Derby Spirit Prevails in the End

By Nelson Sigelman

The only surprises in the 53rd annual Martha's Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby involved fishermen, not fish. It was a derby of losers whose honesty made them winners; fishermen who caught winners but found themselves losers; and losers who just lost. Tick, tick, tick - the minutes passed slowly for each of the eight grand leaders in the last week of the derby. With just days to the end of the derby their prayers for a hurricane had not been answered. But by the time more than 300 people filled the Atlantic Connection in Oak Bluffs for the awards ceremony their fish, and the derby spirit had prevailed. It was there in the smiles of the fishing contest's youngest participants, the mini juniors when they accepted their trophies and posed for photographs. It was reflected in the words of Jerry Jansen, honored along with Bob Boren for 52 years of derby fishing. And it was felt by everyone who shared in the excitement when Scott Jadovich won the derby's grand prize, a new 17-foot Boston Whaler Outrage worth more than $30,000.

Slow Fishing Got Slower
This will be remembered as the derby when the fish got lost on their way to Martha's Vineyard. Fishing was slow to start and got slower - particularly for shore-bound anglers, most of whom pounded the beaches hard, but without much success. In the derby's first weeks, striper fishing was good, but there were few big fish. Bluefish were not around, and bonito were only an occasional mirage. But small false albacore, most shorter than the new derby minimum size limit of 25 inches, provided consistent excitement. Boat fishermen had better luck. The bonito that were so lacking around the Vineyard were found off Nantucket, as were albies, while big bass and blues were in the waters swirling off Aquinnah and the Elizabeths.

But heavy fish did not come easy. The last week of the derby was not conducive to sound decision making. For example, in one study a team of university researchers took a group of laboratory rats that had not been allowed to sleep and had eaten nothing but sugar and put them in the middle of a box with a series of exit tunnels. But the rats ran in and out of the tunnel entrances, which were labeled after Island fishing spots, unable to make up their minds where to go. But fishermen are theorists, particularly when they are not catching anything. It helps to pass the time. And a good theory that helps explain one's lack of fishing success eases the distress of not catching anything. Fishing theories abounded. But whether fishermen blamed warm water temperatures, Bill Clinton, or Ken Starr, no one really could fully explain why the fishing was slow, or predict when it would improve. But everyone hoped it would before the last weigh-in ended at 10 pm last Saturday. The final day of the derby, a small flotilla of fishing boats cruised up-Island waters looking for a winner. On the Menemsha jetty, usually a spot where fishermen crowd onto the rocks like mountain goats, only one person stood with a rod hoping the bonito would finally show up. They did. But unfortunately it was not until the next day.

On Saturday Alley Moore, who had been bumped from first to third in two separate categories and then out, searched in vain for the bonito he needed to win the fly rod grand slam award. Told at the awards ceremony the bonito had arrived off Menemsha and State Beach, he said jokingly, "They should give an award for the most bitter fisherman. I'd be a contender." Mike Cassidy, a former derby chairman, commented that for the first time in many years he did not get obsessive about fishing.

"I didn't fall asleep on the beach and I didn't fish in the rain," said Mike.

And, he added, "I probably caught as many fish as the guys who did." Mark Plante, a former grand champion, said he "fished hard." That carries a meaning all its own for derby fishermen like Mark who fish at all hours and in all weather, around the clock. "Now I can go back on vacation," said Mark with a laugh. "I can go back to work."