At Ice Fishing Derby, thrill of the chase is all it's cracked up to be

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LANESBOROUGH — As soon as sunrise allowed it, Don Whalen and Jared Radke, of Lanesborough, made their way onto iced-covered Pontoosuc Lake. In preparation for the morning of fishing, the men had set up their heated shanty Friday night.

"We don't really eat all the fish," Radke said from the ice Saturday morning.

"The idea is to try and catch and release if they don't have any injuries," Whalen said.

Shantys, tip-ups — they are devices used to suspend bait through a drilled hole in the ice — and trucks dotted the lake, where about 100 fishermen took part in the sixth Ice Fishing Derby. The event, which ran from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., raises money for the Lanesborough Volunteer Fire Department.

Whalen, who has been ice fishing his whole life, comes to Pontoosuc Lake several times a week. On Saturday, he was hoping to catch a Tiger muskellunge, which frequent Pontoosuc and Onota Lake.

"For a 25-pound pike, it takes 20 years for them to get that big," Whalen said.

This year, judges recommended that fishermen call the shore when they caught a fish, so someone could come out onto the ice to weigh it. That way, fish that aren't keepers won't be kept out of the water for too long, Whalen said.

And not even the winners ended up being worth keeping.

The largest pike, caught by Keith Fortini, came in at 6 pounds. John Leighfield's winning smallmouth bass was 1 pound, 12 ounces. And Shelby Saloio's pickerel was 1 pound, 5 ounces.

"This year was a really odd year for ice." Whalen said, noting that it wasn't until recently that he found the ice was thick enough to fish. "From now until ice-off in March, we'll have ample ice," he said.

For Rich Kardasen and Jimmy Ouimette, who are neighbors on Plunkett Lake in Hinsdale, ice fishing is more about the camaraderie than the catch.

"Every time I go fishing, it's like Christmas Eve when I go to bed," Kardasen said.

"For the most part, the people you meet out here are absolutely wonderful," Ouimette said.

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On Saturday, their morning started at 5:30. After getting tip-ups into the ice, Kardasen and his friends like to make a breakfast of bacon and eggs, cooking right on the ice.

"As a kid, it was all about the food," said Jeff DeChaine, one of the event's original organizers. "Still, it's less about the fish than it is about the food."

DeChaine learned to ice fish from his mom on Onota Lake. For years, he and other firefighters had wanted to organize a derby that would raise money for the volunteer department.

In 2014, organizers found sponsors to donate prizes, like a $700 to $800 auger, as well as cash prizes for the top three fish.

The department then collects the $10 registration fee from each participant.

The event has been growing each year, with more than 20 fishermen signing up in 2018, according to DeChaine.

The crowd was smaller this year, most likely because of the impending snowstorm, he said.

DeChaine and Ryan McCormick, another organizer, said they didn't expect the storm to have an effect on the quality of the fishing Saturday.

"It's a hit-or-miss lake," McCormick said. "Go big or go home."

DeChaine has noticed that, over the years, the fish he has caught on Pontoosuc Lake have been getting smaller, and he worries that weed control has something to do with it.

"I think it's taken away their habitat," he said.

Former Lanesborough Fire Chief PJ Pannesco said that fundraisers, like the derby, support the maintenence of the fire station. Unlike other towns, where the department is owned by the municipality, it is the Lanesborough Volunteer Firemens Association that holds the deed.

"So, we're responsible for everything," Pannesco said. "A lot of our fundraising goes so we don't have to go to the town and ask them for money for a building that they do not own."

Haven Orecchio-Egresitz can be reached at horecchio@berkshireeagle.com, @HavenEagle on Twitter and 413-770-6977.


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