The 57th annual Martha's Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby starts tomorrow morning. For some of the Island's anglers, it can't start fast enough. Fishermen started talking about this year's derby months ago. They talked about the derby when the first striped bass arrived in Vineyard waters in April.
They talked about the derby when the first bluefish arrived in May, the first bonito in July and the first false albacore in August. It is one of the rituals of life on the Vineyard. Fishermen not only follow the seasons by watching each species of fish, they talk about what kind of impact that will have when the derby arrives.
Last Saturday a team of volunteers assembled at the foot of Main street in Edgartown after coffee. They started moving boxes into the attic of the old fish shed.
Derby members Matt Malowski and John Custer climbed ladders and hung the Derby Headquarters sign shortly after 9 a.m. "We'll be ready in time," said David Pothier, chairman of the derby.
There is a lot more pressure on the competitive angler this year. The contest is slightly more expensive to enter than last year, up $5 to $40 for all tackle and fly fishermen divisions. And the winnings are big. Senior fishermen and junior fishermen have the same fee of $15.
This year the shore fishermen will have a chance to win a 2002 Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck. The boat fishermen are competing for a boat, an 18-foot Boston Whaler Dauntless, which includes a 135-horsepower Mercury outboard and trailer.
Fishermen will be trying to catch the largest of four species: striped bass, bluefish, false albacore and bonito. They will compete for the largest fish caught from shore and the largest fish caught from a boat.
Many of the fishermen will compete day and night for nearly a month. Beginning tomorrow the derby headquarters will be open from 8 to 10 a.m. and from 8 to 10 p.m. every day until the end. The contest ends at the close of weigh-ins at 10 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 19. An awards ceremony follows on Sunday, Oct. 20, at the Atlantic Connection. There are so many categories in the fishing contest that the derby is truly many contests wrapped up in one. There are daily awards, weekly awards and grand overall prizes that exceed a quarter-million dollars. There are junior categories, women's categories and senior citizen awards.
Even if an angler's fish is not a category winner, he still can win big thanks to the derby's daily mystery prizes.
In addition to the many special awards that come every year, there are even heftier awards for the fisherman able to break a record. Any fisherman who catches a fish bigger than a 23.28-pound bluefish, a 60.13-pound striped bass, a 12.44-pound bonito or a 19.38-pound false albacore is eligible to win $1,000.
Fishermen can go just about anywhere around Vineyard waters to catch their fish, as long as their catch is landed on the Vineyard and weighed in at derby headquarters. The derby rules are included with every button sold at a tackle store. Fishermen can fish the waters of the Elizabeth Islands, around Nantucket and south of Noman's Land, providing that they land their fish on the Vineyard. The rules are simple: "No boat-caught fish shall touch any land except for Martha's Vineyard."
On Saturday morning volunteers helped each other raise the walls of the fillet shed on its floating raft in the Edgartown harbor. Each year, derby contestants donate thousands of pounds of fish to be filleted. The fillets are circulated among the Island's senior citizens through the councils on aging.
By day, Bob Lane works as an assistant principal at the West Tisbury School. On Saturday he helped carry boxes in the weigh-in station. "I have been so looking forward to the derby," he said.
Mr. Lane said he is already looking through the school schedule in the month ahead to carve some private time to fish. Mr. Lane is among the Island's most avid recreational anglers. For years he was president of the Martha's Vineyard Surfcasters, a club for recreational fishermen. He said he plans to fish any way he can; he'll fish from a boat or from the shore. "I am going to fly fish and I am going to use all tackle."
Mr. Pothier said this year he is getting help from his vice chairman Bill O'Brien of Edgartown. Mr. O'Brien is an Island contractor. "When you need something done, he does it," said Mr. Pothier.
The scene at the derby headquarters wasn't all about the contest. Mike Palmer of Edgartown was busy near the water trying to help Capt. Willie Hatch put a new line on his offshore fishing rod.
Captain Hatch was working on his boat Machaca, a 31-foot powerboat. The captain explained that he was getting a new head gasket for the engine and that he planned to go tuna fishing as soon as the weather calmed down.
Mr. Palmer said he was looking forward to doing some serious fall fishing. "I caught my last striped bass of the season last year on Dec. 9 at South Beach. It was a 30-pounder."
Inside the derby headquarters there were remnants of last year's contest. The blackboards still bore the chalked-in names from the last hours of the contest. Among the grand leaders listed from last year were the names of Lev Wlodyka with his 44.14-pound striper and Karen A. Kukolich with her 16.78-pound bluefish.
By tomorrow morning, the blackboard will be washed clean. New names will be added tomorrow night and another seasonal ritual will have begun.