That feeds the community

The Derby

by Moira Silva

The Derby

Elizabeth Cecil

It’s the end of August and Ed Jerome’s phone is already jingling. The senior citizens are on the line, wondering if the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby will be sending fresh catches their way soon. Ed is happy to reassure them: “Yes, in just a few weeks, there will be fish again.”

For sixty-five years, the month-long Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby, known affectionately as just “The Derby,” has been feeding the Island in many ways. Each September, over 3,000 participants of all ages and walks of life happily get out their fishing rods and gear for boat or shore fishing, or both. Serious residents plan their schedules around the Derby. Many take time off from work to fish. Island tourist businesses are also glad to have the season extended. Even non-fishermen enjoy the conversation at the weigh-ins and the coffee shop: “ Anything big come in this morning? Who’s the leader now? Heard Wasque was hot last night.”

Behind the thrill and camaraderie of a big catch, though, is the Derby’s deep commitment to community outreach. This commitment includes not only donating money to local charities and granting scholarships to graduating seniors, but also a lesser-known program which sends fresh fish donations to Island senior citizens.

Since the Derby’s inception in 1946, Islanders at the hospital and schools have enjoyed the donation of freshly caught fish. This changed slightly in the mid- 1980s, when Ed Jerome bought the then fledgling Derby for $1, just as the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce, former Derby organizer, was about to abandon it. He then took over as President and incorporated the Derby as a non-profit. Ed saw the transition as an opportunity to further develop the filet program to include daily donations for seniors, while still occasionally offering fish to other community organizations. Now the Derby season yields between five and seven thousand filets for happy seniors.

At the Docks

After the buzz of reeling in a big fish wears off, the first place on any Derby fisherman’s mind is the Derby Headquarters on chilly autumn- blue Edgartown Harbor. The anticipation of the official scale lures them. Fish lose weight between the beach and the weigh-in, so promptness counts. Fishermen enter with hope (and sometimes anxiety) that their fish will weigh enough to put them on the famous scoreboard. After witnessing the suspenseful weighing in of their catch, fishermen can choose whether to keep or donate it. Some donate because they are from out of town, some because they are catching fish every night, and some because they want to help feed the seniors.

Plenty of bluefish and bonito, and occasionally, some bass are donated. False albacore is not used in the filet program since it is not palatable. Sometimes, a novice fisherman donates a mackerel taken by mistake, which is a nice surprise for some lucky senior who likes it.

Once a fish is donated, volunteers at the filet station check it for freshness; if it does not meet their standards, it is discarded. Ed explains, “It’s easy to tell if a fish is fresh and has been kept on ice. The fish should feel firm and cool. A change in color is obvious to any seasoned fisherman.”

After the 8 a.m. and 10 p.m. weigh-ins, a volunteer fileter dressed in waders, and apron, and an iconic derby cap waits for donated fish to pile up at the end of the dock. Crowds build as the scents of fresh fish and the weigh-in station’s free coffee invite passersby to linger. Often at the filet station is Chris Kitchen, who has been volunteering for the Derby since he moved to the Island seventeen years ago. He enjoys his role and says he filets for many reasons, including, “It’s a good bunch of people at the docks.”

To begin the filleting process, the filleter cleans his/her hands, knife, and table with products donated by ECO-MV, and then hoses the fish with water. Using a filet knife, he carefully angles its thin, razor-sharp blade to make close, clean cuts down from the backbone, separating the meat from the ribs from head to tail, on both sides of the fish. What’s left after the filets are removed (head, tail, bones, and guts) is saved for local lobstermen who use it for bait. Then the fillets get another rinse before being packed snugly into tubs that are stored in a dockside refrigerator. The refrigerator step could probably be skipped since eager volunteers from the senior centers often arrive early to load their cars with the coveted filets.

“Ninety-nine percent of the derby workforce are volunteers; the others receive a small stipend,” Roy Langely, the legendary derby weigh master estimates.

At the Senior Center

Back at the senior centers (also called Councils on Aging), more volunteers are ready. Upon delivery, these volunteers don gloves and aprons to pack the fish into individual bags and sometimes re-cut it if the filleters are especially large. After they work out how to run their assembly line, conversations about grandchildren, the size of the fish, and their packing progress fill the senior center’s modest kitchen. There is a happy, productive buzz as the team completes their task.

Just outside of the kitchen, seniors are pacing and chatting as they wait to pick up their fish. Amidst the excited crowd, recipes are often shouted. “French style bluefish is the best. Always use mayo,” advises one. Pat Matola, a senior in Edgartown, pauses to share: “Fish is very expensive at the market. But it’s easy to cook and healthy. It is wonderful that the fishermen share with us.” She often picks up fish for friends who are busy watching their grandchildren.

During the Derby, each senior center is assigned one pick-up day per week. And although fish distribution days are highly anticipated and well-attended, there always seems to be enough for all to enjoy.

Ed comments, “After all these years, we’ve pretty much honed the process.” Others agree. After collecting his fillets, senior Rupert Hughes reflects, “I hope it [the filet program] continues and that everyone keeps doing their part. I don’t fish anymore, but this is the next best thing.”

Volunteers, fishermen, seniors, and fishing groupies alike are grateful to be a part of the tournament that feeds an Island. While many of us will focus on the scoreboard this fall, it’s nice to know that a handful of volunteers will be creating platefuls of freshly caught Island fish for our seniors.