Once upon a time, it was a WFD ice fishing derby
Not long ago, winters in Maine were much colder. Around this time of year, the mercury drops below freezing and stays that way for days, sometimes weeks even here on the coast. Around the end of December, anglers would haul out their wooden “jack decoys” and tackle them in anticipation of the upcoming ice fishing season that began on January 1 and continued through the end of March.
The second Sunday in January is always special in Wiscasset, because it’s when the fire department holds its annual ice fishing race that attracts dozens of anglers from around the world. Packed from head to toe, they begin arriving at the firehouse with their daily catch at sunset, the weigh-in beginning at 5 p.m. There was also a raffle for a $100 cash door prize, which was a lot of money in 1979 when I covered the first ice fishing derby. First, second and third place prizes were awarded for the biggest catches in seven fish categories including: salmon, brown trout, cod, pickerel, large and smallmouth bass, and perch. The grand prize was awarded to the largest fish in the tournament. As I recall, the fish were weighed on a set of scales loaned to the fire department from Mike Kelly who owned Mike’s Log Cabin on Gardiner Road, now the home of Market 27.
Just for fun, let’s turn the calendar back to the WFD Ice Fishing Derby which took place on Sunday, January 18, 1981. The mercury was below freezing all week, and was absolutely windy and bone-chilling on “derby day.” Almost all fish entries were frozen solid. Stanley Curtis Jr. and John Harvey, both members of the Wiscasset State Fire Department, served as judges for the Derby. I remember Stan banging a snow-covered brown trout on a wooden table to get everyone’s attention so the weighing could begin. It was Stan, now deceased, who brought amateur boxing to Wiscasset; A ring is set up at the high school where several boxing events have been held. John Harvey still calls Wiscasset home and lives next door to the former one-room schoolhouse off Birch Point Road.
Others who helped run the derby included Gordon Merry, our fire chief at the time, and Anne his wife, who have both passed away. Firefighters Ben Raines Sr., Bill Cossett Jr., John Blagdon and Larry Gordon were also there. Reigns and Gordon are also now deceased. Larry served for many years as Chairman of the Wiscasset State Board of Directors. His wife, Norma Gordon, who taught elementary school here, still resides at the upper end of Federal Street. Ben Raines Sr. resided on Churchill Street with his wife, Jenny. He had been a member of the WFD for 50 years and remembered when the department was headquartered in the small building now known as the Scout Hall on Lincoln Street. Ben worked for more than 30 years at Mason Station, as mentioned in a previous column. Bill Cossett continues to reside in Wiscasset where he owned a plumbing and heating business here for many years. I remember calling him early one morning around this time of year to fix a broken water line in my house. He remains active in Post 54 of the American Legion where he serves as its commander. John Blagdon, my neighbor down the road, can trace his roots back to Wiscasset, way back. Although he is retired, he continues to work part-time at Ames TrueValue. John and his wife Gert were founding members of the Wiscasset Ambulance Service. Gert works for a while as an ambulance manager. Gert, a CNA, also continues to work at Lincoln Home seniors’ retirement community in Newcastle.
The biggest fish at Derby was caught in 1981 by Ken Curtis, a name I don’t know; He was reeling in a salmon that weighed less than four pounds. John Beecher of Alna, a Wiscasset High School student, caught the largest brown trout, weighing 2 pounds, 11 ounces. John and his family now live in Lisbon Falls. A few years ago, I worked with him briefly at L.L. Bean’s Brunswick manufacturing facility, although I believe he now works at Bath Iron Works. Wiscaster’s Dorothy Coste, known as “Dottie,” caught the largest pickerel, weighing 3 pounds, 3 ounces. Dottie, a graduate of Wiscasset High School, was married to Bill Coste Jr. She and Bill were also founding members of the Wiscasset Ambulance Service, which by the way used a converted Cadillac as its first ambulance. I remember that Dottie was a huge fan of stock car racing, and worked for a number of seasons as a scorekeeper at Wiscasset Speedway. She sadly passed away in 2008 at the age of 67, a very young age.
Almost every local business contributed something to the derby draw. Prizes that year included all sorts of random items like a fire escape ladder donated by the Louis Doe Home Center in Newcastle, motor oil from Bob’s Gulf in Wiscasset, and five pounds of Kirschner Natural Casing sausages donated by Gordon Hopper, owner of Kirschner. Hopper Market. For many years, the Hopper family sold sandwiches, pizza, drinks and groceries from their small store on First Road near where the Dollar General is today. Whitfield Pharmacy, located downtown on Main Street, donated just the thing for Valentine’s Day – a box of sweet chocolates. Pendleton’s Village Market, located next to the drugstore on the corner of Middle and Main streets, serves porterhouse steak cut fresh from their own butcher shop that had a huge head hanging above the counter. Oscar and Eddie Cronk, owners of Cronk’s Outdoor Supply on Gardiner Road, can always be counted on to donate handmade wicker baskets, ice traps and hunting knives to donate to the fish derby winners.
Well…times have changed. Now, the freezing temperatures that form ice won’t arrive until the end of January, or early February. It looks like the sub-zero weather, if it happens at all, won’t last long either, not here on the coast. The Wiscasset Fire Department tried to bring back the history of the ice fishing derby, but as you probably guessed, they ultimately gave up on keeping it.
Gordon Merry’s son, John Merry, a longtime WFD member, couldn’t remember when the last ice fishing derby was held. “You’re right about there not being enough ice but interest in the derby has also declined, perhaps because people have had to travel inland to find good ice,” Merry said. The fire department has also been having trouble finding a marine spotter willing to help identify Fish and monitor their weight. Over the years, some heavy fish have gained excess weight by swallowing rocks and lead sinkers.
By 1995, the Fire Department moved the ice fishing derby to mid-February. The grand prize for the biggest fish in that derby was a Jiffy Ice Auger donated by Wiscasset Ford. The winner was Alan Farnum of Dresden who caught a big toe tipping the scales at over eight pounds. In the story I was writing, Farnum told me that he caught his fish in Lobster Lake north of Greenville. Apparently no lobster has ever set foot in a freshwater lake. It gets its name from its unique shape. Farnum did not clarify whether he caught his fish in what is called the “Big Claw” or “Little Claw” of the lake. I’ve included some photos I took of the 1981 fishing derby and a newspaper ad that appeared in the February 1995 issue of the former Wiscasset Times, the weekly newspaper I used to publish.
Phil de Vicy He holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism studies from Colorado State University and a master’s degree in journalism from the University of South Florida. He is the author of three Wiscasset books and is a frequent news contributor to the Boothbay Register-Wiscasset newspaper. He resides in Wiscasset. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org