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Warm winter puts long-running NH ice fishing derby on thin ice

Anglers from across New England gathered in Meredith last weekend for the 44th annual Ice Fishing Derby run by the town’s Rotary Club.

Usually, the event involves bob houses dotting Lake Winnipesaukee, spectators gathering on the ice, and a kid’s fishing clinic. But this year, thin ice kept most of the big lake off limits. Derby competitors were allowed to pull fish from any body of water in New Hampshire, and many found smaller lakes to explore.

Paul Pires, Sr. set up shop with his son and his grandson on Lake Waukewan Saturday morning. They’ve been coming up from Connecticut for the Meredith derby since 2009.

Pires said he could remember only one other year when he couldn’t get out on Winnipesaukee because of thin ice. But as winters warm due to climate change, he worries about his grandson, who is learning the sport.

“He really loves it and would be disappointed if he couldn’t do it, because he’s starting to really enjoy it,” Pires said. “All year long he’s been like, ‘When are we going to go ice fishing?’ And it’s like, there's no ice.”

David Cormier brought his whole family out to fish on Lake Waukewan, too. Over the past 40 years of participating in the derby, he said this winter’s situation was unique.

“This is the least I’ve ever seen it. Meredith is always like a little city of bob houses. Never seen it open like that,” he said.

At derby headquarters, a board showcasing the largest catch in each category drew spectators, as contestants brought fish up to be weighed.

Ben Nugent, a fisheries biologist with New Hampshire’s Fish and Game Department, was there to help monitor the fish coming in and gather data for his agency.

He said the thin ice this year is part of an upsetting trend.

“I really enjoy fishing the larger lakes and going after the lake trout and rainbow trout that are out there, and using a snow machine to go to those distant locations,” he said. “Those opportunities are few and far between these last few years.”

Nugent said with competitors spreading out to other lakes, this year was a good break for the fish in Winnipesaukee. And the derby’s focus on all water bodies in New Hampshire, including smaller ones that may freeze more regularly, could provide longevity for the event.

Bill Golden, derby chairman, said warming winters were a concern for many winter sports, including ice fishing.

“If there’s no ice, there’s no derby,” he said.

The climate connection

This January was thewarmest on record for every New England state, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But that kind of record-breaking warmth is par for the course as the climate changes, said Mary Stampone, an associate professor of geography at the University of New Hampshire and the state’s climatologist.

“Winter is the fastest warming season here, and it's warming three times faster than summer here in New Hampshire,” she said.

Stampone helped write the state’s latest climate assessment, which looked at ice-out dates, when lake ice begins to melt. Because there’s a correlation between that melting and how warm the air is, those dates are used as an indicator of winter and early spring climate change.

They’re getting earlier in New Hampshire. Ice-out is happening eight days earlier, on average, on Lake Winnipesaukee compared to 50 years ago. And on Lake Sunapee, it’s 11 days earlier.

Stampone also says warmer winters make the ice more unpredictable.

This year, organizers have canceled pond hockey tournaments and planes haven’t been able to land on Lake Winnipesaukee’s ice runway. On Lake Champlain, three men died last weekend falling through the ice, before another ice fishing tournament was canceled.

When it comes to adapting to climate change, ice is a particular challenge, Stampone said. Unlike the ski industry, which can use technology to make snow for visitors, there’s no replacement for the real thing.

“When you're looking at ice and the economic impact of the activities that require ice, you know, we can't make more ice,” she said.

And with less ice, there’s fewer chances for people to experience this sport.

Don Miller, a fish biologist, retired from the Department of Fish and Game, was at the Meredith Ice Fishing Derby as a judge. He said ice fishing is special because of the way it makes spots for really good fishing, like drop-offs, where the water suddenly gets deep, more accessible.

“It offers an opportunity to get to places on the lake that you can't if you don't own a boat,” he said. “In the wintertime, if you have a snowmobile or you're even walking, you can walk miles on the ice and get to places where it's better fishing.”

But he’s watching the cold disappear, and he worries about more than just ice fishing.

“It’s definitely warmed up, definitely warmed up just in my lifetime. And it affects everything. Your groundwater, people with dug wells, they depend on all the good snowmelt to replenish the groundwater.”

With business as usual, the coldest day and night of the year in New Hampshire are expected to warm up 22 degrees by the end of the century. In a scenario with lower fossil fuel emissions, that warming gets cut almost in half. For anglers though, the ice season will remain unpredictable, and the sport they love might not ever be the same.

Updated: February 17, 2023 at 3:48 PM EST
This story was updated on Feb. 17 to include more context on how our changing climate affects ice.
Mara Hoplamazian reports on climate change, energy, and the environment for NHPR.