I remember the first time I beheld this one-day "neighborhood on the ice." It was a lively scene with people traveling on snowmobiles or four wheelers, dragging sleds full of supplies and children, setting out fishing equipment, and putting up shelters.
The winter air was filled with the joyous scents of hot dogs, coffee, and burning wood. Red tip-up flags dotted the ice. From bucket seating to ice shanties with curtains in the window, this is the Northern Challenge Fishing Derby.
Big and bold
It is quite a day. The organizers emphasize that you can have a great time even if you don't fish. Because it is a fun place to visit. It can be a family reunion, a gathering of friends for barbecue, or in the words of organizer David McMahon:
"Like a big Super Bowl party on the ice!"
David explains that the event has grown tremendously over the nearly two decades that he's been involved.
"I've participated since it was started by Tupper Lake Sports Shop, and none of us dreamed it would get this big — we hoped to be looking at two or three hundred, and first year was seven or eight hundred! It has just grown from there, we are looking at twelve or thirteen hundred people this year."
One of the reasons for the event's popularity is how the famous warm-weather fishing in the area is equally true for ice fishing. The large lake system and extensive fish population creates a variety of supportive conditions.
David adds another factor, which is the welcoming embrace of the Tupper Lake fishing community. One competitor reached out to David to let him know that this new person had never expected the outpouring of support he got when he posted online about coming up for the event and requested information. This new fan ended with, "Thanks for all the help and hospitality.”
David hastens to add he doesn't want the number of people expected to hold anyone back from attending. "Do come, it's going to be great," he said.
For the kids
Another reason the organizers love all the work involved is the kids. They have a great time.
"This is especially for the kids and community. That next generation is so important to keep our sport alive, to continue, and to prosper. One of my favorite things every year is giving the free stuff out to the kids, 4-5 years old, getting their own ice fishing gear after fishing with parents or grandparents. Their little faces just light up."
One such fan is Cedar Rivers, who qualifies as an ice fishing prodigy.
"I have been fishing the Northern Challenge since I was two years old. We lived in the house across from the Rod & Gun Club on Lake Simond Road for about 11 years...it has been a father-son tradition (although my sister Ciara tags along sometimes) and we get so excited for it we wake up earlier than we do on Christmas morning. For the Northern Challenge you fish for Northern Pike using tip-ups and jigging rods. Once you catch one you have to bring it in fast to the weigh in station, so we usually have a snowmobile. Every hour you have a chance to place!"
"I caught this trout on Lake Colby right before I turned 11.
They also have door prizes - I've gotten some nice free fishing gear! Its really cool looking onto the ice and seeing a mini-city with all the ice shacks and tons of people! Last year there were so many people entered into this derby people were parked from beginning to end of Lake Simond Road."
"It's a really fun ice fishing derby and we are getting very anxious for it!!! I pulled this monster of a pike through the ice when I was 9 and had it mounted!!!"
He loves all fishing, but really loves ice fishing. After a couple of years he started winning all three of the kid's division spots, and his father switched to entering him as an adult. Just to keep it fair.
His mother reports he has never lost a derby.
"His biggest catch so far was a 22-pound, 42-inch pike pulled through the ice at the Cranberry Lake ice fishing derby. He won over $400 and used that to pay for half of the mounting of his trophy fish. When he tried on his new ice fishing suit, he said, "Wait 'til they see me at the derby! Now I look like a professional."
He's a great kid, an athlete, and a straight-A student, and we think he was born with a fishing pole in one hand and a tip-up in the other."
Still, this force to be reckoned with is only human; he does not like seeing his younger sister out-fish him. Anytime. Of course, all anglers are about measuring their catches against each other.
This competitive spirit is a big part of the Northern Challenge.
Prizes and bigger prizes
There are lots of ways to win lots of interesting things. As Dave told me:
"Of course, there's the money."
For instance, a prize of $800 is given away every hour for the largest fish caught in that time period. There are five 50/50 raffles over the course of the day. The "Lunker Pool" has half of what is taken in going to the person with the largest pike.
Some prizes, like the door prizes and the raffles, are open to anyone who wishes to participate. In all, there is over $40,000 in cash and prizes coming up this year.
"You don't have to have the best equipment, either. We had one guy who had stuff held together with duct tape, and when he won a good prize, his wife didn't believe him. We make sure everyone plays fair, and of course we want everyone to be happy and enjoying themselves.
That's how we get people coming back year after year."
One attendee spoke of the competitive enthusiasm from such a high-stakes event.
"It was late in the day and nearing the final weigh-in when a tip-up sprang to life. The fisherman burst out of his shanty and pulled up a really good-sized catch. Clutching the fish to his chest he jumped on the back of his four-wheeler so his buddy could get him to the weighing station. He wasn't quite dressed for the outdoors as far as mittens and hat went, but it didn't matter. That fish needed to enter the contest!"
If you have never experienced anything like the Northern Challenge Ice Fishing Derby, this year is a great time to start — join us on February 1, 2020, from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.