A Life in the Derby

The Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby turns 60 this year. Steve Amaral is fishing his 59th.

The photographs scattered across Steve Amaral’s dining room table are slightly faded and a little rough around the edges. It’s hard to tell exactly when most of them were taken, such as the one of him fishing at Wasque Point – it could be 1968, or maybe 1978. The faces and clothing barely suggest the year or even decade. Each one is like a ghost from an old dream.

But while the people in the photos all seem dateless, one clue in each shot brings Amaral back to the year, the month, sometimes even the day the picture was taken: that clue is the fish. It’s as if he’s got paperwork on every fish in every image committed to memory; each striper reels him back to specific moments of specific days of specific years, and the memories swarm like schools of sand eels.

“That one,” he says, studying a wrinkled Polaroid, “that one I caught at the herring run in Gay Head, back when you could fish there.” He picks up another. It was featured in the “Parade” section of The Boston Globe in 1947, when he was only eleven. He picks up another, of him in front of his tan Jeep Wagoneer, circa 1978, holding up a fifty-pound striper – one of six fifty-pounders he has caught in his lifetime. And another – of him about ten years before, posing almost exactly the same way, in front of a blue Wagoneer, with another big striper. And there’s two from the late ’60s of him and the late Sonny Beaulieu, an old fishing buddy, each man squatting next to long rows of large stripers.

As the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby turns sixty this year, you can bet Amaral will be where he has been for fifty-eight of the previous fifty-nine tournaments: prowling the beaches in secret corners of the Island, waders on, eleven-foot surf-casting rods in hand, plugs and eels in tow. It’s Amaral’s annual ritual, an event that has come to define him.

“It’s what I love to do; it’s what I have always done,” he says. “I fish, and I have been fishing my whole life. The Derby has just been part of it all, and thanks to the guy upstairs, I have been able to do it for many years.”

The only year Amaral missed was in 1956, and that’s because it would have been kind of hard for him to get here. He was patrolling communication lines somewhere between Seoul and the demilitarized zone in Korea. The previous year, even while stationed at Fort Devens, he still managed to get enough leave to return home for the monthlong event. He shipped out aboard the troop carrier General W.A. Mann, bound for Yokohama, only a few months later.

“I fished as a junior in the Derby’s first several years,” he says, “and then I left for Korea and got out in the end of ’56. So from 1957 until today, I fished all those years, and never missed one.”

If you’re counting, that’s forty-nine years in a row. There aren’t many fishermen on the Vineyard who can say that, and fewer still who can lay claim to the success Steve Amaral has had. He’s a regular on the boards at the weigh-in station, an Island legend, the fisherman’s

fisherman, the one you root for to win it all, hoping – even praying – that someday he will. Because the fact of the matter is, Steve Amaral is the Phil Mickelson of the Derby, the best fisherman out there who has never landed the big one when it finally counts.

It’s not that Amaral has failed to catch the big one – remember those six separate fifty-pounders, behemoths in the world of the striped bass. Few men and women, fishing hard their whole lives, have ever landed a fifty-pounder, the bass fisherman’s grail. It’s just that Amaral has caught fish that would have won him the top spot in either the biggest shore bass or biggest shore bluefish category on several occasions – if only he had caught it a day or two earlier.

Like the year he and Whit Manter went fishing off Long Point on the final weekend of the Derby. It was 1979. He had caught a couple of big bass that put him on the board on Friday and Saturday, but all were shy of the top fish, which was somewhere in the forty-eight- pound range. On Sunday night, after the awards had been handed out, he and Manter met back on the beach. Just because the Derby was over didn’t mean the fish were gone. This night, quite the contrary.

“We were using eels the two nights before, and bluefish just tore them up, so I said screw it, I’m using plugs. I went off in my truck down towards the opening and Whit stayed over to the left in his. I said, ‘If you hook up, blink your lights, and if I start hitting, I’ll blink mine.’ I went down and within half an hour I hit something.”

That something was a fifty-three-and-a-half-pound striper. Amaral beached the fish, ran to his truck, and flicked his lights frantically. Manter, who was a good quarter-mile down the beach, immediately flicked his right back. “I thought, Uh-oh, we’re gonna be here for a while,” Amaral says, chuckling.

The two caught fish deep into the night. On Mon day night they were back again. Amaral caught a fifty- seven-pound bass. Two massive fish, two winners by five pounds and nine pounds each – but one and two days late. Does he ever wonder what if? Does the wondering ever kill him? “Oh, mister, you have no idea,” he croons. The fifty-seven-pounder now hangs on his dining room wall, a constant reminder of what almost was.

There was also the year he landed a nineteen-pound bluefish just a few days after the Derby ended, another fish that would have claimed the top prize. What’s even harder to bear, if Amaral let it bother him, is the fact that several of his fishing partners have had better luck while Amaral was standing right there to see it. Steve

Morris and Bobby Rose, both of Oak Bluffs, whom he introduced to some of his secret fishing holes, have each landed a top shore fish while fishing with Amaral. Mike Alwardt, with whom he has fished for fifteen years, has won the Derby twice.

“It coulda been me,” Amaral says with a laugh. “I call it the BS luck factor. You can’t go out there looking for the big one. It will hit when it hits.”

Amaral has fished since he was a boy, and it’s part of the rhythm of his life. He grew up in the shadow of his father, Gus Amaral, who served for years as the Oak Bluffs police chief and later owned Amaral’s Fish Market on Dukes County Avenue in Oak Bluffs. Gus regularly took his three boys – Edward, Steve, and Leo – to Island ponds to cast for perch and trout. Later he taught the boys to surf-cast for bluefish and stripers. Amaral never looked back.

“With us, as kids, it just got to be an Island tradition,” he says. “When I grew up, we didn’t have cars and everything, so after school, if we wanted to go fishing, a bunch of us would get together and we’d get on our bikes and go down to Harthaven and fish Hart’s jetty and then to the Little Bridge and the Big Bridge. If that didn’t pan out, then we’d fish off the Oak Bluffs boat wharf, then we’d go to East Chop, and the Vineyard Haven bridge, and just fish until dark, and some body picked us up.”

Amaral used the money he made from shucking scallops at the market to buy reels, line, and tackle. And because rods were expensive in those days, he and his friends would make their own. “Howie Leonard’s father had the gas station where Jim’s Package Store is now, and he gave us big, twelve-foot bamboo sticks,” he says. “We would take them, varnish them all up, wrap the eyes on them, and then clamp the reel on. Back in those days, that’s how we’d go.”

This stirs something inside Amaral. He grabs a large framed photo from the table. It’s of a proud-looking man holding up a big bass. “My father,” he says, pausing as he admires the black-and-white shot of his pop. “He started it all.”

And when he says his father started it all, he means it quite literally. As it turns out, the photo is of Gus weighing in the very first striped bass of the very first Derby, sixty years ago. A newspaper clipping, confirming the fact, is taped to the bottom of the frame. “Isn’t that something?” asks Gus Amaral’s son.

Amaral has lived his whole life in Oak Bluffs. For the most part, his life has been an uncomplicated one: he was born in 1936, one of four children (he also has a sister, Eleanor). He grew up surrounded by a large, extended family. He worked twenty years for his uncles’ company, Amaral Brothers Heating and Plumbing. In 1977, he and longtime friend Robert Francis of Oak Bluffs struck out on their own, and the two have been plumbing partners ever since.

He has been married and divorced, and has two daughters, both of whom work on the Island. He has served as a member of the town finance committee, the conservation committee, and in 1975 was appointed by the Oak Bluffs selectmen as a charter member of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, the land-use agency. And for thirty-six years, he was a member of the Oak Bluffs Volunteer Fire Department – twenty-three of which he served as captain of Engine Company No. 4.

All of which has kept Amaral on the Island, which, nowadays, he rarely leaves. He spent two years in the service right out of high school, guarding telephone poles in Korea against saboteurs who would sometimes sneak across the demilitarized zone to cut the lines, and returned to the Island after his honorable discharge. His parents left the Vineyard for California in 1955, and his two brothers later headed west as well. But with the exception of a few deer-hunting excursions to Maine now and then, everything Steve Amaral needs, or ever needed, is right here on the Vineyard.

Much of this, he admits, has to do with fishing. The day he fights and lands that monster fish erases the six lonely nights he didn’t catch a thing. He is a fighter just like his dad, the chief of police who was also a semi-professional boxer. (“He used to fight in New Bedford and Boston,” Amaral recalls, “and sometimes made ten or twenty bucks. Nobody ever beat him too good, though.”) This is what makes him want to take on those big bass: the patience, the struggle, the challenge, the battle against the opposing forces of nature.

“There’s nothing like that rush when the line runs out, when you see the pole go down, and once he’s hooked, and you got that eleven-foot rod up, and you hear that reel going Zzzzzzzzz, zzzzzzzzzz, zzzzzzzzzzz – that’s awesome,” he says, losing his breath a bit.

His reputation, among Vineyarders and visitors alike, is as a knowledgeable, passionate, and successful fisherman. Over the course of his life, he has come to know tides and winds like family. He can read the water in an instant, knowing at first glance whether the elements have conjoined to make it favorable for fish. He knows where to go if the wind is northwesterly or if it’s coming up from the south. He knows the angle the lure should cut against the tide to give it the right action. He knows what type of lure to use, whether or not he needs to bottom-fish with eels or cast swimmer plugs.

“He is an amazing character in terms of what he knows,” says Mike Alwardt of West Tisbury, his fishing companion. “He knows when to go, where to go, and on top of that is very adept at handling a rod. With Steve, it’s about fishing as much as he can. He’ll fish until the snow flies.”

Across the years he has fished, Steve Amaral has cultivated a large network of friends, customers, and associates who grant him access to fishing holes most modern-day Island fisherman have never seen. He can fish from public and private beaches both up-Island (Paul’s Point, Great Rock, Stonewall, and Quansoo) and down-Island (Norton Point, Wasque, East Beach).

The list goes on. Just don’t expect him to divulge too much information from it.

“I spent years following him around, trying to find his spots,” Alwardt says. “Believe me, there are a lot of people who want to know where he is heading when he goes fishing.” Amaral is fiercely loyal to his favorite places and will sometimes fish a place for weeks without getting as much as a tug or a bite.

“I can drive up the beach and have three different spots that I like, and then I’ll start fishing the one I like the best and then stick with it for a week, and fish it morning and night for about two or three hours,” he says. “If nothing is hitting, I’ll pack it in, then I’ll try the other ones. But once I put enough time into a place, I hate to give it up.”

What would be an ideal day in the Derby for Steve Amaral? “I’d take a light southwest wind with a little rain and a falling tide,” he says – though he’s cautious not to give away too much to readers who will be his competitors. “Give me a west tide at Wasque and a southwesterly breeze any day.”

Down in Amaral’s basement, you need waders just to get through the rising tide of dulled hooks and rusted leaders, old weights and older plugs, and miles of spooled line. It’s a museum of sorts: There are boxes stacked with unopened lures from as far back as he can remember, prizes from past Derbies, some gifts from old friends. Every type of fishing tackle and gear known to

man clutters the shelves, some so obsolete you aren’t really sure what they were used for. Several thirteen-foot rods hang from the ceiling overhead (he keeps his eleven-footers at the ready in the garage).

“Oh, that’s nothing,” Alwardt says of the collection. “You should have seen the basement of his old house. He had rods and reels and stuff from a billion years ago. We had to throw 75 per cent of it away.”

A billion years may be a stretch, but fifty-nine Derbies out of sixty is something to be proud of. Amaral fished the first one in 1946 at the age of ten – the one in which his father weighed in the very first bass – and he has, in every sense, seen it all. The Derby was established by Island businessmen trying to nudge the level of summertime commerce just a bit into the fall. He fished the Derby when it was run by the Martha’s Vineyard Rod and Gun Club from the second floor of the Herald Drug Store on Circuit Avenue. He fished through the nine years – the fortieth Derby through the forty-ninth – when the imperiled bass were taken out of the tournament altogether. He has fished Derbies in which longtime competitors were banned for decades to whole lifetimes for taking too many fish in a day, fishing outside the boundaries, and stuffing fish with artificial weights. He has fished a Derby in which a pair of fathers and sons – friends of his – lost their lives pursuing big fish in small boats and rough seas.

Amaral remembers all these eras and events, but he is less inclined to discuss philosophies or grand ideas behind fishing and competition than he is to talk about the fish and the fights that landed them – or didn’t land them. Ask him how the Derby has changed as the Vineyard has changed, and Amaral inevitably brings the conversation back to years in which he weighed in no more than a couple of mid-sized blues. He has seen fluctuations in fish populations, observed changes in migration routes, witnessed the rise of an ethos of conservation that prohibits anyone from weighing in a bass that measures less than thirty-four inches, or taking more than two in a twenty-four hour period. Some of these changes make him a bit nostalgic. But always his conversation comes back from the sea of overarching themes to the shoreline, where the fish are actually beached.

“Falls back then were good for the heavy fish,” he says, glancing at another photo from the ’70s. “The last seven or eight years, we just haven’t got the same fall run that we used to. It was usually always good at the end of the Derby, and now it seems the big suckers are getting caught in the first few weeks.”

Still, looking through his photographs, there is no sense of regret, no “Should have done it this way, should have done it that way.” Ask him what he thinks he might have given up by devoting a life to fishing and he laughs. “Well, if I did the amount of work at my real job that I did fishing, I’d be a millionaire,” he says. This may be why, as he nears seventy years of age, he considers himself only semi-retired.

The Derby defines Amaral, and because it has changed so little while everything around it has changed so much in the past sixty years, Amaral still defines the Derby. You look at him as he sits under the mounting

Last light: Amaral with a fish on at the Chilmark Pond opening.

of his fifty-seven-pound, day-after bass, with his photographs and memories and stories spread across the dining room table, and you realize that he himself is the picture of it all, what you think of whether you’re wondering what it was like when a few businessmen got the idea to try to coax the summer season into fall right after the hard years of the war, or how it’s going out there tonight, as hundreds of men and women compete to bring in the biggest blue, bonito, albacore, and especially bass, between now and the final night, on October 15. As you read this story, Steve Amaral is probably fishing. As you have your breakfast, Steve Amaral is probably fishing. As you have your dinner. As you sleep. Among those hundreds of men and women, a few who know him well, or just know of him, may be praying that if it can’t be them – well, the sixtieth anniversary of the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby would be the perfect year to see Steve Amaral walk up to the stage and collect the prize for the biggest shore bass. But if not there on that night, they know that they’ll be able to find him at Wasque just about any evening when the tide is running west, the wind is southwesterly, and the rain begins to fall.

“I just look forward to seeing everyone, the same faces you see out there,” he says. “You never know what is going to happen, and that’s what keeps you coming back. That and fortitude and perseverance. You’re always thinking, ‘We gotta get some of the BS luck too.”” ◆