The shack at the end of Main street in Edgartown lies dormant most of the year. During summer months it is used by the Edgartown Junior Yacht Club. During the winter, it sits empty, a little outpost on the harbor. And for five weeks in the fall, the shack comes alive.
It is fully revived with the sound of a bell, rung at 8 a.m. this Sunday morning when the weigh station for the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby opens for business.
The derby runs through Oct. 19 this year, drawing anglers from near and far to fish Vineyard waters in search of The Big One. Last year more than 3,000 fishermen participated in the derby, weighing in more than 21,000 pounds of fish. Bluefish was the top catch last year, with bonito the most elusive. As of Wednesday this week, more than 1,700 participants had already registered for their quests to land striped bass, bluefish, Atlantic bonito and false albacore.
“There was a crazy rush the first day [of registration] to get all the special numbers that people want,” said Julian Pepper of Larry’s Tackle Shop in Edgartown, one of seven registration stations across the Island. Most people have some kind of preference, he said, although others are just as happy to reach into a box and draw a random registration number. Mr. Pepper, who has fished the derby since he was 10, has been number 45 for the past several years.
On Wednesday afternoon, derby treasurer Chris Scott stopped by headquarters to pick up registration fees from longtime derby volunteer and weigh station administrator Amy Coffey. Mr. Scott has been fishing the derby for 21 years, but since his daughter Victoria started fishing seven years ago, he’s been “more of a guide.” The duo plan to enter the team division this year, and 13-year-old Victoria has also signed up as a weigh station volunteer.
In previous years, only two awards were given out for the team division: first in boat and first in shore. This year, awards will be given out for first, second and third place, giving teams more incentive to participate.
Another new prize this year is a pin for weekly winners in each category. Daily winners have always received a pin for their catch, while weekly winners earned a grab bag of merchandise. Merchandise will still be awarded, Mr. Scott said, but a pin “identifies you as a winner, you get bragging rights.”
As in previous years, four of the derby Saturdays will be Super Saturdays, in which each species of fish gets its turn in the spotlight; the angler with the heaviest-caught fish in the designated species wins $500.
For the first time this year, a Kayak Challenge will be offered, awarding a prize to the heaviest fish caught from a kayak. The challenge takes place Sept. 27 to Sept. 29.
“I’ve watched guys fish out of a kayak, and it seems like the most primitive way to do it,” Ms. Coffey said. “Like The Old Man and the Sea.” The challenge is sponsored by Bassyaks, which is offering a special fishing kayak as a prize (the kayak is on display at Larry’s Tackle, for those in need of incentive). Bassyaks owner Steve Komarinetz is a longtime derby participant.
The top prizes for the derby itself are given out during the awards ceremony, held Oct. 20 at Farm Neck Golf Club. The winner in the shore division receives a 22-foot center console boat, courtesy of Eastern Boats, and the winner of the boat division receives a 2013 Chevy Silverado pickup, courtesy of Clay Family Dealerships. Both Eastern Boats and Clay will be on hand for Meet the Sponsors Day on Oct. 5, when derby participants can test drive both the boat and the Chevy. Ms. Coffey said she is particularly looking forward to the American Saltwater Heroes Challenge. Now in its fifth year, the event brings wounded veterans from Walter Reed Memorial Hospital to the Vineyard for an all-expenses week of fishing and relaxation. The Saltwater Challenge is sponsored by the Beach Plum Inn. Jack Nixon, son of Beach Plum owners Bob and Sarah, came up with the idea when he was seven years old.
The veterans are “amazing human beings,” Ms. Coffey said. Last year, National Geographic produced a documentary about the Saltwater Challenge.
“It’s really just humbling and gratifying,” said derby chairman John Custer. Mr. Custer takes the helm from Chuck Hodgkinson, but is an old hand at the job; his first tenure as chairman was from 2003 to 2008. “They said it was a two-year shift,” he said, laughing.
Mr. Custer began participating in the derby as a child, fishing the annual Kids Derby. His own children now take part in Kids Day, which takes place Sept. 22 from 6 to 8 a.m. at the Oak Bluffs ferry wharf.
This year Mr. Custer takes on a new role: he will do weigh-ins on Sundays, the one day that morning weighmaster Roy Langley takes off. Longtime night weighmaster Charlie Smith officially retired last year after 19 years on the job. It took two pairs of shoes to fill Mr. Smith’s: committee members Mike Cassidy and Joe El-Deiry will take up the torch, although Mr. Smith will be back for the Saltwater Challenge.
“It’s one of those stone soup things,” Ms. Coffey said. “Everybody does their thing and it all comes together.” She predicted that this would be the year a competitor from the flyrod division ends up a grand leader.
“You just don’t know what’s going to happen, who’s going to get lucky,” Mr. Scott said.
Mr. Pepper knows a thing or two about derby magic. Last year, during the first weeks of the derby, he found and returned angler Chris Adler’s lost gear. On the very last day of the derby, Mr. Pepper completed his grand slam, landing a bonito to complement his striper, bluefish and albie.
And when he brought the bonito to weigh-in, he learned that the fish was tops in the category, making him a grand leader.
“That was a busy morning,” Mr. Pepper said. “And then I went out and played the lottery. I figured I was doing so well that day, I might as well.” (Derby magic appears to be fish-exclusive; Mr. Pepper didn’t hit the jackpot.)
“A lot of times fishermen make their own luck, just through perseverance, going out when nobody else is,” Mr. Scott said. “A lot of it is skill, it’s local knowledge, knowing the bait and knowing the spots.”
Mr. Custer offered advice for first-time derby participants: “Just spend some time around the weigh station and listen.”