A shot in the arm

Chuck Box, former chamber director, looks back on starting Saratoga ice fishing derby

"I just remember showing up at the chamber office about three in the morning, looking down the highway and seeing all these headlights coming and I realized it was going to work. Until then, no one knew."

This weekend, anglers will take to the frozen surface of Saratoga Lake for the 37th Annual Saratoga Ice Fishing Derby. The event, which has been a financial boon for Saratoga and the Valley, was begun by Chuck "C.J." Box shortly after being hired as the director of the Saratoga/Platte Valley Chamber of Commerce.

"It was in fact, I think, the first ice fishing derby in Wyoming. I don't think there were any others," said Box. "It came about totally of necessity because I had just been hired by the Chamber of Commerce, for the first time, and promised a salary. When I looked at the checkbook of the chamber, I realized they couldn't pay me that amount. We had no cash flow."

Following his discovery, Box spoke with Ralph Bartholomew, president of the chamber board and druggist at Donelon Pharmacy, about the lack of funds. 

"He said, 'Well, it wouldn't have mattered what you wanted. You've got to figure out how to earn it,'" Box said. "At the time, except for the chariot races, there were no winter events and the chariot races were cool, but they didn't fund the chamber in any way. So, we wanted something."

While Box was familiar with fishing derbies held during the summer, he was raised on ice fishing. Growing up in Wyoming, Box and his father went all over the state to ice fish.

"That was before catch and release. The, sort of, joke was, 'All the fish you didn't catch in the summer you can catch in the winter and take home.' I would do that. We would limit out and we'd take them all home and eat them," said Box. "So it was a thing, not just a sport."

With very little advertising budget, Box and Bartholomew had to get creative in getting the word out about the inaugural ice fishing derby. Much of this included press releases. A full page ad in the Saratoga Sun introduced readers to Bob and Steve, the two tagged fish that could be caught during the derby. Bob was worth $25,000 if caught on the Saturday of the derby and a lesser amount if caught on Friday or Sunday. Steve was good for a CJ-5 Jeep from Zeiger Enterprises.

Due to the prizes that would result in the capture of these two fish, the Chamber of Commerce had to insure them.

"We were able to get, at the time through Irene Archibald, two insurance policies on the fish. The one was for $10,000 and the other, I believe, was for $5,000," Box said. "The funny thing about it was, we had to personally catch the fish and tag them in front of a witness, who was Irene Archibald because she was with the insurance company. We went out there on a day that it must have been blowing 40 miles an hour and tried to catch a fish and Irene was freezing to death and we finally, finally, got two fish and tagged them and put them back in."

There were a lot of unknowns as Box and Bartholomew worked on putting together the derby. For starters, even with all the press releases they put out, they didn't know if anyone was going to be interested or attend. Additionally, because this was the first ice fishing derby, they didn't know if having a large number of people on the ice would be counterproductive.

"We didn't know if you had a bunch of people on the lake, if that would put down all of the fish and nobody would catch anything but that wasn't the case," said Box.

The derby, however, was a success. During the derby, neither Bob nor Steve were caught. The chamber extended the bounty until either of the tagged trout were caught. That summer, someone did catch Bob and the fisherman who caught the tagged trout was awarded $200.

As the derby progressed following the inaugural year, more fun elements were added. The perennial favorite of the best hut contest was added and the second year a plan dropped ping-pong balls onto the frozen lake.

"A few of them were worth like 20 or 30 bucks," Box said. "So people were scrambling all over the ice for these ping-pong balls and the game and fish didn't like that idea at all, but we didn't tell them about it beforehand."

Now, as the derby enters it's 37th year and Box is back in the Valley, he feels a sense of pride about the event he started. At the time, the only other winter activity in Saratoga was the chariot races, which were eventually replaced by skijoring. Last year he attended the derby and knows there are a number of fishermen who have been coming to the derby for 20 or 30 years.

"It's a shot in the arm in the middle of January," said Box.


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