Down to the Wire in the 52nd Derby

By Nelson Sigelman

Three grand leaders tumbled, one on the derby's last day; a winning fish fell off a truck; and the grand prize drawing kept everyone at the awards ceremony holding their breath till the final moment. In a finish befitting the history of the Island's month-long fall classic, the 52nd Martha's Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby concluded on a Sunday afternoon with all the drama and excitement of a good fishing story. More than 2,500 fishermen, a new derby record, had their eyes on 1997's grand prize, a new 18-foot Boston Whaler, 115 hp Mercury engine, and trailer. But with a combination of skill, perseverance, and good old fashioned fishing luck, only eight fishermen - those who caught the largest striped bass, bluefish, bonito, and false albacore from shore or boat - cast their way to the top and a chance to win a boat worth more than $30,000.

The winning shore albacore, a 15-pounder more than two and a half pounds heavier than the fish in second place, earned Islander Ken Abbott a chance to stand on stage and be the second to last grand leader in line. Each fisherman would pick one of eight keys and try to open the padlock held by derby president Ed Jerome. Whoever had the key that opened the lock would win the grand prize. Dick Hathaway, returning to derby competition after almost a decade, demonstrated the skills that had made him a three-time derby winner and fishing legend by landing the winning shore bass. The 70-year-old Hathaway's 50-pound bass earned him his shot at the boat, and he bounded up the stairs to the stage, shaking the hands of his fellow fishermen as he went. By comparison, boat fishermen, while weighing in plenty of bass, failed to find the bigger fish. Only a 40-pound striped bass, hauled in early in the derby by Dick Leeson on a big bunker, remained a grand leader by the derby's end. Vladimir Smirnov, an accountant from Marion, was fishing on his father-in-law's boat when he hooked an 18-pound blue two days before the derby concluded, crushing the hopes of Domingo (Mike) Canha. Mike, a skilled Island fisherman, had held the lead since the third day of the derby, and nervously kept an eye of the daily results. But no derby lead is ever safe until the final bell. On Saturday, the last day of the derby and still reeling from his change of fortune, Mike was out fishing with his younger brother, Joe. The close brothers.

- "They fish together, they fight together," said Joe's wife, Susan - were after bonito. Over the past few years it had always been Mike who caught the biggest fish, but on the last day of the derby, Joe hooked the winning bonito, and dashed the hopes of Jamie Boyle, who for a week, as the final weigh bell drew closer, had been unable to sleep or eat. When asked if watching his brother finish in the running helped take the sting out of his own fall, Mike said, simply and without shame: "No." Jamie was one of only two fly fishermen to finish as grand leaders. The other, Phil Lofgren, would see his 13-pound albie, more than a pound heavier than the second place fish, remain in the boat lead until the end. By the derby's end, Phil, an expert fly fisherman, would catch and release close to 48 albies, and lose 25 pounds to the derby diet method of nonstop fishing. Andre Levesque, fishing in the quiet but deliberate manner of so many good Island fishermen, caught a bluefish just a hair shy of 19 pounds to take the shore lead. For a short time Andre had also held the lead in the shore bonito category, until his friend Mark Plante, fishing right beside him on the end of the Menemsha jetty, caught a bigger fish and took the lead away. But in the derby, with fish and fishing luck, what goes around, comes around. With only three days to go, Stan Popowitz cast his last piece of bait out to the bonito at the end of the Menemsha jetty and pulled out the bonito that would give him the last place at the end of the line on stage. "It's depressing, like anything else," admitted Mark, the 1996 shore bass grand leader, as he waited for the awards ceremony to begin. With a touch of fishing fatalism, Mark, who netted Stan's fish, explained, "I was out there with the macks, I knew it was going to be close." Jokingly asked if he ever thought about "slipping," Mark, looking serious, answered, "No, not once."