When the Martha's Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby begins this Sunday, there will be more prizes than ever before in the event's 58-year history. This year's contest is offering $300,000 in prizes over the course of the tournament, which runs three days longer than last year.
A team of more than 20 volunteer fishermen showed up at the foot of Main street in Edgartown Saturday morning to begin the process of transforming an old fish shack into derby headquarters. Signs were hung. The old fillet shack was put up, and furniture was hauled into place.
As many as 3,000 fishermen are expected to participate in the month-long contest, and they are coming from all over the world, including Japan, Europe and the Caribbean. Top entrants with the largest striped bass, bluefish, bonito and false albacore will be eligible for the two grand prizes, a 19-foot Boston Whaler powerboat with outboard and trailer and a four-wheel drive pickup truck.
Daily and weekly prizes will be offered throughout the contest, which ends on Saturday, Oct. 18.
Ed Jerome, president of the derby organization, arrived Saturday morning just in time to help put up the fillet cutting table, where in the weeks ahead hundreds of pounds of fresh fillets will be prepared for the Island's senior citizens. There are many components to the contest. Very little is left to waste. Fishermen are urged to donate their fresh fish to the food program that distributes fillets to elders across the Island. Fish that are inedible are turned over to Island pot fishermen for bait. And for Island youth, a special junior fisherman derby is scheduled for the early hours of Saturday, Sept. 20, at the Oak Bluffs Steamship Authority Wharf.
With this year's contest opening sooner, starting on a Sunday instead of a Tuesday, Mr. Jerome said: "We can expect a lot of fishermen showing up at the first weigh-in, compared to past years," Mr. Jerome said. The reason is simple: Sunday isn't a work day.
The contest officially begins on Sunday, Sept. 14 at 12:01 a.m. and the weigh-in station opens that morning from 8 to 10 a.m. From then until the end, derby headquarters will be open four hours a day, from 8 to 10 a.m. and again from 8 to 10 p.m.
Organizing this year's contest began just as last year's ended. Most of the work done in the contest was done by a team of 30 volunteers. Many of them were carrying heavy equipment on Saturday.
John D. Custer, 34, of West Tisbury is this year's new chairman. Mr. Custer oversees the day-to-day operation of the contest. Mr. Custer teaches social studies to eighth graders at the West Tisbury School. His father, Herb, directed the regional high school vocational program and served for a time as the Island superintendent of schools.
John Custer said he had been on the derby committee for five years, helping with organizing. Last year, he said, he was approached to take over the leadership from David Pothier, who stepped down. Mr. Custer was a hands-on leader Saturday morning, helping with the heavy lifting involved in assembling the fillet shed.
"John is a great leader. We see him as doing a great job taking the helm," said Mr. Jerome. "He is a good communicator, well-organized. He pays attention to the details, all characteristics of a good chairman."
There are a number of prizes and contests within the month-long fishing contest. There are senior citizen awards, prizes for women, junior fishing awards. Many of the awards have been named after beloved fishermen of years past. Mr. Custer said that this year, the Abe Williams Award will be given to the first shore all-tackle fisherman to get a grand slam. A grand slam is an award given to an angler able to land big fish in all four species - striped bass, bluefish, false albacore and bonito.
Abe Williams was Abram Nesbitt Williams, who died in June of this year. Mr. Williams, 70, was an avid participant in the derby. Among his many awards, Mr. Williams got a first place for the largest shore bluefish (20.58 pounds) in 1998.
The best derby memories can't be measured in prize money or on the weigh-in scale. Mr. Jerome said he personally enjoys the derby because of the people. "This gives me new energy," he said. "I get to see a lot of old friends come back. I get to spend time with my family fishing. And I like the excitement and camaraderie I get with the derby committee members."
The contest inspires good sportsmanship. The participating fishermen come from all backgrounds. An executive with an off-Island firm can stand right next to a local tradesman and share stories and fishing gear. The anglers who do best in the fishing contest are those who invest time, not money, in the sport.
Steve Baccelli of Vineyard Haven, a member of the derby committee, helped with assembling the fillet shack. "Why did I join the derby committee? I have such a good time in the contest, I want to give something back to the community," he said. During the day, Mr. Baccelli works at Compass Bank. Fishing is a great release, he said. Mr. Baccelli said he doesn't do that well when it comes to winning, but the fishing is what matters. He fishes both from shore and on a boat. The boat name is Family Fortune. "Last year I got a grand slam, but there wasn't enough weight to place that well," he said.
Karen Kukolich, of Edgartown, is a former derby committee member and an avid recreational angler. On Saturday morning, she walked past the headquarters and looked inside to see how the crew was doing. "It is that time of year again," Ms. Kukolich said. "I'm going fishing."
Gregory Joannidi of Vineyard Haven, who retired recently from teaching at the regional high school, is especially interested in the derby. He and his wife, Claire, peeked in too. "I am going to fish the derby," Mr. Joannidi said. "You bet I am going to fish a lot more this fall. I will win the vehicle."
It took Saturday's crew just ten minutes to assemble the fillet shack. "I think it is a record," said Mr. Custer, after the last bolt was secure. The shack, designed in modular fashion so it could be broken down and carried in the back of a truck, was built by industrial arts students at the Edgartown School. Mr. Jerome looked at the wall where the names of children were written. The names are the original builders of the shed. It was rebuilt five years ago. "Many of those students have since graduated from the regional high school," Mr. Jerome said proudly.
In the days ahead, the derby headquarters will be furnished. Computers and paraphenalia will be added to the old building. By 8 a.m. Sunday, the annual derby will be under way.
Derby registration forms can be picked up at most Island tackle shops. Registration is $40 for adults in either the all-tackle or fly-fishing category. Junior and senior fishermen pay $15.