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  • Writer's pictureNelson Sigelman

Derby Fishing Is Serious Business

For the first time in my life, in September 2017 I was unemployed during the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby. Unencumbered by a sense of responsibility, I could stand for hours on the Island shore fly fishing for false albacore and bonito.

Bonito and false albacore — bones and albies in derby parlance — feed actively during the day, mostly unseen but for those moments when they periodically break the surface of the water in a splashing commotion of fins, gaping mouths and fleeing baitfish. This touches off a derby Pavlovian response: a rapid-fire frenzy of casting by any fishermen within sight of the piscatorial melee.

The odds of one or two fishermen hooking up to one of these notoriously selective mini-tuna before they disappear from view are slightly less than the odds that one of the participants will hook a fellow fisherman’s line, or a curious tourist (temporary insanity is a reasonable legal defense).

Most often the surface action is short lived. Lacking inspiration, the cast-per-minute count among fishermen drops to a slow pulse. Which provides plenty of time to stand around and chat about fishing theories (the too-much bait or too-little bait conundrum), or food, or anything thank God but Trump — fishermen are more considerate than the kibitzers who sit on the porch of the Chilmark Store, I learned during a recent stop for pizza.

Over the five-week span of the derby the official goal of the more than 3,000 expected registrants is to catch the heaviest striped bass, bluefish, bonito or false albacore from shore or boat. Dreams of derby glory aside, for many of the participants it is enough to catch a few fish and have some fun. For years, I mostly fished at night for bass. Except for the company of my good friend Tom Robinson of Vineyard Haven, my fishing efforts were solitary and secretive.

On a warm end-of-summer day at the Edgartown Lighthouse, I was reacquainted with the camaraderie that is at the heart of a community event I have not missed since 1981 — and the thrill of catching an albie on the fly rod from the shore, something I had not experienced in many years.

David Nash takes a break, a sure guarantee that the albies will show up.

Fishermen had lined the beach at sunrise but most had left to go to work, or other fishing locations when I arrived. “How’s it going?” was the general greeting as I walked by the dozen or so fishermen who remained, several of whom I knew. We shared fishing information, and as time flowed by periodically alerted each other when there was a telltale splash of fish, most often hundreds of yards distant, except for the moment when a pod of albies erupted in front of me and I hooked up.

The fish tore off line from my fly reel at an alarming rate as it swam straight across the harbor. My immediate worry was that someone might cast over me, but each fisherman held back, attentive to the direction of my outstretched line. Later, half-jokingly I thanked David Nash of Edgartown for not casting when a pod of fish erupted in front of him as I fought my fish. “I don’t do that,” Dave said calmly.

Unfortunately, others do. Once the albie had expended itself, I was able to retrieve line until I felt resistance. The fish was around a mooring, one of the many harbor obstacles that make landing a fish capable of tearing off 300 yards of line so challenging. I was stymied.

Malcolm Gilbert, a visitor from England, had watched the whole battle and by way of encouragement, I suppose, asked me: “How strong is your leader?” Malcolm was doing his best to balance sightseeing with his wife and his passion for fishing, and this sightseeing excursion was an opportunity for vicarious fishing action. I murmured some answer because at that point I knew it really didn’t matter. That fish was not coming off that mooring and I would be lucky to get my fly line back.

Later, Malcolm would share an account of the Vineyard leg of his trip and our encounter in an email to friends, of which I am now one [See the interesting email account of his trip below].

Dr. Richard (Doc) Weiss and his wife Maggie, seasonal residents of Oak Bluffs, were fishing from their Boston Whaler in the harbor. They headed to the shore. “Hop in Nelson,” Doc said cheerily. We slowly motored out to the mooring where I was able to reel in my fly line and, to my surprise, the albie, which I released. Doc and Maggie were as pleased as if they had caught the fish.

I decided it was time to leave. On my return walk, I encountered several Chinese tourists taking photos of one another posing singly against the lighthouse backdrop. Still energized by my battle with the albie, I impulsively walked up to a middle-aged gentleman who was taking his turn to pose, smiled broadly and put my arm around him, much to the delight of his companions, who vigorously snapped more photos. An older man in the group walked over. Fingering my frayed khaki shirt as he surveyed my well-worn Cabela’s waders he smiled and said in halting English, “Oh, nice uniform.” “I suppose so,” I said with a chuckle and continued up the path. I had parked in front of the busy Harbor View Hotel. A young couple walking along North Water street in the aura of a romantic getaway took one look at me in my waders, flyrod, stripping basket and derby hat and asked what was going on.

“Do you know about the derby?” I asked. They were blissfully unaware. I launched into my well-practiced description … nothing short of a power outage on the Vineyard affects more people … blah, blah, blah. “That explains all the people running around with fishing rods,” the young man said. “You look serious.”

“I suppose so,” I said.

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