PHOTO: Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby
PHOTO: Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby

A Fishing Derby on Martha’s Vineyard

At its core, fishing is the most egalitarian of outdoor adventures. Even on Martha’s Vineyard, sandy summer playground of presidents and stars of assorted stripes, the fish are not impressed with who is on the other end of the line. You have to be lucky. It pays to be talented.

Yes, it also helps to be modestly athletic, but I’ve seen short, slender folks out-fish brawny six-footers. And, yes, it helps to have a boat, especially on saltwater. But on Martha’s Vineyard,  anyone can walk or bike to a favorite stretch of beach, wade into the surf, and catch a fish as big as—or bigger than—the one reeled in by the hedge-fund maven trolling by in his new center-console sport fisher with twin four-stroke engines.

Fisherman Jim Cornwell shows off a big catch. PHOTO: Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby
Fisherman Jim Cornwell shows off a big catch. PHOTO: Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby

Hundreds of winners in the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby attest to this relatively even playing “field.” The winning striped bass caught from a boat last year, for example, weighed 39.20 pounds, while the winning striper reeled in from shore was just shy of that at 37.69 pounds. (There are, however, wider disparities regarding other species, notably bonito and albacore, which tend to run in deeper water.)

The 2019 derby will take place from September 15 to October 19. There are six principal categories: Mini-Junior and Junior (ages 4–8 and 9–14, respectively), Adult All-Tackle and Fly-Rod (ages 15–64), and Senior and Senior Fly Rod (ages 65 and up). Participants must register before opening day, online or at derbyfish-weighing stations at tackle shops throughout the island. 

PHOTO: Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby
PHOTO: Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby

Dating back to America’s colonial past, striped bass have been a popular sport fish along the Atlantic seaboard, from the Carolinas to Maine. In recent decades, the species has become less abundant. Overfishing of both stripers and their food sources is the double whammy. To halt the population decline, particularly of large spawners, federal and state fisheries managers have curtailed commercial openings and set strict limits on the size and number of fish that recreational anglers may take home for dinner.

Joe El-Deiry, volunteer president of the Martha’s Vineyard Derby, says that while Massachusetts regulations allow a daily limit of one fish that is more than 28 inches long, the derby, to set a good example for the future of the resource, requires that any bass entered measure 34 inches. He says that research by biologists has also revealed that survival among released fish is not as good as had previously been assumed.

PHOTO: Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby
PHOTO: Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby

“We have to do a better job,” El-Deiry says, indicating that the derby plans to produce an instructional video to show anglers proper techniques for playing, unhooking, and releasing valuable stripers for maximum survival. “We’re also backing the state’s plans to make circle hooks mandatory with bait.” Circle hooks were pioneered by offshore big-game anglers pursuing marlin and sailfish and have been successful in reducing mortality caused by deep hooking. 

When I spoke with El-Deiry, he expressed optimism for the future. He says that menhaden, a small herring-like fish, have really come back—acres of the vital forage fish are visible in August in the Lagoon off Oak Bluffs and in Edgartown Harbor. And his 17-year-old son Luke is catching and releasing more and more 24- to 28-inch stripers. “Of course,” Joe says, “he fishes every day.”

PHOTO: Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby
PHOTO: Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby


A Bit of History

The Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby was started in 1946 to encourage returning war veterans and their families to vacation on Martha’s Vineyard. Back then, the now-glamorous destination was a sleepy backwater of weathered cedar-shingle shacks dotting the sand dunes, with a colorful cluster of Methodist summer-camp gingerbread cottages on one end of the island and a village of Native Americans on the other. In 1987, the derby was purchased from the island’s chamber of commerce and recast as a nonprofit organization. Last year, the 3,500 participating anglers raised $42,000 in entry fees, all donated to island teenagers who aspired to go to college to study environmental and marine sciences. To date, the derby has raised more than $650,000 for scholarships. —T.R.P.

THANK YOU TO OUR BJTONLINE SPONSORS