Cars were parked in a long line outside the Oak Bluffs Steamship Authority terminal early Sunday morning, as families waited for the gates to the pier to open. But they weren’t here to catch a ferry, not at this hour.

Instead, bundled in sweatshirts and holding fishing rods, lures and bait on hand, everyone was eager for the opening bell of the annual Kids Derby.

Alex Morrison and Lucille and a nice morning catch. — Mark Alan Lovewell

“I looked out and the crowd at the start was bigger than it is in most years,” said John Custer, president of the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby.

For two hours starting at 6 a.m. on Sunday, kids fished from the Oak Bluffs pier before the first ferry of the day arrived. Hundreds lined the pier’s railings, dropping their lines onto prime fishing real estate usually inaccessible to the public. Kids in three age groups learned to fish or honed their already considerable skills, each vying to catch the largest fish of the morning, measured by length.

“It’s one of the things in our small community where you see friends and neighbors,” Mr. Custer said. “We’re celebrating fishing and we’re celebrating families.”

Never too young to get hooked on fishing. — Mark Alan Lovewell

A staple of September on the Island, the kids derby drew more volunteers than there were jobs, Mr. Custer said. Some walked around with nets to help young anglers bring in their fish, others worked the bait coolers, and a group of six volunteers anchored the measuring table.

Ron McKee, a judge for the four to eight-year-old category, said he has been judging the kids derby for more than a dozen years.

“[I’ve been] fishing the derby since ‘78,” he said. “We’ve become a big family.”

As fish flopped from kids’ hands onto the dock and lines to the judges ebbed and flowed, Mr. McKee said there was hardly a better place to be.

“Four years old, holding a fish... smiling ear to ear — you can’t beat it,” he said.

When the time came, a bullhorn sounded to signal the end of the derby and the crowd of kids, holding rods high above their heads, gathered to find out the winners.

Ilija Trance is all smiles. — Mark Alan Lovewell

A drum roll started as the first, second and third place finishers were read out, and kids took their places in the winner’s circle, beaming with excitement while proud parents cheered them on.

A three-way tie presented itself in the four-to-eight-year-old age group, which was decided by the first child to bring the winning fish to the judges. The honor went to eight-year-old Emry Holden, with a 16.5-inch black sea bass.

“I thought it was a good fish, but not a winner,” she said after the ceremony.

Her sister, Ryann, won the 12 to 14-year-old category with a 20-inch black sea bass, the second largest fish in the kids derby.

“It was exciting,” she said. “It was pretty big. I was surprised by how big it was.”

The winner's circle. — Mark Alan Lovewell

In the nine to 11-year-old category, Calvin Davis took home the gold with a 16.25-inch black sea bass. The largest scup of the day was caught by seven-year-old Harper Gilkes at 14.25 inches.

With a 32-inch striped bass, Jax Trott took the kids derby’s top spot, surpassing his closest competition by a full foot.

“I knew I was going to win, because nobody’s gonna catch a fish bigger than a striper,” he said.

As the families walked off the pier, kids held commemorative T-shirts designed by Island students, capping a morning of community and family joy.

“It’s just got a lot of meaning for me personally, and the whole derby community,” Mr, Custer said.

More pictures.