MEREDITH — Frank Britten lives in Massachusetts now, but he grew up in Skowhegan, Maine, where the ice was so thick they would have to put an extension on their auger to reach the water.
It was in Skowhegan that he learned to ice fish, and he still uses the same techniques he learned as a boy when he ice fishes now: drop a weighted line to measure the depth of the water, and set the lines accordingly.
“If you don’t catch any fish, you just move the trap. That’s how I fish,” Britten said, after setting his tip-ups on Lake Winnisquam on Friday.
The other man fishing near the Belmont town beach on Winnisquam on Friday, Belmont resident Jim Mamos, takes a decidedly more modern approach. He uses a digital depth gauge, fish finder, and underwater camera. That’s how he discovered that he had, just by accident, placed his bobhouse over a 20-foot-tall mound of gravel and rocks. At its highest point, the mound was only 16 feet from the ice; all around the water was much deeper.
“He’s got all these cameras, fish finders,” said Britten. “He’s caught one fish, I haven’t caught any, so I guess he’s outfishing me,” he said, laughing.
This isn’t the first time that Britten and Mamos have compared fishing techniques. The two are cousins, and were drilling holes and setting up camp on the ice in anticipation of more family members arriving this weekend, all for the Great Meredith Rotary Ice Fishing Derby, being held this weekend for the 40th time.
Winnipesaukee Fishing Derby
The Meredith Rotary Club held its first ice fishing competition – originally called the Winnipesaukee Fishing Derby – in February of 1980. John Breault was president of the club at the time, and he was assisted in running the derby by John Sherman and Bruce Sanderson. To tempt ice fishermen, they offered a top prize of $2,500 and $6,500 in overall prizes. They hoped to sell 500 tickets.
Owing perhaps to the central location in Northern New England – or perhaps because it was on a well-known lake – the derby greatly exceeded expectations. More than a thousand tickets were sold that first year, and more than 1,500 the subsequent year.
And those numbers kept growing for many years, said David Reid, who is in charge of the derby this year for Meredith Rotary.
“We like to see anywhere from 3,000 to 4,000 tickets,” he said, and there’s potential for more if the weather is good. “We have sold upwards of 5,000 tickets in good years.”
The derby was originally started as a way to support businesses in the winter, particularly in case the skiing conditions were subpar. The event has since taken on a life of its own, and nowhere is that more apparent than Meredith Bay, where the derby headquarters are located and where a veritable village of bobhouses springs forth from the ice, just in time for the derby.
Many locals and not-so-locals will come just to take in the scene, wander among the bobhouses and ogle the fish on the leader board. Reid estimated that as many as 20,000 people will come to the region for the derby.
But you don’t have to fish to be part of the derby – anyone who holds a ticket is eligible to win regular drawings for cash prizes throughout the weekend. And if you do fish, you don’t have to fish on Meredith Bay, or even on Winnipesaukee. The winning fish can be pulled through the ice of any New Hampshire lake or pond.
That wasn’t always the case. In the beginning, qualifying fish had to be caught in Winnipesaukee, and they had to be tagged rainbow trout. For the past several years, though, any fish from seven species could end up being the winner. Anglers who pull up a black crappe, cusk, lake trout, pickerel, rainbow trout, yellow perch or white perch, and think that it might be a winner, transport their catch to the derby headquarters in Meredith Bay. If it’s the biggest, judges will put it on the leader board, and at the end of the day on both Saturday and Sunday, the people who caught the five biggest fish of each species will take home a cash prize, from $50 to $500.
Then, after the final weigh-in on Sunday afternoon, derby officials will randomly determine which species will be eligible for the grand prize of $15,000.
Some other behind-the-scenes improvements over recent years include a drive for online sales, social media marketing, and the realization that people will buy as much derby-branded merchandise as the club can dream up.
“That is really taking off – we sold out every piece of merchandise last year,” Reid said.
Over the years, ticket sales and merchandise revenue has added up to more than $2.1 million. That money has been used for scholarships, fish stocking, grants to local nonprofits and various other community betterment purposes.
Bringing people together
Reid has lived in Meredith for 23 years, but he’s never personally participated in the derby. He’s allergic to fish, in fact, but even he gets derby fever every year.
“I don’t fish, but it’s still lots of fun. Especially the young fishers, I love the faces of the kids when they bring in a big fish,” Reid said.
The derby has become increasingly family-friendly over the years, Reid said. This year, kids’ fishing clinics will be held on Saturday at 10 and 11 a.m., and at 1, 2 and 3 p.m. No experience or equipment is necessary, and though the instruction is geared toward children under the age of 16, anyone is welcome to take part.
For Mamos and Britten, the derby has turned into a family reunion on ice. Mamos, who learned to fish from his grandfather and uncles in Maine, said this weekend is going to be the first time he introduces the sport to his two-year-old daughter.
Mamos said that ice fishing is, for him, about more than just trying to catch a big fish.
“It’s everything. The camaraderie, it’s great being out here, just being in the outdoors,” Mamos said.
When he goes out ice fishing, he can leave a lot of the stresses of his daily life on the shore, he said.
“You get out here and it’s a different culture world. You’re here to enjoy yourselves and forget everything else for a little bit.” And he and his friends and relatives, whose lives can sometimes be dominated by careers and other obligations, use the derby as one of those times of the year that they can reserve for reconnecting around a sport that they learned together as children.
“We make it a point. We’ll do two or three trips per year. It brings people together,” Mamos said.