The 2023 Annual Fishing Derby

Inside David Fazio’s ice fishing hut. Photo by Dalia Nardolillo/THE CONCORDIAN

How fishing brings the community of Kahnawake together

Alongside the marina of Kahnawake, community members are setting up for the annual ice fishing derby. Walking out on the ice, one can hear the sounds of chatter and whirling, drilling down as fishers try to get the best spots. On the marina, you could see six pop-up tents and two huts spaced out on the frozen river. 

For the organizer Kirby Joe Diabo, the ice fishing derby is much more than a competition. Diabo also owns the REEL UM’ IN bait shop that overlooks the marina, where the event takes place.

“This event is all about getting people out there to enjoy the outdoors. Family gatherings and the added element of competition is always fun,” Diabo said.  

Fishing has always been an integral part of the Kahnawake community. It’s not only a way to feed families, but it’s also a way to promote healthy family connections and activities. 

“Ice fishing is a lost part of our culture,” said David Fazio, a longtime fishing veteran, and friend of Diabo. “With [Diabo], we are trying to get the people back into it. We used to live off of this. But when the white man came through the seaway, it killed off our natural resources.”

Diabo grew up fishing with his father in the winter and summer. “When I was younger there were a lot of tournaments outside of Kahnawake that we went to,” Diabo said.

But as Diabo got older, he realized the tournaments had stopped due to a decline in interest in the event. As he got more involved in the community, Diabo was motivated to bring them back to Kahnawake.

“When we first started the ice fishing tournaments here, we had a turnout of around 150 people on the ice. Nowadays, it has kind of slowed down and we get a turnout of around 30 people, which is still a lot for a fishing tournament,” Diabo said.

Although this year’s tournament happened, the mild weather created some challenges for the organizers. According to Outdoor Canada, the ice needs to be at least 12 inches thick, or thick enough to support a medium-sized pickup truck for the ice fishing tournament to take place. 

Diabo also couldn’t move his ice huts on the ice in time. Instead, pop-up tents that have heaters in them were set up so people could be comfortable. All the fishing gear that was needed for the day was found in the tents, including bait, rods, and heaters. 

The pop-up tents and ice fishing huts on the morning of the derby. Photo by Dalia Nardolillo/The Concordian

Despite the challenges the event still happened, with temperatures as low as below 30 for a week or so leading up to it.

The cold weather didn’t stop the community from getting out on the ice on Feb. 25. 

For Landon Goodleaf, the marina’s owner, the ice fishing derby is linked to some of his favorite memories of growing up.

“I remember when I was a little kid… One of the marina members, who was a friend of the family’s, invited us to a fishing derby. I remember it being a blizzard and it was wicked cold,” Goodleaf recalled. 

Goodleaf went on to explain that the day was so cold he couldn’t bear staying out, so he ended up going home. The next day, the gentleman who brought him to the tournament came to his house with a trophy for the largest Pike fish caught. Goodleaf recalls that this made him extremely happy.

For Goodleaf, it’s not about winning; it’s about enjoying the moment with his community.

“No electronics for me, I am old school. I have a boat and I am familiar with the water levels, where the holes are,” Goodleaf explained. “I am not gunning out to win the tournament, I just come out and drill some holes and have fun.”

For others, it’s all about finding the most efficient fishing methods. Experienced fishing veterans like Fazio don’t let silly things like the weather get in the way.

At sunrise on the morning of the derby, Fazio got set up on the ice with a hut that he made himself. He acquired all the modern sonar equipment which was scattered around inside his hut. 

Near where he sits in the hut, he has a screen that emits live video from the underwater camera that he has set up. He also acquired a sonar sensor that emits a sonic signal that will bounce back when it encounters an object. Then, it determines the object’s distance and position based on the reflection time and wave pattern. Fazio’s sonar sensor is extremely useful for ice fishing because, on days when the visibility is poor, it helps him determine the distance of where the fish are.  

Fazio’s underwater camera. Photo by Dalia Nardolillo/THE CONCORDIAN

Fazio prefers his modern equipment in comparison to the traditional tip-ups that other community members like Goodleaf use for ice fishing. “I’m a cheater. I am 58 years old and I have had enough of this crap,” Fazio said jokingly. 

To optimize his chances of a good catch, Fazio also set up three fishing holes inside of his hut and five more outside. The five fishing holes had tip-ups stationed at each hole. Tip-ups are usually placed at the edge of the ice hole and are set at a specific depth without actively needing to be manned by an angler. When a fish comes around to bite, the tip-up flag goes up — that’s when Fazio knows he got a good catch. 

Tip-ups at the ice holes on the lake. Photo by Dalia Nardolillo/THE CONCORDIAN

The day prior to the fishing derby, Fazio had his hut set up in the “weeds” as he calls them because that’s where all the Pike were.

“It’s been pretty cold these past couple of days. I hope someone gets a decent catch. If it’s going to be anyone it’s going to be those guys out in the weeds over there,” Fazio said as he motioned to the window overlooking the other side of the lake.

However, since the fishing derby was offering a bonus prize for the biggest Walleye catch, Fazio moved his hut a little closer to where the marina entrance is located. 

Fazio with his first catch of the day, a Pike. Photo by Dalia Nardolillo/THE CONCORDIAN

“I’ll have a chance to catch Walleye here because they come in from the deep water to feed. The Pike, on the other hand, goes in to feed on the Perch,” Fazio explained. Pike fish have a more spotted look to their bodies and are naturally a little more slender, whereas the Walleyes are a bit longer in size and have a more striped pattern along their bodies. 

At the end of the event, many prizes were given to the community members for the longest Pike fish caught.

Ben Green was awarded first place for his 30 ¼ inch Pike catch, winning $100 and a $600 gift certificate.

Jaydence Beauvais won second and third place for a 29-inch Pike and a 28-inch Pike.

Finally, the Walleye bonus award was given to Dice Phillips for a 17 ½ inch Walleye.

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