Bass and Bluefish Derby Lures Anglers to Martha's Vineyard

By David Kinney
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 2, 2009

Call me contrarian, but I can think of a lot of destinations I'd rather visit in late August than Martha's Vineyard. Unless you travel in an airtight Secret Service bubble, as will President Obama and the first family during their planned Vineyard getaway later this month, it's a challenge to escape the horde under ordinary circumstances. And somehow I can't imagine that the presidential motorcades and the paparazzi will make matters any easier.

But then, I look at the Vineyard through a different lens from most vacationers. While the rest of the world hears "the Vineyard" and thinks of South Beach and the Black Dog, lobster rolls and the Flying Circus, Carly Simon and Bill Clinton, my brain registers dark beaches, slithering eels and striped bass. I'm a proud member of a saltwater fishing tribe that spends months chasing stripers and bluefish up and down the East Coast, and the fall run is a time when they blitz the island in fantastic numbers. So a few weeks after the Obamas leave their Chilmark pad, I'll be taking the steamship ferry across and escaping into an alternate universe.

The draw for me: the Martha's Vineyard Striped Bass & Bluefish Derby, 35 days of obsessive-compulsive casting and carrying on. Although it's little known off the island or outside angling circles, the derby is easily the most famous fishing tournament of its kind. This year it starts at 12:01 a.m. on Sept. 13 and runs 24 hours a day until 10 p.m. on Oct. 17.

True believers approach the derby with something resembling religious fanaticism ("It's a sacred kind of thing," one angler told me), but the contest is open to anybody. It's an amateur affair, freewheeling enough that you can win it even if you don't fish much, or haven't in years, or don't take it all that seriously when you do. That makes it a perfect excuse for an off-peak Vineyard trip, the bonus being that there are far fewer sightseers and SUVs, the rents are cheaper, otherwise closed-to-the-public beaches are open, and the weather is still capable of dropping jaws.

About 3,000 people -- half of them mainlanders -- chase four fish: the stripers and blues as well as two little fish in the tuna family, false albacore ("albies") and bonito. The fishing is done by boat or on the beach, on charters or on your own, with spinning gear or fly rods, with artificial lures or fresh bait (hence the slithering eels, my bait of choice). Headlining an awards package worth more than $250,000 are a center-console fishing boat and a four-wheel-drive pickup, but the derby also gives away rods, reels, sunglasses, tackle bags, fine art and jackets. Catch one of the biggest fish on a particular day, and you get $20 plus a fish pin to wear on your hat.

That those little charms are so cherished says a lot about this particular derby. Most people are after not prizes but bragging rights. A share of island immortality comes with catching the biggest fish -- especially the beloved striper -- but respect is due anyone capable of catching a decent keeper, and that's enough to compel people to lug stinking fish into town to slap on the scale at the old weathered fisherman's shack on the water in Edgartown. It's a thrill being among the top anglers in one of the 32 divisions and seeing your first initial and last name chalked on the leader board.

Half the fun, for a lot of people, is hanging around the weigh station drinking the free coffee and listening to stories, rumors and (especially) lies. The derby reminds you that Martha's Vineyard is a brackish place where people have always fished, for pay and for play. By signing up, you join a long, salty story of great champions and rank amateurs and lowlife cheaters, of great fish caught or lost or stuffed with lead weights.

"Lives change during those five weeks," a fellow competitor told me before I fished my first derby a couple of years ago. Anglers ignore their families, burn through their vacation time, forgo sleep, down NoDoz and Red Bull and God knows what else. They lie to their friends and spy on their rivals. They bury their fish and hide in the dunes. I was told of a fisherman who collected unemployment for a few weeks rather than miss the derby for something so pointless as a paying job. One genius included the tradition in his wedding vows. He told his bride he'd put up with her annoying allergies as long as she endured his tireless quest for a derby win.

The anybody-can-win-it stories are legion. In 2005, a 12-year-old girl caught a 49-pound bass ("I thought it was an alligator," she said) to top all the hard-core guys. Two years later, an eighth-grader took home the grand-prize boat, thanks to a big bluefish. A couple of derbies ago, an angler went out on a jetty and caught a giant albie, but since it was the first one he'd ever caught, he had to ask the guy next to him whether it was large enough to bring to the weigh station.

"Probably," came the answer.

It weighed 15.86 pounds, and when nobody topped it, the man went home to North Carolina a derby champ.

It's a marathon even for those who aren't really trying to win, people who just want a reason to shirk responsibility, commune with nature and stay out into the small hours drinking beer. Among the people who get fish-addled are a newspaper editor, a rhythm-and-blues singer and just about every carpenter, plumber and electrician on the island. You're liable to run into Olga Hirshhorn, the octogenarian art collector whose late husband founded the modern art museum on the Mall; or Charles Ogletree, the prominent lawyer, professor and mentor to the Obamas during their Harvard Law School days.

The obsessives might put in 20-hour outings, casting for albies and bonito in the daytime, bluefish at dawn and dusk, striped bass all night long. But for those who don't appreciate sleep deprivation during their vacations, better to pick your spots: a few hours at the jetty in Menemsha one morning, an outing at Wasque some evening, a boat charter with a fisherman who knows what he's doing. Winners can be caught right in Edgartown standing on Memorial Wharf (although you should give a wide berth to the regulars, who are known as the Wharf Rats and have a reputation for surliness). All those fanatics might find it hard to believe, but you really can fish the derby -- and even win it -- and still carry on with a regular family vacation.

That said, beware. If you have the addict's gene, it's easy to slip into a derby-inspired mania during which you are constantly calculating when the tide will be right at this spot or that, or relentlessly scouting the water, or feeling truly guilty about getting a good night's sleep.

I know whereof I speak. One year, a competitor suggested that I sleep less and fish more -- he thought my derby experience would be lacking without "the hallucinations" -- and I reacted by fishing for more or less two days straight: catching nothing from a boat, then driving to a beach to hook a bluefish almost too small to mention, sleeping for 15 minutes in the front seat of my car, then going out and catching nothing else from the same beach, sleeping for three hours in my bed, and so on. By the end of it, my skull felt heavy, I became jumpy and wobbly, I grew irrational. In some circles, that counts as fun at the derby.

And the fact is, it could happen to you, too. So do yourself a favor and follow my lead: Leave the family at home. They won't be seeing you anyway.

David Kinney is the author of "The Big One: An Island, An Obsession, and the Furious Pursuit of a Great Fish."

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