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Erie Canal Derby celebrates family and its founder

If there was a theme song for the Erie Canal Fishing Derby (held July 5-16 this year), the tune “We are Family” by Sister Sledge would be at or near the top of the list for consideration. Every year, hundreds of families converge on this recreational waterway from the Niagara River to Albion to fish every July. Just by participating in the canal contest you become part of a very special family of anglers celebrating this unique resource.

That was the vision that the late Stephen Harrington of Gasport had 28 years ago when he first started the derby, a big fish contest with seven different fish species for both adults and kids. “He loved the family atmosphere of fishing in the derby,” reflected his wife Lynn who continued the tradition this year without Steve who passed away last fall. “Seeing the banks of the canal lined with families and fishermen was a dream come true for him.”

Every year, one family seems to stand out. Last year it was the Walczak family from Amherst when Chris and his son Keegan both won species divisions and Keegan walking away with the boat, motor and trailer in the lottery drawing at the awards ceremony. This year it was the Hathaway family from Gasport walking away with the big prizes before it was all said and done.

Lee Hathaway set the pace in the Adult Carp Division with a 22-pound fish he reeled in during the middle of the day while fishing his home Gasport area. “It grabbed hold of my corn and took off slowly, but it was strong,” said Hathaway. “I knew it was a good one. It wasn’t the largest carp I’ve ever caught, but it was my biggest during the derby. We weighed it in at Harrington’s and let it go back into the canal. We’ve fishing in the derby every year since we’ve lived in Gasport, about 10 years.”

Morgan Hathaway, Lee’s 10-year-old daughter, also reeled in a large carp weighing in at 14.75 pounds to win the Kids Division. It was the largest she’s ever caught personally, and it came at a great time. “We fish as a family,” said Lee. “We take turns reeling in the fish, using corn as our primary bait. You could say carp is our specialty.”

The family accolades didn’t stop there. In the drawing for the kayak, the top prize for the kid’s division, it was Morgan’s name who was selected from the list of 7 first place finishers. She was also awarded with a special plaque for catching the largest fish by a youth in this year’s derby, commemorating the late Steve Harrington and all he stood for.

The awards ceremony ended with a drawing for the Grand Prize in the Adult Division, a 16-foot boat, motor and trailer from Brobeil Marine in Buffalo. As luck would have it, it was Lee Hathaway standing there holding up the other half of a playing card that matched the one that was selected, with a big smile on his face. Sometimes things just work out that way.

In the Bass Division, it was Eugene Roberts of Medina joining the derby family for the first time. He caught a 4.06-pound largemouth bass on a crab. “I was just targeting fish and did catch a few smallmouth and sheepshead when the big bass hit,” said Roberts. In the Kids Division, 8-year- old Riley Starcher of Lockport reeled in a 3.24-pound bass from the Widewaters area with a crayfish under a bobber fishing with her father Ben and Richard “Skinny” Hawes of Lockport.

In the Walleye Division, Joe Torregrossa of Grand Island was using a black and purple worm harness, propelling his small boat up and down the canal with his trolling motor. The result was his biggest walleye ever in the canal, an 8.70-pound fish that set the pace in that category. “We weren’t even going for walleye,” said Torregrossa. They were fishing up from Gateway Harbor heading east. Kids Division winner was 7-year-old Gwen Whaley of North Tonawanda with a 2.60-pound walleye, caught on a dark-colored Wally Diver with her grandfather, Albert Whaley of North Tonawanda.

Meanwhile, “Skinny” Hawes was working the waters from the locks to Widewaters in Lockport with a worm harness and targeting walleye. He was rewarded with his biggest Northern pike ever, a 7.69-pound fish that placed first in that classification. They did catch some nice walleye, including a second-place fish for Ben Starcher at 7.10 pounds. Hawes also caught one bigger walleye but it couldn’t break first place so he was content to let Ben take second and keep his first place pike. Top Kids Division pike was a 4.87-pound fish that was weighed in by Tim Hughes of Amherst. He caught it in the Amherst section of the canal on a favorite crankbait.

Tim Duxbury of Lockport was the top bullhead catcher with a 1.82-pound Pendleton fish. He caught it from shore on a bass chub. It was the only fish he caught all day and he made it count. Ethan Bronschilde of Newfane was the top bullhead in the Kids Division with a 1.40-pound Gasport fish. He was using live bait.

Rob Robel of Wheatfield was targeting catfishing in the Pendleton section of the canal and that’s exactly what he caught, a first place 9.80-pound whisker fish using a homemade boilie, a boiled fish bait made up of a concoction that he developed. In the youth category, Gage Frombgen of Lockport reeled in a 5.75-pound catfish, using rudd as cut bait. It was the biggest catfish he’s ever caught in the canal. His father George placed second in the Adult Division with a 7.44-pound Tonawanda fish.

In the Sheepshead Division, Jordan Izzo of Sanborn and his wife, Rachel, placed first and second with fish that weighed 11.10 and 10.89 pounds the final weekend of the derby. They were fishing in the Pendleton area of the canal using worms and crayfish when the they hit the winners back-to-back later in the day. Top Kids Division sheepshead was an 8.42-pound fish hauled in by Ella Dickinson of Gasport. She was using a worm from shore at Upson Park in Lockport. It was the only sheepshead she’s ever caught in the canal.

You can see by the results, it’s all about family. Check out for a complete leaderboard. It was only appropriate that immediately following the awards ceremony in Gasport the Harrington family assembled at a favorite hunting tree of Steve to erect a memorial plaque in his honor.

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