Jackson Lake Ice Off Fishing Derby

Captain Will Dornan pilots his team — daughter Margaret and sons Cecil and Sam — shortly after Sam’s prize brown trout catch on Jackson Lake in 2019. Sam, 12, held the record through the end of the derby with a 23-inch, 3-pound-1-ounce brown. The tournament returns this year on May 15.

Forty boats on Jackson Lake filled with anglers jigging, trolling, spinning — whatever — and all with the aim of real cash prizes.

That’s the scene likely to unfold as the Jackson Lake Ice Off Derby returns May 15.

“It’s made up of the core of old locals that have been in the valley forever,” said Will Dornan, who is running this year’s event. “I think that’s the neat part about it. It’s a chance for the old local community to get out and have some fun before all the crazy starts.”

The tournament traces its roots back some 40 years, but the way the event looks now is relatively new. A former must-kill tournament, the derby became a catch-and-release competition in 2017 with all methods of fishing open and the target species expanded from just lake trout to browns and cutthroat as well.

The last time the tournament was held was 2019, because it wasn’t granted a permit in 2020 due to the coronavirus.

Organizers adopted the catch-and-release format, at least in part, to draw more fishermen back.

As Ron Jacobson said, “We just try to keep fish from dying off. I don’t like killing fish.”

“I like to see the population of fish thriving,” the longtime tournament staple said. “A lot of people that fish this, they love this format. They just don’t have to bring in dead fish for weigh-in anymore.”

The way the measurements work is weigh-in marshals will be on standby with two-way radios, waiting for a call. Then they meet up with participants, measure the fish quickly and slip the catch right back into Jackson Lake water.

That doesn’t mean a fisherman can’t catch a fish and keep it for dinner, but that fish won’t be eligible for competition.

“If they want to do that, keep one, then as long as it’s not weighed in I don’t care what they do with it,” Jacobson said. “That’s their option. That’s why they pay for a license.”

From a formerly dwindling turnout to a full roster each time out, both Jacobson and Dornan credit the format change entirely. In fact, Jacobson said about 15 people are on a backlist hoping for a slot to open one of these years. The 40-boat cap is entirely the decision of Grand Teton National Park, and Jacobson said he doesn’t expect that to change. At most, he said, they could take on another 10 entries but not much more.

“That’d probably be as much as we could handle,” he said. “We’re running all over the lake. But it’s not bad now, 40 boats. That keeps it pretty level and doesn’t stretch us too far.”

A point of emphasis for the catch-and-release tournament is youth involvement. In recent years, this one included, the Jackson Hole Odd Fellows have donated a lifetime fishing and conservation license to be raffled off to a youth angler.

“It’s a wonderful gift for a young fisherman,” said another longtime tournament member, Dan Bess. “It’s kind of a neat deal. That’s a treasure, basically, getting a lifetime fishing license.”

To get the permit to hold the tournament, Dornan had to write up a COVID-19 plan for park officials. In March he and the tournament got the green light to go ahead, though he expects this fishing tournament is about as COVID-friendly as anything could be in the valley.

“We’re telling them to social distance, but none of those fishermen want anybody around them anyway,” he said. “Fishermen were social distancing before all this started.”

There are awards for the largest lake, cutthroat and brown trout of the day. In 2019 the value for the winning fish was $1,500.

“We just try to keep fish from dying off. I don’t like killing fish.” — Ron Jacobson veteran Jackson Hole fisherman

Contact Chance Q. Cook at 732-7065, sports@jhnewsandguide.com.

Sports Editor Chance Cook has lived in rural Pennsylvania, upstate New York and Butte, Montana. He is no stranger to spending time in the woods chasing animals. If you see him out, challenge him to a game of pool. Send tips and questions.

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