The Great Meredith Rotary Fishing Derby

Feb 21, 2012 No Comments by

Dawn over a snowy Lake Winnisquam at the start of the 2011 Derby. The Belknap Mountains, which include Gunstock, stand in silhouette.

The silent, frozen lake stretches into the distance… its pewter surface, streaked with white, blushes softly with the day’s first light. It’s 14 degrees. Crunch-crunch, crunch-crunch…  Anglers in boots and ice cleats troop out from shore. Though they are distant, the sound seems closer; an illusion created by the way sound travels over ice. A hollow, muffled peal echoes underfoot as lake ice cracks, then settles, in the cold. Another rumble, a crackle nearby, followed by the rasp of a motorized ice auger, showering glittering ice crystals as it bores through the lake’s surface. 200 yards off, there’s the hollow thud of an ice chisel. Kshunk,Kshunk. The sound arrives a moment after contact, then echoes, rebounding off the neighboring shore. Kshunk, kshunk. Suddenly lots of folks are cutting holes in the ice. It’s the first day of the Great Meredith Rotary Fishing Derby, a long-time New Hampshire tradition that is really about much more than fishing.

The Derby draws around 3,000 anglers every year, many from out of state. Tourists, onlookers and anglers flock to Hesky Park in Meredith, by the town docks, to see the action at Derby HQ. Run by the Meredith Rotary Club, the Ice Fishing Derby is a large annual fundraiser for their programs. A ticket typically costs around $30, and much of that is returned in prizes. The idea: to catch the biggest tagged rainbow trout over Derby weekend in early February. Rotary officials, in partnership with NH Fish & Game, release these tagged trout in several New Hampshire lakes. Anglers also vie to catch the largest fish in other categories, including untagged rainbow trout, lake trout, pickerel, yellow perch, white perch, black crappie and cusk. Qualifying fish from lakes all over New Hampshire can be registered. Tens of thousands of prizes are awarded, and this year the top prize was a fancy quad-tracked vehicle, worth well around $24,000.

For most, it’s not the prizes… it’s the tradition, the camaraderie, the joy of being outside in some of New Hampshire’s most beautiful places, and just the sheer fun of it all. Oh yes, there’s fishing… the Granite State’s deep glacial lakes hold all sorts of fish, and some get to astounding size. Over this year’s Derby weekend, one angler hauled a twelve pound lake trout from the deeps. Others caught chunky 5-6 lb cusk, a freshwater cousin of the cod. Panfish categories included fish too big for a pan, and so on.

Concession stands crowd Meredith Bay during the 2010 Fishing Derby

Like many anglers on New Hampshire’s lakes over Derby Weekend, we had the luxury of a bobhouse. These little shelters are usually set up with an opening in the floor so you can fish right from them. Most folks just use them as a home base – a place to get out of the wind, and warm up so they can get right back out and play. Some are homemade, others are high tech. Some of the high tech ones pop up in a minute. Some of the homemade ones are wooden behemoths that take a small army to deploy. And then, there are bobhouses that are more like a “man-cave” on the ice. On a typical Derby year, Meredith Bay is a bobhouse city and includes every imaginable type: some with living rooms, picture windows, lofts, artificial turf lawns, and even hot tubs. This year, the mild winter made the ice on Winnipesaukee treacherous, and only lightweight, portable structures could be set up. Fortunately, smaller bodies of water had better ice.

A brightly colored 16" rainbow trout caught (and released) at Lake Winnisquam, during the Great Meredith Rotary Fishing Derby.

The most sought after fish during the Derby is the rainbow trout. These fish like feeding in very shallow water, especially early in the morning, or at dusk. Anglers fish with short jigging rods, about 2’ long, or they set tip ups. A tip up is a device that has hook and line on a spool set up so that when it turns it actuates a spring loaded flag to signal that the bait has been taken. Baits can be salmon eggs, worms, or small fish like shiners or smelt. Most large glacial lakes in New Hampshire team with smelt, and they are a favorite food of trout and salmon alike. During this year’s Derby, the cove we fished in had schools of smelt running all over the place; so much so that they were often seen swimming by the holes we had cut in the ice.

The exclamation of “flaaaa-aaag!” would be immediately followed by a small stampede of feet, as anglers in a particular party would run to see what could be on the line. In Winnipesaukee, for instance, that could be just about anything: rainbows, lake trout, brook trout, large or smallmouth bass, pickerel, white or yellow perch, sunfish, or even other baitfish like larger fallfish or creek chubs. Perhaps what’s attractive about ice fishing is that very element of surprise. It could be a bait fish, or a trophy trout.

The "leaderboard" at Derby headquarters in Meredith.

Anglers that catch a fish big enough to qualify register their catch at Derby HQ in Meredith, where the fish is weighed, recorded and hung on display. The board becomes a spectacular sight over the course of the weekend: 50 or more big fish will decorate it. None go to waste. Anglers can claim their catch after the Derby, and what remains goes to the Squam Lake Science Center, as feed for raptors and others native animals that reside there.

The Great Rotary Fishing Derby is a great sampling of New Hampshire culture. Meredith Bay can be honky-tonk as can be; with funky bobhouses, characters in fur bomber hats, the overall out-there attitude, and the Derby leaderboard draped with big fish. Given good ice conditions, hundreds of snowmobiles buzz up and down the bay, ice boats zip around, helicopters and planes with skis fly in and land. Skiers and tourists on vacation mix with hardy anglers to gawk at the leaderboard and wander out to the bobhouse city. The town of Meredith itself is a vibrant lakeside community, with shops, fine accommodations, and excellent eateries.

The wild, open spaces of New Hampshire’s lakes are the Derby’s yang to the busy Meredith yin. Even with the amount of anglers that participate in the Derby, there is ample opportunity to find quietude in nature on the sometimes achingly-beautiful frozen lakes. Mink can be seen scrambling amongst the rocks of the shoreline. Cardinals and chickadees flit back and forth in the spruces. Deer watch and then bound from hiding places in the woods. It’s not uncommon to see the lakes’ ultimate angler, an adult bald eagle, big as a bomber, cruising over the lake on transect to another commanding perch. The frozen surface of a lake can be gorgeous and brighter than any beach, on a bluebird day. A lake can also be breathtakingly dramatic as a snow squall sweeps through, or as the slanting light of sunset splashes color on clouds feathered by winter winds.

Bring plenty of warm layers, and your camera. Whether you choose to fish, or just visit, the annual Great Rotary Fishing Derby is another event in which you will find a little bit of nearly everything that is special about New Hampshire.

For more information:

Meredith NH Rotary Club

NH Fish & Game:


About the author

A Londonderry native, Andy grew up on the family farm and loves everything New Hampshire. Currently working as production director for a group of radio stations in central NH, he can also be heard afternoons on 93.3 The Wolf (country). Andy writes and consults for artists, local businesses and charities, and spends his spare time fishing New Hampshire's waters.
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