Fish Derby Kickstarts Winter Week on Island

Washington Islanders are preparing for their most-festive week of the winter, which all began in 1977 as a week-long fishing derby.

Named for a longtime derby volunteer, commercial fisherman, mink farmer and gas station operator who died in 2015, the Ray Hansen Memorial Lions Fish Derby weigh-ins begin Feb. 11 and end at noon Sunday, Feb. 18.

Washington Lions secretary Jeff Heal said the fish must be caught from around Washington Island during the week.

All fish registration and weigh-ins take place at Nelsen’s Hall & Bitters Club. Anglers can find signup sheets at that 125-year-old establishment, as well as Mann’s Mercantile and a few other establishments.

“Typically, almost every establishment on Main Road will have a signup sheet,” said Heal, noting there’s a $20 entry fee and a chance for modest cash prizes.

Anglers who bring in potential first-, second- or third-place fish are asked to get them weighed and measured, keep them in a freezer and bring them back for photos on the final day.

All are welcome before noon at Nelson’s Hall for a luncheon with dishes ranging from bratwurst and chili to potato salad and beans. The luncheon tends to draw a nice crowd of derby participants but even more who come out for the social event.

“We squeeze a lot of people in at the tables,” Heal said.

Volunteers such as those from Detroit Harbor Ladies Aid Society and the Lions get involved in set-up and takedown. 

“Typically the student council kids supply and sell dessert for some fundraising,” Heal said.

The focus turns to bingo 1-3 pm, and then the volunteers clean up.

Heal said the bingo, meal, fish-derby finale and popular derby-week social gatherings on Thursday and Friday, and the Saturday Ice Party, get a good community turnout from the island and Door peninsula, plus some tourists and out-of-state guests who show up for the fun.

“We have a contingent that comes over from Minnesota,” Heal said. “We always razz them about coming over every year and winning bingo prizes and taking that back to Minnesota.”

The final weigh-in is followed by an awards ceremony and fish display between noon and 1 pm, where participants can win cash prizes. 

Doug De Laporte, co-owner of Nelsen’s Hall, said he had some concern about ice conditions based on late-January days forecast in the mid-30s, but most of the islanders think ice should be fine by derby week.  

“Even if we don’t have much ice, people will find a place to wet a line,” said Ken Koyen, a commercial fisherman for half a century and owner of KK Fiske Restaurant for 40 years.

Luke Geiger weighed the biggest walleye in last year’s week-long fish derby and Celebrating Winter events on Washington Island, scheduled Feb. 11-18 this year, capped by derby awards, luncheon and bingo on Sunday, Feb. 18. Submitted.

Some years, the fishing’s so good that anglers bring in first-, second- and third-place fish in the categories for perch, northern pike, walleye, bass, lawyer (burbot) and other species.

Last year, Luke Geiger registered the only good-sized walleye, Jasmine Cornell had the first-place bass, Jim Phelps and Randy Szepaniak finished 1-2 for perch, and Ryan Jorgenson had the biggest northern, followed by Ellie Isaacson, Hannes Johnson and Chase Bjarnarson.