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.

 

 

 

“Why the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby Should be on Your Calendar for Next Fall”.
By Aubrey Theall
A Primer:
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.
How I Got Interested:
The Vineyard is a rich playground for the surf fisherman from spring through fall.  I didn’t understand this until this past year as while I am an avid surf fisherman and a lover of the Vineyard, I had previously always ventured to the Island with golf clubs in tow (I’m a better golfer than I am a fisherman) rather than my fishing tackle.  I didn’t really think of it as a fishing destination, despite all of the guys driving around with rods in roof racks.  You often see what you want to see, I suppose.
Last year I vacationed the week of Memorial Day on the Island with my family and decided to finally bring along my surf fishing gear rather than the golf sticks.  I can fish at night, which is somewhat better for marital relations.  Since I had never fished the Island I figured that rather than stumble around in the dark alone that I should hire a local guide and ask him to show me the lay of the land.  This is how I came to meet Ron Domurat.
Anyone who has read my prior treatises for the Saltwater Edge Blog knows that I love to plug fish.  Ron Domurat is a true plug fishing sharpie and a Vineyard surf fishing guide.  It was Ron that talked me into coming back for the Derby as we casted standing waist deep in the water on the North Shore of the Island, casting with a big lightning storm cooking way off in the distance.  In addition to catching a couple of decent fish, seeing a great sunrise and hearing enough to be bitten by the Derby bug, I came away from that night armed with enough mental ammunition that I went out to another spot the next night alone and laid a serious beating on the fish, to the point that I walked off the beach exhausted with the fish still biting (if only it were Derby time I’d have had myself a pin!).
History:
As the hat anglers were given this year when registering proudly advertises, the Derby began in 1946.  Saltwater fishing was exploding in popularity at this time with the Second World War over, the country’s economy was moving and better quality fishing tackle was becoming available and at prices middle class people could afford.  The Derby itself was cooked up as a tourist attraction, to boost ferry travel to the Vineyard during the normally quiet fall months.
The Derby has evolved over time and is now run by an independent not for profit organization that provides scholarships for deserving young people on the Vineyard.  Even better, all of the prizes for the Derby are donated so you can feel good that your admission fee is going to benefit a young person while also temporarily satiating your fishing addiction.  Last year’s first prize in the shore division was a beautiful 24 foot center console fishing boat with motor and trailer donated by Eastern Boats and the first prize in the boat division was a brand new Chevrolet 4×4 pickup truck donated by the Clay auto dealerships.  The way the grand prizes work are that the leaders in each of the four divisions (striped bass, bluefish, false albacore, bonito) each selects a key to a padlock.  One of the four keys opens the lock and the lucky winner receives the grand prize.  The other three receive nice prize packages that include rods, reels, lures and such.
Being more than 60 years old, one would expect the Derby to have a rich history and tradition and it doesn’t disappoint.  The surfcasters, in particular, are legendary.  These have been and still are some of the best fishermen to wet a line.  The competition is therefore formidable, you’ll be fishing against a number of past Derby winners in any given year.  I won’t delve deeply into the specific personalities as I’ll only mostly be regurgitating material I’ve read or been told, but if you are interested there are two books you should read:
The Big One by David Kinney, which does a terrific job of chronicling the madness, sporting competition and sleep deprivation of the Derby.  Now all surfcasters are used to sleep deprivation but then there’s the story of multiple time Derby champion Keith McArt, who fished himself into such a state that he required four roadside naps in order to cross the island by car from Chappy to fish a tide at an up-island spot.  This book is a great read that transcends surfcasting to be of more general interest.  Don’t take my word for it, Dreamworks has purchased the film rights to the book.  The story of Dick Hathaway that I mentioned earlier is told in detail in this book (and it is from this book that my knowledge of the matter is derived), certainly one of the most polarizing characters in Derby history.  The focal character in the book, however, is an angler named Lev Wlodyka, another one of the most successful anglers in tournament history.  Mr. Wlodyka was unfortunately involved with a first place fish that he caught that contained a significant amount of lead “yo-yo” weights in its digestive tract when the fish was opened up at the weigh in station.  Of course a major controversy ensues.  I’m not going to do a better job of retelling the whole story, I’ll just encourage you again to read the book.
The second isReading the Water by Robert Post.  This assignment’s going to be a little tougher.  The bad news is that the author passed away a number of years back and the book has been out of print for some time.  Last I checked, used copies were fetching near one hundred dollars.  I scoured the earth to find one for seventy, and its worth it.  This book tells much of the story of Vineyard surf fishing, focusing on the people.  A wealth of terrific spots and techniques are embedded in the text, I’d recommend reading it with a notebook handy as it really is a guidebook even if its not written like one, most of the good fishing spots on the island are mentioned as well as many productive techniques.  My advice is to check the local libraries if you can’t find your own copy.  Two great first hand accounts of the Columbus Day Blitz by Whit Manter and Cooper Gilkes III are contained in this book, from which my description is derived.
Logistics:
A prospective Derby angler’s first order of business it to secure lodgings, either in one of the many hotels or rent a house (my personal preference).  Obviously renting a house becomes more economical when you’ve got a couple of people involved.  Ideally one would rent a house relatively closer to the areas you plan to fish, although the Vineyard is small enough that so long as you bring a vehicle over on the ferry (its going to run you about a hundred and fifty bucks, plus or minus) you can really hit all of the prime spots.  Not bringing a vehicle will be tricky unless you rent a place basically right where you plan to fish.  Not impossible, but a pretty tall order.  Fishing only the areas of the ferry landings would be so limiting that I wouldn’t advise it, although the passenger ferries to Edgartown (no car ferry lands in Edgartown) do drop you in the vicinity of pretty prime albie and bonito territory, particulary the town wharf in Edgartown which is poplulated by an interesting cast of characters.  Catch a butterfish off the dock (a small hook with a bit of squid tied above a treble will allow you to snag them) and live line one.
The Vineyard has pretty good access for oversand vehicles and for the surf fisherman and use of one can increase your potential productivity significantly.  As regulations change from time to time I’d advise you to check online for what permits are necessary and when and where you can hit the beaches by truck but the mobility a 4×4 affords can be invaluable.  Be warned that the necessary permits are fairly expensive.
Preparation:
During the Derby, silence reigns supreme.  This is a tournament and the fish someone else clues you in on could be their own.  My advice therefore is to scout the island before the derby begins, before the information embargo starts and you might happen upon a few honest reports.   You’ll find that advice is dispensed more freely at the tackle shop counter when the tournament is not in session as well, particularly if you buy a few plugs or have a reel spooled with fresh line.  The BS meter maxes out once the Derby starts so the old saw to believe nothing that you hear and half of what you believe is operative from the opening to closing bell.  If you do find yourself there for the first time during the Derby and don’t have a clue as to where to begin, hit Larry’s Tackle Shop for your Derby pin and ask them for one of the fishing maps that they publish, it will help you locate a number of good spots and lists productive techniques and tides for many of them.
The amount of cloak and dagger work that takes place at the Derby is shocking, for the uninitiated.  These are the sorts of things that would make a former KGB agent beam with pride.  Stories of car chases, tracking cars by specific tire tracks on dirt roads, hiding cars in the bushes, hiding fish in the bushes, under rocks, buried in the sand, etc., lying about where fish were caught (including trucking a fish across island to show it off at another spot to throw folks off your track) and much, much more are par for the course.
One illustrative story that’s not in either of those two books was was told to me by Ron Domurat.  In 2002 and before the cut in the barrier beach that ended the over-sand vehicle link between Katama and Chappy, Ron and his friend Phil Hennig had been bailing quality fish at the rip at Wasque point on the morning tide.  The East Beach trail to the rip was eroded which prevented oversand access to the beach and as I’ve found in a number of places where oversand access is permitted, the sections of beach subject to vehicular closure tend to drop off significantly in popularity as many fishermen like to keep the truck close at hand.  This is puzzling to me as a guy that probably walks 3-5 miles most trips and wears through a couple sets of waders per year, but I don’t own a truck.  Anyway, for three consecutive nights they parked at the fisherman’s lot and walked the few hundred yards in, were alone out there and had stripers to 25 pounds.  They were winning daily pins each morning (pins are awarded to the top few fisherman weighing in a fish from each of the four species each day).  Finally at 4am on the fourth night they saw a light coming down the boardwalk to the beach.  Phil had a 20 pound fish on the sand but Ron was still working on catching a good fish to weigh in.  Phil ran an end around on the fellow with his fish as the fellow made his way down to the beach and loaded it out of sight in the fish box back at the truck.  The newly arrived angler set up to Ron’s right but his light never went on and Ron kept catching fish by drifting live eels in the current, hooking up or getting a hit on virtually every cast.  He would quietly fight and land the fish and unhook it standing straight up with his back to the other fisherman, so it looked like he was changing plugs or fiddling with his tackle.  The bag limit at the time was one fish so once he caught a sizable fish he held it alongside his leg and shuffled back to the truck.  By the time they had the fish on ice and the rods in the rack the other angler was walking out to his truck and they all lamented how bad the fishing was everywhere (meanwhile Ron and Phil both had fish that would win daily pins later that morning on ice in the fish box).  The fellow then asked what street Ron lived on and it turns out he was a new neighbor, a fellow named Jim Cornwell.  Although they did eventually become friends, Ron didn’t have the heart to reveal the subterfuge to the fellow until last year’s Derby.  Of course his mouth dropped, so much so that the fellow’s wife took a picture and entitled it The Confession.  No need to feel badly for Jim, though, as he caught the largest shore Bonito in the Derby that year and also caught the largest short False Albacore in the 2008 Derby, holding a key for the grand prize each year.
Despite more often than not being won be some of the best fishermen, there is famously a bit of luck associated with Derby glory as well.  It has been won by a few times by rank amateurs, even children.  As such, there’s hope for the weekend warrior like me (or at least that’s what I like to try and tell myself).  Perhaps more realistically a chance for a daily pin but there is always that possibility that your eel or plug finds itself in the way of a trophy and you find yourself on stage going for the boat or pickup.  By my the count the winning striped bass has exceeded the 50 pound mark 27 times over the history of the tournament, so this is a setting where you have a legitimate shot at a big fish.
Of course luck cuts both ways and can work against you.  Ron related another story about how a couple of years back he had weighed a striped bass, a bluefish and a false albacore that would have him in first place for the shore grand slam on their own but one needs to weigh in one of each of the four species to qualify.  As such he needed a Derby legal bonito.  The grand slams are highly coveted among the serious fishermen as the lucky fisherman might land a monster striper or blue and the albies and bonito are much more of a crapshoot, but landing one of each and of good size is the mark of a good fisherman.  Being a warm water species, your prospects for catching a bonito also generally decrease as the Derby carries on, so time is not usually on your side.  Ron had been chasing reports of bonito all over the island for weeks with no luck.  Finally after fishing for stripers all night Ron had a good hit on the Chappy Point Beach at daybreak that he was sure was the bonito he needed.
The “bonito” out to be a drowned skunk.  With that skunk, Ron’s hopes of the shore grand slam drowned as well.  The year prior to that Ron had the legal bonito (which is the hardest of the four fish to catch, generally) but couldn’t find a derby legal bluefish (which is kind of like hitting for the cycle in baseball less the single).  As he aptly put it to me “that’s the Derby!”.  Don’t feel too badly for Ron either, though, he has more than his share of Derby hardware to his credit, including being half of the two man championship team this past year along with the previously mentioned Keith McArt.  Mr. McArt’s sleep deprivation paid off this year, though, in the form of a 16.55 pound false albacore that earned him the shore title for 2009.  That fish beat the boat winner by nearly 4 pounds!
The winning shore caught striped bass this year wound up being 34 pounds and change, the smallest ever Derby winner by a whopping six pounds.  I’ve almost convinced myself I could have beat it if I only were able to spend more time on the Vineyard but I feel that way when I lose a blackjack hand too, just give me one more crack at them!  I think it takes this kind of optimism to enjoy fishing over time, one needs to be always working toward that next great catch.  Next year will bring another chance.  I enjoyed the trip tremendously and I think any serious surf fisherman would.  Hopefully I’ll see you out there next year and we can lie to each other at the weigh station about where our fish were caught earlier that morning!

A Primer:

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.

MVDerby-7

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.

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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.

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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.

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