Are there too many fishing derbies and tournaments?
Are there too many fishing derbies and tournaments going on around the state? As I write this, it’s the final day of the 40th Annual Greater Niagara Fish Odyssey Derby, an event that saw rapid growth in the early years of the Lake Ontario salmonid fishery. Registrations were as high as 4,500 in the 1980s when it was the Niagara County Fall Classic Derby. Through the years it has changed shape by adding fish categories, altering the dates and offering different incentives to get more anglers on the water. Through it all, a big focus was on the kids – the future of the fishery. In a special Junior Division, kids fish for free. However, after four decades of handing out prizes for the biggest fish caught, youngsters fishing the contest are at an all-time low for the nine-day competition.
The first weekend of the Odyssey saw three different derbies converging all at once, including the Lake Ontario Counties Fall Derby and the Orleans County Rotary Derby. Making decisions on which contest to enter can be difficult. If you get into all of them, it could be a financial hardship. However, the rewards can be great, too. The grand prize in the LOC is $25,000 for the largest salmon – not exactly chump change. The odds are better than buying a lottery ticket.
Benefits of the derbies are many. It’s a great promotional and marketing tool to attract people to the waters. The LOC derby attracts anglers from 40-plus states every year, bringing economic value to the lakeshore communities. Charter captains that are a bit more aggressive use it to put more people on their boats, using the derby money offerings as a carrot to go fishing. There is nothing wrong with using a derby to get more people fishing. That said, competitive fishing isn’t for everyone. That’s okay, too; to each their own.
Derbies and tournaments are a great way to showcase a particular fishery. In the Odyssey, six different species are the focus of anglers. Salmon, trout, walleye, bass and carp are all options and the catches for each of those species is usually a trophy in every sense of the word. Right now, there is a six-pound, six-ounce smallmouth bass on the top of the leaderboard. The biggest walleye is a 12-pound, 10-ounce hawg. The carp was a 25-pound, 10-ounce fish caught by an angler drifting for walleye on the lower Niagara River. Top salmon checks in at 31 pounds, 5 ounces; the top brown trout is 17 pounds; and the lake trout weighs in at 17 pounds, 5 ounces. Where else in the world can you boast that kind of fishing in one small locale?
Which takes us to this finite resource and whether or not it is being impacted through these contests. Most of the salmon and trout are looked at as a put-grow-take fishery that is supported through both stocking efforts by the state and the federal government, as well as through natural reproduction. However, we’re seeing more and more catch and release, especially with the trout species. Is there a better way of doing things?
Bass fishing organizations are the epitome of contest fishing. From local clubs to the big bucks Bassmasters events like the Classic, contests are a way of life for bass anglers. That said, the contests are catch and release after the fish are brought to the scales. As a new twist in the way of doing business, a “bracket tournament” was held on the upper Niagara River in July that saw a limited number of anglers catching fish, weighing them and immediately releasing them back into the water they were caught – in real time. Could this be a wave of the future for some events?
Speaking of bass tournaments, the early trophy season on Lake Erie that runs from the first Saturday in May until the Friday before the regular season opens (the third Saturday in June) is now part of a proposal to expand that season opener to Dec. 1 – allowing for one fish that’s a minimum size of 20 inches. Is this being pushed so that more tournaments can be held? Right now, anglers can enjoy early bass fishing but it must be catch and release. What is the philosophy behind the change? The word is that bass fishing has been off in the lake and the numbers of bigger fish are down overall. I realize that bass clubs are practicing catch and release – after the weigh-in. But rather than opening it up to everyone, maybe a special permit through DEC could be offered to allow for anglers to keep one fish with the intent of releasing them alive. There is a certain segment of the angling community that will kill a five- or six-pound bass for the frying pan … or for bragging rights.
I’m not sure what the answer is, but the bottom line is maybe we should look at the big picture here and see what’s happening regarding tournaments, derbies and other fishing contests.