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First Rotary Ice Fishing Derby chairs share memories from its early days

John Sherman and Bruce Sanderson share stories from the early years of the Great Meredith Rotary Ice Fishing Derby at a meeting of the Meredith Rotary. (Photo by Erin Plummer) (click for larger version)
May 30, 2019
MEREDITH — It was an idea that started with another Rotary chapter in Vermont, started on Meredith Bay with a little tent on the ice, and over a few years blew up to a massive event. After 40 years, two of the co-founders and the first chairmen of the Great Meredith Rotary Ice Fishing Derby shared the story of the derby's early days.

John Sherman and Bruce Sanderson, who chaired the derby for its first three years, told stories from their experience to the Meredith Rotary Club during its meeting on Wednesday at Hart's Turkey Farm.

The derby is open to fresh water bodies across the state and is an especially big tradition on Lake Winnipesaukee. In its 40 years it has raised more than $2 million for community causes. It all started in 1979 after just a few months of planning following some big inspiration.

Sanderson said in the spring of 1978, he, Rotary president John Breault, John Sherman, and Chuck Burns represented the Meredith Rotary at the Rotary District Convention in Waterville Valley. During the convention clubs were invited to share their programs. Jack Helm from the Fair Haven, Vt., chapter shared about an ice fishing derby they held on a part of Lake Champlain.

"We looked at one another and said, 'Wow, why can't we make this work in Meredith Bay?'" Sanderson said.

Sanderson said Helm later agreed to speak with the Meredith Rotary and he gave a presentation on the Fair Haven tournament. Around June or July of 1978, the Meredith Rotary started planning for the first ever ice fishing tournament.

"That didn't give us an awful lot of time to get a derby together for February 1979," Sanderson said.

Sanderson said he and Sherman became the co-chairs of the first derby after Breault "pulled a fast one" on both of them.

"He came to me (and said) 'Sherman's in if you're in,'" Sanderson said.

He later met up with Sherman, who said Breault told him the same thing about himself.

The two took the position of co-chairs, which used their respective talents. Sanderson said Sherman is more of an outdoor guy while he is more comfortable doing the quieter paperwork, especially with his position at the bank.

The first ever derby was headquartered across from the former Gulf Station (now the Meredith Mobil Station). They operated out of a big tent on the ice, which also offered licenses, bait and tackle, and food.

"Our goal at that point was to break even, but we ended up making money," Sanderson said.

He said they ended up making between $500-$600 and were "ecstatic" to do that much.

For the next year's derby they did more planning, including developing a three-part registration form that's still used today.

Within a few years the derby became a massive success

Leo Kershaw, who owned the Meredith News, had the derby listed with the New England Sportswriter's Association, which drew press coverage from all over New England. Eventually Pepsi sponsored the derby and paid for all of the derby's paper supplies. The event also drew some notable people such as Curt Gowdy, the "Voice of the Red Sox."

Success did come with its own problems including nightmare traffic and concerns about robbery and fraud.

They announced they had the option of doing a lie detector test. One time there was one person who caught a fish that was considered suspicious and members of the Rotary spoke to the man in their meeting room.

"I threatened him with a lie detector test and he said, 'My fish is no good," Sherman said.

He said the man admitted to getting the fish in August frozen.

After a while their success gained the scrutiny of the state. Sherman said on two occasions the Governor and Council were going to vote to not allow Fish and Game to accept the Rotary's donation. The Meredith Rotary came before the Governor and Council to argue in their favor, one time the vote to approve receiving the donation was 3-2.

Sanderson said during the third derby he was in the tent on the ice and there was a torrential downpour. he said he "remembered the ice was going away from the shore." From then on headquarters went to Hesky Park.

At one point, someone from the New England Sportswriter's Association said they should have a tournament in the spring/summer season. They said no, but eventually the Lakes Region Rotary took on a tournament like that called the Winni Derby in May.

The derby got a lot of donations, including the trailer and the services from the town.

Over the years each chair would make different changes, some that stuck and some that didn't. Sherman said the basic format has stayed the same.

"It's always been great, that's what kept this thing going," Sherman said.

Sanderson and Sherman recognized the many people who have been instrumental in the success of the derby.

"This would have been successful no matter what Rotarians were running it," Sherman said.

He also gave credit to the Rotary wives for their work. Another credit was given to Fish and Game.

"I have so much respect for everyone involved in Fish and Game," Sherman said.

They also thanked the judges involved.

Varney Smith
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