his winner.
He’d gather groups of fishermen to go out shorefishing together during the derby, splitting the expenses and the earnings. Mr. Amaral, it seems, has met more people through fishing than many will meet in their entire lives.
“Back then you could sell all the fish and it paid the expenses,” he said. “You put your earnings back into fishing, you get the plugs and your waders and foul weather jackets, the list goes on. There’s always something.”
There is always something that keeps Mr. Amaral coming back to fishing. Not one thing, but many. The competition never gets old, nor do the people. And there is always the shore.
“The peace, the quiet out there, the surf, the wind, the gulls, the plovers — not the ones that are causing problems now — and sandpipers, herons, ducks, oh my God. It was awesome.”
“I can’t go wrong this year,” Mr. Amaral said. “My body aches a little, but as long as that guy upstairs” — he points upward — “gives me my health and I can get out there and do it, I’m doing it until I can’t do it.”