The cold Canadian winter is filled with many outdoor pursuits beyond shovelling snow. There is ice hockey, skiing, snowshoeing, and of course, ice fishing. Drill a hole in the ice, drop your baited hook, and wait. Pull up a chair, a thermos of coffee (or perhaps something stronger) and it can be a very relaxing way to pass a winter's day on a frozen lake. Throw in some big prize money however, and you have the makings of a competitive fishing derby.
The Wikwemikong First Nation, located on Manitoulin Island hosts one of the largest fishing derbies in the region. Manitoulin is the largest fresh water island in the world and is located at the top of Lake Huron. This year, Wikwemikong hosted its ninth annual derby on January 11, 2017 and had 440 participants from all over the province of Ontario, and beyond, all vying for over $30 000 in cash and prizes.
Instead of a fishing rod, I grabbed my camera gear and photographed the event.
The event started at 8 a.m. but participants arrived in the pre-dawn hours in order to select their hole and set up their gear. Over six hundred holes were drilled and marked in the days before the derby. The time lapse below shows the transformation as people made their way onto the ice.
Perhaps the biggest draw is the $10 000 prize for the first tagged fish caught with fifty tagged fish released the day before the derby. By 8:30, one lucky participant had pulled the first one out of the ice.
After shooting the time lapse, I made my way onto the ice and began photographing the event up close. The past two years saw temperatures of -30 degrees Celsius and biting winds. This year the temperature hovered around the freezing mark without a breath of wind, making it far more comfortable. Nonetheless, of the 440 participants at least a hundred ice fishing huts popped up, which added an extra degree of comfort to those inside.
The slushy conditions made it a chore to walk around, but this gave me a good excuse to stop and chat a little longer with both friends and strangers. After photographing a couple of participants that I knew, I suddenly heard a booming female voice yell, "Hey, you can come into my hut and photograph me!". Well, that's an invitation that a photographer can't resist!
I took off my camera backpack, and squeezed through the narrow opening of her ice hut and was greeted with the amazing smell of a first class breakfast cooking - bacon, sausage and pancakes, all being prepared on a small two-burner stove.
"You're that photographer guy on Facebook." (I get that a lot.)
"Yup, that's me."
Her name was Joni Shawana, from Wikwemikong, and it turned out we had a personal connection. It didn't take long before I found out that she was related to two of my former (and favourite) students from many years ago.
After munching out on a couple of piping hot sausages, I thanked Joni for the great conversation and continued on my way. At the next hole I met Randall Shawana, Joni's brother and a former student who I haven't seen in close to twenty years. It was obvious that he wasn't counting on catching any fish since he was indulging in a piece of KFC.
The derby is organized by Wikwemikong Tourism and is hosted by Bayside Resort, a beautiful collection of well-appointed cabins and facilities on the shore of Manitowaning Bay.
With an event as large as this, it's easy to overlook some of the more interesting details. With four hours on my hands, I had plenty of time to focus in on some of the finer points, including some portrait shots.
I was impressed with how many people were happy to pose for the camera and share in a story and a good laugh. For the locals, they were proud of how successful the event was. For those who had travelled, they talked about the previous day's snowstorm and the challenges of driving through it to be there. They were also pleased with how well organized the derby was.
Eventually I was able to trudge my way through the slush to the final hole, where a couple of fisherman had noticed a eagle in the trees surveying the strange assemblance before it. I slapped on my super-telephoto lens and attempted to get a few shots.
For those who needed a break, there was plenty of food and a warm place to warm your toes.
The competition ended at noon. Everyone then headed to the gymnasium of the Wikwemikong High School for a great fish dinner and the awarding of the prizes.
Last Words (and Photos)
The Wikwemikong Fish Derby is a great draw for tourists and locals alike. The proceeds from the event go to support Wikwemikong Tourism and the development and delivery of other events throughout the year. Next year's 10th anniversary is guaranteed to be the biggest one yet. I'm hoping for equally mild weather so that my trigger finger doesn't freeze.
Peter Baumgarten is a professional photographer and educator. He is also an Olympus Visionary and NiSi Official Photographer.