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Outdoors: Erie Canal Derby promotes unsung fishery

When Dewitt Clinton began construction of his “big ditch” 200 years ago – the Erie Barge Canal – it would be safe to say that one of the furthest things from his mind was the development of a diverse and productive sport fishery. Many people in Western New York, an area accentuated by two Great Lakes and the Niagara River, wouldn’t even give the Erie Canal a second thought when it comes to angling awareness. However, for at least two weeks out of the year, the banks of the canal are lined with fishermen and women for the annual Erie Canal Fishing Derby… and many of them know how good the fishing can be from the Tonawandas to Albion (the boundaries for the contest).

“I run this derby to get families to spend more time outside and have fun together,” says Steve Harrington of Gasport. He just completed his 27th year of running the Erie Canal Fishing Derby in Erie, Niagara and Orleans counties. “The canal has excellent shoreline access and you don’t need expensive equipment to fish in the canal. If you have a boat, there are plenty of launch ramps to use. And as far as the canal being a fishing resource, there seems to be an abundant amount of fish in the canal for people to catch.”

After 12 days of fishing in the contest (July 5-16), the awards ceremony was held in Gasport. All of the first-place winners in the seven fish species categories are put into a hat to determine the grand prize winner. For the adults, the grand prize was a boat, motor and trailer from Brobeil Marine in Buffalo. For the kids, it was a fishing kayak from Wal-Mart.

In the bass division, Chris Walczak of Amherst took top honors with a 4.94-pound largemouth – a fish he caught on a white Strike King spinnerbait in the Amherst-Pendleton section of the canal. “Conditions were a little tough because of all the rain muddying up the water,” Walczak said. “We fished every day.”

Keegan Walczak, 13, with his 9.65-pound northern pike.

In the northern pike division, 13-year-old Keegan Walczak set the pace with a 9.65-pound fish. He actually caught it on a 5-inch Mister Twister that he was jigging in an area that drops off from 6 feet to 16 feet. The ledge holds both pike and walleye, as well as other fish species.

Sheepshead division winner Todd Wells of Medina caught an 11.39-pound fish on the eastern section boundary near Albion. “The deeper the water the better,” said Wells. “We’ve caught quite a few catfish and bass in the canal this year, too. My biggest sheepshead was 16.8 pounds. However, the week before the derby this year, my wife Camille hauled in a 38-inch sheepshead that we figure was all of 20 pounds. Mornings and evenings are always our best time for fishing. It was very good when it was raining, too.”

Albert Whaley of Tonawanda is no stranger in the winner’s circle. Last year he won the pike division and this year he checked in with a 5.19-pound walleye to win that category. “I like to troll a stickbait attached to an old Cannon Downrigger,” said Whaley. “The balls are 2 to 3 pounds and I try to keep my lure on the bottom in 10 to 13 feet of water, depending on what part of the canal I am in. I can’t even tell you the name of the lure I am using because I found it floating on the water. The slow wobble and low-pitched rattle really seems to get the fish to turn on. The colors are green, black and gold.”

Anthony Moule, Jr. of Lyndonville was the bullhead champion with a 2.25-pound fish. He was fishing in the Orleans County section of the canal with a large group of his family also competing. “We arrived early every day,” Anthony Moule, Sr. said. “It didn’t seem to make a difference. The fish turned on from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. every day. I was surprised how many fish we caught in the canal. We landed carp, suckers, sheepshead, bass and more. When we fished, we looked for secluded areas away from any fishing pressure. That seemed to make a difference.” They were fishing from shore and young Tony caught it on a worm.

Charles Rizzo of North Tonawanda terms himself as “catfish crazy.” He loves catching them. His biggest so far is a 23.2-pound cat. However, his biggest in the Erie Canal was this year, a 14-pound fish he caught on a nightcrawler in the area around the Ship-N-Shore restaurant. He, too, was fishing from shore. He’s found a couple spots that hold catfish for some reason. Part of the fun is doing your own exploring to find viable fish numbers for catching.

.Charles Rizzo of North Tonawanda with his 14-pound channel cat.

Michael Boncore of Buffalo caught a 28.02-pound carp to lead the way in that division. He caught the fish early in the morning with his secret carp bait – a crayfish. He was fishing in the Tonawanda section of the Canal. “When I had it on it felt a lot like a salmon,” said Boncore. “It’s not my biggest carp either. I caught a 41-pounder a few years ago. There are some big fish in this canal.”

The final order of business was the drawing for the boat. After all of the first-place winners were in the hat, Lynn Harrington pulled out the Ace of Clubs. It matched up with the card being held by 13-year-old Keegan Walczak and we had a winner! He immediately gave a high-five to his dad.

Winner of the kayak was James Benzinger of North Carolina. He earned the right to be in the drawing with a 3.06-pound bass in the kids division.

Other Kids Division winners were: Blake Hicks, Lockport – 1.18-pound bass; Gianni Etopio, Youngstown – 4.42-pound northern pike; Lillian Arida, Pendleton – 1.44-pound bullhead; Joe Cwiklinski, Depew – 4.76-pound catfish; Joe Terranove, Gasport – 19.23-pound carp; and Jakob Benzinger, North Carolina – 3.35-pound sheepshead. Check out for details.

The Erie Canal is more than just a recreational byway for hiking, biking, boating, canoeing and kayaking. It’s also an impressive fishery for a wide variety of fish species that’s perfect for the whole family to enjoy. Do some exploring and find your own little spot(s) for fishing and put them to good use. You may even win a boat.

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