The Derby History

Story by Mark Alan Lovewell

World War II had been over for a year when a group of forward thinking fisher-men came together to form an annual autumn tradition to promote Vineyard camaraderie and sportsmanship. The fall fish migration was always an important time for native Islanders. It is a period of superb fishing and a time of relaxed recreation along the shore.

The creation of the derby came at an ideal time, a time of optimism and at a time when the Island community was looking at expanding its tourist industry. The idea according to the late Al Brickman, was formulated by a public relations man named Nat Sperber, working for the new ferry service owned by Russell Stearns and Ralph Hornblower. His mission was to come up with a fall promotion.

Nat came down here and met with the Martha's Vineyard Rod and Gun Club. At that time Antone K. deBettencourt was the president of the club. Tony called a meeting for about a half a dozen of us and we met and agreed that the Rod and Gun Club would sponsor the derby. Nat Sperber acted as our professional advisor," Mr. Brickman told this writer in 1983.

The general chair-man of the contest was M. Martin (Marty) Gouldey, an Edgartown lawyer. The contest drew 1,000 fishermen from 29 states and as far away as the territory of Ontario.

The top prize was $1,000 cash. The winner, Gordon Pittman of New York, won the purse and a one week stay at the Harborside Inn for a 47 pound striper. The second prize, a building lot in Gay Head, went to Daniel Huntley of Buzzards Bay.

In that first year. the largest striped bass was caught amid the surf by Thomas L. Flynn of Pohogonut Edgartown. Mr. Flynn's fish set the trend for many derbies to come because it over took what most thought was a leader. Mr. Flynn's 35 pound fish caught in the last two days of the contest was described by Vineyard Gazette writer Joseph Chase Allen as a most sensational development." The largest striped bass caught from a boat was 39 pounds and was landed by Mr. Huntley. Jules Ben David of Oak Bluffs landed a 12 pound fish, a leader for the fish caught at a bridge category. Flyrod fisherman: L.D. "Pop" Adam of Chicago landed a 14 pound 4 ounce fish he caught at Devil's Bridge.

The awards ceremony included a turkey and striped bass dinner and was held in the rod and gun club headquarters, on the second floor of the Reliable Market in Oak Bluffs.

In the years ahead, the derby was not just the event of the season but it spun other affairs. In 1949 there was a derby dance, a derby marshal, and a derby march. Jeanne Brown, 17 a senior from the Oak Bluffs School was chosen the derby queen. A dance was held at the Tisbury School auditorium. In that year there were two derby winners: George Marshall, of Vineyard Haven, caught a 46 pound 14 1/2 ounce bass and Stuart Fuller of Edgartown and North Dartmouth caught a 43 pound 2 ounce bass. Each earned a 20-foot Steelcraft utility fisherman boat. Mr. Marshall's big fish was caught on the first day of the contest off Squibnocket. This was tile second time in the derby's three-year history that Mr. Marshall walked away with the top prize.

In 1951 Mr. Allen wrote about the derby's growing success: Perhaps the reason why the Vineyard derby has endured and is still popular is that many of the prime movers behind it and supporters as it progressed, are fishermen." Already. prizes offered the fishermen were impressive: vicars, jeeps, power-boats and all manner of fishing tackle, rods and gear have figured in the lists of past years."

It was in that year and subsequent years that the Derby was run by the Martha's Vineyard Chamber of Commerce.

For years the Vineyard's affection for its fishing attracted the interest of sports writers around the country. The nation's top sportswriter Red Smith wrote in 1954: A lot of these guys fish clear through the night from dusk until after sunrise and they will continue to do so until the derby closes this Friday.

The derby produced some special stars. In 1956, Richard D. Hathaway of Edgartown walked into the derby headquarters with a winner, a 52 pound 9 ounce fish. Mr. Hathaway returned to the headquarters with a leader in 1978 and another in 1979.

Other fishermen appeared over and over again at the top. Serge de Somov. of Hampton Say N.Y., won the derby for three consecutive years from 1963 to 1965 and he did it again in 1969. His big winning stripers ranged in weight from 49 up to 54 pounds.

The mid-1980s were marked by an increased sensitivity to rising concerns about fish stocks in Vineyard waters. The 1985 derby, its 40th year, was the beginning of a stretch of derbies without striped bass as a competitive fish. The emphasis shifted to other kinds of excellent fishing: bluefish, bonito, false albacore, and weakfish.

Today's derby attracts fishermen from all around the world and participation in recent years has approached or touched 2,000. A product of their own success and its original mission accomplished in 1986 the derby organization stepped out from under the umbrella of the Martha's Vineyard Chamber of Commerce. In 1987, derby president Ed Jerome told this correspondent: From the informal committee-type approach, we've gone towards the formal non-profit structure. He said: This is a tournament run for and by fishermen. It now takes the derby a full year to organize. From the organizational standpoint the new derby begins just as the old one draws to a close.

There is a new mission. Since 1987 the derby has given $64,000 in scholarships to Island high school graduates.

It's now time. Let the next 50 years of good fishing begin.