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They come piling off the ferry at Vineyard Haven: Portuguese-Americans, Yankee Brahmins, teachers, businessmen, lawyers and high school kids in their Red Sox batting helmets. They return to Martha's Vineyard soon after Labor Day for good cause. The traffic of the summer season is past. The weather is the best of the year—warm days, cool nights—and there is, of course, the best reason of all: the annual striped-bass and bluefish derby. Considered one of the oldest continuous events of its kind in the country, it is a "people's derby"—one catering to expert angler, novice angler and non-angler alike.

Non-angler? Absolutely. Just observe the morning and evening weigh-ins at derby headquarters. Other derby weigh-ins are mechanical affairs held at irregular intervals, but the Vineyard's goes from precisely 8 to 10 daily, morning and evening, and is always held on Edgartown's Yacht Club wharf.

It's an unforgettable scene. Fishermen enter the small wooden building bass-eyed from lack of sleep and staggering under the weight of their huge catches. Gathering around to ooh and aah is the crowd of spectators: young and old, male and female, resident and nonresident. It is definitely a pick-up-the-babies-and-grab-the-old-ladies kind of show. Blackboards reveal up-to-date leaders in the contest, which runs from Sept. 15 to Oct. 14 each year. On the walls are textbook descriptions offish and photos of fishermen with big ones that didn't get away. There is a wood-burning stove in the center of the room, but it is rarely used. The derby excitement generates its own warmth.

"The contest started in 1946 as a promotional idea to attract business to the island in an off-season month," says Daniel Hull, executive secretary of the Vineyard Chamber of Commerce. "I guess we've added a quarter of a million dollars to the island's gross product of some seven million, but nobody thinks of it as a promotion anymore. It's an island institution come hell or high water—mostly high water."

The Chamber of Commerce, however, does much to keep it an institution. There are daily prizes, weekly prizes, lucky-number prizes, junior (15-and-under) and senior (65-and-over) prizes—most of them consisting of play money redeemable for merchandise at island stores. But the Chamber's spirit of giving is contagious: the fishermen themselves donate many of their catches to the Vineyard's four senior-citizens councils.

Close to 2,000 fishermen register for the derby. "Three kinds of people get involved," said Jack Koontz, a professional fisherman and journalist who writes a fishing column for the Vineyard Gazette. "There are guys who get a house and come up for a week, returning summer people and locals, who take the derby very seriously."

So seriously, in fact, that in past years the contest was plagued by the same accusations of fraud that have soured other derbies. Competitors were suspected of loading their catches with sinkers, buckshot and bait to increase the weight, or of putting the arm on assorted weighmasters to add a few ounces to the announced totals. A recent winner somehow got his fish weighed before derby headquarters opened and refused to have it photographed because he had to rush off to work. The man was self-employed. A few years ago the derby committee hired a full-time weighmaster and gave him the authority to cut open bellies and have catches reweighed at a local fish store. "I've found a little water in some fish but that's about it," said Sam Riccio, 62, the current weighmaster, at the end of a night's work. Whereupon he headed off to his job as security officer at a hotel. During derby month Riccio weighs fish each evening, stands guard at his inn all night and reports for the morning weigh-in, sleeping only in the afternoon. The derby winner is the one whose bass or bluefish compares most favorably in weight to the 10-year average for derby-winning fish of its species. Thanks to Riccio's yeoman service, no one doubted that the 1979 winner—a 55-pound, 3-ounce bass caught by Dick Hathaway of Edgartown—was the real thing. The winner was presented with a $2,300 outboard motor. Prizes in past years have been trips to Hawaii, the Azores and Key West.

Another recent derby innovation is a separate competition for bonito and weakfish, a welcome consideration for the less skilled, who have no realistic chance at the top prize. Setting out after bonito. Captain Koontz provided an experience for his motley crew: Harvard graduate students Denny Lund and Scott Fithian, Brooklyn truants Benjamin and Matthew Kaplan, and an aging penman who professed to be chronicling the venture. Koontz took them off Menemsha jetty, threw out a weighted casting net and hauled in scores of blue-green herring for live bait. "When you get a bite, lower your rod until it's horizontal with the water," said the young salt, "then pull up as hard as you can." The technique proved difficult for the writer, but not for the others. In fact the youngest and lightest of the five, 68-pound, 9-year-old Matthew, weighed in with the third largest (7-pound, 8-ounce) bonito of the week.

It happens all the time in the people's derby. Try it when the season rolls around again. Meanwhile, daydream about the huge bluefish out there just waiting to be caught.