18 Jan Fishing The Martha’s Vinyard Derby (Part 1 – A Primer) – Aubrey Theall
“Why the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby Should be on Your Calendar for Next Fall”. – By Aubrey Theall
(Editors Note: Aubrey Theall has provided us with an excellent piece on fishing The Martha’s Vinyard Derby. What follows is Part 1 of this piece. Look for Part 2 in the near future. Aubrey does a great job of capturing what you can expect if you’re planning on going over to fish The Derby. He also provides some interesting history, highlights some of the personalities, and provides reference to some great resources associated with The Derby.
I don’t know what the term fishing derby means to the reader but for me it conjures up images of glitter painted bass boats on a lake in Florida with guys whooping it up catching largemouths on TV or a load of kids around a rod and gun club pond in spring with Sponge Bob an Barbie rods drowning garden worms for little stocked trout. The Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby is much different by virtue of its history, its duration (covering roughly six weeks each fall), the large number of participants (more than 2,800 last year) and the significant prizes up for grabs (more than $350,000 worth last year). It truly is a major sporting event, and its one of relatively few that you and I can participate in.
Fishing is relished on the Vineyard, more so there than I think any other place where I have set foot. This is one of of the great things that makes the Island a very unique place. It is now mostly a recreational fishery on the Vineyard as the commercial fishing fleet is a shadow of its former self, but that’s a very long story for another time and a more qualified author. Check out the swordfish statue in Menemsha if you’re interested in learning something about it.
Fishermen are almost omnipresent in season if you take note, you’re hard pressed to pass a salt pond, a stretch of sand, a bridge or a jetty where you won’t see at least one soul out there whipping up the water. Roof racks bristle with rods as folks go about their daily routines, ready for the next breaking fish to appear.
The Vineyard gets more like the mainland USA in July and August when its totally mobbed with tourists (and way too busy for my tastes) but that’s actually a blessing for the striped bass fisherman. The fishing generally slows down in the heat of July and August and cranks back up in September in the big way. Unless you’re going to see or be seen, sit in traffic, sit on the beach or play golf you probably don’t want to go when most of the the pink pants and whale belt crew is in town anyway.
This tournament is a surfcasting derby, a boat derby and a fly fishing derby, all rolled into one. The quarry is a grand slam of New England shore fishing; striped bass, bluefish, false albacore and bonito. Weakfish have also played a supporting role in years gone by, however, they are now in a serious down cycle which is a shame as they are a most beautiful and a fine fighting fish. Striped bass went on a ten year hiatus during the darkest days of the “moratorium” but fortunately striper stocks made their amazing recovery and the bass have been back as the star of the show since 1994.
For the boat fisherman, “in bounds”, as the playing field is referred to is surprisingly large. It includes a healthy chunk of the most prime water for fishing for stripers and blues in New England, including a good bit of the south side of the Cape, the waters around the Vineyard and Nantucket and over toward the Elizabeth Islands. They’ll give you a detailed map when you purchase your Derby pin. Of course boat fishing is cheating and I don’t condone it, but some people need more than a rod and a plug bag to catch a fish. More seriously the boat fishermen have generally caught the largest fish in recent years (not surprisingly) and there are a ton of boat guys out there that are hard as nails, sleep deprived and borderline insane plying those waters all Derby long.
For the fly fisherman, I’m afraid I can’t offer a lot of very specific color. Surfcasting is hard and I’m not masochistic enough to make it any harder. You have my admiration (and/or my sympathy).
For the surfman, this is about as good as it gets. Just like for the boat fishermen you are pretty much at ground zero in terms of striper and blue fishing and you’ll be fishing it right in the meat of the fall migration. Go for Columbus Day weekend and you can work the same beaches at the same time as the famous or infamous “Columbus Day Blitz” of 1981, which was one of the greatest single day hauls of trophy striped bass from shore that has ever occurred anywhere on Earth. I know, hyperbole is the best thing ever and people make outrageous claims like this all of the time. This is not an outrageous claim. Two schools of bunker hounded by giant schools of trophy bass worked their way down the south shore of the island and eventually merged into one, with reliable accounts of hundreds of trophy (40+lb) sized fish beached by a small handful of anglers. To give it context, a 50lb striper was caught this day and weighed and it did not place in either the daily or overall Derby standings. The winning bass was taken that day at 56 pounds and the angler that took the third place (51 pound) bass also landed a 20 pound bluefish in the same blitz. Its incredible that a fifty pound bass, the fish of a lifetime for nearly any fishermen, a fish that would win many derbies, wound up nothing more than a footnote in Derby history.
Also consider that you’ll be fishing the same shores from which the Derby record was hauled in by legend Dick Hathaway, who won the tournament with a 60 pound shore caught fish in 1978. He also happened to win the 1956 Derby with a 52 pounder and the 1997 Derby with a 50, an amazing span of 41 years between first and last winning fish. He was later banished for 10 years during the 1999 Derby after having been accused by another fisherman of keeping more than the one striper per day permitted. Whether or not this occurred was never fully resolved but the finding of the Committee was that it did and the Derby has a history of coming down hard on those suspected of or proven to be cheating. Obviously the integrity of the tournament is a critical part of ensuring its long term viability.
Editor’s Note: Stay tuned for Part II of this series in the near future. Part II contains some great stories from derbies past.