There are few possessions that last 50 years on the Vineyard waterfront. A wooden boat may last only 10 years unless the owner takes good care of it. A fishing reel will fail in a few years if exposed to hard use and poor care, and a fishing rod may last a little longer. Without routine maintenance an outboard motor can’t last.
 
The Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby is now celebrating its 50th year, and on this waterfront that comes after an awful lot of care and attention.
 
The derby was the creation of a small core of men interested in extending the length of the summer season. It achieved that and now it has done more. The derby was created by Nathaniel H. Sperber, a public relations expert hired by the new owners of the Massachusetts Steamship Line. He approached the Martha’s Vineyard Rod and Gun Club and after an extensive effort, the first derby was begun in 1946.
 
The Sept. 13, 1946, Vineyard Gazette began the derby with the following article:
 
“The first Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass Derby, the most ambitious event of its kind to be arranged for this coast, will begin at 12 noon on Sunday, Sept. 15, and will continue until 12 noon on Oct. 15. The grand prize of the derby is $1,000, and among the contestants so far are salt water fishermen from Toronto, others from Canada, four from Virginia, two from Philadelphia, and hundreds from the New England states and New York.
 
“M. Martin Gouldey, general chairman, said yesterday that the total number of entries cannot be accurately forecast, since many are arriving daily, and many are in the hands of the committee members and others for forwarding. But as the derby is about to get under way, all those who have been working for its success are satisfied with the outlook.”
 
In 50 years of great fishing, the names have changed but the value of the story has increased in importance. Every year the derby committee puts on the “Most ambitions event of its kind to be arranged for this coast.” There is no other fishing tournament on the East Coast that goes for a full month and involves so many.
 
Through the years, the derby has gone through many changes. From 1946 to 1984, the most prestigious award went to the fisherman who caught the largest striped bass. While there were daily and weekly prizes for other species of fish, it wasn’t until 1985 that the derby gave an almost equal award to the fisherman who caught the largest bluefish, bonito, false albacore and weakfish.
 
At the end of the 1955 derby, the Vineyard Gazette carried the following story:
 
“In all the tumult of a savage easterly gale accompanied by lashing rain, the 10th annual fishing derby came to a close on Saturday, with contestants fishing, or certainly attempting to fish up to the final hour.
 
“Island interest had been centered for days on the leading group, visitors and residents, but especially upon Mrs. Serge deSomov, who was holding the lead among visiting bassfishers, and a figurative, at least, sigh of satisfaction went up when she was awarded the grand prize for visitors, the first woman yet to win this award.”
 
For her troubles, she earned a $500 U.S. Savings Bond and a redwood hunting lodge to be erected on the Island, the land donated by Cronig real estate agency of Vineyard Haven.
 
In 1965, the derby celebrated its 20th anniversary with the following story in the Vineyard Gazette:
 
“The Curtain fell at 2 p.m. on Friday on the Island’s 20th consecutive fishing derby and without doubt its most successful. Up to the final hour, the fish arrived at the weighing-in station, and thus the derby ended on a high note, with 16 bass and 11 bluefish weighed in at the final hour.
 
“A total of 2,771 fish, including 1,039 striped bass and 1,732 bluefish, were weighed in by 1,804 contestants coming from 26 states, Canada and Mexico, 191 different cities, and with winners and prizes from 14 states, Canada and Mexico...
 
“Serge de Somov, of Hampton Bays, L.I., whom Islanders call the Mad Russian, took the grand prize for the largest shore bass for the third time. The Schaefer trophy for the greatest poundage was won by Alfred H. Doyle of Edgartown, to whom some 40-odd fish were credited.
 
“Richard Hathaway, also of Edgartown, took the largest bluefish.”
 
This is the same Richard Hathaway who in 1978 caught the largest striped bass ever caught in the derby. The fish weighed 60 pounds 2 ounces. In 1979 Mr. Hathaway won the derby again with a 55 pound 3 ounce fish.
 
In its 40th year, the derby did what might have been thought unthinkable years before. In the interest of conservation, the derby dropped the stripped bass from the contest as a measure to help its return.
 
This year the contest celebrates not only its own success but that of the striped bass. The fish is back in healthy numbers. Fishermen will be fishing for striped bass, bluefish, false albacore and bonito. In an effort to show sensitivity about declining stocks of false albacore, the derby organization has removed the daily prize for the false albacore. This sends a message to any false albacore fisherman that unless he has a really big fish, it is just as well he release his small fish and only bring in the winners.
 
Competing fishermen this year have a chance to win a 20-foot Ocean Sport donated by Marine Boat Builders. The center console recreational fishing boat comes with a 115 horsepower Yamaha outboard. Organizers of the derby have found that the best way to award a grand prize is to take the four fishermen who landed the heaviest fish of each species and drop their names in a hat. A drawing is held and the winner walks home with the prize. It means that a fisherman can target any favorite species and have a chance at the big prize. It also discourages all fishermen from fishing for just one species of fish.