When Sam Bell, 25, walked to the stage of the key ceremony for the 68th Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby on Sunday afternoon, he crossed his fingers. In the derby, you can always use a little extra luck.
And when derby president Ed Jerome took Mr. Bell’s key — the first one drawn of the four boat grand leaders — and put it in the lock, the catch opened with a click. Mr. Bell’s jaw dropped and he let out a whoop, exulting and embracing his family as they rushed to the stage. The 13.62-pound false albacore he’d caught had taken him all the way. He had won the grand prize Chevy Silverado truck.
Jena-Lynn Beauregard’s key was the last one drawn in the shore grand leader group. She stood next to fellow grand leader Cooper Gilkes, who told her that the one time he had won it all, he was standing exactly where she was.
Seconds later, there was only one key left to try in the lock, Ms. Beauregard’s. The catch fell open. Though other women have stood onstage in the key ceremony as grand leaders, and have won the grand prize truck (Marilyn Scheerbaum was the last winner in 1993), no female has taken home the Eastern Boats center console.
Being onstage is “overwhelming, intense,” Ms. Beauregard, 29, said afterward. “Standing there with all of these great fishermen.” Ms. Beauregard’s bass, caught at an undisclosed location, weighed 34.63 pounds. She had been out nightfishing with boyfriend Julian Pepper, who was a grand leader himself during last year’s derby. Ms. Beauregard grew up freshwater fishing with her father. She fished the derby once years ago and went out last year as well. The striper was the first catch she weighed in this year.
“This is just so hard to believe,” she said while on stage.
Mr. Bell was fishing with friend Stavros Viglas in the early morning, on the same school of albie as his grandparents, Estey and Tom Teller, when he hit the winner. He had stood on stage once before, as an 11-year-old junior with a first-place bluefish.
“He’s been fishing since before the Derby hat could fit on his head,” mother Stephanie Teller said.
Seated in his new truck, Mr. Bell turned another key to rev the engine, honking the horn in celebration.
The largest fish caught in the derby was Stephen Pietruska’s 39.94-pound boat-caught striper. Mr. Pietruska also landed the largest striper last year, as well as in 2009.
Exactly 2,000 fish, weighing a combined 20,280 pounds, were brought in during this year’s derby, a slight decrease from last year’s total. Bluefish were by far the most common catch (919), then stripers (487), bonito (358) and finally false albacore (236). In general, fish were harder to come by this year, but the event itself saw record registration. Derby chairman John Custer estimated the number would surpass 3,150 once final tallies were complete.
“Many think it’s about the fish,” Mr. Custer said during his remarks at the awards ceremony on Sunday afternoon. But when it comes down to defining the derby, “It’s really about the people.” Go to derby headquarters, the tackle shops or the beaches, he said, and you see the derby spirit.
At the awards ceremony, that spirit was on full display, as all of the daily and weekly leaders, the committee members, the hardworking volunteers and the supportive families gathered in one spot for the first time.
After emcee and weighmaster Mike Cassidy’s introductory speech, the event began with a moment of silence for beloved artist and longtime derby supporter Ray Ellis, who died earlier this month. Mr. Ellis had a “dramatic impact” on the derby, Mr. Jerome said, helping to raise thousands of dollars for the event’s scholarship fund through sales of his lush fishing scenes. Mr. Ellis had partnered with the derby for more than 25 years.
Longtime committee member Porky Francis was honored for his years of derby involvement. With more than 60 years of fishing and over 35 years on the committee, Mr. Francis’s “big smile and ability to make friends” was “instrumental in promoting the derby” over the years, Mr. Jerome said, earning him a spot in the Hall of Fame.
Mr. Francis’s fellow inductees into this year’s Hall of Fame class were Bob and Fran Clay, both longtime derby anglers who are, as Mr. Jerome noted, “often on the grand leaderboard.” The Clays, like Mr. Francis, have also been instrumental in promoting the derby, having donated the grand prize truck for the past 13 years.
“It makes us feel good to be able to do that,” Mr. Clay said.
And in one of those only-in-the-derby twists, Mr. Clay himself stood on stage this year for his 11.49 pound boat-caught bonito, which had put him in the running for the truck he and his family had donated. Had his key been the winner, he said, the truck would have gone to Martha’s Vineyard Habitat for Humanity.
One of this year’s grand leaders, Daniel Hiemer, was unable to attend the ceremony due to having traveled back to his native Germany — Tony Serpa stood in for him to turn the key. Mr. Hiemer caught his winning boat bluefish (19.69 lbs) in the second week of the derby. The fish held until the end, as did grand leader Cooper Gilkes’s shore-caught bonito (6.58 lbs), also caught in the second week. Grand leaders Ralph Peckham (shore bluefish, 15.18 lbs) and Bill Hansen (shore false albacore, 13.10 lbs), landed their fish within days of each other over the Columbus Day holiday.
Mr. Gilkes’s bonito earned him the lone shore grand slam of the tournament, along with the Abe Williams Memorial Award (which was not given last year, when no shore bonito were caught).
“A lot of people think the hardest [award] is the grand slam,” said committee member Janet Messineo, as she introduced the winners of that category. Twenty nine people landed slams this year, including fly fishermen Art Crago and Andrew Moore, mini junior Mason Warburton, whose slam totaled 39.51 pounds, and Ms. Messineo’s “personal hero” senior angler Estey Teller.
“I’m not sure Mason’s got a combined weight of 39.51 pounds,” Ms. Messineo said as Mason came up to receive his prizes. Junior angler Katherine O’Brien, who earned a Top Rod award for most daily pins by a junior angler (eight total), caught all four fish as well, as did junior slam winner Dylan Kadison. Dylan’s slam totaled 54.20 pounds, slightly less than his father David’s grand slam, which placed second in the adult division. Josh Flanders’s 61.46 pound slam was the winner of the division.
Several special awards require nominations from the derby community, including the Martha’s Vineyard Surfcasters Sportsmanship award. Mr. Custer returned to the stage to present the award, reading aloud from some of the nominations he had received.
“I’d like to nominate this individual because she’s the nice lady who gives prizes, and she is happy,” read one of the slips. Weigh station administrator Amy Coffey came to the front of the tent to receive the prize, declaring that she would share the award with Estey Teller.
The Toomey family — Patrick, Polly, Emma and Chase — were nominated for the Beaulieu/Loud Memorial Award, given to a family that demonstrates sportsmanship, dedication and togetherness. Emma, 9, and Chase, 6, received several daily winner awards, as well as the Victor Danberg awards for heaviest junior bluefish. Emma earned a Top Rod for most daily junior pins in the shore division.
“It’s just great to see families fishing together,” Mr. Custer said after the ceremony. This year was “a particularly good” one for the derby, he said. Registration had increased, sponsorship had increased — nearly all of the prizes are donated — and the team effort needed to manage the constantly growing event was more than he had ever seen. All of the committee members and weigh station crew are volunteers, he noted. “Without them, the derby couldn’t happen.”
Next year’s derby is already in the works.
“We have a meeting next Thursday . . . but we’ll take some time to enjoy this,” Mr. Custer said.