Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — GASPORT — After 22 years of doing the same thing, a guy could get tired of the routine.
Not Steve Harrington.
Days before the Wednesday launch of the 22nd annual Erie Canal Fishing Derby, he’s still checking items off his last-minute to-do list, to help ensure the 12-day contest goes flawlessly, and he’s as excited as ever.
Signing up the sponsors, securing the prizes, enlisting the weigh stations, working with the printer … derby organization consumes months of Harrington’s time every year. The GM retiree doesn’t get paid a cent for all that “leg” work.
He does get a payoff, though. It arrives every day of the derby, when he walks a stretch of the canal towpath somewhere between Tonawanda and Albion, and encounters a family bonding over the quest to land a “big one.”
“I like seeing kids and their families getting together. With mom and dad both working, it’s hard to get that togetherness,” Harrington said. “When I see families making a day of it … that’s what’s in this for me. This is all about the community.”
Harrington started the derby in 1990, after being injured in a car accident. Unable to drive for several months, he rode as a passenger in his wife Lynn’s car and started seeing something he hadn’t noticed from the driver’s seat: People fishing along the banks of the Erie Canal.
“This gave me the idea, there ought to be a derby. I should start one,” Harrington said. “My wife said, ‘are you nuts? There’s no fish in the canal.’ But I was serious, so I went out and I started looking for some sponsors.”
That first derby drew about 300 anglers.
Today it’s drawing an average of 1,400.
“Year after year, it gets a little bigger, a little better,” Harrington said.
Maybe it has something to do with the prizes that anglers can snare.
In the beginning the master prize was a canoe; now the biggies are a boat package and a youth canal trail bike.
Or maybe the simplicity of the contest explains its enduring appeal. Entry fees are modest, people of all ages and physical abilities can participate and no expensive equipment is necessary, Harrington said. Cash awards of $150 — and one of about $800 — come from 50 specially tagged fish. Every angler has a fair shot at snagging one.
Compared with other fishing events in the region, Harrington says the Erie Canal Derby is a fairly low-key affair, and he’s happy to keep it that way. He’s never hit up big corporations, local/regional marketing agencies or the state Canal Corporation for prizes or publicity to make the derby a bigger deal. Instead the organization grows slowly with his close-knit family.
Counting 10 siblings, nieces, nephews and grandkids who’ve gotten in on the act at some point to help Steve out— by hanging posters, running errands, running the awards ceremonies, et cetera — this annual contest probably ought to be called the Harrington Clan Fishing Derby.
“It’s a good thing I come from a big family,” Steve Harrington said. “You need a small army to pull this thing off. And a wife who’s willing to put up with it. Lucky for me, she is.”
The derby also wouldn’t happen without support from dozens of small-business sponsors that contribute cash for prizes and services to publicize it, Harrington said.
In the beginning, he could only convince a few, including his brother Bill, to underwrite a canal fishing contest. Today there’s actually a sponsorship waiting list; Harrington said most sponsors are long-time supporters who chip in gladly, year after year, because they think the derby is good for the community.
“It’s not the advertising they’re getting that makes them want to be on this poster, they like the idea. They see me coming and go, ‘oh, it’s derby time! Count us in,’” Harrington said. “The sponsors, the weigh station shop owners; these are the people in the background who should get recognition before me. I just run the show. I’m the leg man.”
Many sponsors wouldn’t agree that Harrington is “just” the organizer. When his and Lynn’s house burned last year prior to the derby, people assumed Harrington would have to quit the derby. He didn’t; and this year, at age 63, he’s managing the derby from a rented residence while overseeing the building of his new house.
Darrell Gilbert, owner-operator of Darrell’s Place in Middleport, a longtime derby sponsor, says Harrington’s obvious dedication to the derby is what sells him on it.
“To see somebody just go out and grab something by the horns is great. Here’s a guy who lost everything he had, and he’s still in; he didn’t throw in the towel,” Gilbert said. “I don’t know Steve personally, only through the derby ... . I do know he’s a good guy to have in this community.”
Bob Confer, whose Confer Plastics Inc. is another longtime sponsor, says the derby’s focus has always been on home and kids, and that’s why it’s worth supporting.
“It really benefits the youth of this region and gets them interested in the outdoors and away from TV and computers. When you look at other fishing derbies throughout the region, the big ones on Lake Ontario and the river really aren’t kid-focused; and of the few that are, they may last one day and won’t allow adult participation,” Confer said. “It’s awesome to see parents and their children on the banks of the canal, competing against one another while fishing a body of water that is very underrated when it comes to fishing ... . A derby like Steve’s can get a kid hooked on fishing for life, and that’s quality family time that can’t be beat.”
Harrington seems anxious for the 2012 derby to get under way, as recent reports suggest the fishing has been fantastic lately. Organizers of one-day canal derbies in Pendleton and Tonawanda told him their anglers caught more fish this year than ever; and he’s heard all about a 40-pound carp being caught in the canal last month.
“These are good signs,” he said. “People don’t understand: There are some big fish in the canal. I know probably 15 people who’ve lost poles in there, because they put one in the water and left it untended, never expecting ... .”
The derby runs from Wednesday through July 15. For registration information, weigh station locations and contest rules, visit www.eriecanalderby.com, or call Steve Harrington at 425-8144.