When I ran into Steve Harrington of Gasport a few weeks ago, he went out of his way to come over and say thank you once again for some of the promotion he received through my writing and broadcast efforts.
“Just doing my job,” I told him. “It’s the least I can to. You’re the one who does all the work!”
Harrington had completed his 27th year running the popular Erie Canal Fishing Derby in July. The former Lake Ontario trout and salmon skipper turned in his downriggers and dipsy divers for a family fishing contest along the recreational Canal corridor from Albion to the Niagara River and all points in between. He started the derby for the love of fishing, eager to pass on a heritage that became a tool to help more families connect with nature.
“I do it for the families, for the kids,” said Harrington, a regular guest on my Outdoor Beat cable television show each week in western New York right around derby time. “The canal is a perfect setting because there’s plenty of shore fishing spots. You don’t need a fancy boat or expensive equipment to catch fish in these waters.”
The Erie Canal does offer some very good fishing opportunities. I’ve seen pictures of huge pike and bass, monster carp and sheepshead. It doesn’t really matter the species, as long as people are catching fish. Harrington’s derby was a vehicle to get people out fishing while at the same time creating a better awareness for this waterbody as an angling resource. It’s better than anyone would give it credit for … until they tried it.
It’s not easy fishing the canal at times. Like with any water, some spots are better than others. Over time, some families will take up residence in certain locations for the 12 days of the contest. Finding a favorite fishing spot is part of the fun, part of the adventure, part of the challenge. Thanks to Harrington, he made that happen for thousands of people over the years.
The derby focuses on seven different species. After a fish is caught, you have to weigh the fish in at a weigh station. Simple enough, right? It’s much more than that when you sit down to think about the big picture.
Harrington needed sponsors. All year long he would line up sponsors, not only for the contest but for the 50 tagged fish that went into the canal for the derby. And those fish had to be caught and tagged, too – with some help from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as they conducted their research. Weigh stations and registration points had to be lined up, posters made and website information posted. Keeping the leaderboard updated during the derby is no small task either. Being the judge for the contest is also difficult in that many times tough decisions need to be made. Rules have to be followed (which are also put together in advance of the competition). The final icing on the cake is the awards ceremony and having everything organized for that. I think you can see that this is no small feat.
He didn’t do it for the recognition, although he received a special President’s Award in 2006 by the Niagara County Federation of Conservation Clubs for promoting sport fishing as a family activity. He did it for the love of the game, a pastime he thought everyone should be familiar with.
Of course, he didn’t do it alone. His wife Lynn was a most willing partner in the derby … and in life. He had a couple of grandkids who have gotten involved, being groomed for the challenge of running this contest. The thing is, not everything works out the way you think it will.
That challenge of passing on the running of the derby is now coming sooner rather than later. On Nov. 29, Harrington was hunting deer out of his treestand when he suffered a massive heart attack. He was 69 years old. While he’s had a full life (judged by the number of photos on display at the funeral home), I’m sure when he climbed into the treestand that day he never would have thought it would be his final ascent, his final day on this Earth.
We will miss the smiling face of Harrington and we appreciate all of the work he’s put forth the last three decades in making the Erie Canal Fishing Derby a family gathering of sorts. The plan for the Harrington family is to pull together and continue with this event, tentatively set for July 4-15, 2018. You can follow along at www.eriecanalderby.com.