Celebrate Free Fishing Weekend with youth ice derby Saturday

Posted on February 12th, 2019

Out See Go
By Chris Engle, contributor

This weekend marks the winter edition of a twice-annual Michigan tradition wherein fishing license fees are waived and families are encouraged to get out and fish together.

It’s one thing to be able to fish for free during the aptly named “Free Fishing Weekend” but people who don’t already have a fishing license likely don’t have any gear or tackle either. That’s where Gaylord’s annual Youth Ice Fishing Derby comes in.

The Checks family — Mason, Desi, Connor and Frank — fish together in 2017. Photo by Chris Engle

Hosted this Saturday every year by volunteers with Gaylord’s Northland Sportsmen’s Club, the event takes place on the ice out from the boat launch of Otsego Lake State Park, which also caters to families by waiving entrance fees for the day.

Preparation for the event begins well before sun-up in the basement of the sportsmen’s club, where a few volunteers in the kitchen cook up a hot breakfast for the rest of the crew. Fueled by pancakes and hot coffee, and with the sun still lingering well below the horizon, the volunteers load up trucks with all their gear and head to the state park to set up.

I started photographing the event as a reporter for the Gaylord Herald Times in 2006. Since then, I’ve joined in on the effort by taking along my gas ice auger and punching a few dozen holes before doing a little “pre-fishing” of my own as we wait for families to show up. And yes, of course I get breakfast first.

I still take photos every year and it’s one of my favorite events to cover. Whether they’re catching fish, throwing snowballs at each other, or just trying to stay warm by sipping hot chocolate, every kid and parent I meet on the ice is happy to be there. The smiles really come on when the fish are biting.

Abraham Zeilinger was just 2 when he caught this perch during the 2017 derby. Photo by Chris Engle

As for fish, it’s rare to see a perch over 8 or 9 inches during the derby — most measure up about 5 inches — but an occasional keeper sneaks into the schools and I even saw a 3-foot pike brought up through a fishing hole one year.

Size doesn’t really matter anyway. The event rewards anglers in three age groups (up to age 16) for biggest fish, smallest fish and most fish. Volunteers keep tabs at a tent on shore.

My advice to participants is this: Pay close attention to your line. These small fish bite light, and distracted anglers catch far fewer fish than those attentively staring at their rod tip or bobber.

The club provides all the gear, bait and holes you’ll need. If you want more holes drilled in a certain place, flag down one of the volunteers with an auger and they’ll be happy to cut some for you. It’s a pleasure to see families fish together and it’s the hope of volunteers that the event inspires kids and parents to take up the sport.

Registration at the tent begins at 8:30 a.m. Saturday, with the derby running from 9 a.m. until noon. A free lunch will follow at the Northland Sportsmen’s Club, 1542 Old Alba Rd., where prizes will be awarded.

Ice conditions should be favorable for the derby, though heavy snow loads may result in some slush on top of the ice, so waterproof boots are recommended.

For more information call Jim Monforton, 989-619-9393. Happy fishing!

Chris Engle lives in Hayes Township, Otsego County. He can be reached at englemobile@gmail.com.

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