Friday, February 1, 2013

Derby Days

February means Derby Time!

Vermont has a plethora of ice fishing derbies, many of them very competitive, and yet some are more oriented toward fun and frolic than others. There are large high stakes derbies like the Islands Derby in North Hero, February 9-10. Prizes usually range in the $6,000 overall totals. This derby gets a lot of publicity and commonly posts some monster pike and healthy salmon and lakers. 

But derbies aren’t all about money. Take the Lake Dunmore Derby for example. It’s not a big derby, but those who have participated in it come back year after year for the camaraderie and excitement. This year it will be held on February 2-3 and I can’t wait for the party.
Best Beer of the Day - 8am!

For me, it’s about early morning laughter ringing across the ice, breakfasts of scrambled eggs and sausage, hot french roast coffee and the 8am beer (a silly tradition based on the old adage that “the best beer is the first one of the day.”) I am not advocating using alcohol to enhance the ice fishing experience – it’s just a silly tradition enjoyed only by the adults.

For me the joy is the experience, the long walk dragging sleds to the spot we have marked on our GPS’s, the gentle clanging of shanties being set up.

Shanty Set-Up
The young guys are responsible for the aerobic workout of drilling the allowed 8 holes per fisherman for tip-ups. Multiplied by the number of teammates, we are setting out 40 jacks. I love setting up the tip-ups in the pre-dawn darkness and watching the sky’s orange horizon fade to green and then to purple.

I’m primarily a pan-fisherman. Oh, I love to wrestle a toothy gator through an 8” hole, but the constant jigging and dipping my rod tip to play a finicky yellowbelly is what really turns me on. I change colored bibbits like most guys change their minds. Frequently, and with conviction. I weave the fat end of the spikes onto the hook so that the juices run clear, two or three of them per bibbit. Sometimes, I’ll really change it up and work a fathead minnow on an ice fly or a Swedish pimple tipped with mousies.

Jiggin Inside the Shanty
I love sitting in a shanty to start my day, in the half dark, staring down a 5” hole drilled by my Mora auger, and gently jigging my ultra light micro rod. My friend Rudy turned me on to the ultra lights. Even a medium sized perch feels like Moby Dick when you’re fighting him on a 4lb test line. The rod bows in honor and I lean forward with it, peering down the crystal cylinder into the depths.

My teammates, Eric Champney, of Charlotte, and currently serving in the Marines, Chris Holwager, of Vergennes, Eric Ovitt, of Monkton and Rudy Castro, lately from Wyoming, Michigan (this crazy Mexican can out-fish any one of us 4 to 1, and I think he wouldn’t miss this derby for anything, just to maintain the bragging rights by flying all the way in to Vermont so that no one usurps his crown.)

Tip-up at Sunrise
They all think I’m crazy because I would rather deftly maneuver a perch through a 5” hole than arm wrestle a pike. To each his own.

Before long the boys have moved in toward the shoreline and are whacking smallmouths and rock bass left and right. Holwager feels a huge tug on his medium weight rod and begins to reel in something that gets everyone’s attention. Ten feet away a flag goes off. The boys rush to the tip-up and find that something heavy is causing the reel to spin in a wobbly, but not terribly fast rotation. Ovitt bends over the jack and lets the line run through his bare hands sensing the big fish hasn’t yet swallowed the bait. He waits to set the hook.

Next to him, Holwager is steadily reeling and suddenly pulls up a sage green ice line with his hook through the braid. What the heck?! He keeps reeling and we notice that the green line is being pulled from the tip up 10 feet to his left. We begin to apply our misguided logic. “There’s nothing on that line Holwager! You’ve got the tip-up line!” laughs Castro. “No. There’s something throbbing on the end of this line and it’s not Ovitt!” he replies.

Minutes pass. He’s doing battle with an unknowable opponent. Ovitt lets the ice line go and Holwager leans back to lift a dark brownish-black object through the 8” hole. The head barely fits. As the top of it begins to emerge, the tell-tale whiskers shoot out of the icy depths. It’s a catfish! And a BIG one!

Holwager's Cat and Laker
We’re all crowded around Holwager and shouting things that I won’t repeat in a family magazine. Suffice it to say, superlatives abound,peppered with exclamations of utter amazement. Castro shouts “Woo hoo! We’re in the money boys!”

We drill a series of holes just a few inches into the ice and link them together, then drill one hole all the way through the 12” of hardwater and allow the man-made “pool” to fill with water. We place the fish in the pool and with a continual dialogue of congratulations, we return to fishing.

At the end of the day we keep the largest fish from the pool and pack them in the sleds for the long pull back to the trucks, and then to the weigh in station at Kampersville. Arriving at the station, we are pleased to learn that this is definitely the largest fish checked in today. But tomorrow is another day and anything can happen.

We head for home with high hopes and tired bodies. Tomorrow we will do it all again and pray that our catfish remains a winning fish. For now, we dream of sleep and an even bigger promise of tomorrow.

"We're In the Money!"
Bradley Carleton is Executive Director of Sacred, a non-profit organization that is being formed to educate the public on the spiritual connection of man to nature and raises funds for Traditions Outdoor, which mentors at-risk young men in outdoor pursuits.