Here in New England we have numerous “classic” activities for the adventurous. For the spring mogul skier there is White Heat at Sunday River. For the ice climber there is Pinnacle Gully in the dead of winter. For many of us back in the day there were fries and gravy at Nectar’s in Burlington, Vermont. For the saltwater fisherman, there is nothing more “classic” than the Martha’s Vineyard StripedBass & Bluefish Derby.
September 15th, 2013 will mark the start of the 68th Derby. It is the largest fishing derby on the east coast and now draws three thousand plus anglers to that piece of rock off the Massachusetts coast over its five week duration. I’m not going to regurgitate the storied history or the rules of the Derby or the various categories in which you can enter, a simple web search will do that for you. In a nutshell the objective is to catch the largest striped bass, bluefish, false albacore and bonito. Entering a fish in all four categories is known as “The Slam.”
My first Derby was in 2007. I had no idea of what to expect or what I was doing that first year but in the first few minutes of being on the island it became clear to me that this was not just a tournament. The Derby is part of the island’s life, and part of virtually every islander’s life. After that first day, it became part of my life. Not because of the fishing (I actually have yet to officially enter a fish) but because of the people and the idea of the Derby. Over the years I’ve met and become friends with a number of Derby anglers - light tackle, bait, conventional, fly, boat, shore – anglers from every segment. I’ve come to know Derby Committee members and volunteers, business owners, charter captains, bartenders, Derby sponsors…a lot of people. Some of these people I only see during the Derby, but there is a common past shared and a continuing passion for what the Derby is.
That being said, like any large gathering of people competing for something, there is certain etiquette, a set of unwritten rules so to speak, that newcomers need to be aware of. Most of this “information” is common sense but some things need to be learned by figuring it out on your own. Best advice is to at first stand back, listen to everything but say nothing, see everything but blend into the background and be unseen...like all things fishing, it’s a waiting game. Eventually the ice will be broken and communication with those who have paid their dues will be possible. After a while you might even get some advice on a particular location on a specific tide or when to wait for albies and when not to. A good insider’s view on these matters is “The Big One”by David Kinney. Every Derby angler should read this.
In 2010 I made a product donation to the Derby college scholarship program through my fly business. The idea that an island community would come together in this way to help its kids obtain a college education reminded me of a place that I once knew. I went to the awards ceremony for the first time that year. Standing in that room and watching everyone, talking with people and listening to their Derby stories it became clear to me just how much a part of their lives the Derby is. I watched four generations of one family beam with pride as one of the youngest members of the family made his way up to the stage to receive his award in the Junior division. I talked with them briefly and learned that all four generations fished the Derby together. Every year! I committed my business to be a major sponsor of the Derby the next day. Not for business purposes but because I wanted to be a part of it and I wanted to support it.
The Derby is not just about the Scholarship program. It also provides free fresh fish to the island elderly through the Fillet Program. I generally have issues with “kill” tournaments but the fish weighed in during the Derby do not go to waste and provide meals for those who really need them.
There are many other “facets” of what the Derby does for the community and participants but there is one other element that hits close to home for me and should be noted. In 2008, seven year old Jack Dixon had an idea that he shared with his parents Bob and Sarah. The family had been reading “The Big One” and happened across a photo essay in the newspaper about veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and the challenges they face. After looking at the photo’s Jack told his dad that he wished some of the vets could fish the Derby. The island went into action and made it happen. This year the American Heroes Saltwater Challenge will mark its fifth year. As I said, it’s not the fishing that draws me to the Derby, it’s the people of The Rock, the sense of community and the true Americana that still exists on Martha’s Vineyard on the back roads, the harbors and in the hearts and homes of the islanders.
One of my favorite days of the year is the last day of the Derby and the final weigh-in. Each year on that night I get to stand on the docks in Edgartown with good friends, many of whom I met through the Derby, trade fishing stories of the past season, pass along information on what fly worked the best, discuss off season trips to faraway places, catch up on what our kids and families are doing and talk about our hopes for the next season. They are my extended family and we all “come home” for the Derby.
From the gear room
6 August 2013