The 19th annual Neil Heitkamp Youth Ice Fishing Derby, continuing a tradition began in 2005, is scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 18 on Heitkamp Pond.
Registration begins at 12 p.m. for the derby, taking place from 1-3 p.m. at 18205 75th St. SE, Wahpeton, just northeast of Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative.
Gary Page, president and owner of Heitkamp Construction, is proud of the many people who make the Heitkamp Derby possible. They include Butch Stollenwerk, a longtime collector of donations and funding.
“He’s visited our customers and vendors for years,” Page said. “People around the community come to expect him this time of year. Of course, all of those funds go 100% back to the derby, whether for prizes or to handle the costs.”
For at least a generation now, the Heitkamp Derby has been held with the principle that “It’s all about the kids.” The derby is open to all youth up to ages 18. Last year’s event included participation from 260 young anglers, their families and, of course, the volunteers.
“Hot chocolate will be provided by Dave Freitag, which is his way of giving back to the kids. We’ll be cooking the hot dogs in the smoker all day long. That’s possible thanks to Bruce Johnson, Vern Bult and Steve Haire. We also could not do this without the Sportsmen’s Club,” Page said.
The men and women of the Red River Area Sportsmen’s Club (RRASC) are perennial Heitkamp Derby supporters and volunteers. Although last year’s event was delayed two weeks because of severe winter weather, it was still an impressive event for club contact Cindie VanTassel.
“I was very pleased with the number of people in attendance. We even ran out of food at one point, but we got some more hot dogs and we were ready to go,” VanTassel said in 2022.
Adults are asked to accompany young children participating in the derby. There will be door prizes for all participants and trophies for the best perch, sunfish, crappie and walleye catches.
“We’ve been stocking our pond for the derby and hoping for warm weather,” Page said. “Our pond is a catch and release pond and we’ve been catching and releasing some pretty decent fish.”
Derby participants should know that holes will be pre-drilled and bait will be furnished. Guests are asked to bring their own gear if possible, but equipment will be available for those in need. Restrooms and warming houses will be provided.
“Parking will be restricted to certain areas,” a poster states. “Sleds for transporting gear are encouraged. Dress warm. Small children should have extra clothes in case they get wet.”
Some of the Heitkamp Derby’s smallest participants have been the most enthusiastic.
“Moses Alcozer, one of Heitkamp Construction’s employees, proudly helped Owen Welles-Alcozer, 4, Wahpeton, bring in a 7-inch crappie to be recorded,” Daily News reported in 2022.
Approximately 75 fish were caught last year, making sponsors and volunteers happy.
“I think it’s very good to give the kids a reason to get outside and enjoy the outdoors,” Page said previously.
Anyone wishing to volunteer or donate to the Neil Heitkamp Youth Ice Fishing Derby can contact either Page or Jon Hegge at Heitkamp Construction, 701-642-5948 or VanTassel at RRASC, 218-770-7970. Checks can be mailed to PO Box 1056, Wahpeton, ND 58074. The derby is sponsored by Heitkamp Construction, RRASC and many generous local businesses.
“Sponsors for this event are not responsible for accidents,” a poster states.
Look to Daily News for coverage of the 2023 Heitkamp Derby. There is always the chance for a special guest.
“A bald eagle flew above Heitkamp Pond Saturday, March 5, keeping its watchful eyes on anglers of all ages,” Daily News reported in 2022. “For some at the traditional event, it appeared the late Neil Heitkamp was paying a visit. Heitkamp is remembered as a dedicated promoter of youth outdoor activities and (derby volunteers) continue to follow that mission.”