• Nelson Sigelman

Martha’s Vineyard Fly Rod Contest Prides Itself on No Pressure


On Saturday, May 21, I will help host the Martha’s Vineyard Rod and Gun Club Striped Bass Catch and Release Tournament. It began 30 years ago, and I have been involved in every one.

Knowing that I have been involved with any event for three decades makes me feel I might be getting old. At the awards ceremony Sunday morning, I expect fishermen who have been attending for years will look at me and think, “He’s looking old.” That is what happens when you mark time in one-year installments.

Granted, fishing much of the night does not do a lot for youthful vigor, but the fact is that after 30 years, age starts to catch up to anyone’s hairline and waist.

The catch and release is a unique tournament in many respects. Fishermen who might not be attracted to fishing competitions find it promotes the best aspects of fishing—the camaraderie that fishermen share on the beach, for example—and downplays the competition and prizes that make some tournaments unpleasant events.

I think the club and the Vineyard can take some pride in the tournament. The catch and release tournament is unique in a variety of ways. It is a competitive event that barely honors the competitors for their achievements. It gives away hundreds of dollars worth of prizes to people who are generally surprised to win anything.

The catch and release tournament began 30 years ago. A group of us that included Cooper “Coop” Gilkes and Sonny Beaulieu would get together every Monday night in the winter, tie flies and tell fish stories to each other at the Rod and Gun clubhouse off Third Street in Edgartown.

The storytelling was as much fun as the tying.

One night we got talking about Roberto Germani, an Island fly fisherman and character who had died that year. What do I mean by “character?”

One day, I ran into Roberto, and he described watching bait and bass under little bridge. He got the idea to eat some of the bait, little silversides, I recall, to see what the fish experienced. He then learned what cormorants instinctively know: that it is essential to eat the bait so its little fins slide and do not snag going down one’s gullet. Roberto, who believed strongly in catch and release, survived that experience.

The group decided it would be fun to sponsor a catch and release tournament and give away a prize in Roberto’s name for the most fish caught and released in one night of fishing by an individual and in later years by a team. Saltwater fly fishing was just beginning to gain popularity and we decided to match fishermen up randomly in teams—off-Island fishermen with Islanders.

Initially, prizes were given to top finishers. Catch counts were on an honor system. Paul Fersen of Orvis, the Vermont company built on fly fishing, added his considerable support with no conditions or requests for recognition. Over the years, other individuals, groups and companies also donated prizes.


As the contest gained popularity and attracted more off-Island participants, we made changes. We quickly ran out of Islanders and broadened the category to include anyone familiar with the Vineyard. We also presented only plaques and not prizes to the top finishers; a change intended to eliminate competitive acrimony over prizes.

The change added greatly to the excitement of the awards breakfast and ceremony. Now we pull registration forms out of a box, and a fisherman may not catch a fish all night and still walk away with a new fly reel.

Sadly, the club also added two new prize categories to remember Island fishermen. We added the Sonny and Joey Beaulieu Trophy for the fisherman who catches the largest striped bass and releases it. In 1993 Sonny and Joey Beaulieu, father and son, died in a boating accident with Fred Loud and Fred’s son Adam.

In 1995 we created the Arnold Spofford Trophy, for the most fish caught and released by a team using one fly, to recognize Arnold Spofford, fly fisherman and gentleman.

We have been responsible for at least one wedding. Many years ago, when we matched people at random, we matched up Sandra Demel and postman John Kollett. At the awards ceremony the year after they got married, we surprised them with a wedding ceremony complete with music, a ring, and fly rods held up in the manner of swords.

But the absolute highlight was the year two brothers were unable to join their father at the tournament. Both men were in the military and on duty. We skyped them into the awards ceremony. Not a dry eye in the house.

For thirty years, honesty, camaraderie, and conservation have underpinned the tournament. Recognizing concerns over catch-and-release mortality, we have modified the rules and changed the focus from high fish tallies to a fish quota—the first team to fill its quota wins.

The fish quota is four fish per angler for teams of three members or less. Three fish per angler for teams of four or more fishermen. The twist is that each member of a team must catch his or her own quota for the team to qualify.

For example, if you’re on fire, you can continue to fish after you've filled your quota, but those fish don't satisfy your team member’s quota—he or she has to carry his own weight. We think this will add to the rooting (or harassing) of fellow team members.

Plaques will be awarded based on each qualifying team’s team finish time.

The biggest fish category is a combination of length and girth. Fishing in that category may continue even after a member of a team meets his or her quota.

Hooks must be barbless or the barbs must be crushed down.

We think these changes, which emphasize quality over numbers, demonstrate continued conservation leadership and set a good example for others to follow.

And wind, rain, or moonshine — we do not cancel.

The entry fee is $45. The money raised helps to support club youth activities. For more information, go to the Rod and Gun Club website.

If you would like to donate a prize it would be much appreciated. Contributions can be shipped to Catch & Release Tournament, Coop's Bait & Tackle, 147 West Tisbury Road, Edgartown, MA 02539, or dropped off on Saturday. If you have any questions please call tournament committee member Cooper Gilkes at 508-627-3909.


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