This year marks the 67th annual Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass & Bluefish Derby, an event that first took place in 1946, as a way to drum up some extra tourism dollars during the shoulder season. To say that it was a success would be a substantial understatement, as it now boasts close to 3,000 participants a year.
“The Derby” generally starts the second Sunday in September and lasts five weeks, ending in mid October. Over the years, the structure of the tournament has changed quite a bit, and the contest now includes four species of fish; Striped Bass, Bluefish, Atlantic Bonito and False Albacore (also known as Little Tunny).
Whoever catches the heaviest fish of each species in the two categories, shore and boat, get a shot at one of the grand prizes. The grand prize for the shore winner this year is 22‘ Eastern center console boat, while the boat winner will receive a 2012 Chevy pickup.
Besides the grand prizes, the Derby awards prizes in a myriad of different categories, like the coveted daily winner pins. Often worn affixed to a (preferably faded and worn) Derby hat, an abundance of daily pins garners respect from Derby fishermen.
To participate in the Derby, anglers must fill out a registration form and pay an entree fee, earning them a Derby hat and a button (or “badge”) with a unique number. Some people pick their button randomly, while others cull through the pile looking for their “lucky” number (EA has had the same number for ten years or so, and even goes as far as to reserve it weeks before the derby starts).
Registration can be done at Derby Headquarters at the bottom of Main St. Edgartown, Larry’s Tackle in Edgartown, Coop’s Bait & Tackle in Edgartown, Capt. Porky’s in Edgartown, Dick’s Bait & Tackle in Oak Bluffs, or at Menemsha Texaco. Standard Registration is $45.00 while Juniors and Senior pay $ 20.00 . Besides the “All Tackle” division, which is what the vast majority of Derby fishermen (and women) sign up for, there is also a separate flyrod division. Since 2011, all entrants must also posses a Massachusetts saltwater fishing license (or license from a state with a reciprocal agreement with Mass).
Bluefish are voracious feeders, with a mouthful of sharp teeth and an attitude to match. The most plentiful of all the fish in the Derby, they range from small “snapper” blues that weigh only a couple pounds, to the monster “gator” or “gorilla” blues that can tip the scales at twenty or more.
Bluefish must be longer than 22 inches to qualify for the derby. Sometimes bluefish get a bad rap as an eating fish, but when fresh and prepared properly, they are delicious. One of our favorite recipes is “Taco Blues” from the Bluefish Cookbook.
After all these years, Striped Bass are still the prestige fish of the Derby, perhaps because of their sheer size. Nothing impresses onlookers like a 50 pounder being dragged to the weigh-in station. Striped Bass stocks plummeted in the ‘80s, subsequently, from 1985 until 1994, they were actually removed from their namesake derby, to let the numbers rebuild.
Striped Bass must be at least 32 inches long to be eligible for the derby. Highly prized as a gamefish, striped bass are also excellent to eat, with firm, white, mild tasting flesh seems to go with almost anything, especially lobster. Check out our article featuring a Striped Bass with Lobster Sauce recipe from the Martha’s Vineyard Cook Book in Martha’s Vineyard Magazine.
Part of the tuna family, False Albacore are beautifully marked fish, iridescent silver and green with a wavy pattern on top and distinctive series of dots on the underside. Streamlined and muscular, they are capable of swimming up to 40 miles per hour and famous for their ability to strip line off of a reel at an unbelievable rate, “Albies” have their own dedicated following.
Catching a large False Albacore on light tackle gear is an exhilarating experience that is not soon forgotten. Unlike the other three species of fish, False Albacore is not often eaten in the United States. To reduce the amount of fish killed, there are no daily prizes awarded for albies, and anglers are only allowed to weigh three fish total for the entire derby. False albacore around Cape Cod usually weigh between six and twelve pounds, occasionally reaching twenty pounds. The minimum size for false Albacore is 25 inches, and under-sized fish count against your three fish limit.
Atlantic Bonito have series of stripes running roughly horizontal, along their backs. With bright green, silver and blue coloration, they are a striking fish. Smaller than false albacore, they are more torpedo shaped, and have a series of small pointy teeth that albies lack.
Like their cousins, Bonito are capable of blistering runs when caught, often charging straight at a boat, forcing fishermen to reel furiously or lose the fish. Bonito have light pink meat that is excellent when eaten sashimi style, many people keep soy sauce and wasabi on their boat just in case they catch a “bone.” We also enjoy them smoked. Bonito must measure at least 21 inches to qualify for the derby.
Every morning from 8 until 10, and again from 8 until 10 in the evening, Derby Headquarters opens its doors for weigh-in. Participants line up with their catch, hoping to weigh in the biggest fish, while spectators gather, hoping to catch a glimpse of a new derby leader. When your turn comes, you tell the weigh master your badge number and whether the fish was caught on shore or boat. The weigh master measures and weighs the fish, announcing the results for the crowd. If your fish qualifies, you are presented with a weigh-in slip to keep as a record. The chalkboards on the walls show the leaders in all the different divisions, and weigh-ins are as much as social gathering as anything else.
While you are, of course, free to take your fish home, many chose to donate their catch to the derby’s filet program. Right outside the door of Derby headquarters is the filet shack, sitting on a platform floating in Edgartown harbor, where teams of volunteers, fillet, package and refrigerate the donated fish. The prepared fish is then donated to the Vineyard Council on Aging, then seniors can come pick up, free, fresh fish. It works out well for everyone, most people can’t eat all the fish they catch, and the filet program provides an easy way to give back to the community.
Not just an Island institution, the Derby has transformed into one of the most popular and revered fishing tournaments in the country, with people traveling from all over the world to fish the Vineyard and grab some derby glory. For a great insight into the particular madness known as “derby fever”, check out “The Big One: an Island, an Obsession, and the Furious Pursuit of a Great Fish”, by David Kinney.
Help support Hungry Native with AMAZON.COM, you may enjoy these books on fishing. If you liked this post check out our other articles on Martha’s Vineyard, and recipes like Bluefish Paté, Grilled Sea Bass, Grilled Squid, Bay Scallop Ceviche, Curried Periwinkles, Deep Fried Mole Crabs, and Raw Slipper Shells all caught on Martha’s Vineyard. For more photos from this post and others, head over to our Facebook page WWW.FACEBOOK.COM/HUNGRYNATIVE
Unless stated otherwise, all content on HungryNative.com, including text, photos and whatever else we come up with, is copyrighted material.
This means that it cannot be reprinted, published, used, abused, stolen, or “borrowed” without our written consent (yes, even if you give us credit, or a link). If you are interested in working with us, or using a piece of our work, please contact us on our Facebook page, www.facebook.com/hungrynative