Vying to be the first to weigh in a fish in the 61st annual Martha's Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby, a sleepy Jim Cornwell arrived at the downtown Edgartown weigh station at 4 a.m. Sunday. Armed with a striped bass caught on East Beach on Chappaquiddick, Mr. Cornwell - a 69-year-old retired chemist from Edgartown - proceeded to wait for the opening at 8 o'clock.
He was not alone in his vigil. With a light breeze off the water, a number of groggy fishermen held conference in the parking lot next to the harborside shack. Some wore wet waders, others looked like they had just gotten out of bed. The talk picked up minutes before Roy Langley, the weigh master, rang the traditional cow bell to mark the 8 a.m. start. Mr. Langley greeted Mr. Cornwell as he carried in his fish.
The official weight: 13.36 pounds. "My father would be proud," Mr. Cornwell said, and then headed home to sleep.
The month-long fishing contest began at 12:01 that morning, and Mr. Cornwell was out fishing by 1 a.m. The early hour is not unusual for derby anglers, for whom the autumn contest is an institution and an affliction - one that runs 24 hours a day for weeks and cannot be cured until the contest ends Saturday, Oct. 14, at 10 p.m.
The best striped bass fishing is at night for anglers who fish from the shore. The best fishing for bluefish, bonito and false albacore is usually during the day. More than $350,000 in prizes are available to the top winners who fish hard and receive favor from Lady Luck. There are hundreds of prizes offered daily, weekly and at the derby's conclusion. The top prizes are a 19-foot Boston Whaler Montauk with an outboard and trailer for the top shore fisherman, and a 2006 Nissan Titan XE four-wheel drive pickup truck for the top boat fisherman.
Mr. Cornwall's bass did not last long in the lead. In the next few hours of the Sunday morning weigh-in, a number of striped bass were recorded, the biggest a 21.32-pounder caught by Eric F. Pachico of Tisbury.
While waiting to weigh in his bass, Mr. Cornwell said, "I fish alone. The reason I go alone is I don't want anyone to know where I go."
Secret fishing spots is a big part of the contest and Mr. Cornwell has been working with hidden spots his whole life. He said he has memories of fishing the derby with his father, Emdon.
Standing next to him was Jim Klingensmith, 80, another seasoned Edgartown angler. The two men chuckled about memories of good fishing spots.
Mr. Cornwell said he caught his big fish on the fifth cast using a homemade wood fishing lure. "I was at the spot five minutes and had the fish," he said. Afterward, he hid it in the sand, under his truck.
Jonathan Pike, 32, of Tisbury had the second fish to be weighed in, a 7.64-pound bluefish. Mr. Pike said he caught the fish on the North Shore - one of the most vague answers an angler can give to identify a spot. He said he hooked the fish at 4:30 a.m. with an eel. "I always use eels," he said.
As of yesterday, Mr. Pike's fish still led the bluefish shore division.
The biggest striped bass so far is a 26.01-pound fish caught by Steven Buckley, twice the weight of Mr. Cornwell's fish. The fish was caught from a boat.
Richard N. Hall is the leader to beat for the largest false albacore caught from the shore. He brought his 14.63-pound fish just before the closing bell on Sunday. The large albie was three pounds bigger than Brian Gracie's 11.62-pound second place fish. Some at the headquarters wondered if it might stay a leader to the end. Martha Smith, who oversees the station, noted the weight was written in yellow chalk - an indication the fish is indeed a big one. Last year's grand overall winner from the shore weighed 16.71 and was caught by Dennis R. Gough.
The fishing contest continues through October. The derby headquarters is open for weigh-in of fish from 8 to 10 a.m. and from to 10 p.m. daily. Registration is available at most fish tackle shops and costs $40. Seniors and junior fishermen can register for $15.
For more information and coverage of the bass and bluefish derby, including a link to complete daily results, visit the Gazette Web site at mvgazette.com. Max Hart contributed to this story.