Updated: Jan 15
If you haven’t participated in a fishing derby before, you at least know someone from work or a neighbor who has. These contests go way back and some companies and organizations have a long tradition of holding them annually. The lure of prizes and cash awards, make the already fun act of fishing, an adrenalin rush of competition. Derbies are held throughout the seasons and include spring, summer, fall and winter contests. The rules usually remain constant “whomever lands the biggest total catch…wins”. There are of course many other prizes for mystery weight, children’s and ladies’ categories. Today’s modern derby’s have seen prize values reach nearly 1 million dollars. The lure of big money also emboldens rule breakers, as this week’s headlines in Ohio where the leading team was caught putting lead weights inside their walleye before weigh-in time.
Biologists are still determining if derbies are helpful or harmful to the fish stocks. Most contests have become catch and release, along with several being restricted to artificial lures only. Northern Ontario is well known across the United States and Canada for it’s high-profile derbies. The Kenora Bass International, Rainy Lake Bass International, Atikokan Bass Classic and the Great Canadian Ice Fishing Challenge bring anglers from as far south as Florida. I’ve had the pleasure of fishing these derbies and their success can be attributed to the many volunteers that spend countless hours parking cars, assisting boat launches, handling patrols, weigh in stations and food concessions. There are certainly economic benefits each community receives from increased hotel, gasoline, equipment and food revenues. But we must examine the impact on the natural resource. As a sportsman I see several advantages of holding such events. Firstly, many people that have never fished derbies are lured into trying it by the incentive of prizes; thus, more participates lead to a stronger voice and cash flow into environmental projects and funding for both government and private sectors. Fishing license sales see an increase and the introduction of children to fishing and nature, becomes more prevalent. The regulated format of weigh-in stations is the ideal place for biologists to take scale samples, weights and measurements to determine the overall health of the lake population. Visual inspection of such a large cross sampling will make obvious any sign of disease or malformation in development of these fish species. Also, many equipment designs and new lures have been developed or tested during such events; leading to their improvement. Some derbies partner professional anglers with novice anglers, or corporate sponsors, in order to raise money for charitable organizations.
Some derbies are multi day events and allow pre-fishing several days beforehand. To be competitive, pre-fishing and finding hot spots and the most productive patterns and techniques is a must. Mark your spots on your GPS so finding them quickly during the derby is simple. Keep a color coded fish stringer, tape measure and digital scale within reach.
The only downside can be said that over handling causes a lot of stress to the fish and a certain amount of mortality is caused after their release. Several biologists I have spoken with, followed fish after proper catch and release techniques were used, and said there is less than a 1% mortality rate. Derby fishing has increased the awareness to angling and for the first time a professional tournament angler has made the cover of a Wheaties cereal box. There is an emotional bond that is created by derbies amongst the participants which leads to lifelong friendships; forged from the heat of competition. On my derby debuts, I fished along side with Bob Izumi (Real Fishing TV), Al Linder (In Fisherman TV) and even Ontario’s former Premier the Hon. Mike Harris. Several smaller derbies have been put under scrutiny and almost martial law tactics by Conservation officials with regards to the time fish are handled. But I remain hopeful a balance can be maintained, and the opportunity for scientific research is considered with these smaller events. As long as the regulations are strictly adhered too, my opinion is that fishing derbies have and should still be, part of our Canadian tradition.