Ice-fishing derby crowd thinned by snow, cold
MEREDITH - Heavy snow and a subzero wind chill made for a slow start to the 2013 Great Meredith Rotary Ice Fishing Derby on Saturday.
The scene on Meredith Bay Saturday was drastically different from the one during last year's derby, when warm winter weather left the bay ice-free and forced derby participants to fish smaller lakes.
On Saturday, there were a few dozen bobhouses on the bay's thick ice, but the brutally strong, icy winds on Lake Winnipesaukee kept most in their shelters, their fishing lines set with wooden "tip-ups" so they could be left unattended.
By 3 p.m., relatively few fish had been caught and hung on the derby's usually full tally board. Ice fishing enthusiasts are known for their hardiness, but prolonged periods on the ice Saturday brought the risk of frostbite.
"The weather seems to be keeping a lot of the fishermen off the ice today," said Steve Bennett, a former Department of Fish and Game fisheries biologist and one of the judges who verify whether fish meet the derby's criteria when they are brought in.
Derby Chairman Jim Nagle said the cold likely kept many away, but another factor may have been the change in rules this year that will allow the grand prize of $15,000 cash to be awarded for the largest fish in any of the derby's categories - lake trout, rainbow trout, white perch, yellow perch, cusk, pickerel and black crappie.
Unlike in years past, when only the largest rainbow trout could win the top prize, this year's winner will be drawn from a lottery among those who caught the largest fish in each category. Also this year, the $15,000, $5,000 and $3,000 prizes for the top three fish will be awarded as cash.
In past years, the top three prizes have been vehicles and fishing equipment. This year, having learned that some recent prize winners had sold their prizes for cash and given the slow economy, derby organizers decided to award cash prizes.
Because of those changes, Nagle said, catches of large fish in the other categories could arrive later, as there may be new derby participants fishing for large pickerel or crappie in far-away lakes.
The changes fit with the Rotarians' purpose and philosophy, Nagle said. The derby, which costs $30 per ticket and allows fish entries from any lake in the state during the weekend, has always had dual goals of helping the community and providing a source of enjoyment for anglers.
Since the inaugural derby, 34 years ago, the derby has raised more than $1 million to give to local communities, providing scholarship funds for students, aid to nonprofit groups and contributions to municipal projects, among other programs.
This year's event is expected raise $30,000 to $40,000 for local aid, Nagle said.
Typically, the derby also brings thousands of dollars in business to the area. Most of the derby's participants focus on fishing in the bays of Winnipesaukee - on Meredith, Center Harbor, Wolfeboro and Alton bays, among others - and stores, especially those selling bait, do very well on derby weekends. This year, area bait stores said shiners, smelt and suckers have been the best sellers.
Despite the slow start Saturday, derby organizers expect a heavy turnout overall - near 5,000, they hope - as today's weather was expected to be better than Saturday's. Chances for winning may have improved for participants, as well, Nagle said, as the pool of competitors may be smaller.
And despite the cold, the derby was achieving its goal of bringing enjoyment to participants.
Forrest Letarte of Tamworth was one of many who stayed warm in their Meredith Bay bobhouses on the ice while their wooden-cross "tip-ups" held their fishing line in ice holes, with bait and hook below in the water.
Like many other ice fishing enthusiasts, Letarte uses an electronic fish finder, which locates pockets of fish. Then, he drills holes with a large power drill and positions tip-ups over them.
Sometimes many tip-ups from different anglers are places within feet of each other.
While his tip-up is fishing for him, Letarte's two-story bobhouse - he has a small sleeping loft above the first floor - is comfortably warm. A small wood stove keeps the temperature near 60 degrees and heats a pan on top of it in which Letarte makes fish stew with freshly caught yellow perch.
"It's always a great time," he said of the derby.