From left, Bob Fresher and Donald McGregor, both in their 12th year of volunteering, team up to bag the fish. — Lily Cowper
“It’s the time of the fish,” Ann Tyra says, as she and four other volunteers finish up bagging the fish, and wait for the clock to strike 9. That’s when the distribution starts, and today, there were some eager takers.
During Derby season, the fish are plentiful and huge; they’re held up to the weigh master like prized trophies. But what happens to the fish after their moment of fame is over?
Many are taken home with the fisherman who caught them, but about 5,000 to 7,000 pounds of fish is donated to the four Island senior centers throughout the length of the tournament, according to weigh master Joe El-Deiry. The donations are washed and filleted, then delivered, then bagged, all by generous volunteers, before being put into the hands of the lucky Island seniors.
They are volunteers who have seen their fair share of sharing the fish, some gathering with at least five years of volunteering under their belts. Bob Fresher was one, and this year was his twelfth. “I want to be part of the big picture, do the right thing,” he said. “There are a lot of bad things right now, and this is a very right thing.” Most of the volunteers said, laughing, they never fish in the derby. They joke that they’re just in it for the free fish, but it’s clear that there is more to it than that. Pat Tyra remembers the old Derby days, where neighbors would leave neighbors a share of good fish on their doorstep. In return, you would leave some on theirs. “That’s one of the Island generosities,” she said.
The tradition, which began around 25 years ago, reveals an aspect of island ethics that lacks in most other places. The concept of sharing is central in every interaction, and commonplace among Islanders — in a loaded tip jar, at the Dumptique, and in materials of recycled artwork. This culture is not necessarily a given in most communities in America. And it’s not necessarily for the poor or needy, as long as it’s helping the Island community.
Attending the fish distribution at the Edgartown Council on Aging (COA) was no different. Along with fish donations, Murdick’s Fudge donated day-old pastries. Flowers for decoration were from a wedding the night before, and Wendy Benedetto offered the leftovers for the volunteers to take home.
On Wednesday, the Edgartown COA dished out bass and bluefish, around a dozen or more people came to pick up, and some picked up two for those who couldn’t make it. It was a fish frenzy when they started. A lot of repeat customers, according to volunteers, who also grabbed bags for themselves. “Of course we all know everyone,” Ann Tyra said. Seniors were allowed to make several rounds until all the fish was gone. “No more bass!” several exclaimed, with disappointment, as they walked through the door. As he waited in line, Frank Gazarian made an alarming claim. “This is the best fish market on the Island, and the price is great!” Well, that settles it.
After they got their fish, they happily rushed off to their respective homes and families, to prepare the fish. A few takers shared their cooking secrets.
Pat and Ann Tyra discussed smoked bluefish, saying it works well for people who don’t like bluefish, since many don’t prefer an oily fish. Pat talked about her father who fished in the Derby, and who once had a smokehouse where he smoked his catch for family and friends. It was known to the locals as some of the best smoked bluefish around.
Lolita Duarte said, “I cook mine in my microwave for 3 minutes.” She then tops it with a cajun crab dip, and three squirts of lemon juice. “It’s great,” she said.
“I have a delicious garlic recipe,” Lorraine St. Pierce said. “I cook mine in the oven with garlic, olive oil — and one more thing. I can’t remember what it is, but it’s delicious.”
Thankful were the volunteers and seniors for the help of other volunteers and derby fishermen who spend their days reeling them in. Whether you’re on the catching or consuming end, or both, you can join in next year on this heartwarming Island tradition.
This article by Lily Cowper originally appeared on mvtimes.com.