Put plainly, most of the movie footage is not terribly good. Some of it is out of focus or overexposed. Some of it lingers too long on fish lying dead on the rocks. Some of it wasn’t even shot on the Vineyard, and it takes a judicious eye to determine which scenes show the Island and which show Nauset, Cotuit or the jetties at the northern end of the Cape Cod Canal.
But the scenes that do show the Vineyard amount to something irreplaceable in a newly-rediscovered film from the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass Derby in 1946, the first year the tournament was held.
Edited by filmmaker John Wilson of Edgartown and presented as a two-minute clip on the Gazette website this morning, the movie ranges up and down the southern coastline of Martha’s Vineyard. It shows derby fishermen — wearing belted hip waders and using old-time conventional reels and plugs — surf-casting from South Beach and story-high boulders at Gay Head, with Noman’s Land in the distance.
As such, the film offers the only known cinematic record of a nationally famous, monthlong fishing derby shot during its inaugural year. Even as it began, the tournament was earning acclaim across New England and around the country for the liveliness of the fishing and the accomplishments of those who had set up the derby on fairly short notice.
“Martha’s Vineyard is on the map. The publicity given us is nationwide, and it is of the most favorable sort,” M. Martin Gouldey, an organizer and chairman of the event, told the Vineyard Gazette during the second week of that first contest. “It is astonishing to find Martha’s Vineyard in virtually every mainland newspaper every day, as it places us in a position to indicate plainly that we are not on Cape Cod, and that we are an Island of our own.”
A newsreel photographer arrived as the derby began on Sept. 15, 1946. The Gazette did not name him, but if this footage is his, the director was Jim Utley of Hobby Pictures. According to the Gazette, the plan was to edit and distribute the film to publicize the tournament while it was still underway. It is unclear whether this ever happened — indeed, it is unclear whether Mr. Utley even finished the movie — though he did give it a name: Martha’s Vineyard Sportsman’s Paradise.
The film is 16-millimeter, silent and in color. The Gazette presents it as part of a continuing initiative to find, transfer, research, present and conserve old and mostly unseen Island films of all kinds to a contemporary audience. The derby footage came to the Gazette from Northeast Historic Film of Bucksport, Me., a conservation group that locates and archives old films of New England and converts them to digital files for the public to enjoy.
The derby film clip will also play at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum in Edgartown, which tomorrow opens One on the Line, an exhibit on the history of the derby. The exhibit closes Oct. 26.
To clarify what scenes actually show the Vineyard, the newspaper screened the whole film, which runs about 16 minutes, for the following people: Nelson Smith, a retired charter boat captain from Edgartown, derby prize winner Floyd Norton and his wife Jan Norton of Edgartown, and derby hall of fame members Cooper Gilkes 3rd, Kib Bramhall and Ed Jerome, the derby president and one of its historians.
Mr. Jerome believed that a scene shot somewhere on South Beach shows a fisherman who played a central role in the creation of the derby: Nat Sperber, a publicity agent for the Massachusetts Steamship Lines, the last company to run the Island steamers and ferries before the creation of the Steamship Authority in 1949.
“That looks like Nat Sperber from the back! Nat Sperber is the one who actually forced and pushed for the existence of the derby,” said Mr. Jerome. With the ferry company, Mr. Sperber dreamed up the idea of a fishing tournament to extend the recreational season as long as possible into the fall. “Then he got in touch with the Al Brickmans and the Nortons and the Halls to do it,” he said, referring to Island businessmen. “That’s how it happened. He was the impetus of it. It looks like him to me from behind.”
The first Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass Derby was organized and staged quickly in 1946. It’s clear from Gazette accounts that because of wartime restrictions and rationing, few people had fished from boats or even the shore in the first half of the 1940s. In the weeks before the derby began, the reporting suggested that bass fishing was a calling most Island readers knew little of.
“That the ancient sport may be revived in the form in which it was formerly enjoyed here, is hoped for, and the belief is strengthened by the fact that the foremost fishing area in this locality is in Vineyard waters,” the Gazette said on June 21, 1946. “Squibnocket Bight, always famed for its beach and ledge fishing, is the natural habitat of the striped bass, and sport fishing boats from other localities are said to put in there during the season, to take prize fish which are credited to other areas . . . . Old bass fishermen have spoken of forty-pounders as being common to the point of being inconsequential, and the tale has been told of a bass, landed by Joseph Jefferson, which weighed only ounces less than one hundred pounds after it had been out of the water for some hours.”
Beginning serious work only weeks before the first derby began, the founders, including Mr. Sperber, Mr. Brickman, Mr. Gouldey and Antone K. DeBettencourt, a farmer from Oak Bluffs, enlisted the sponsorship of the Island rod and gun club and the support of many Vineyard businesses. With bluefish scarce in the middle 1940s — only 2,300 pounds were landed in the state in 1947, one study said — and other game fish less popular than they are today, stripers were the only fish in competition that year. But the man or woman who weighed in the largest bass would take home a significant prize of $1,000.
Among the signs of those times was the startling way some of the other prizes were valued and ranked.
In the surf-casting category, first prize was a Westland rod, Perez reel and Ashaway line. Sixth prize was a ticket on Northeast Airlines from Boston or New York to the Vineyard and back.
In the special prizes category, the first-place mainland visitor would win a weeklong vacation on the Vineyard for two at the Harborside Inn, including round-trip air travel from Boston or New York and meals during their stay. Second place was “a lot of land on Martha’s Vineyard suitable for a sportsman’s camp,” courtesy of Henry Cronig.
Under the category labeled “Women,” first prize was a Pendleton Glacier Park blanket. There were no other prizes set aside for them.
Included in a list of prizes not specified when the derby began: one dozen She Devil plugs, six 10-pound cooked hams, one case of canned peas, one leather cigarette case, two bottles of Southern Comfort, one leather billfold and 300 chopsticks.
Perhaps because the film was shot 67 years ago, none of the veteran fishermen who viewed the film recognized the few men and women showing off their prize-winning bass in the dark rooms of the old Martha’s Vineyard Rod and Gun clubhouse on what was then the second floor of the Reliable Market building in Oak Bluffs.
But they did recognize the equipment used by the old-time fishermen, including the conventional reels that predated the spinning reels of today. Conventional reels allowed a fisherman to cast farther, Mr. Gilkes and Mr. Bramhall said, but they also required split-second timing on the release and they snarled easily. Mr. Gilkes, Mr. Bramhall and Mr. Jerome each marveled at a set of plugs carefully laid out on a rock — broken-back Dannys and others that used eel skins to add to their allure.
“Yep, broken-back Dannys. That’s what we called them,” said Mr. Jerome, watching the clip. “That’s an eel skin. He took the eel and skinned it. This was developed in Cuttyhunk. You have to kill the eel, then strip the skin off, and put it in salt water and slide it over the plug.”
Readers who recognize any of the individuals or scenes shown in the clip are invited to contact the writer. A goal of the Historic Movies of Martha’s Vineyard project is to identify Island scenes and Vineyard people in these old Island films while it is still possible to do so. Those who want to contribute old Island films to the project, please contact Tom Dunlop (firstname.lastname@example.org).