October 26, 2018

New England fall — the season of leaves, apple cider donuts, the fall migration, and the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby. The Derby — which, after 73 years is, like Bono or Cher, known simply as “The Derby” — captivates the island, its tourists and others like me; those who are drawn to fishing by a deep, unrelenting magnetism. For weeks in the fall, people converge on the island, and on the weigh-in station, for their taste of what feels like old New England — a region of small towns, good people, and abundance.

Last weekend was no different. Though the weather turned from fall to winter overnight, and brought with it bone-chilling temperatures, winds, and rain, I smiled until I collapsed on the return ferry home.

The trip began with a bang, with an afternoon of productive fishing and the Costa reception at the Port Hunter. Mike from Costa put on an awesome party, gave away lots of good gear, and we ran into lots of great people: our good friend Joe Gugino from Why Knot Fishing, guide and barrister Tom Rapone (is there a nicer guy?), as well as some salty dogs. When we left to feast on nachos, we left a friend to dine on free beer and shots. He did not meet us for the sunrise bite the next morning.

I felt the weather the following morning before I saw it. My friends house is more like a camp and, as camps go, the doors are never closed. The cold and damp crept in and, when the alarm bell rang, I felt like I could have slept for another day and night. Arriving at our spot, we found the sun blocked by gray skies, wind, and some spotty rain. This, as I later tried in vain to explain to colleagues, was weather worth abandoning warm bedding for — for here, in the snotty waves, the albies seem to chew.

Perhaps its their big eyes. Perhaps its coincidence. But I know I’m not alone in thinking this: snotty weather is better albie weather.

And so it was.

Bitten by the cold, I had put down my rod to warm my hands with some coffee when, like clockwork, albies popped at our feet. My friend and weekend host Wilson Kerr, who is on the Derby committee, hooked a monster.

It took him down the dock, along the beach, and hopping onto the rocks. When he finally landed it, it looked big from about 75 yards away. When Wilson came running back with it, it was even bigger. Weighed quickly on a digital scale, it was over 11. Wilson punched the air, spiked it in the end zone, and rushed off to the weigh station.

When he returned an hour later, Wilson had won the shore fly division of the Derby. It was the largest shore albie of his life.

These are the dream moments on which the Derby is built. A once in a lifetime fish connect, out of nowhere, and a new chapter is written for someone who has fished the Derby for decades. His excitement was infectious. The dock was electrified, all smiles, and badly in need of some oxygen to help us and Wilson calm down. I settle for the bourbon in my flask.

Wilson’s was the first, but not the last. Mark from High Hook Wines (if you haven’t tried them, you must!) got one on the dangle on a Mud Dog fly, and I, a few hours later, landed one after a frightening ride that wrapped me around the dock’s barnacled pillars.

This was a boost to the ego after a day of watching the spinning guys who had claimed the end of the dock through a sheer statement of masculinity: despite the cold and rain and wind, they were there in ripped jeans and shorts, even. They were hucking electric chickens to great effect.

Talking that evening with people, I was pleasantly surprised to hear how much people thought that the Derby would have to adapt to catch and release — and sooner rather than later. Among those participating, and sponsoring, there was a shared sense: we love the Derby. The only thing we don’t love is how many fish are killed. I have a feeling that will change, and it’s one of the reasons I’m proud to be one of the sponsors of the catch and release award.

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