Jensen Afield

Four anglers, bundled up for the cold, hold up very nice walleyes they entered in a previous Great Benson Fishing Derby, this year set for Feb. 23 and 24. The February derbies are two of the biggest held in New England.

Looking out the kitchen window the other evening, before I turned in for the night, I was amazed to see a temperature reading of 16 below. The next morning, just before 7 a.m., it was a jaw-dropping 23 below zero. I think we can say that the two big February ice fishing derbies, set for later this month, will provide plenty of thick ice for hard-water anglers.

The Lake Bomoseen Ice Fishing Derby and the Great Benson Fishing Derby are considered among the biggest derbies to be held in New England every winter. Every February, hundreds of ice fishermen converge to compete for cash prizes.

The Lake Bomoseen Ice Fishing Derby, a two-day event headquartered in Castleton, draws anglers from throughout New England and Vermont. It offers big cash prizes for bass, northern pike, trout and yellow perch. Sponsored by the Castleton Lions Club, all of the proceeds from the derby go back into the local community. This year, the derby will be held Feb. 16 and 17.

The following weekend, Feb. 23 and 24, the legendary Great Benson Fishing Derby will be on tap. This one draws even more anglers, probably because the Lions Derby restricts fishing to Lake Bomoseen only, while the Great Benson permits anglers to fish any body of water in Vermont, as well as on Lake Champlain. All the money from this derby also goes back into the community.

Headquarters for both derbies is at Crystal Beach, located on the eastern shore of Lake Bomoseen in Castleton.

Big cash prizes for fish and impressive cash prizes by raffles will be offered during both derbies. The prizes for the Lake Bomoseen Ice Fishing Derby are: for largest northern pike, bass and trout, $500 for first place; $250 for second place; $125 for third; and $75 for fourth place. The largest perch will bring $400 for first, $200 for second, $100 for third and $50 for fourth.

I can clearly remember one particular winter when a group of friends and family set out for the opener of the Lake Bomoseen derby. As we set out across the ice before the sun came up, the headlights from other trucks, snowmobiles and 4-wheelers slashed across a deep cover of about 18 inches of snow. The scene was nothing short of surreal.

Oh, and it was 19 below zero that morning. Still, it did not appear to discourage the large number of anglers, setting up their tip-ups outside their shanties. The fishing, however, was very slow. The next morning we set out again, only to find it even colder — a bone-chilling 23 below zero.

Scott Welch, the chairman of the Bomoseen derby, said that about 550 tickets were sold at last year’s event. Tickets are $20.

Celebrating its 41st year, the Lions Club will again return all profits from the derby back into communities. “We offer a hunter safety course at Kehoe Conservation Camp and we do a kids’ fishing derby,” Welch said. The Lions also raise $5,000 for scholarships at Fair Haven Regional High School.

The Lions are all about “sight and hearing,” Welch said. “We go to all the local schools … and do a pre-vision and find out if a kid should see a doctor,” he said. “We covered 2,500 students last year, and one of the good things about this is we don’t know the kids’ names. The Lions Club pays for the exam and for the glasses.”

Under a new rule this year, Welch said, the Lions have decided to put a size limit on northern pike. “We won’t take any pike under 28 inches, and we estimated that is going to be putting 25 to 40 pike back in the water. Those fish will stay in the lake for the next generation,” he said.

Now in its 47th year, the Great Benson Derby will give out more than $10,000 in cash prizes. Meanwhile, the derby raffle is open to anyone who buys a ticket, with a prize of $1,000 in cash.

Derby chairman Dave Calvi said that last year 714 tickets were sold, with about 650 of those tickets going to derby anglers.

One significant change to derby rules is that the derby will be “cooperating with (Vermont) Fish & Wildlife,” Calvi said. “We’ve got to be sensitive about putting live fish on the fish board.” According to rules, anglers cannot transport live fish to be weighed in and considered for prizes.

The Rotary Club returns all proceeds from the derby back into surrounding communities, Calvi said. “We have scholarship programs, we give $5,000 to high school graduates, and are continued supporters of nonprofits, including food shelves in the area, libraries and the Special Olympics.”

Five cash prizes will be awarded for the heaviest lake trout, northern pike, bass, and the “other” category, where the prize-winner can be as varied as a catfish or a walleye, Calvi said. The best-weighing catch of three perch will go to youth anglers.

Tickets are $25 for adults and $5 for youths. A person can buy a ticket and not fish and still be eligible to win $1,000 in cash, Calvi said.

On Sunday, the second and last day of both derbies, a large crowd of anglers and observers turn out for the ceremonies naming the winners, whose entries are there for all to see, up on the fish board. It is a true community gathering.

Contact Dennis Jensen at

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