LAKE WINNIPESAUKEE — Though he boasted the largest trout of the weekend at 9 pounds, Gilford’s George Hurst was not surprised to hear next year’s Winni Derby would be canceled. Hurst has been fishing on the big lake for over 50 years, and said he and others noticed a dip in fish population.
“I was starting to lose confidence in myself,” Hurst said, chuckling. “All of a sudden the things that I've done for so many years were not working anymore.” He remembers saying to his son and frequent fishing partner, Brogan, that “you know, over the last few years, something's not right.”
“Although the fish we caught seemed to be very, very healthy,” he continued, “The numbers have just been way down.”
The Boy Scouts of America, Daniel Webster Council held its 39th Winni Derby on the lake last weekend. The event sees fishers catch to compete for the largest landlocked salmon and largest lake trout over a three-day span. Because of population threats to the former, organizers told competitors Sunday that the derby would go on hiatus for at least a year.
“We were presented with some startling stats about the salmon population,” organizer Raymond Meyer told competitors. “So we’re willing to take a step back.”
According to New Hampshire Fish and Game Inland Fisheries Chief Dianne Timmins, struggles with size and survival of salmon generations is fueling the need for a break.
“In the last five-plus years, we've definitely been noticing an absolute, steady decline,” Timmins said. Despite efforts to reinvigorate the population, “there has been no upward spiral, no upward bumps.”
While migratory Atlantic salmon are regionally native — though their ability to migrate into fresh water has been disrupted by logging and dams — landlocked salmon, the non-migratory species targeted in the derby, were first introduced to the state to attract anglers in the 19th century, Timmins said. Their population has always been managed.
The hatchery Fish and Game had been using to stock Winnipesaukee in recent years has been too cold, Timmins said, decreasing the average size of fish when they are released into the lake. This makes them more vulnerable as prey and to human-wrought habitat changes.
Large salmon still being reeled in — like 2023 salmon grand prize winner Michael Westgate’s 7.5-pounder — are not an indicator of population health overall, Timmins told anglers after the derby on Sunday.
“There are definitely healthier, fatter salmon out there, but some of that is definitely a contribution of the fact that those younger age classes are just not present,” she said. “It’s definitely a numbers game.”
Fish and Game has transitioned to different hatcheries, according to Timmins, but monitoring the population and evaluating whether this change is precipitating recovery will take time. Smaller numbers in the big lake also mean they’ve had to pull eggs from other large lakes in the area, where in the past they’ve been able to rely on Winnipesaukee. But Timmins is optimistic about the prospect of growth: smelt, the forage fish for landlocked salmon in the lake, are abundant.
The derby began as a way for sport fishing enthusiasts to assist experts in culling a then-plump salmon population, Timmins said. But 2024 won’t be the first time the event has paused to allow the resource to recuperate: the 2016 event was similarly canceled, and was resumed the following year. It was also canceled in 2020.
“We knew in 2017 that the permit, although it was grandfathered, is not always guaranteed. We’ve always known that,” Meyer told competitors Sunday. Though some anglers will surely follow tradition and return derby weekend whether there is a competition or not, Meyer continued, in line with the Boy Scouts' commitment to stewardship and conservation, “we can’t be responsible for that decline.”
He echoed this sentiment in a press release about the cancellation Monday. “Our organization teaches the importance of respecting nature and of conservation so it is part of our mission to protect the resource, even though it means canceling this popular event,” Meyer said.
“It’s disappointing,” Hurst said. “They're great fish, a great fighting fish and a beautiful fish.” But, he said, he and his peers fully support the decision and conservation efforts.
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