Barn swallows flitted amidst the drizzle at Duarte’s Pond in West Tisbury Wednesday morning, where a group of volunteers had gathered by the shore to await a truckload of trout. It was pond stocking day for the Kid’s Trout Tournament which begins at daybreak on Saturday, May 4.

This is the 50th year for the annual trout tournament, started in 1973 by Island fisherman Cooper Gilkes 3rd and his wife Lela.

Mr. Gilkes was on hand Wednesday morning, helping to transfer the trout from truck to pond and holding court with stories of tournaments past, as he has for half a century.

“It’s like Christmas for me,” Mr. Gilkes, 80, said during a recent interview at his Edgartown bait-and-tackle shop. “Over the years I loved to watch the kids. A lot of them have never been fishing, it’s their first time. You can just walk around the pond on a good day and you hear a squeal over here, and then one kid is running up to the weigh station. I mean, it’s just phenomenal.”

It's a keeper. — Ray Ewing

Throughout its long history, the trout tournament has become a central piece of the youth fishing scene on the Vineyard, helping to instill a lifelong love of the sport for hundreds of young Islanders. John Custer, current president of the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby and principal of the Tisbury School, still recalls netting a trophy at the trout tournament back in 1982.

“I remember my father introducing me to Coop and now, many, many years later, I’ve grown to know Coop well through the Derby committee and hold him in incredibly high regard,” Mr. Custer said. “His longevity in the Island fishing community, in particular when it comes to kids, just proves how much he loves fishing and wants to grow it in young kids. You can count me among them.”

The idea for the tournament, Mr. Gilkes said, was inspired by his own childhood experience fishing in a kid’s trout tournament in Laconia, New Hampshire.

Mr. Gilkes, who was born on the Vineyard but moved off-Island for a time, decided to bring the tradition to the Island once he returned. In 1973, he and his wife Lela partnered with the Martha’s Vineyard Fishermen’s Club to throw the first kids’ tournament at the West Tisbury Mill Pond.

“That’s the whole purpose of this, to introduce the Island youngsters to the freshwater experience,” Mrs. Gilkes said.

Cooper Gilkes, back in the day fly tying. — Mark Alan Lovewell

The idea was an immediate hit, with 188 kids participating the first year.

The tournament, now run through the Rod and Gun Club, soon outgrew the small up-Island pond, moving first to Wiggy’s Pond in Oak Bluffs before settling at its current location at Duarte’s Pond. It has stayed there ever since, rain or shine, save one year cancelled due to Covid.

On Wednesday, after the driver backed his churning fish tanks up the dock at Duarte’s Pond, Mr. Gilkes and the other volunteers took their first look at the trout.

“Oh, big ones!” Mr. Gilkes exclaimed, as the fish were scooped from their tanks and transferred into buckets for transport. When one of the trout wiggled out of the net and landed on the truck bed, Mr. Gilkes quickly grabbed it and tossed it into the pond, the first to be released that day.

Mr. Gilkes noted that trout aren’t necessarily the easiest catch for young anglers.

“They can be very frustrating to us sometimes”, he said. “Trout can be very, very particular, mood-wise, change-wise, weather-wise. We’ve had really good tournaments and we’ve had slow tournaments. It’s all part of the ballgame.”

It is not just trout that end up on the leaderboard during the tournament, Mr. Gilkes said, with freshwater pickerel often taking the prize for largest catch. The species balance has changed over the years, he said, with catfish and eels now seldom caught in the pond, and largemouth bass becoming more common.

Mr. Gilkes said the event is also about introducing kids to the beauty of nature.

“It’s fun to watch the kids react when situations that they probably never would see happen on the pond,” he said. “Osprey coming down and taking a trout right in front of them... ducks flying in and out, and geese going by, turtles popping up in front of them. You know it’s not just about the fishing. But the fishing is there, and it’s a hoot.”

Cooper Gilkes has been at the forefront of Vineyard fishing - forever. — Ray Ewing

Another draw, he added, was the food.

“Where else can you get a hotdog for breakfast?” he said.

In that regard, Mr. Gilkes said, many Island businesses have stepped up to contribute. Island Source has been a longtime sponsor and portable toilets from Dottie’s Potties are a must.

Despite the tournament’s early start, Mr. Gilkes said parents always enjoy the event too.

“Once they get their coffee and they’re good to go,” he said. “I have never, never heard one complaint.”

And with the tournament now entering its 50th year, it has become an intergenerational affair, with many parents having competed themselves during childhood. The trend goes for the Gilkes family too, with their children and now their grandchildren all competing over the years.

Looking back now on the springtime fishing tradition, Mr. Gilkes said he is proud of the legacy and all the work that made it possible.

“I’ve enjoyed every minute of it,” he said.

The Kids Trout Tournament takes place Saturday, May 4, from 6 to 9 a.m. at Duarte’s Pond in West Tisbury.