The Story Behind the Pins

Every September and October, thousands of fishermen descend on the Island to participate in the annual Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby. You pay your fee and are handed a baseball cap and a badge with a registration number. Many of us who fish the Derby have hats that are strewn with badges from prior years, with anything more than a handful representing a respectable commitment to the event – a badge in and of itself. If we’re fortunate, we may have one of the coveted bronze, silver, or gold daily-winner pins from any of the categories (striped bass, bluefish, bonito, or false albacore). Each pin is much more than a piece of metal though. Each pin represents a story or adventure waiting to be told, and is a testament to the fisherman’s skill, luck, and perseverance.

Cleaning up my office this past winter, I found my lucky Derby hat. It is bright blue with a cartoonish, grinning-fish decal on the front, and after fishing the Derby for fifteen years, real estate on that hat has become mighty scarce. When I first participated in the Derby, I thought only skilled fishermen like those found in its Hall of Fame won the daily-prize pins. Over the years, I’ve been fortunate enough to get three, so I know this is not the case. I usually fish with my husband, an excellent fisherman, and my dad, the world’s greatest fisherman, and neither of them has a pin, so I know luck plays a huge part of it.

You could say a combination of skill and luck marked my first pin, but it may be more accurate to say it was because of “Bonito Ed” Lepore. On an overcast September day in 1994, Ed brought his fishing knowledge, his boat, and a tackle box filled with Deadly Dicks to the waters off Menemsha. I brought some beginner’s luck and the keen eyesight of my youth. Together we were an unstoppable combination, always seeming to be the first to spy the breaking bonito. We were onto the fish all day, but in the end experience triumphed over luck, and Ed brought in the winning fish. The next weekend he stopped by with the pin he had won and a little handwritten note: “Kathleen, you are here by awarded this gold bonito pin for out fishing me last weekend. Tight lines, B.E.” To this day I proudly wear it on my hat, since I know we earned that pin together.

It was a long, dry spell between pins, and it wasn’t until 2007, that I was able to get my second, again for a bonito. A lot had happened since 1994: I got married to my favorite fishing partner, Dave, and we had two children, Pibb and Carly. We had dropped the kids off with my parents and went out on the water off Lucas Shoals. On the first cast trolling a Rapala mackerel lure, I hooked onto a bonito that ran right for the boat and seemingly right into the net, a truly unspectacular catch. Afterward it felt as if sometimes you’re just at the right place at the right time.

Then in last year’s Derby, I got my third pin. This is the pin on my hat that reminds me of when referees in professional sports give make-up calls. How else can I explain getting a gold pin, on a Saturday, on a boat, in the all-tackle division, for a striped bass that only weighed in at twelve pounds?! We arrived for the Derby the last week in September and stayed until Columbus Day. I will remember the 2008 Derby as the year of the election, the year of the financial meltdown, and the year of no fish.

The Island’s 2008 Derby was just a continuation of the lackluster fishing season we had been experiencing at home in Marshfield. Starting with low numbers of shad and herring in April, we fished our way through a slow summer in the North and South rivers, with much smaller numbers of bass and blues. When we got to the Vineyard, we were already used to working hard for each fish. Calls were made up- and down-Island. Someone was constantly heading down to the gas dock in Menemsha to see if the bait had come in. Betsy Larsen would come to the back door of the market with bags of our secret bait and tips from the commercial fishermen: huge schools of menhaden sighted off Squibby or a shore bonito caught off Lobsterville at a certain time and tide. We hiked the beaches, motored to Wasque, scampered along the beach wall in Vineyard Haven, and burned through several tanks of gas zooming up to Chilmark’s Brickyard, over to Naushon, around to Devil’s Bridge, and back. A few fish, mostly blues, were caught with a lot of effort.

Our last Saturday, October 11, was “Super Saturday” for bonito, meaning the heaviest shore and boat bonito would each garner a $500 prize. Before dawn you could hear the boats firing up in the harbor. Dave took our boat and fished like a madman, while the kids and I hoofed it up and down Menemsha Beach casting Marias and Crippled Herrings. We stopped to play in the sand, and I cast out a live silverside on a little treble hook just to keep a line in the water. At noon, Dave picked us up in the boat and we headed up toward Gay Head Light. Nothing. When we got to the light and turned the corner toward Noman’s Land, it was an absolute parking lot with boats everywhere. We fished until mid-afternoon and were just about ready to give up, when I suggested we take a spin in Menemsha Pond.

“Well, we won’t catch any bonito, but okay,” Dave said.

The tide had begun to flood over the flats near the skeletal remains of the Orca from Jaws, and you could see bass popping with regularity. “Some of those look pretty good,” Dave admitted, cutting the engine to allow us to drift with the tide over the flats. I stood up and took a gentle cast with my favorite striped-bass lure, the Queen Cocoho, and boom! I hooked onto a good fish. It looked even bigger as it charged through the shallow water of the flats.

“Mom! It’s a huge fish!” yelled Pibb.

“Get it! Get it!” shrieked Carly.

The fish put up a good fight, literally pulling us and the boat toward deeper water, but I landed it and we laid it out flopping on the seat of the boat.

“Mom, let’s weigh it in! It’s huge!” the kids said. I measured thirty-four inches, more than big enough to weigh in, but Dave and I both knew it wasn’t a truly big fish by any stretch, and certainly not for one caught from a boat.

We stood in line at the weigh-in that night surrounded by people with bonito hoping to claim the cash prizes. There were a few blues in the crowd, but we were the only ones with a striper, which did look all the bigger next to my two small children. When we got up to Charlie Smith, the weigh master, he smiled at the kids and commented to me, “That’s a nice eating fish,” which I knew meant it was a good fish but no winner. He weighed it in at almost twelve pounds, a skinny bass, and snipped the tail to log it in. We headed out to the fillet dock, where there were three big bass, much bigger than mine, already laid out.

“Mom, are you going to win?” Pibb asked.

“Not tonight,” I answered, as we headed back to our cottage.

A couple of hours later after the closing bell, Dave went online to check the day’s standings. He shouted to me from the other room, “Come quick, you’re never going to believe this!” I ran into the living room and he told me, “You won a gold pin.”

“Shut up!” I said. “There were bigger bass than mine right on the dock.”

“Yeah, but caught from shore. You’re the only person to even weigh in a boat bass.”

A lot of things rushed through my mind, but mostly feelings of disbelief. Usually boat bass are bigger than shore bass, but everyone on a boat must have been going for bonito. Our decision to fish the pond was a last-minute, last-ditch effort. In the end, the fishing gods looked down on me that day and rewarded me by putting me at the right place at the right time. But why? Was it for my perseverance and never giving up on fishing, no matter how bad it might have been? Was it so two small children would continue the tradition of revering their parents as the best fishermen they’ve ever known? Was it for not forgetting about the beautiful striped bass on a day when almost everyone else had abandoned them for the pretty, new mistress known as the bonito? Am I just thinking too much about this because I just turned forty (I mean twenty-nine)?

Whatever the reason, I picked up my pin the next day and proudly put it on the front of my hat. When I look at these pins on a cold winter day, I can ruminate over whether they were earned because of perseverance, luck, or skill – and never truly answer the fishing equivalent of the eternal why. What I do know is that each pin is a story about my time fishing the Derby on Martha’s Vineyard, and when I look at them I am filled with feelings of hope, happiness, and optimism. Even though I might not know all my fellow fishermen’s stories, I bet they feel the same.