The fishermen will begin lining up with their fish well before the 8 a.m. Sunday opening of the weigh station at the foot of Main street in Edgartown. Many of the anglers will be sleep deprived, having not slept but a few hours overnight.
They come hoping to be the winners, the first leaders of a contest that crosses generations of anglers. They are the first active fishermen in the 63rd annual Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby. The fishing officially begins at 12:01 a.m. Sunday. They could be carrying striped bass, bluefish, false albacore and bonito.
The month-long derby is a big event for the Vineyard. Last year there were 3,000 fishermen registered in the contest, and there is no reason to think that number won’t be reached again.
“The derby is the premiere fishing tournament on the East Coast,” said Ed Jerome, president of the derby, now in his 29th year as its leader. “You will get your weekend fishing tournaments up and down the coast. But they are short-lived. You’ll find no other place where there is a whole month devoted to fishing. This brings millions of dollars to Martha’s Vineyard.”
The major charm of this fishing contest is location, location, location — but it’s nothing to do with Martha’s Vineyard being a tourist destination. Location, location, location refers to where the fish like to go. The driving force behind the derby’s founding was the indisputable knowledge that whether an angler is fishing the Wasque rips on Chappaquiddick or the waters off Philbin Beach in Aquinnah, the fish are here for the fall. This is the season of their migration. The fish come through these waters hungry. They come through these waters big.
Whether the angler is a youngster with a “Snoopy rod” or a senior citizen with a brand new Penn rod and reel, the derby welcomes them. That spirit adds to its beauty as a memorable fishing contest. And all that together is why there have been 63 of them.
The derby weigh station at the water’s end of Main street, which for most of the year is a quiet shack filled with sailing gear, becomes the center of the anglers’ universe.
Its big bang, then, is set for Sunday morning. Roy Langley, a veteran weighmaster, will ring the cow bell at precisely 8 a.m. and the first fishermen will step in to have their fish weighed and registered. Leadership of the weigh station has been passed by Martha Smith to a familiar derby official. She is Maria Plese and she is being assisted by Amy Coffey and they are being assisted by a crew of spirited men and women available to make sure the registration process and the handing out of daily prizes is done quickly and efficiently.
“We call Maria the queen of the derby, the queen of the weigh station,” Mr. Jerome said.
Charlie Smith, who had planned to retire as a weighmaster last year, is back again this year for one more year.
There are winners every day, every week, in a lot of different categories. More than $350,000 in prizes will be awarded this year. The biggest prizes are a 20-foot Eastern Center Console powerboat for a shore fisherman and a 2008 Chevy Silverado Pickup Truck for a boat fisherman.
Anglers will be entering as shore fishermen and boat fishermen. There are junior fishermen under 15 years of age and senior fishermen 65 years old or older. There are conventional reel anglers and there is a whole separate but active flyfishing division.
There are so many ways to win a prize. A fisherman can catch the biggest fish of the day, the week, or the whole derby. A woman can compete and get a prize for catching the biggest fish by a woman while also competing with all the other entrants. There is a grand slam prize for the fisherman who catches the heaviest combined weight of all four species of fish: striped bass, bluefish, false albacore and bonito in a division.
There are little derbies within the derby. They are called Super Saturdays contests and there are cash awards. There is an entry fee to participate in that contest, separate from the derby registration.
There is a free Kids Day, scheduled for Sunday, Sept. 21. The contest starts at dawn at the Oak Bluffs Steamship Authority wharf and lasts but a few hours. Every entrant gets a prize and some will get some very special prizes.
The rule book explains it all and it is available in most Island tackle shops. Of the four pages in the rule booklet, one page is devoted entirely to explaining all the prizes.
There is even a mystery prize given each day to any angler weighing in a fish, so long as it isn’t smaller than a 32-inch striped bass, 22-inch bluefish, 21-inch Atlantic bonito and 25-inch false albacore. This derby has no maximum size limit, only a minimum. That angler won’t know he is a winner unless he checks the derby Web site or checks the listings posted daily at the weigh station.
On Wednesday evening, a core group of derby committee volunteers gathered at David Pothier’s Cars Unlimited, temporarily taking over the garage to put the finishing touches on a contest that took a year to plan and now to execute. John Custer, derby chairman, officiated. The volunteers walked around the boxes stuffing what is called the derby bag with gear. By the end, boxes of hundreds of dollars worth of fishing gear and clothing were lined up on a waist-high car lift.
Mr. Custer said the derby will give away 140 mystery prize bags this year. A specially manufactured derby bag was made to carry a lot of stuff, the full value of the bag and its contents is at least $100.
On Tuesday, a group of fishermen gathered to erect a fillet shed next to the weigh station. The fillet shed will accommodate all the fish that is donated to the fillet program, a program that provides free fish to Island seniors through their councils on aging.
The entry fee in the contest is $45 for all tackle and flyrod divisions. Junior and seniors are charged $20. Every registered fisherman gets a button to wear proudly, a hat and a souvenir booklet and rules brochure.
This is also the year of derby officials taking a greater interest in the environment, teaming up with the Natural Resource Department of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah). The two organizations are asking fishermen to discontinue using lead weights when bait fishing — and to adopt weights that are made out of stone.
Stone fish weights are being made available for free through grants from the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Toxics Use Reduction Institute.
The groups are calling their effort the Lead-Free Vineyard Fishing Project. It stems from incidents at the start of last year’s derby when fishermen recovered fish laden with heavy lead weights ingested prior to being caught. The incidents raised public health concerns and concerns about the environment.
“This is just the beginning,” said Mr. Jerome.
“People understand the hazards of lead. We hope in the years ahead to tweak the program a little bit and make more alternative weights viable. This is our first go-round.”
The fishing continues until Saturday, Oct. 18, at 10 p.m. An afternoon awards ceremony will follow on Sunday, Oct. 19 at the Outerland at the Martha’s Vineyard Airport.