Derby Days

by | June 2019, Recreation

A family tradition on Lake Champlain


don’t remember when I first learned how to hold a fishing rod. By the time I had learned to walk, my father already had me standing on the dock, pulling up panfish with him. There are generations of fishermen in our lineage, so it was only natural that my two older brothers and I followed suit. My sister, the eldest child, and my mother don’t enjoy fishing the way the rest of us do. Yet, it is our family tradition to experience it all together and fill the days at our Ticonderoga camp with laughter, smiles and fish stories told around the campfire on clear, starlit nights.

An event my family gathers for each year, without fail, is the Lake Champlain International Father’s Day Fishing Derby (LCI). I have fished this three-day tournament—one of the longest-running fishing derbies in the nation—since I was seven, and my father has participated in all but the first of the event’s 37 years. It is the one time of year, especially now that my siblings and I are grown, that the whole family gets together for an entire weekend.

From dawn until dusk we are out in our boats. Rain or pounding sun, raging wind or dead calm, we persist on those waters, trying every lure, bait and tackle possible to catch one of the designated species: largemouth, smallmouth, northern pike, catfish, bowfin, sheepshead, walleye, Atlantic salmon, lake trout, steelhead, coldwater, coolwater and warmwater.

My father has never placed in any of the categories. I, however, have won three times: first place, in 2004 and 2014, and third place in the 2018 tournament.

My favorite memory is what happened Father’s Day weekend in 2014. My brother Eddie, who’s five years older than me, nagged me about wanting to be in the front of the boat. I replied that, first of all, it was my boat—I had won the 12-foot johnboat in the 2004 LCI Derby, when I was seven years old, though by now it was a little busted up. Secondly, I reminded him, it was his responsibility to man the motor.

It was the first evening of the tournament and we weren’t planning on being out long, so we never packed a net, nor did we grab the large bin we usually used as our live-well. We had decided to fish one of our favorite spots, right around the corner from camp. We went north due to the south wind and were protected behind a point that jutted into the water like a jagged piece of glass. Eddie and I preferred the calmer waters and began fishing the weed edges using spinnerbaits and chatterbaits. We weren’t fishing more than 15 minutes, and I was pulling up fish left and right—nothing even big enough to qualify for the contest, but it was still a blast, especially since it made my brother grumble even more about how he should have been in the bow of the boat. As we approached the second, smaller point in the cove—a bleached rocky point that shone almost completely white in the now-setting sun—we positioned ourselves in deeper water amidst a breeze that gusted through the trees on shore.

Like a crisp photo, the moment stands out clearly in my mind: I casted straight toward the white-rock point in what was likely six feet of water. I could feel the thump of the spinner blades as they vibrated down my pole. My eyes focused before me, my feet braced for stability against the wind and bounce of the boat. I heard the sounds of water slapping against aluminum, the hiss of my reel, the crickets, bullfrogs and peepers that were beginning their chorus to welcome the dusk.

Then, like shattering glass, the tranquility was broken, and WHAM! The tip of my rod plunged downward, as instinct took over and I set the hook with all my might. If I hadn’t known better, I would have thought I had snagged a log. The boat whipped around 180 degrees, and I saw the water before me turn to white bubbling foam. My drag was screaming, and I locked excited, wild eyes on my brother, who quickly moved to get beside me.

“Keep the line tight! Just play it out, tire the fish!” he shouted.

“Tire it out? I don’t have a steel-leader! If this fish has teeth it could cut off any second!” I snapped back.

The tip of my pole was suddenly dragged underwater, and for a brief moment I feared that it might snap. We saw the silhouette of an enormous fish shoot under the boat and then back out again alongside us. The jet-black shape gave us no clue of its identity, prompting another argument. “Holy crap, that’s a huge bass!” Eddie exclaimed.

“No, you idiot! That’s too long to be a bass; it has to be a pike!” I said.

We both were wrong. Eddie gripped the line and carefully began to pull upwards until the fish’s head broke the surface tension of the water. In that instant, we both saw the large eye turn a ghostly white, and then I blacked out from the shock.

Seconds later, dazed and blinking, I turned to see my brother frantically filling up the back of the boat with water. Lying between us was a walleye the size of a toddler.

“How the hell did you get that in the boat?” I said, incredulously.

“I bear-scooped it,” he replied.

Our boat was half-sunk, and we didn’t have anywhere to keep our fish alive, so we called Dad and our brother Denny, who’s 11 years older than me. We met up with them to put the fish in the live-well on Dad’s boat. That alone was a task, since we had to throw the walleye from our boat to Dad’s. We all stood there hooting and hollering, shaking with adrenaline. I had never caught a walleye before that day, nor did I ever really fish for them. Yet that 29-inch, 9.65-pound beauty of a fish held first place in the walleye division for three days. Thanks to my registering for the super-bonus grand prize, I also held a spot there and as the Coolwater Lady of the Lake. I won $11,000 with that fish, and when I weighed it in at the station on Chipman’s Point I had people shaking my hand and congratulating me, even though it was only the first day of a tournament where thousands of fishermen take part, and thousands of fish are entered for cash prizes.

I won’t ever forget the elation of my entire family, the excitement in the air, and the pride that shone in my father’s eyes.

If You Go

The 2019 Lake Champlain International Father’s Day Fishing Derby happens June 15–17. Learn more or register online at mychamplain.net/fathers-day-derby.   


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