Stephani Maillet and boyfriend Steve Hardy, both of Gardner, have a friendly competition about who will catch the bigger fish at the derby.
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If only there was a winter activity that is less challenging than skiing, less expensive than snowmobiling and less sedentary than watching television. It would be great if it also allowed for family participation and nature appreciation.

A-ha!

Drill a hole and drop a line to catch a cold trout.

Ice fishing is steadily growing in popularity, and not just among sportsmen. It is impossible to measure the exact number or track the rise. But if local derbies are any indication, then numbers are angling upward over the past decade despite the decline this year due to climate.

The Townsend Rod & Gun Club kicked off this year’s derby season on Sunday, and director Bill Biswanger said more than 70 people dropped in. According to Biswanger, most clubs throughout the region sponsor similar events, but his was first this year.

“It has been a tough year for ice fishing due to the mild temperatures,” he said.

Jim Corbett and son Owen, 11, enjoy a day of ice fishing Sunday at the Townsend Rod and Gun Club’s derby.

That explains why so many people participated in Sunday’s event — the anticipation was quelled at last.

Other things lured competitors to the 30th annual event.

“I just added 200 fish on Wednesday,” Biswanger said. “There is also prize money for the winner.”

The winner is, quite simply, whoever catches the biggest fish of the day.

This year’s champ is Ryan Sweeny of Fitchburg, whose rainbow trout measured 19 inches, earning him the $150 prize.

But ice fishing is not just for trophies and derbies. It can also be a solitary endeavor, alone on the pond surrounded by silence and crisp air.

“It’s better than sitting at home,” said Joe Mitchell of Sutton. “I do a lot of regular fishing, but this is my first time ice fishing.”

More and more a family activity, ice fishing allows for an affordable day of fun and adventure. Most sports clubs in the area include entire families on a single membership. But it does not require a membership at all, just a Massachusetts fishing license that is valid for a full year.

Leah Clements of Ashby is just as proud of son Cole, 10, as he is of the 16.5-inch trout he pulled from the frigid water during Sunday’s ice-fishing derby at Townsend Rod & Gun Club.

The Burko family of Townsend gets it.

“We love being outdoors,” said father John Burko. “It’s quality time we spend together. We fish all year.”

But son John prefers the wintertime angling.

“This is my favorite type of fishing,” he said. You put your line in then you can skate around and do other things while waiting for a bite.”

Of course, safety is paramount, and Biswanger suggests always checking the ice thickness before venturing out. The testing procedures and guidelines are available at the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife website, https://www.mass.gov/orgs/division-of-fisheries-and-wildlife.

The entirety of the start-up gear costs about $100 and lasts for many years. A “tip-up” indicator device is the central piece of equipment. The baited line is attached to the tip-up and dropped through the roughly 10-inch hole into the frigid water below. When the flag on the device springs up, a fish is hooked and ready to come meet you.

Most people use live bait, like worms and shiners. The small fish are raised in several local hatcheries and sold retail at tackle shops like Jim’s Quick Stop at 502 Boston Road in Billerica. Owner Jim Ellis said Canadian worms are the most popular bait but the shop also sells trout worms and minnows.

“This has been one of the worst years I can remember,” he said. “There is no ice, especially on the bigger lakes.”

Smaller ponds, though, are more agreeable to ice fishing, albeit soft and slushy on warmer days.To Justin Carter of Townsend, fishing is more than a hobby.

“I fish all year, including 15 times already this season,” he said. “I clean and cook all the fish I catch.“I use every part of it,” he added, saying he buries the bones in the ground and uses the innards in his compost pile.

Carter is the guy you’d want to be lost in the wilderness with. He also hunts and cooks his own venison.

There is no particular skill set required for ice fishing, except maybe in keeping one’s balance on the frozen surface.

There is no comprehensive list of upcoming derbies for the season, but nearly every fish and game club schedules one.

“They are a great way to meet new people and have a good time,” Biswanger said.