53rd Derby Enlarges One Angler's Personal Tradition

By Nelson Sigelman

Numbers in the derby souvenir book tell the simple story of who caught winning fish in the 53rd derby. But by any measure, there are fishermen who define the derby by their very participation. Few surf fishermen embody the hold of the Martha's Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby, or its values, tradition, and history, like Jerry Jansen. Last October, Jerry traveled from his home in New York City to the Vineyard to fish in his 52nd derby. He has fished in every one but the first. There were no long nights spent testing body and spirit in the surf like there were in the early days. But it is the camaraderie forged on the beaches, not the hope of catching a winning fish, that still brings Jerry to the Island. "By the time I get to the derby I'll be 84 years old," he said with the unmistakable accent of a Brooklyn native during a telephone conversation before leaving for the Vineyard.

Jerry, a former Marine who was wounded twice during bloody fighting in the Pacific islands during World War II, said he first came to Martha's Vineyard because he had heard the fishing was good, and for a chance to win some prizes. "The first time I went up to the Vineyard I realized what surf fishing was all about," said the experienced Montauk Point fisherman. "Because down on Long Island here these guys, if you get into a fish, 65 guys climb all over you casting right where you are because that's where the fish are and you don't have a chance to get back to the spot where you caught your fish from." He added, "The Cape and the Vineyard were entirely different."

Over the years, fishing for prizes and derby glory became secondary to meeting old friends on the beaches. Many of them are no longer alive, but he continues to renew other friendships he has made over the years. Island artist and fisherman Kib Bramhall of West Tisbury first met Jerry when he was working for Salt Water Sportsman magazine. Jerry had written a book, "Successful Surf Fishing," in response to a growing interest in the sport as Americans found themselves with more leisure time. "He represents history," said Kib. "He is a true old-time surfcaster." In the old days, it was the striper that defined the derby. Jerry Jansen was one of the guys who would fish all night on the mussel bed at Squibnocket or hike from Lobsterville down to the jetties before there was a paved road - a hike he referred to as the "death march." With a slight laugh, Kib added, "He's still fishing the same stuff, the same lures, rod, line, et cetera, that he did in the '40s." Including an old fiberglass Harnell surf rod that Kib said is "so stiff you could stop an elephant in its tracks with it." Kib said at first meeting you would think Jerry Jansen was a very tough Marine from New York City, which is exactly what he is. "But beneath all of that is this wonderful Irish brogue and sense of humor. He can tell one joke after another all night long and he likes to do that. He does not take himself seriously."