The fishing is about to change big time, when the 66th annual Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby opens this Sunday. A week of wet weather, remnant of two tropical storms, has only stirred the waters around the Vineyard. The fish are here. Many anglers are poised and waiting.
The month-long fishing contest that offers more than a quarter of a million dollars in prizes is about to begin.
“We have high expectations,” said Chuck Hodgkinson, chairman of the derby. “Some beaches have moved. The favorite fishing spots may have been relocated, but we know the fish are here,” he said.
The Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby is more about fishermen than fish. The anglers come from all over to compete, not for days of fishing, like other nationally renowned fishing contests. The derby is a month of serious angling. Fishermen compete to get the biggest striped bass, bluefish, false albacore and bonito during the best time of the year, the fall migration.
The anglers will hang out, with each other, sharing big stories and impromptu meals — breakfast, lunches and dinners at all hours. They’ll wear waders and their tackle-packed vests as most of the citizenry of the Island wear a down coat in winter.
Derby anglers will fish from boats and they’ll fish from the shore. And while there will be plenty of differences among them, they’ll all be fishing from the Vineyard. All of them will have a derby button on their hat or in their pocket.
The weigh-in station is an old, beat-up, shingled fish shack at the foot of Main street in Edgartown that is a witness to a lot of improvements in the neighborhood. But for a total of 35 days, that little, one-room, uninsulated, fluorescent-lit building will be the center of the universe for as many as 3,000 entrants, young and old. Anglers will end their nights and mornings of fishing at the weigh-in station. And they’ll likely have their dinner after they’ve left there. It will be a place of cheers, a place of envious gazing, with the busiest fish fillet knives anywhere in New England.
Big fish will be weighed in each morning from 8 to 10 a.m. and again at night from 8 to 10 p.m. The weight will be measured in one-hundredths of a pound. There are more losers than winners, but that is okay.
Last year the contest attracted 2,800 entrants and there is no reason to doubt that this year’s anglers, like those last year, will weigh in as many as 1,400 fish totalling thousands of pounds. Martha’s Vineyard is a premiere fishing spot at this end of summer, so of course the contest’s reputation attracts spirited, talented, often sleep-deprived anglers from afar.
They’ll fish from the waters south of Nantucket to the waters south of Cuttyhunk. They’ll fish the quiet beaches of Makonikey and West Chop, down to the east at Wasque and west to Squibnocket where the water often boils with either striped bass or bluefish, though only occasionally with both at the same time.
Last August, there was a lot of news on the waterfront of an 81.88-pound striped bass being caught in Long Island Sound, off Westbrook, Conn. Every angler fishing in this year’s contest is hopeful they’ll catch and hold that fish’s big sister, or even little brother. The biggest striped bass weighed in at the derby was 60 pounds and that one was caught in 1978.
The eight fishermen with the largest fish caught in the contest — the largest of each shore fish together with the largest of each boat fish — will be entered into two drawings. In the first drawing, one of four boat anglers will win a brand new 2011 Chevrolet four-wheel drive Silverado pickup truck to take on the beach. In a separate and second drawing, one of four shore anglers will win a 22-foot center console Eastern boat with a Mercury outboard and trailer. It is the luck of the draw, but isn’t it that way when you start fishing with Lady Luck.
There will be hundreds of daily prizes, too, handed out each day and evening throughout the contest. An angler young and old may qualify for a mystery prize just by weighing in a fish. There are daily awards for the largest fish of the day caught by an angler. There are awards for the woman with the largest fish, juniors with the largest fish and senior citizens with the largest fish. Many of the adult anglers in this year’s contest have a memory of being a winning junior angler. The weighmasters will make sure that every youth weighing in his first fish walks away with a proud parent and a smile.
There are also awards for fishermen who catch all four species and the total weight of their biggest fish outweighs that of anyone else. That award is called a Grand Slam and it is almost as prestigious as catching the largest fish of any species. Any angler who can demonstrate great ability in catching all four species is deserving of a prize.
While the fishing in the contest begins at 12:01 Sunday morning, the door to the weigh-in headquarters opens for business for the first time at 8 a.m. Sunday. Roy Langley, a much regarded weighmaster, will officiate the opening of the derby with the ringing of the much regarded cow bell.
There is even an award for the first striped bass to be weighed in.
Registration forms and derby buttons are available at all of the Island’s tackle shops. Registration is $45 for adults and covers the whole month long contest. Junior anglers under 15 years of age are charged $20.
There is a separate flyrod division which is also $45.
The fishing contest ends on Saturday, Oct. 15 at 10 p.m, when the weigh-in closes.
Derby contest rules have not changed a notch from last year, but state regulations pertaining to fishing have changed. This year, nearly all anglers are required to register for the Massachusetts recreational saltwater fishing license. The fee for adults is $10 plus a service fee. Senior citizens are required to register but there is no cost. Fishermen who only choose to go fishing on a charter fishing boat are not required to have the license. Fishermen who are disabled and children under 16 years of age are exempt. There is reciprocity for anglers who already have a saltwater fishing license in New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Connecticut.
Ed Jerome, president of the derby, said the derby organization has worked hard to make sure the word is out and all anglers know that in order to compete and win prizes in the derby they must comply with all state and federal regulations. They must sign a form when they join the contest to attest that they will observe the rules. Plus, if they weigh in a potential prize winner they must attest with their signature that they are in compliance. That means they must have the state fishing license.
According to state records, more than 200,000 Massachusetts anglers have registered this year for the saltwater fishing license, though the goal was 250,000, according to Mike Armstrong of the division of marine fisheries. State officials recognize that this is a year of learning for anglers.
Sgt. Matthew Bass, state environmental police officer charged with enforcement on the Vineyard, has not issued any fines for noncompliance. He said his goal this summer was best put towards boating and fishing already on the books, with an emphasis towards educating recreational anglers about the new state license. He said he will be out in force during the upcoming fall fishing season, checking bag limits and minimum fish sizes.
A lot of concern has been expressed on the waterfront about the availability of the four principal species that make the derby work. This was a summer where the stories of big striped bass were best told by those fishing other places. A lot of fish were landed in Chatham by commercial striped bass anglers. Bluefish was a main staple for anglers this summer all around the Vineyard and numbers were good. Bonito and false albacore are here in fair numbers, much better than a year ago, according to some.
Before anyone complains about the availability of fish, Mr. Jerome offers one thought: “You all have the fish in the same playing field. When you fish the derby, if the fish are sparse, you deal with that. If they are plentiful, you deal with that. We are all fishing the same playing field. If the weather is nasty and rainy and someone comes into the weigh-in with a fish, we’ll say that is a pretty good job,” Mr. Jerome said.
“We just came through the remnants of a hurricane. The water is still dirty,” he said. “But I think after this Friday and Saturday, we should be in great shape. Once the bait settles down it will be back to normal.”