September 21, 2005

A New England Autumn Classic

Print More

Martha’s Vineyard changes in the fall. The tourists have all left, the summer restaurants have closed. Yet, the air is still warm, the waters remain full of fish, and the outdoor life still brings the hardened locals out into the New England autumn.

After the busy summer, the Vineyard emerges as a much more quiet place – a silent postcard of white, clapboard houses, and bobbing, anchored boats; a world of proud, old buildings and tall lighthouses.

The island of Martha’s Vineyard lies just off Cape Cod, a 45-minute ferry ride from that thin, curled arm of Massachusetts. The triangular island, about 20 miles long, has been a tourist destination since the 19th century. It draws in more than 100,000 summer residents, plus countless other vacationers.

But after the busy season is over, only about 15,000 local Islanders remain. And for these locals – this mix of old New England families, retired authors, descendants of Portuguese sailors – there comes a need to keep alive the days of summer.

And for these people so connected to the sea, it’s appropriate that they turn to the water for their extended summer. Because for five weeks, the Island only thinks of the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby.

* * * *

The fishing competition began two Sundays ago, and it will continue until Oct. 15. This gives plenty of opportunity for everyone to try and catch the biggest fish.

The Derby was founded just after World War II, when the local tourism board wanted to get some attention for the Island. The Derby has remained, and it is now one of the biggest fishing contests in America, and maybe the world. In addition to the many locals, a good deal of off-islanders will get in on the event.

It captivates everyone on the Vineyard for more than a month. Every day and night, locals will fish along the Island’s shores, or head out into the choppy waters of the Atlantic and Vineyard Sound. They will come back with their catch, proudly, and then head to a weigh-in station to record their biggest fish.

Derby awards are given out in a number of categories, depending on what kind of fish you catch. There are not only categories for striped bass and blues, but also for varieties like bonito and false albacore.

It’s now a Vineyard cliche to describe this as a time of devotion to the sea. That sentiment is not far off. The contest becomes daily news – the papers publish results, and everyday, the local radio station reports the most recent top catch.

People are reluctant to talk about their day’s catch in too much detail, for fear of revealing where they found their best fish. Sure, maybe they’ll tell you the time of day they made the catch – but that’s about it. No one wants their discovered locations to become inundated with fellow competitors.

Yet, once the event is over, you can be sure that detailed fishing stories (perhaps embellished a little) will be a common discussion topic on the Island.

There some characters associated with the event who could come straight out of a novel. Like Kib Bramhall, a 1955 Princeton graduate who lives on the Island and is well-regarded for his landscape paintings. He used to display his work in New York, but has since decided to only show his paintings on the Vineyard – the place he loves. Bramhall has owned world-records in fly fishing, and he remains one the most-respected people on the Island – especially among fisherman.

He might appear as an old salt, a true fisherman – and then just as easily carry himself as a cultured artist. This would not be a contradiction on Martha’s Vineyard.

Although it’s been only a week or so since the tournament began, there’s already some excitement. The early hours of the contest witnessed fisherman catching impressive, 30-pound stripers. A grand total of 138 fish were caught during the first day-and-a-half. This past weekend witnessed the arrival of a lot of bluefish, helping to add new names to the Derby leaderboard.

But there are several weeks of competition remaining, and more and more fish will arrive in the Vineyard’s waters. And so long as they are there, the Islanders will head out into the blue abyss, out enjoying their own kind of Martha’s Vineyard holiday.

Ted Nyman is a Sun Staff Writer. Fast Times will appear every other Wednesday this semester.

Archived article by Ted Nyman