During the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby, everyone lining up in the mornings at the Island’s councils on aging has got to love a fisherman. Every weekday during the derby, the Island’s seniors receive free fresh striped bass and bluefish and only occasionally get fresh Atlantic bonito. The program is a derby win-win.
A battalion of volunteers extending across the Island administers the program.
The derby, now in its 66th year, is a monthlong fishing contest with anglers fishing every day. There are more than 2,100 entrants and by the end of the contest it could top 3,000. Every morning and every evening, many of these anglers show up at the Edgartown Main street derby headquarters with something to weigh in. There are daily, weekly and grand overall winners. So even a medium-sized fish can create a winner.
Anglers don’t need to eat all the fish they catch, and many generously donate their fish to the derby fillet program. It is a kind gift to the Island’s elderly. Each morning and each night of the weigh-in, a master filleter stands by, ready to take the striped bass or bluefish and cut it down to nice, clean, fresh fillets. In a stream of teamwork that begins with the fillet, the fish makes its way to the dinner table.
“It is one of the great features of the derby,” said Ed Jerome, president of the derby. For many years the fishermen have donated from 5,000 to 7,000 pounds of fish to the senior program. So far this year, more than 2,000 pounds have been distributed, which amounts to well over a hundred pounds each day.
Roy Langley, a derby weigh master, who oversees the program, said the idea for donating the fish to seniors arose more than 10 years ago with a problem — what to do with all the fish that anglers didn’t want. “We used to donate the fish to the county jail, to the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital and the school system,” he said. That effort fell apart when, Mr. Langley said, “Everything that came into the jail had to come from a purveyor.” It got cumbersome, there were issues about delivery to the schools and hospital because of board of health constraints, which seemed ironic to Mr. Langley. “The fish is at least as fresh as what goes into the fish markets, if not fresher. The fish is caught within 12 hours.
“We had to do something with all that fish,” Mr. Langley said. The idea of providing the fillets to Island seniors for free took off. And coinciding with the effort, the derby committee took steps to encourage all anglers donating fish to keep it on ice before they come to the headquarters.
Mr. Langley said every fish that arrives at the fillet station is examined for freshness. A fish that has sat in the sun on the beach all day won’t be filleted.
There are a lot of behind-the-scenes contributors.
Last week, when one of the two refrigerators in the floating fillet shack stopped working, Robert Crane of Crane Appliances donated a new Frigidaire refrigerator to the derby. The fillet knives are kept sharp by John Montes of Edgartown Hardware and David Vaughan of Shiretown Meats.
If ever there is a shortage of refrigeration space, Mr. Langley said the Edgartown Yacht Club has offered the use of their walk-in refrigerator.
Filleters are volunteers. Matt Malowski, a volunteer and member of the derby committee, keeps track of the schedule for as many as 50 to 60 people who help with the filleting fish on the 35 mornings and 35 evenings. Many of them have learned how to cut fish by volunteering, when there was someone on hand who could do the instruction. Mr. Malowski’s digital calender assures there is coverage each day. When he is not volunteering for the derby, Mr. Malowski is the assistant principal at the regional high school.
“I do this because I think it is a great program,” Mr. Malowski said. “We are always looking for people to fill in to do shifts. We need mostly mornings, because so many people work.” Experience isn’t essential. “It doesn’t matter how well you fillet. You meet people who will help you. It is a great experience. You learn a lot. If you are a fisherman, you are always getting tips.”
Once the fish are cut, fillets are put in a nearby refrigerator dedicated to the purpose. Even the waste isn’t wasted: fish wracks are collected in a barrel for Jason Gale of West Tisbury, a lobsterman. He freezes them and uses them for bait the next year.
The derby organization and the fishermen are well aware their service helps a lot of people through these economically challenging times. “This is great fish. It gives people a chance, who might not otherwise be able to afford to buy fish,” Mr. Langley said.
“We had over 60 people show up on Monday,” said Roger Wey, director of the Oak Bluffs Council on Aging on Wednesday. “It is a wonderful time, to see all the joy in the faces of people.” Mondays at the senior center during the derby are a social time as people come in and wait to pick up their fish. “Usually we don’t get the fish until 9:30 in the morning, but well before there are people here waiting,” Mr. Wey said.
Patrons also swap bluefish recipes at the center. “I hear people talking about how they cook it this way and that way. With mayonnaise or something else,” Mr. Wey said. He said there isn’t much mystery about how to cook striped bass.
There are three volunteers handling distribution at the Oak Bluffs center.
On Tuesday, there were 28 names on a list of people seeking free fish fillets at the Tisbury Senior Center. Like clockwork, the four volunteers assembled well before 10 a.m. and began packing the fillets in plastic bags. Bill Bennett, the driver who picked up the fillets in boxes in Edgartown was quick to help the others. Once a routine, the work has become more like a ritual.
Wearing a red apron with his first name written on the front, Ken Gross helped to package the fish. His hands wear transparent plastic gloves. “I love volunteering,” he said.
“This is a great service to the community,” said Mr. Bennett.
There were about 30 people ready for fish fillets on Wednesday morning at the Edgartown Council on Aging. Paul Mohair, the new administrator, said they’ve got a system for distributing the fish which works well.
When he first took his job back in March, Mr. Mohair said he heard stories about the rush on fillets at the center during the derby. “I kept hearing how we were overwhelmed,” he said.
So to add order to what in the past might have been slightly stressful, Mr. Mohair instituted a method that is like the Stop & Shop delicatessen counter but with a slight variation. “You take a number and sign up. As your number is called, you proceed to the kitchen where you will cheerfully receive the fish,” he said.
Seniors can pick up fish in any council on aging. Their place of residence is not critical to picking up fish. The distribution of fillets is as follows: Monday, Oak Bluffs; Tuesday, Tisbury; Wednesday, Edgartown; Thursday is the Howes House in West Tisbury; Friday, Oak Bluffs; Saturday is at Woodside Village. On Sundays, the fish is held over for Monday delivery to Oak Bluffs.
On that rare occasion when they have more fish than they can distribute, Mr. Langley said, “I will give it to the Edgartown Elementary School.”
In principle, nothing gets wasted.
Derby organizers do report that the amount of fish being donated is slipping downward and it is not just tied to the scarcity of fish. They attribute the drop in recent times to the economy. Mr. Langley said that many anglers will give their fish away, to a neighbor or a friend. Or, they’ll freeze and keep it for another day.
As of yesterday, anglers have weighed in 12,695 pounds of fish. Only a small portion of it has made its way to the fillet program.
With two weeks left in the contest, there is plenty of room for change. Last Friday, John Carroll of Somerset came into derby headquarters with a 39.96-pound striped bass he had caught from a boat. It is the biggest striped bass caught so far in the contest. Mr. Carroll worked hard last weekend, weighing in both a 19.14-pound striped bass and a 7.67-pound bluefish on Saturday.
On Tuesday evening, Tom R. Barlosky of Tisbury weighed in a 15.32-pound bluefish, caught from a boat. While that may seem like a big fish for a bluefish, it is just shy of the heaviest false albacore weighed in so far. Alexander O. Bettencourt weighed in a large 15.38-pound false albacore early in the derby, which still holds as the largest caught from a boat.
While the weather this past week was warm and kind to those who like to spend time at the beach, it hurt the fishing. Mr. Jerome said the big fish seemed to have disappeared in the past few days. The water is warm and the wind is easterly. This could change with the coming weekend.
The Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby continues for two more big weekends. It ends at 10 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 15, with an awards ceremony the next day at Nectar’s. The top fishermen will receive plenty of awards. There is a brand new 21-foot powerboat and a 2011 Chevy four-wheel drive pickup truck. The results are available for viewing, and it changes daily, at mvderby.com.