Detroit Lake fishing derby: 'Even though it was wet, we still had a blast'

Detroit Lake fishing derby: 'Even though it was wet, we still had a blast'
The 31st Annual Detroit Lake Fishing Derby was held May 17-19, 2013. Photo by Shannon L. Cheesman,

DETROIT, Ore. - The skies might have been gray and the rain a little heavy at times, but that didn't stop hundreds of anglers from casting their lines into Detroit Lake over the weekend to catch some trout.

"The fish don't know it's raining," said Dean O'Donnell, owner of Mountain High Grocery in Detroit, Oregon (located about 45 miles southeast of Salem) and organizer of the 31st Annual Detroit Lake Fishing Derby, held this past weekend.

Every year around this time, the small lakeside town emerges from its off-season slumber to kick off the busy summertime months - and they do it in grand style with a three-day fishing spree.

The campgrounds and motels fill up, the marinas start bustling and the fishing bait flies off the store shelves as anglers hit the lake to try to catch their limits of trout.

At the end of each day during the derby, anglers turn their fish in at a check-in station to get tickets that'll give them a shot at winning prizes.

"I had a lot of fun - we caught a lot of fish," said Bill Day. It was his first time at the fishing derby. "My daughter and son-in-law have been up here before and they suggested we come up and join them."

"If the weather had been just a little bit better, it would have been perfect," he added.

Abbie Huffman, a young girl from Gresham, was there with her family and did rather well for the weekend. "We call her the 'fish whisperer,'" one family member told us.

"They can't catch anything without me," Huffman said proudly.

Her dad, Robbie Huffman, said they all had a great time, even with the dreary weather. "Even though it was wet, we still had a blast," he said.

Another angler, who just wanted to go by John, told us that he and his significant other made the trip with their three cats. "We've had a great time," he said. "And so did the cats - the little fish we gave to them."

"(My favorite part is) meeting the people," O'Donnell said. "We have so many people that come back year after year after year."

'It has just grown'

The town held its first fishing derby 31 years ago.

A bar owner and another merchant came up with the idea and whether they had lofty goals of creating a lasting event for the town could perhaps be debated. Some locals told us the two started the derby for the same reason that it's done to this day - to kick off the season. But one old-timer we talked to had a different take on it.

"Of course, being in the business of the bar and everything, why the two boys wanted to have a party with the fish and the beer - yee-haw! That's how it all got started," said longtime area resident Darrlene Mann. "It wasn't started for anything specific other than just to get a bunch of people together to fish and drink. And that's what they did."

Whatever the reason, the fishing derby quickly became one of the town's signature events of the year.

"It has just grown from that day to here," said O'Donnell. "I really believe the dollars that come into the city has increased every year that we've put it on."

Mike Vaughn, 64, of Hillsboro caught the biggest fish at the derby - 1.70 pounds!

Photo courtesy Enjoy Detroit Lake, Oregon!

This year, around 900 people participated in the derby - and all ages, from toddlers to the older generations.

The money that comes from the fishing derby is important to the town of Detroit - that's how they pay for their Independence Day fireworks display every year (this year, it's being held on July 6).

"That event normally - with insurance and everything - costs us a little over $11,000," said O'Donnell.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife helps out by dropping tens of thousands of trout into Detroit Lake in the months leading up to the fishing derby. This year, 70,000 trout were planted between April 1 and May 13, including 10 tagged fish worth some instant cash (nine of them worth $50 each and one worth $100).

Only one of the tagged fish was caught during the derby (a $50 one), which means the others are still up for grabs. Anyone who catches one of the tagged fish through the end of the year can still collect the prize. All you have to do is take the tag to Mountain High Grocery in Detroit.

'Maybe we'll put it out in the front yard as a trophy'

On the last day of the derby, Sunday afternoon, everyone gathers in town with their tickets in hand. Some of the prizes include tackle, bait, fishing rods and inflatable rafts and tubes.

While the tickets are drawn and names are called, volunteers throw smaller prizes out into the crowd in a free-for-all. Folks throw up their hands and yell at the volunteers to try to get their attention - 'over here! throw some over here!'

Folks try to catch prizes at the Detroit Lake Fishing derby, held May 17-19, 2013. Photo by Shannon L. Cheesman,

Elaine Sharinghousen of Milwaukie won the grand prize - a brand new Smoker Craft boat and trailer.

"I've been coming here for four years with Chris (her boyfriend)," she said. "He's been coming for at least 20 years. We always say we're going to win it."

The two already have a fishing boat they use, but Sharinghousen said this boat will be all hers and Chris can keep his.

"Now I have my own boat," she said, although she wasn't quite sure where it was going to go once she got it home. "Maybe we'll put it out in the front yard as a trophy - I don't know," she said.

Elaine Sharinghousen (far right) won the grand prize - a new Smoker Craft boat - at the annual fishing derby in Detroit, Oregon, held May 17-19, 2013. Her family is pictured with her - boyfriend Chris Compton (left), 9-year-old son Skylar Davidson (center left) and 12-year-old daughter Hailey Davidson (center right). Photo by Shannon L. Cheesman,  

There are also grand prizes for the kids - a couple of bikes (one for a girl and one for a boy). This year, two 3-year-olds won - Morgan Stanley of Mill City and Vanessa Becera of Salem.

The crowd cheered and clapped as the little ones sat on their new bikes for the first time. Their feet barely reached the pedals, so they might have a little more growing to do before they can ride. 

Morgan Stanley (left) and Vanessa Becera (right) try out the new bikes they won at the fishing derby in Detroit Lake, Oregon during the annual fishing derby, held May 17-19, 2013. Photo by Shannon L. Cheesman,

'When a kid catches their very first fish - that is amazing'

At Detroit Lake State Park, rangers and camp hosts also hold an afternoon fishing derby that's just for kids 13 and under.

"This is a really fun event," said Jennifer Godfrey, Ranger Assistant and Park Naturalist for Oregon Parks & Recreation. "They have one sponsored by the town of Detroit and that is lakewide, but this is one that we like to do for our kids that are camping inside the campground."

Godfrey spends a lot of time with kids in the outdoors - she holds programs to teach them about wildlife, leads guided hikes and works with school groups. She said the 'first fish' is the funnest part of the kids fishing derby.

"When a kid catches their very first fish - that is amazing," she said. "I just love seeing their face. They're so cute!"

This year's winners from the kids fishing derby at Detroit Lake State Park (from left to right): 4-year-old Kaylee Cordle for First Fish Girls, 5-year-old Ava Woodrum for Biggest Fish Girls and 4-year-old Christian Luttrell for First Fish Boys. The prize for Biggest Fish Boys was won by Chucho Garcia (age unknown, not present). Photos by Shannon L. Cheesman,