On Sunday at 12:01 a.m., anglers will head to moonlit beaches and offshore Island waters — as they have every September since 1946 — when the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby gets underway.

“Everybody looks forward to that first night on the beach,” said Phil Horton, derby committee chairperson. “Everybody’s got all their derby energy going at the beginning, and we’re ready to fish hard for the next five weeks.”

The derby runs from Sept. 10 through Oct. 14. Online registration opened in mid-August, and participants began picking up their derby buttons, hats and rules packets from Island tackle shops last week.
The derby committee said it expects around 3,000 entrees this year.

Volunteers Jake Maciel, Stacy Nickerson-Hall, and Mike Cassidy pose with the leaderboard. — Ray Ewing

At Larry’s Tackle Shop, the last-minute rush to register continues up to the last moment. Owner Peter Sliwkowski said Saturday alone will yield a bulk of the competition’s entrees.

In keeping with long tradition, all proceeds from registration go to scholarships for local high school seniors. Committee president John Custer said that in 2023 the derby reeled in $90,000 for Vineyard graduates.

“We never take for granted the amazing support for our organization demonstrated by participants, sponsors and the Island community,” Mr. Custer wrote in an email to the Gazette. “We recognize the derby’s place in terms of history and significance, and we work hard to ensure we honor that.”

Earlier this week, the modest, unmarked building between the Edgartown Yacht Club and the Atlantic Restaurant that typically acts as a storage unit began its transformation to an unambiguous identity: derby headquarters. Each morning beginning this Sunday from 8 to 10 a.m. and evening from 7 to 9 p.m., fishermen will flock to headquarters for daily weigh-ins, bringing their hauls to be adjudicated and either brought home or donated to the derby filet program, a longstanding initiative that provides free fish to the Island elderly.

Mike Cassidy has volunteered at the weigh-in station for 35 years. He said the most memorable wins are never the largest. 

“It’s the people that have been coming here for years and have never won a prize, who fish just to be a part of the derby, and when they win their first daily prize after eight years of fishing the derby, you’d think they won the lottery,” Mr. Cassidy said. “That’s what makes this worthwhile.”

The derby has run since 1946. — Ray Ewing

Mr. Sliwkowski added that the largest draw for participants is the once a year community that forms.

“The really special part is the migration of new friends who come in every week,” Mr. Sliwkowski said. “This is just as much a social event as it is a fishing event. We always look forward to seeing some of the same folks come back every year.”

One such angler is Chappy resident Rick Schifter, who has participated in the derby every year since 2002.

“I love the competition,” he said, while getting his pin at Larry’s Tackle Shop. “But most of all it’s great fishing and 35 spectacular days of enjoying everyone’s company.”

Striped bass are still out of the competition in an effort to help the species rebound, leaving three eligible fish: bluefish with a 22-inch minimum, bonito with a 21-inch minimum and false albacore, or albie, with a 25-inch minimum, measured from tip to tail.

Joel, the self-appointed “scup specialist” at Larry’s Tackle Shop, said that chasing albies is always a main event.

“Albie season’s one of the craziest things to witness,” Joel said. “You take perfectly-rational people and send them after an eight-pound fish. Last year I watched a man weep after finally catching one after weeks of trying.”

Once called the grand slam, which included all four original species, the triple crown is still the derby’s most difficult feat, Mr. Sliwkowski said.

The derby award ceremony takes place Oct. 15, at Farm Neck Golf Club — Ray Ewing

Julian Pepper, manager at Larry’s, has won the grand slam twice and the triple crown once over his 32 years participating in the derby, but he said winning prizes is never the derby’s most memorable moment for him.

“Usually it’s the fish you didn’t get that creates the best stories,” Mr. Pepper said.

“And we’re all out there,” he continued, gesturing to the three-man team holding down Larry’s. “We usually open the shop between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. every day. But if the fishing’s good, it’s closer to 9.”

Cooper Gilkes, owner of Coop’s Bait and Tackle in Edgartown, said that this laissez-faire approach to work is observed by many during derby season.

“In the old days, the derby meant that if anyone had work to do on their houses, roof, plumbing or their electric, forget it,” he said. “Nowadays, this is a little different because the guys are a little more serious about their work.”

“But it’s fantastic,” he continued. “The sportsmanship and camaraderie are unbelievable. It’s almost like Christmas with everyone coming home — coming back to the Island — and seeing the old folks we’ve been seeing for 20 years. It’s incredible.”

The derby does not only connect anglers across the Island. It connects them across generations. Jake Maciel has participated in the derby for 20 years, having first cast off with the other fishermen when he was 10 years old.

“Like most fishermen on the Island, I think this has always been the best time of the year,” said Mr. Maciel, now an employee at Coop’s. “It’s time for me to be out on the water with my dad.”

After the last weigh-in on Oct. 14, the award ceremony takes place the following day, Sunday Oct. 15, at Farm Neck Golf Club, with the six grand leaders vying for the grand prize: a 22-foot Sisu hardtop outboard and trailer donated by Eastern Boats in New Hampshire.

Mr. Gilkes said most fishermen won’t take a break until that final bell.

“By the end of the derby, these guys have given 120 per cent to that derby, can hardly keep their eyes open, can’t remember their own names and chances are that if they put the hours in, they’re on the leaderboard someplace. Hard work pays off,” he said.

Mr. Gilkes added that keeping the spirit of the derby front and center is essential.

“It’s about challenging yourself to do the best you can do, but you want to be the best person you can be,” he said. “Sportsmanship should come first. It’s very difficult when the competition is stiff but for the real good fishermen, they keep their heads above water.”