Grown men have cried over the derby. They have ignored their wives for week after week, sleepwalked through work day after day, stayed up all night long, skipped out on their jobs altogether, drawn unemployment, burned through every last day of their vacation time, downed NoDoz and Red Bull and God knows what else. They have spied on their rivals and lied to their friends. They have told off strangers and cheated like lowlife bums. If you believe the conspiracy theorists, they have prosecuted bogus charges of rules breaking to get their adversaries tossed from the competition. People have died fishing the derby. In 1993, four anglers—two fathers and their young sons—drowned when their boat sank in heavy swells on the second-to-last day of the contest. In 1947, a Boston businessman crashed his plane trying out a contemporary fad: spotting schools of bass from the air, then landing on the beach and casting away at them. A nearby fisherman rushed to give first aid but couldn’t save the man. “All that,” he lamented, “for an old striped bass.”
An old striped bass, yes, but it’s not only that. Catch a winner in the Vineyard’s beloved annual fishing contest and they’ll etch your name on the all-time roster of champions. You’ll earn a spot in a tournament history book that starts during the Truman administration. It’s something like taking the green jacket at the Masters. “I’m after derby glory,” says Dave Skok, a professional fly tier and two-time derby winner. “That’s what it’s all about for me.” For a certain class of Vineyarder (and aspiring Vineyarder), for those who haven’t already made their millions and plunked them down on the massive trophy mansions so fashionable on the island today, winning the derby is as close to immortality as they’re likely to get.
The conventional wisdom about modern-day Martha’s Vineyard goes something like this: popular summer tourist destination; propelled into the national consciousness when U.S. senator Edward Kennedy drove off Chappaquiddick’s Dike Bridge in 1969; backdrop for the movie Jaws; presidential vacation spot for Bill and Hillary Clinton; one-time address of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis; host to A-list cocktail parties, yachting regattas, and presidential campaign fund-raisers; land of multimillion-dollar mansions; playground for the fabulously rich and famous, whose ranks of visitors and residents (past and present) have included James Cagney, Ted Danson, James Taylor, Carly Simon, Billy Joel, William and Rose Styron, John Updike, Art Buchwald, David McCullough, David Letterman, Diane Sawyer, Mike Wallace, Walter Cronkite, and Lady Di. All of that is true, as far as it goes. But the place is not quite so flashy as its press would suggest. The island’s moneyed class has traditionally been low-key—this is not the Hamptons; one writer called its vibe “reverse-chic”—and after the summer is over these ranks seem to be outnumbered by the middle class and the working class and the anonymous.
To hang around in the fall is to see the off-hours Vineyard, the place as the year-rounders know it. The island morphs back into an isolated, tightly knit community where everyone knows just about everything about everyone else. It feels as if someone has released a pressure valve. The tourists and glitterati are (mostly) gone. The lines are shorter, the crowds thinner, the days cooler. If you’re a Vineyarder earning most of your annual income during the summer season, September means the mortgage is paid, the bank account is full, you’re secure for another winter. It’s time to blow off steam, and for a good number of islanders that means it’s time to fish the derby.
This year, the contest runs through October 13, but from the very beginning, at 12:01 a.m. on September 9, hundreds of men, women, and children are out on the water chasing the four fish of the derby: striped bass, bluefish, false albacore, and bonito. They have good reason to start early. A quarter of a million dollars in prizes are at stake in thirty-two divisions, eight each for adults, fly rodders, juniors under age fourteen, and children under age eight. The biggest catches each day earn anglers fish pins—cherished mementos people wear on their hats or hang on their walls—and, in the adult divisions, $5 to $20 in cash. The top three finishers in each class at the end of the contest take home rods, reels, and shopping bags filled with lures, line, sunglasses, and other fishing accessories. The anglers who catch the biggest of the four species from the shore and from a boat are “grand leaders,” and they win $500, a heavy-duty outdoor jacket, a framed print of fishermen at the Gay Head cliffs painted by island artist Ray Ellis—and a shot at the grand prizes: a nineteen-foot Boston Whaler and the Chevy Silverado, each worth about $30,000. For hardcore fishermen, the most sought-after titles are the shore and boat “grand slam” awards for heaviest combined weight of the four species, a feat that demonstrates complete mastery of the fishery. Win one of those and you get $500, a bag of high-end fishing gear, and the undying respect of the derby world.
Three thousand people—half of them islanders, half visitors—will enter the competition by the time it ends next month, and I’m one of them, Badge No. 402. I’m here to see whether the Great Fish Gods hold me in their favor, since I’ll be fishing almost every day, and winning the derby is half-luck anyway. But mostly, I’m here to see what happens when an island full of the fish-addled have 838 hours to feed their passion. Among the many people who are possessed by fish during the derby are a high school teacher, a chef, a painter, a rhythm-and-blues singer, a real estate agent, a gas station attendant, and just about every plumber, carpenter, and electrician on the island. They are men and women, fathers and mothers, teenage boys and girls. They are businessmen, doctors, and blue-collar workmen. They are fly-fishing specialists in their twenties with new high-tech gear and salty old-timers in their seventies using lures and techniques that have changed little in the past half century. The derby invades people’s dreams. Fishermen have subconscious premonitions about a particular fish at a particular spot. Gangs of mainlanders—many from fishing clubs with long histories of their own—show up to fish for a weekend, two weeks, a month, the whole contest. Two fly rodders come from Italy. Teachers show up at school on an hour’s sleep, and students show up carrying stinking fish they killed the night before. “It’s the only time,” says taxidermist Janet Messineo, “that you can walk through town and you’re covered with squid gook and you smell bad and you look awful, and everybody’s smiling at you. ‘Oh how you doing? How’s the derby?’ The whole community sort of rallies behind derby fishermen.” Contractors fail to show up at job sites and don’t answer phone calls. One fishing hero talked his wife into including the competition in their wedding vows. He promised to put up with her allergies and she promised to put up with his constant pursuit of a winning fish. “It’s a lifestyle on this island,” Lev’s father, Walter, says. “It’s a sacred kind of thing.”
The derby is a lottery ticket, an ego boost, a chance to die happy, a shot at island renown and modest riches, a chance to win. Here are all of life’s amorphous pursuits boiled down into something you can hook, kill, lug into town, mount, and hang on the wall. “Lives change during those five weeks,” one derby fisherman told me when I first called around to ask around about the competition. I laughed, but the man didn’t join in.
“I’m serious,” he added, and I stopped chuckling. His voice was flat and steely, as if we were discussing something truly grave.
This little fishing contest? This is no joke.
At 4:30 on the first morning of the derby I drive into Menemsha, park at the beachfront, turn off the engine, and sit, waiting and watching. The Texaco is shuttered and dark. Fishing boats bob in the harbor. I roll down the passenger-side window and hear the faint clang-clang of the bell on the green buoy out in the Vineyard Sound. I can just barely make out the beach and the waves and the twin jetties along the inlet to the harbor. The moon is a sliver of a crescent.
After all I’ve heard and read about the competition, I almost expect to see a mob converging on the parking lot: para-anglers appearing in the sky to storm the jetties like something out of a grainy war movie, or men ducking out from around every corner, derby badges pinned to their hats and fishing rods brandished like weapons. But what I see is more like the aftermath of an all-night party. One guy is lying on the beach under a blanket, his head on a sand-sculpted pillow. His partner is sprawled in the front seat of their pickup. A fly fisherman is asleep on the sister jetty across the channel in Lobsterville. They were all working the beaches for stripers at the official midnight start of the derby, because it can pay to start early. Some years, the winner has caught the big bass on the first day, and once a guy landed it in the first ten minutes. But none of these guys had that kind of luck this morning, and they trickled into the harbor in the darkness to wait for dawn—the time when other derby fish are known to storm the jetties.
I watch from the car for a while, then the sky starts to lighten, imperceptibly at first and then quickly, with each blink. As if an alarm has gone off, the sleepers stir. The fisherman on the beach jumps up and shakes out his blanket and walks over to the truck and wakes up his friend. The guys speed-walk out to the jetty, and when it’s just light enough to see I gather up my rod and tackle bag and follow.
We’re after two derby species this morning. One is the false albacore (the hipsters call them “cores” but to everybody else they are “albies”) and the other is the bonito (or “bones”). The fish are drawn to the inlet to feed on baitfish—scup, peanut bunker, silver-sides—sucked in and out every six hours by the tides. On the end of my line is a lure called a Maria, a slug of metal encased in a hard, translucent plastic with a treble hook hanging off the end. I start casting into the roiling water.
The jetty is an L-shaped stack of boulders that runs parallel to the beach for a stretch, then juts out into the Vineyard Sound. At the tip is a navigational aid tower, rusty but solid, that marks the port side of the inlet with a square green sign and the number 3. The tower doubles as a rod holder, tackle-bag rack, and beer stand. On a post at the foot of the jetty is a weathered white sign with a warning scrawled in black marker. It reads:
WALK ON ROCKS AT OWN RISK
Slipping on the rocks is a hazard, but only one of many on this particular jetty. I’ve been warned that Menemsha can be a tough place. With so many hooks being thrown around in such a confined spot, fights are bound to break out. Guys down shots from miniature liquor bottles, chase them with beer, and smash the empties in the rocks. They jockey in front of you and cut off your casting angle. They fire their lures from point-blank range at the cormorants paddling by the rocks. Some otherwise rugged fishermen are unwilling to brave the crowd.
Before long I see Lev’s friend and fishing partner, Geoff Codding, pull up to the Texaco station in the huge Titan he won in last year’s derby. Geoff got a college degree in environmental policy and aspires to be a commercial fisherman, but for now he earns a living mowing lawns and harvesting scallops. Not much gets in the way of fishing the tournament every day. Geoff—wearing his derby uniform of waterproof boots, blue jeans, and Red Sox cap—gets out of the truck and talks to some buddies filling up their boat at the gas dock, then returns to his pickup and drives over to the spot on the beachfront where cell phones work. One of his friends might call with reports of fish someplace else. From the front seat of his truck he can watch the water and decide whether it’s worth fishing. He sees what looks like a few albies breaking the water’s surface at the end of the jetty. Then he spots the telltale sign of fish: everybody on the rocks is bent at the waist, reeling as fast as they can. He grabs his rods and his bag of lures and falls in, casting languidly.
Within minutes, the harbor is teeming with people. A dozen fishermen line the Lobsterville jetty across the water, and more are pouring onto the beach beside it. Boats slide through the inlet and take up stations just off the beach or rumble off to spots unknown. By the time the albies begin their assaults on the baitfish hugging the rocks, I find myself behind fishermen three deep. The men on the rocks are all business. There is little of the usual chatter, and nobody’s touching the alcohol tucked under the tower—a six-pack of Coors longnecks and a plastic twenty-ounce bottle of Pepsi spiked with Yukon Jack. The group seems to move as a single life-form: whipping casts, changing directions on a dime, doing whatever it takes to get lures in front of fish. I am forced to stand back and watch in awe. I couldn’t fit a cast between them if I tried. When the jetty fishermen are at work, it can either be a symphony of coordinated motion, with one or two guys hooked up and dancing from rock to rock and going under and over each other’s rods, or it can be a tangled mess. The pros know how to keep out of each others’ way. It would take me a few weeks to figure out how to fish the tip without screwing up the works.
Anglers have an easier time of it on the Lobsterville jetty just a short cast across the inlet. The fishing is comparable but the two spots may as well be different worlds. I never saw a fly fisherman on Menemsha, where they are regarded as pompous hotshots who are overly fastidious about their gear. (People who fish lures and bait using regular spinning reels have a hard time figuring out the fly guys. Why do they spend so much time tying flies and perfecting their casts when they are practically assured of catching smaller fish than everybody else? The answer: even catching a smaller fish is more challenging on a fly rod.) Some disagreements span the inlet. If fish are running in or out of the channel, people are often casting directly at each other. When it works it’s like music. Everybody casts and retrieves in rhythm, lures returning to their owners in perfect time. Tranquillity reigns. When it doesn’t work—when a Lobster-villian entangles a Menemshan, or vice versa—one fisherman has to open his bail while the other reels the mess up and untangles it. Generally, it’s a polite transaction. No harm. Don’t sweat it. Happens to everyone.
Sometimes, of course, it’s not. One year a fly fisherman on the Lobsterville jetty had an albie on and a Menemsha spin fisherman cast over his line and (the fly fisherman believed) started yanking. As they went back and forth, a boat steamed out of the inlet and cut the line. Pissed beyond belief, the Lobsterville fly fisherman got into his pickup truck and drove the twenty minutes around Menemsha Pond to the other side. He strutted onto the rocks, fly rod in hand, and cast over the offender’s line. Things devolved from there. Choice words were exchanged and the fly line slashed, but no fists flew. Afterward, the fly fisherman apologized. People marveled that he had managed to stay so angry for the entire trip from Lobsterville to Menemsha. “You can get two warring tribal villages over there,” said Nelson Sigelman, the managing editor and fishing columnist for The Martha’s Vineyard Times. “Fishermen have been warring since they first learned how to make a bone hook. Why would this be different?”
As the jetty fills up this morning, a guy named Tony Jackson gives me an object lesson in what can go wrong. Standing out on the farthest rock, he draws his rod back over his shoulder, the treble hook of his lure dangling among the circle of fishermen, and then sweeps it toward the sea. There’s a whipping sound and then his rod stops. He looks behind him and sees that he has hooked the sleeve of another angler’s T-shirt. The snagged fisherman, who wears a camouflage hat and has the build of an ironworker, doesn’t even flinch. He looks down at his arm and then at Tony. Somebody unhooks the lure and they go back to work. But with his carelessness, Tony has risked a savage beating. He came within an inch of the fisherman’s triceps. Hookings aren’t uncommon, but they usually end with an expensive and time-consuming trip to the ER, and nobody wants that on the first day of the derby. It would have made a rough morning even more trying for Tony, a red-bearded dock builder who descends from a famous maritime family. Blood is already oozing down his legs from a trio of wounds inflicted by small bottom-feeding sharks called dogfish. He had caught three of them before dawn on the jetty. As he tried to unhook one, it thrashed and the hook dug into his shin. He slipped and fell on the rocks reeling in the other two.
Lev pulls into the channel in Wampum and hails his friend Geoff, who backtracks off the jetty to join him. As Geoff hops aboard a guy walks up with a cup of coffee from the Texaco. “Lev, you win the derby yet?” the man asks. Lev laughs off the remark and he and Geoff cruise out and join a small armada of boats.
A fly fisherman in a dinghy drifts in close to the rocks, and on the jetty Tony gives him a warning shout. “Got enough room, cap”n?” The man motors away.
Soon, the action slows and people start to pack up, but then more albies hit the jetty and they’re compelled to stay. A school of fish breaks off the end of the L near the parking lot, and a few teenagers run down in pursuit. One unleashes an epic cast, hooks up, then finds himself tangled with four fishermen who’d cast into the same fish from the tip. He fights it while everybody else reels in his lure and bites it off. Somehow the kid lands it anyway.
After a few hours of this the jetty starts to empty. As the fishermen walk toward their trucks, a few more fish crash off the beach by the parking lot and the men sprint back to fire a few final casts. But the fish disappear again and the anglers retreat to their trucks and toss their rods inside and start circling the island.
There are 830 hours left in the derby and they don’t have a moment to waste.
Any way you look at it, Vineyard fishermen are a blessed lot. Their sport calls them to some of the most spectacular real estate anywhere. The island’s natural splendor has launched a thousand paeans. From the prow of the ferries that depart the mainland from Woods Hole, you first see the green sweep of the North Shore, then the lighthouses and palatial homes of East and West Chop, then the boats and tall ships bobbing in the harbors. The ferries spit you into the bustle of Oak Bluffs or Vineyard Haven, but a few minutes’ drive west the road takes you past farmland hemmed in by stone walls, scrub oak forests and meadows, rolling hills and ponds, cliffs and sweeping beaches. Everywhere, potholed dirt roads connect houses and hiking trails and beaches that are secluded in the woods. Some excellent fishing can be found in the most stunning spots: along the wild, rocky stretches of Squibnocket Beach, beneath the multicolored clay majesty of the Gay Head cliffs and before the galloping rips at Wasque Point. As one derby fisherman put it, “It is not like fishing in Flatbush.”
To anglers, what matters most is that the Vineyard is a rock in the middle of a stream of migrating fish. They sling locally caught bait—or the endless variations of lures imitating it, Dannys and Deadly Dicks and Deceivers—into places that might prompt a fish to stop and hunt: coves, rocky shorelines, breaks in sandbars, inlets, jetties, points, rips, curling waves in the surf, deepwater drop-offs. The island is packed with nooks like these, and if the wind or tide is wrong at one spot it’s perfect across the island. The Vineyard’s numerous salt ponds serve as baitfish nurseries and, when the schools depart, stripers, bluefish, albies, bonito, and fishermen are there patrolling the exits.
The First Fish of the derby is the mighty striped bass, named for the dark markings down its sides. It is one of the most storied of swimmers, the aristocrat of the surf line, a fish that is beloved and worshipped. The bass was there at America’s founding: Historians say striper filets made the menu at the first Thanksgiving. In the 1860s men of means founded clubs on the sound to fish for stripers, and though the groups disbanded when the species crashed, by the 1940s when the derby began, the bass had returned to prosperity and popularity. It was not only love of sport that sent men racing to the surf with fishing rods. Stripers were local currency across New England: greenbacks with gills. Maybe they never made anybody rich, but a Jeep full of 30- to 50-pounders paid some debts. The derby gave a different twist to the pursuit. Stripers would be leveraged into tourism dollars. “On the Vineyard, fish are fellow citizens,” fishermen-authors John Cole and Brad Burns once wrote in On the Water magazine. “They are a staple of island life, and that goes double for striped bass.”
In the 1980s the population collapsed again in the face of fishing pressure and pollution, only to skyrocket in the 1990s after fisheries regulators enforced sweeping catch restrictions. Today, they are by far the most pursued saltwater fish on the Atlantic Coast. An estimated 3 million recreational anglers caught (and usually released) more than 28 million stripers in 2006—twice as many as a decade earlier and a far cry from the 1 million stripers landed in 1982. There are two explanations for the booming popularity of the striper. The first is that for the tens of millions of people living in the Washington, D.C.-to-Boston megalopolis, the fish can be caught a short drive from home. After spawning in bays and rivers—the vast majority of them in the Chesapeake Bay—they return to the ocean and embark on epic migrations along the East Coast. Hugging the shoreline, millions of stripers course north every spring and spread out along beaches and inside estuaries from New Jersey to Maine. At night, they can be caught right in the first wave. During the fall run they chase frantically fleeing schools of herring, silversides, and menhaden. The other reason the bass are pursued with such passion is that, on any given night, a fisherman can haul in something truly enormous. Stripers weighing 50 pounds and up are caught every year. “It is therefore possible,” Cole and Burns wrote, “to stand on the beach and toss a short cast to a fish big enough to nearly tear your arms from their sockets.”
The bluefish, on the other hand, is the casual angler’s prey, plentiful and easy to catch. The blues arrive from the south or from offshore in the spring and usually run small. But they can top 20 pounds, and a fish that size would probably turn you into a derby champion. Get into a school of blues when you’re using regular fishing line to catch bass, bonito, or albies, and the blues’ razor-sharp choppers will bite off the hook every other time. Needless to say, fishermen have a complex relationship with the fish. In a letter to a fishing friend penned during an 1849 bluefishing trip to the Vineyard, statesman Daniel Webster expressed the prevailing view, then as now: “It is a common opinion that they destroy or drive off several of the other valuable finny tribes. If this be so, it will be the more patriotic in you and me to take as many of them to the land as we can.” Compared to the body of gushing literature that has grown up around stripers, there is really only one true paean to this fish, Vineyard resident John Hersey’s best-selling classic Blues.
Finally, there are the heroes of the modern derby, the false albacore and the bonito—the “funny fish” that drive men crazy. These little tunas wheel in from the Gulf Stream, the bonito in July and the albies in late summer. They are smaller, with derby-winning albies typically weighing less than 15 or 16 pounds and bonito less than 11 or 12. But they are pursued with lighter tackle or with fly rods, and that makes it thrilling when they take off on their long, reel-screaming runs. First they go out, making you fear that they will outrun your line. Then they dart back in, making you think they’ve broken off. Then they shoot back out again to find something to wrap the line around, like a lobster pot or a boat mooring. These are the fights that turn otherwise sensible fishermen into addicts. Shore fishermen will wait for hours—days—at jetties, inlets, and other likely feeding spots. They’ll suffer storms, windburn, and relentless boredom for a shot at a five-minute fight. Boaters can chase them but even when they find fish, catching one is no simple matter. Albies in particular are mercurial, popping up in one spot only to disappear in a flash, dive deep, jet away at forty miles per hour, and crash the surface half a mile off. Bonito can be difficult to find in the first place. Some seasons, only a handful are caught from shore. An otherwise talented beach fisherman can go years without catching one.
The genius of the derby format is that fishermen have a chance to catch a winner at any hour. Stripers feed best at night, bluefish at dawn and dusk, albies and bonito all day long according to the whims of baitfish, winds, and tides. Stories abound of anglers catching big fish under all the wrong conditions—a striper on a calm beach in the middle of the afternoon, say. And yet this twenty-four-hour cycle of possibility is also the bane of serious competitors, the ones who are hunting for all four species. They understand that fish are unpredictable and that the best way to improve their odds of winning it all is to fish every available moment. As many of these extreme anglers have discovered over the years, taking such a lesson to heart has something of a destructive effect on your membership in the real world.
“Do you think I’d be out here if there wasn’t a derby pin in my life?” Dave Skok asked me one day during his eleventh hour of fly casting for albies, his stubbled face a sunburned reddish brown except for the raccoon-mask outline where his sunglasses usually rested. “I’d be home doing normal people things.”
Later on that first day of the derby, I drive across the island to Edgartown—home to the well-heeled sea captains of whaling’s golden age a century and a half ago, must-see vacation stop for lollygagging tourists today. All the essential draws are here: boutiques, art galleries, coffee shops, brew pubs, trendy restaurants, historic homes, teeming gardens, beautiful waterfront vistas. During July and August the town’s narrow streets get so choked that only the foolish and desperate venture down in cars. But September brings a different crowd and, when I arrive, anglers are beginning to appear on the docks. They are a ripe bunch carrying dead fish by the tail, by the gills, in plastic bags, in coolers, cradled in old T-shirts. With so much fresh seafood in the streets, you could be fooled into thinking the place is still a commercial fishermen’s port, with workboats in the harbor and a parking lot made of crushed shells and fish bones, not another five-star destination crammed with yachts and BMWs. I follow the Derbyites as they make their way to the little weathered weigh station where the tournament entries are weighed from eight to ten o’clock every morning and night. The clock is ticking toward eight p.m. now, and a festive line of anglers begins to stretch around the corner.
I’m after fishing stories—the true, the exaggerated, the outright false—and there is no better place to begin than the dockside shack, the vibrating hub of the Vineyard fishing world in the fall. The point where fact ends and fiction begins, I am aware, is open to interpretation. “Believe nothing of what you hear, and half of what you see,” Lev advised me, quoting the ancient proverb. A derby veteran puts it another way, pointing to a railing at the weigh station entrance that has supported the rear ends of thousands of storytellers over the decades. “More lies told here than any place in the world.”
The shack has survived the hurricanes that destroyed most of its contemporaries and stood tall in the face of a far more sweeping agent of change: the gradual transformation of the working water-front into a resort. The grand prizes are parked beside the shack, which is plastered with sponsors’ banners. By the door a glass case displays up-to-date standings and statistics as detailed as any sports-page box score. A tiny window gives passersby a view of the chalk leaderboards inside the station and a peek at the night weighmaster, a tattooed, Harley-Davidson-riding highway worker in an oilskin apron and rubber gloves who puts up with no nonsense from the contestants.
Floating along the dock beside derby headquarters is a small filet barge where, under the yellow glow of an outdoor light strung up overhead, hundreds of pounds of fish are sliced into dinner-sized cuts. Tomorrow, they will be trucked over to a senior center, where they will be bagged and handed out to the elderly as part of the competition’s philanthropy program. Fish after fish thwacks onto the barge deck. Kids ogle the biggest specimens and curious tourists walking off their dinners ask questions. What kind of fish is that? Who gets the filets? Can I have a fish carcass for my chowder pot? A harbor seal will start visiting the dock in a few days to feed on the scraps. The aroma of a fish market loiters in the air.
During the derby fish tales buzz around the island on invisible fiber optics, from tackle shops to restaurants to gas stations. “You’ll catch a fish, and by the time you make it to the weigh-in they know what you caught it on, where and how much it weighed,” Geoff Codding says. Sometimes they’re even right. The weigh station is where the rumors and exaggerations go to die. The chattering class hangs around the front door, nursing free coffee and swapping stories. On the Vineyard, the arrival of bluefish and bass in the spring makes for a newspaper article, and serious fishermen keep a close eye on the beaches all summer. But once the derby starts there are suddenly three thousand people taking an interest in the daily meanderings of the fish population. Tides, wind directions, and weather fronts count as talk of the town. Each statement is parsed to determine if it is a secret or a lie, inside dope or disinformation.
The gabbers watch as fishermen arrive soggy, sore, and sleep deprived. The contestants walk up the ramp, take a right inside the doorway, and follow the blue-and-white rope line separating those with fish from those without. As anglers reach the weighmaster, their entries are measured on a long table slick with slime and then hoisted onto the scale. Everyone leans in to see who dragged what out of the sea.
The fact is, it could be anybody. In the last week of the 2005 derby, a twelve-year-old girl hauled a 49.22-pound striper into the station. “I thought it was an alligator,” Molly Fischer told the papers. “I was scared of it when we brought it in the boat.” She had been out on a charter boat that sloppy day with her father, Albert O. Fischer III, Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis’s longtime caretaker, and her friend, Caroline Kennedy’s son Jack Schlossberg. The catch put Molly in first place and her picture in the Boston newspapers. A week later, when nobody had topped it, she landed on the immutable list of derby champions, shoulder to shoulder with the tournament legends.
In 2003 Andrew Scheriff of Bristol, Connecticut, came down for a weekend, started casting from a jetty off Cape Poge, and caught his first bonito—ever. “I didn’t even know what it was,” he said. It weighed 8.12 pounds and carried the division. Another year, tackle shop owner Cooper Gilkes talked a new customer into registering, and just like the Bonito King of Bristol this guy stumbled into a grand leader. True story. Coop’s honor.
Harry Beach led the 1999 derby for a month with a 42-pound striper he caught from his kayak. He would have won the whole thing, he believes, if he’d put the fish on ice instead of leaving it on the roof of his Volkswagen bus to bake in the sun for several hours; he came in second place by about a pound.
Buck Martin took the top prize with a 54.74-pound bass that hit while he was snoozing on the beach one night in 1993. Buck, at the time a twenty-nine-year-old heating and air-conditioning contractor, had never caught a saltwater striper in his life. His more experienced friends ridiculed him that night for the thirteen-foot rod he’d bought at Wal-Mart. When nobody caught anything for a couple of hours, he curled up on the sand, passed out, and awoke to the sound of monofilament zinging off his reel. As his eyes adjusted to the full moon, he picked up the rod and started cranking. He could see the big bass finning in water so tranquil it looked like a solid pane of glass. When he dragged the fish up the beach his friends were ecstatic. Buck didn’t understand the fuss. “What’s the matter with you? It’s a fish,” he said. He thought all stripers were that big. The plaque he won reads: OCT. 1, 1993—1 A.M.—ASLEEP.
Today, a first-day record of 189 fish come through the door of the weigh station, but there are no certain winners. Winding through the station is the typically eclectic cross section of derby regulars: a tackle-shop salesman with a bluefish and bloody hands; a roofer who chanced upon a rare bonito from the shore; a celebrated Harvard Law School professor with a second-place striper; a young girl carrying a bluefish to the weigh-in for the first time; a retiree who stands more or less on one rock for the entire contest; the son of a derby champion; the daughter of a plumber; and a venture capitalist in a pastel pink sports coat carrying a 10-pound bluefish that is advancing swiftly toward petrifaction. The financier and his entourage turn heads. They glide through the shack, weigh the fish, snap pictures, and head off, chortling into the night. The regulars look at each other as if to say, Did that really just happen?
It did, and it does. Louisa Gould, the derby’s official photographer, says between camera clicks that a guy once showed up wearing a tuxedo to weigh in his fish. Another brought a violin case into the station, waited patiently in line, then popped it open to reveal a big bonito. Still another weighed in the front half of a bonito after an unidentified marine predator swiped the back end. (He still won a daily pin.)
The derby is the anti-Bassmaster. These are not hyperactive pros in tricked-out boats wearing patches that advertise trucks and boats and outboard engine manufacturers. ESPN is not following the competitors around with cameras. Nobody’s carrying on for the people back home. The tournament is more like a typical rod and gun club event, but rather than running for a weekend this one seems to last forever, with people who are just out for kicks and camaraderie fishing right next to hardcore guys who are chasing prizes and glory. It aims to be the friendliest competition on the water.
Fishing tournaments exploded after World War II, when saltwater angling as recreation spread to the masses and businessmen realized they could generate a lot more money from the sport with cars, boats, and cash at stake. They have always had their detractors among those who consider fishing a dignified pursuit and believe that killing fish for money or vanity borders on immoral. “I know plenty of decent people who fish kill tournaments,” wrote Ted Williams—an influential environmental writer, not the ballplayer—in Fly Rod and Reel magazine in 2007, “but even they admit that these events attract, enrich and empower lowlifes and, at the same time, teach the public to kill the most and biggest.” Years ago at some competitions, cleanup crews would have to truck contestants’ fish to their final resting place: the local landfill. Tournament tarpon in Florida were dumped off a bridge, Williams said. Today, many contests have become catch-and-release affairs, though the Martha’s Vineyard Derby is not one of them.
They remain wildly popular. The American Fisheries Society put the number of annual contests in the United States, Canada, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands at some thirty-one thousand. If that number seems outlandishly high—596 contests every weekend?—consider that every fishing club, every tackle shop, and every beach town has a competition or two. Most of them target blue-water bill-fish and freshwater bass. Some are saltwater contests with seven-figure jackpots: a team competing in Bisbee’s Black and Blue Marlin Tournament in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, took home $3.9 million in 2006. Wayne Bisbee also organizes a contest that offers fishermen the chance to host a bikini-model photo shoot on their boat while they fish for marlin, tuna, and dorado. Slogan: “Fish. Girls. Fish. Bikinis. Fish.” In Oklahoma, competitors grab catfish out of the water using only their bare hands, a technique known as “noodling.” The Flukemania Smackdown—its magazine advertisements feature a flounder on a golden World Wrestling Federation-style championship belt—awards $10,000 for the heaviest flounder of the weekend. BountyFishing.com runs Internet contests: longest fish wins, and anglers send in photographs of their fish as proof. The site claims to use “digital imaging forensics” to verify the reported measurements.
The Vineyard derby is regarded as the granddaddy of striper fishing contests. At six decades and counting, it’s believed to be the oldest of its kind still operating on the East Coast, and it takes place on waters that are something close to sacred for saltwater anglers. The man who came up with the idea was a Boston public relations whiz and avid sportfisherman named Nat Sperber. Though he wore thick glasses, played the cello in a classical trio and stood just five feet, four inches tall, he was also prone to getting into fistfights, his ninety-three-year-old widow, Doris, told me with a touch of pride. Nat got his start as a city reporter for a Boston newspaper. After World War II he returned from a posting in Guam and began doing PR work for Massachusetts Steamship Lines, the company that had taken over the notoriously erratic and unprofitable ferry route connecting the Vineyard to the mainland. The company was grappling with major difficulties—boat mishaps, rate increases, confusion at ticket offices, outraged islanders—when Nat conceived of his “advertising scheme” in 1946. The idea was to gin up ferry traffic after Labor Day came and the summer crowd went. In those years, parts of the Vineyard were desolate enough that the military used it for bombing and rocket exercises. Island businesses welcomed anything that would bring in mainland dollars.
The island rod and gun club put the event together, and Nat teamed up with Boston Herald outdoors columnist Henry Moore to get the word out to newspaper writers. The fledgling Salt Water Sportsman, seeing an opportunity to promote striped bass fishing and magazine sales, trumpeted the new contest as “the most colossal fishing derby ever staged on the North Atlantic.”
Overheated as that early propaganda was, it brought in crowds from around the country, and as the years passed off-island fishermen and their families kept showing up. For Vineyarders, meanwhile, it grew into a treasured annual tradition. Shirley Craig is a retired schoolteacher whose father was one of the original derby organizers and whose late husband, mystery writer Philip Craig, loved to fish as much as she does. On the Vineyard, she told me, the derby is like spring, or the Fourth of July, or Christmas: you can’t imagine a year passing without it. “It’s a part of the calendar.”
Shirley at seventy-two (she doesn’t look it) still gets out every fall hoping to hammer bass and blues. Septuagenarian women, teenage girls, multimillionaires—pick your demographic: the derby turns them all into fish slayers.
* * *
Fishing is not in my blood, as far as I know: No one in my family ever took it up. But during high school in North Carolina I ran cross-country, and I sometimes trained on a golf course behind a team-mate’s house. At the end of one of these sessions, we stopped by a deep water hazard and my friend got to telling me about catching fish in it years ago. Something about that conversation captured my imagination. I had never considered it possible to pull a big bass out of an otherwise ordinary suburban pond. Not long after that, I bought a rod—we didn’t have one resting in some dusty corner of the garage, like other families—and I drove to a nearby lake, where I paddled around in a rented aluminum rowboat searching for bass. I never caught anything more impressive than bluegill.
My first week at college in Indiana I met a serious fisherman, and in my junior year we made two pilgrimages to catch trout (and drink beer) in western Montana. After graduation, I took a job as a reporter in Philadelphia, which put me an hour’s drive from the ocean. It didn’t take me long to discover surfcasting. It did take some time to find fish. In those first years, the Atlantic might as well have been the Mojave. Before I learned much of anything, I got transferred to State College, Pennsylvania, to write about Penn State football for two years. I spent as much time studying trout-fly patterns as I did Joe Paterno’s depth charts. I learned to distinguish the Adams from the blue-winged olive, the hare’s ear from the pheasant tail. Then I returned to the Philadelphia region, landed a new reporting job, got married, and moved to the New Jersey suburbs. Living near the ocean again I decided to get serious about saltwater fishing. After two years of catching small-stream trout, I wanted fish measured in pounds, not inches. I bought myself a new Ford Ranger with four-wheel-drive and started spending weekends on the beach. One year, I stole away to Cape Cod to fish the famous beach rips. I dreamed of a life where I could leave work, eat dinner, and disappear for a few hours of fishing the night tides. Then one morning three years into our marriage, my wife woke me up and handed me a blue Tiffany bag. Inside, wrapped in tissue paper, I found a positive pregnancy test.
I fished furiously that year. Many nights I would leave my job and race to Sandy Hook, just south of Manhattan in northern New Jersey. I’d throw waders over my dress clothes, grab my gear, and prospect the surf for a big striper. I knew this was my last fall run before I became another thirty-something father talking to people younger than him about the days when he fished the night tides and slept on the beach to be around for the dawn bite. I had met those miserable guys—fathers, all of them—and they reminded me of an old newsman I’d met in my first week on the job who was being shoved out the door by new bosses. He pulled me into his office by the arm and grabbed a pile of yellowing newspaper clips from the 1970s. When you were a kid! I did good stories here! Front-page stories!
I didn’t want to become him, or them. But if I did at least I wanted a photo or two (me, wind-swept, holding a giant striped bass, dead) to show some poor frightened kid when I leaned my wizened face into his and refused to let him leave until he’d heard my story, all of it. I was somebody! I was impressive!
Like a Vineyarder chasing a derby fish, I became compulsive, lured by this vision of a great fish and intoxicated by Sandy Hook at night. Every time I walked out into the darkness it felt new. Some nights, huge noisy swells carved cliffs in the sand. Other times, the ocean seemed asleep, the silence interrupted only by the crash of an occasional breaker sneaking up onto the beach. Giant freighters might file past within a hundred feet on their way back to sea after unloading in the city. Charter boats might drift over dropoffs near the beach. Always, airplanes flew overhead, banking and gliding toward JFK or LaGuardia. The peaks of New York kept watch over it all. One night, alone on the Hook, I watched fireworks—cocktail umbrellas in blue and red, yellow and white—opening silently over the city in the distance.
On my first visit, fog covered the beach and waves punctuated the silence at uneven intervals. I was jumpy as I fished my way up, uncertain how far north I needed to go to find the point. Two by two, fisherman appeared, ghosts trudging out of the fog. I reached the Hook to find half a dozen men slowly reeling in plugs. (These are lures fashioned from wood or plastic and fitted with treble hooks. They look like fat, four-to nine-inch cigars painted in a rainbow of colors.) I settled in among them, feeling as if I’d joined a fraternity sharing a secret at high tide. I changed lures, changed speeds, then finally cast out and let my plug sit in the current. I gave it one tug and a striper hit. I fought it to the shore, dislodged the hook, and, as the others watched silently from their spots, tossed it back into the wash. At twenty-eight inches, the fish wouldn’t have won any prizes, but I didn’t see anybody else catch anything that night.
A month later, at the same spot, I stumbled on a mob of men and boys packed together at the water’s edge. On the beach behind them lay a dozen big stripers and bluefish. Blitz! In the waves in front of me, acres—acres!—of 15- and 20-pound stripers and bluefish slashed through schools of baitfish they had chased into the shallows. I tied on a heavy white bucktail and shouldered my way in, shameless, desperate, exhausted. I had slept in my truck the night before and fished all day to earn this moment. I shoehorned a cast into the maelstrom and quickly hooked up. I threw my striper on the sand and popped it on the head a few times, reclaimed my spot, cast, lost my bucktail to a bluefish, tied on a white plug, and nailed two more stripers, then a fourth and a fifth before darkness fell and the fish vanished.
I never got a giant bass that season. But as I drove to the Vineyard on Labor Day to spend some time with these masters of the fishing universe, I figured I could hold my own. I’d landed bluefish in the Chesapeake Bay and tarpon in Florida and Atlantic salmon in Ireland. Even if I’d never caught two of the derby fish—the false albacore and the bonito—I wasn’t, as the charter captains call their bumblingest clients, a Joey. I had plenty of gear. My car held three surf rods, four reels loaded with fresh line, a pair of waders, and a bag full of the plugs and sinkers and lures I had collected over the years. I had also packed some foul-weather gear for the jetties and a fly rod in case I got an urge to frustrate myself in the surf for a few minutes.
When I arrived, however, it didn’t take long to realize that I was a single-A ballplayer trying to make the leap to the big leagues. I recalled something Nelson Sigelman of The Martha’s Vineyard Times had said on the phone a few weeks earlier. “If somebody comes here from the city and says they’re a fisherman, they may be a fisherman by their standards. But they’re not a fisherman by Vineyard standards.”
Nelson tells a story about picking up a hitchhiker a few years back when he still fished the derby to exhaustion. They got to talking about fishing.
“It must be very relaxing,” his rider said.
“Not the way we do it,” Nelson responded.
An islander named Bob Jacobs, who goes by his handle from his taxi-driving days, “Hawkeye,” spends the late summer snorkeling in his likely fishing spots. He maps the rocks and holes hidden under the waves, places where he might find stripers during the derby. When the competition begins, he slips into a sleep cycle that removes him from the patterns of the normal world. His life is no longer dictated by day and night but by the tides. He might sleep for three hours, fish a certain spot until fatigue sets in, nap another three hours, drive to another beach, and so on. “I don’t have any real concept of whether it’s Tuesday or it’s Wednesday, or what time it is,” he explains. “Three in the morning is just a number on the clock.”
Fishing is muscle memory for these people. If they were born on the Vineyard, it was imprinted in their DNA. Many started casting as soon as they could hold a rod, and hunting for stripers was a childhood rite of passage. They did homework on the jetties between fish. They drive past the surf in the course of their everyday business. The beach is their front yard, their backyard, their neighborhood park. A stretch of water worth prospecting is never far from anywhere else, which explains why every other vehicle sprouts surf rods in the fall. The Vineyard is the sort of place where you see fishing tackle tucked into the back of a Porsche.
Nelson came to the island full-time in 1988, worked on the derby committee for a few years in the 1990s, and has spent two decades covering the island and its fishing life for the Times. I found myself turning to him and his stories time and again to help me make sense of the phenomenon I was witnessing. Like a lot of newspapermen, he is an unapologetic cynic. But he has a soft spot for the derby, which he explained is not just about winning prizes. He’s come to see it as an annual reunion of friends who happen to fish. “For many people, the derby is a state of mind that has nothing to do with the number of fish you catch. It’s a mass hysteria, a sort of shared state of mind.” It’s a lark, an excuse to get out of the house, a vacation, a friendly competition. The derby is a chance to break away from everyday life and see things you would otherwise miss if you didn’t stay up all night or wake up before dawn: schools of shooting stars, eye-popping sunrises, the convulsions of predators chasing prey on the water, conversations you can only have with friends outside in the dark at two a.m. Even for those who are not trying that hard to win, the derby is a marathon.
I’ll do my best to keep up. I will turn in after midnight and set the alarm to go off well before dawn. I will pull on the same jeans I wore the day before, and the day before that. I will layer on the sweatshirts and crawl into my car in the dark, gagging at the stench of dying eels and fumbling in the trash and newspapers and discarded water bottles for my gear. I will ride along the beach and hike around boulders in the surf and wade up to my chest. I will camp out on jetties and hitch rides on boats. I will pass pickups on the road and wonder: Are they coming or going? Where’ve they been? Are they getting fish? Why aren’t I?
I’m not trying to win it. But if good fortune strikes? Well, let’s just say the derby has seen stranger things.