Entrants a little stiff, but derby still a winner


ON LAKE WINNIPESAUKEE, N.H. - Hmmm, the shoreline seems farther away. The Ugly Restaurant is gone. And the cold is definitely biting more than the fish.

But the bottom line is, it's still the same old neighborhood.

Thomas Wolfe be damned. You can go home again.

Last weekend, I joined 6,300 of my closest friends to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Great Rotary Ice Fishing Derby, sponsored with civic pride by the cabin-fevered zanies who run the Meredith Rotary Club.

Mrs. Paul never saw so many frozen fish sticks.

I fished the first six derbies from a small shack (technical name, bob house) off a nub of land not far from the center of town. Now, I am returning to Ice Station Zebra, minus my shelter, which was, I'm guessing, eaten by termites during the first Bush administration.

The weather Saturday is gray, punctuated by flurries, with temperatures in the low 20s. And that's the good day.

On Sunday, the wind goes from flat-line to 35 mph. Great gusts from the northwest come roaring down from Canada and across the 72-square-mile icy canyon that is the lake's rock-solid surface.

Peeking outside, I see billows of white smoke from chimneys moving horizontally over the landscape. Innkeeper Rusty McLear says something about the temperature that includes "zero."

Then I remember. Winnipesaukee(pronounced win-ah-pa-sock-e) is Indian for "It's your turn to get more firewood."

Winni is a beautiful lake, it really is. The shoreline is framed in pine. Mountains rise to the east and north, and more than 200 islands dot its surface.

And it looks dandy from in front of the fireplace at McLear's place. But you can't catch fish from the lobby, so I'm heading out.

In one gloved hand are my tip-ups - each rig consisting of two giant Popsicle sticks with a reel on the bottom and an orange flag on a spring on top. Bait the hook with a large shiner. Spread the two sticks apart so that they balance over a hole cut in the ice. Lower the bait through the hole until it's just off the bottom. Bend the flag down and hook it to the reel. When the fish takes the bait and runs, the flag pops up.

But I'm ahead of myself. I need two holes cut in the ice. Some anglers might try chipping through 30 inches or so of ice. That would take until hell froze over, which, given the weather, might not be far off. Others might use a gas-powered auger - a big corkscrew with a motor.

But I have a secret weapon in my left hand: a six-pack of Harpoon Ale.

Yes, for a six-pack, any number of people will cut me two holes. Heck, for a six-pack of the good stuff, some guys will chew through the ice with their teeth.

OK, holes cut. Tip-ups baited and orange flags set.

It's about 8 a.m. Time to schmooze.

Wouldn't you know it, one of the first guys I chat up is from Baltimore. Allen Gable, a retiree and derby official, moved to Meredith in 1974 and bought the weekly newspaper.

"I joined the Rotary as soon as I got here because that's how you meet people," he says.

It worked. Everyone seems to know him.

About 100 yards offshore, Aaron Downing sells me a bowl of buffalo chili from his bob house-turned-diner, which is made out of his back porch. Really, he took it apart, hauled it onto the ice and hammered it back together in a different shape. This boy belongs at the Pentagon.

Just across from Downing, the Meredith Lions Club is selling chances on a 3-by-6 foot bob house. I buy three in the hopes of winning my summer vacation home as a blast of wind-blown ice pellets stings my face.

Give me shelter.

Next door to the Lions' den is Fermentation Station, a complex of three bob houses - one conventional, one shaped like a beer bottle, one shaped like a giant six-pack. In the six-pack, members of the local brewing club are making buffalo wings and pale ale over a wood stove. I stumble in.

From the Station window, I can watch my tip-ups and talk homemade brew. No sooner is my coat hung up than one of my orange flags bounces to life.

Forget the coat, get the fish, I think, skating across the ice and covering the last 20 feet on my knees. After scooping away the slush forming on the surface water, I begin hauling in line until I can see a fish, bright gold with bold orange stripes.

A yellow perch, and at nearly 2 pounds, a nice one at that.

It's time to quickly re-bait the tip-up and go back to Fermentation Station, where my coat greets me warmly.

Station master Steve Ainsworth is debating hops with Dave Page, who grows his own. Steve Devoid is making a batch of "wicked good" spicy wings. And Shannon Whalen reminds me that the real name of the defunct Ugly Restaurant was Interlakes Dairy Land.

The feeling is just beginning to return to my fingers when the other flag beckons. This time, it's a white perch, a little bit bigger than the yellow one.

After 20 years, I'm out of practice and not in the same league with the Yankees.

The winning fish, good for a $31,000, four-wheel-drive pickup, is a 3.18-pound, 19 1/2 -inch tagged rainbow trout.

The rest of the winners in each division are equally impressive: biggest lake trout: 7.13 pounds, 27 inches; biggest untagged rainbow: 5.59 pounds, 23 inches; cusk, 7.78 pounds, 28 inches; white perch: 2.62 pounds, 15 inches; yellow perch, 1.75 pounds, 15 inches.

The talk of the day is the pickerel, 5.65 pounds, 28 inches. The state record is 8 pounds, 26 inches, set in 1966. But derby old timers and the state fish cop on patrol think the record may be suspect, given the measuring equipment of the day and the less stringent standards.

"In my opinion, if you looked closely at the record, it wouldn't hold," says state conservation officer John Viar. "I think you're looking at the record here.

"The cusk and the lake trout are no big deal," Viar says, gesturing at the leader board with the fish hanging from it. "But to see the pickerel match up with them in size, that's really something."

(For the record, Maryland's record pickerel is 7 pounds, 4 ounces. It was caught in 1976 at Johnson's Pond in Salisbury.)

Anglers have fun, but through their entry fees they're making a lasting statement, too. In 25 years, the derby has raised $1.1 million, $215,000 of which has gone to scholarships for local kids. Nearly $200,000 has gone to buying hatchery stock for the lake and to New Hampshire's Fish and Game Department outreach programs.

In a town of fewer than 6,000 souls, that's mighty heartwarming.

If you want to start working on those layers now, next year's derby is Feb. 5 and 6.

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