Twenty-nine years ago, the late Steve Harrington of Gasport had a vision to start the Erie Canal Fishing Derby.
He felt the Erie Canal was an underutilized fishing resource and that it didn’t receive its just due. The canal's design was perfect for shore and boat fishermen alike. It was a waterway that allowed for anglers of all ages to share and enjoy. There was some pretty darn good fishing available, too.
Since Steve's death two years ago, the Harrington family has kept the event going because they want to reach the 30-year mark in 2020, a true milestone.
The stories of the winning fish are always amazing, and it was no different when the award ceremony was held in Gasport last Sunday.
The way Steve designed it, he wanted to allow for every species category to have the opportunity to win the grand prize – a boat, motor and trailer. The leaders of each of the species divisions received half of a playing card. The other half went into a hat. It was the final agenda item for the awards and the excitement was building.
Brandon Harrington looked at the card in his hand after it was selected from the special hat. “Jack of clubs,” he said.
That was when James E. Nix, Jr. of Amherst let out a whoop that shook the windows in the Gasport Fire Hall. He had the matching card.
“It’s the first time that I’ve ever fished this derby,” Nix said. “My neighbor, Keegan Walczak of Amherst (a grand prize winner in 2017), encouraged me to join. Now I’m glad I did.”
Nix earned the right to be in the drawing by virtue of his first-place northern pike that tipped the scales at 11.81 pounds, his biggest ever. He caught the fish in the vicinity of Veterans Park in Tonawanda, tossing a swimbait into the water. He even jumped into the water to grab the pike, so he didn’t lose it.
Walczak was watching via a live feed from his father’s phone because he was in North Carolina.
“I was really excited for James and I’m glad he won,” said Keegan. “He stopped fishing for a few years when he went to college, but Dad and I took him out and him back into it. We showed him some spots and some different techniques.”
The rest is Erie Canal Derby history.
The same type of scenario presented itself for the Kids Division, offering a prize of a kayak. The lucky recipient was 11-year-old Rebecca Thering of Appleton.
She had earned the right to be in the drawing by winning the Catfish Division with a 5.73-pound fish she caught near Widewaters in Lockport. It turned out to be an incidental catch because she was targeting carp at the time with her father, Richard Thering II. The fish was caught between midnight and 1 a.m.
There is a little family history with the Therings and the Erie Canal Derby, too, an important footnote for many families who look forward to this friendly contest year after year. Ten years ago, Richard Thering II caught an 11-1/2-pound catfish and managed to win the grand prize boat through the same selection process.
Other Adult Division winners included some interesting stories. Edward Lucas Mort of Wilson, the fourth “Edward Mort” according to his grandfather, is only 6 years old but that doesn’t make him any less of a fisherman. The two were doing some pike fishing together in Tonawanda near the Niagara River because they noticed that no youth entries had been submitted.
“We were fishing a steel leader and 20-pound braid with a golden shiner,” said the elder Mort. “Young Edward shouted to me ‘Poppa, my bobber’s gone.’ ”
After a brief battle, the youngster managed to haul in the biggest bass of his young life, a 22-inch largemouth that tipped the scales at 5.66 pounds.
Michael Boncore and Carleen Beback of Buffalo are a fishing team that enjoys fishing the canal derby every year. Fishing a favorite section along Tonawanda, Michael caught a 1.58-pound bullhead – the only bullhead he caught during the entire derby, but good enough to place first. He caught it on his birthday no less.
Beback was fishing the same stretch of water with crayfish, and she reeled in the biggest sheepshead of her life, a 12.21-pound drum.
The first-place walleye was caught from shore by Sam Hillman of Lockport. Fishing off East Canal Road in Pendleton, he was tossing a white Mister Twister tipped with a leech. It was the largest walleye that he’s caught in the canal, coming at a perfect time.
One of the few winners caught from a boat came when Keegan Walczak hit an 8.75-pound catfish while he was trolling with his father off Veterans Park. The fish hit a perch-colored worm harness, and it was the biggest catfish that he’s ever caught.
The largest fish caught in the derby was a 26.11-pound carp, hauled in by Matthew Clarke of North Tonawanda. He was fishing the Gateway Harbor area with a special setup involving method lead and a hair rig, using a homemade bait mixture to entice the big fish into the area.
Speaking of big fish, the largest fish caught be a Kids Division angler was deserving of a special Stephen Harrington Memorial Award. Colin Udell of Gasport managed to outlast a 21.09-pound carp, the biggest he’s ever caught, from a favorite stretch of Gasport-area water. He was using corn.
Ella Dickinson of Lockport also caught the biggest sheepshead of her young life when she caught a 7-pounder while fishing from shore at Upson Park in Lockport. She was using a worm.
Other first-place winners in the Kids Division included Hunter Hicks of Lockport with a .95-pound bullhead; Colton Rabatin of Arizona with a 1.89-pound walleye; and Jacob Benziger of North Carolina with a 2.96-pound bass.
A total of 50 tagged fish were put into place by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service along the canal specifically for the derby. None was caught this year. If you do catch one, even after the fact, contact Lynn Harrington at email@example.com and she just might have a little surprise for you.
According to Harrington, the derby legacy and tradition will continue in 2020, but the dates will be later because of family commitments. Start practicing now and do some exploring for the 30th annual competition.