With about an hour left in the tournament, Powell’s Terry and Brenda Mari were nervous. The four-time champions didn’t have a full stringer — six fish for the two-day tournament.
The team had caught a lot of fish, but mostly small cutthroat and rainbow trout. At 1:20 p.m. Terry’s pole bent. The favorite of the Meeteetse Ice Fishing Derby could tell he had a nice fish. As the trophy finally appeared, all Terry could see was a giant mouth filling the hole in the ice.
“It had to be 10 pounds, maybe 15,” he said.
Then the beast thrashed and threw the hook, disappearing back to the depths on the southeast side of Lower Sunshine Reservoir.
“I threw my pole and cussed up a storm,” he said, ashamed of his reaction.
It had been a tough week. Terry had surgery on his arms for skin cancer just days before. His cheeks were wind burned and eyes bloodshot. He was sure he was coming down with the flu.
The Maris take hard water fishing at Upper and Lower Sunshine reservoirs seriously. Both work road construction during good weather, are laid off in early November and then spend a good deal of time fishing the popular trout waters near the base of the Absaroka Range until their work fires back up.
The combination has been lethal for their prey and their competition. In the 10 years the tournament has been run by the Meeteetse Visitors Center, the Maris have placed six times — five firsts and a third place finish. A pretty good win ratio considering they’ve only fished the tournament eight of those years.
Now as they arrive to fish, they have company. Other teams watch their every move in hopes of figuring out their secrets. They never fish alone at a tournament — others crowd their holes. Terry composed himself after losing the giant lake trout, finally able to laugh about it over a bowl of chili at the awards banquet.
“It was a true fish story — the one that got away,” Terry said.
The couple found themselves on fish in the last moments of the two-day tournament. Brenda pulled in a couple whoppers just before 2 p.m., filling their tournament limit and pushing their stringer into first place. In doing so, they beat 70 teams, more than 200 anglers hungry to score the big four-figure check.
A Meeteetse native, Brenda has been fishing all her life. The couple married 15 years ago and has been terrorizing fish populations since.
“The fish are getting so big we had to upgrade our equipment,” she said.
Norm Wesolowski, of Cody, avoided a lost fish story. As he saw the gaping maw of a trophy fish break the water he took matters into his own hands.
“I reached down and stuck my hand right in its mouth and pulled him out. I wasn’t letting this one get away,” Wesolowski said.
As he pulled the monster from his green, five gallon bucket at the weigh-in, a crowd pushed toward the tables to hear the totals: 26 1/2-inches long and 13-inches girth. The fish won Wesolowski the big fish award. But he only had two fish total and ended up finishing well down the winners list.
A few hundred yards west of team Mari, Rick Vertz sat in his cloth fishing chair, a pillow in his lap and hard water pole in his hand. He was a one-man team in a tournament that allowed three people per team.
Vertz had caught a couple dozen fish on Saturday, but passed on the first day weigh-in. Many teams, feeling confident about fishing conditions and looking for larger fish, passed on the Saturday weigh-in only to find the good times were over on day two. Vertz hadn’t landed a fish. And yet, he didn’t care.
“I’m not going to let anything keep me from doing what I love to do,” Vertz said.
That includes his prognosis. The Powell resident was diagnosed with multiple myeloma — bone cancer — on Christmas Eve 2016 and he had been facing daily chemo treatments leading up to the tournament.
Vertz moved to Wyoming to be a roustabout after a long career in Alaska as a commercial salmon fisherman. It was a tough move, but a blessing, Vertz said.
“It’s good to be near my brother, my family,” he said. “Especially now.”
Vertz doubts he’ll be able to get to next year’s tournament. The ride to Meeteetse from Powell was tough on his body. He stayed overnight near the lake to avoid two round trips.
“Right now there are good days and bad days, but I’ll probably be paralyzed soon,” he said.
Vertz was keeping entertained watching the antics of Dylan and Bryce Martin, who fished in the “small fry” tournament for youth. On Saturday, they were kept busy reeling in fish. On Sunday, with boredom setting in, the two found all sorts of mischief during the chilly day.
Under the guidance of their father Eric Martin, of Powell, and uncle Brian, who came from Mt. Joy, Pennsylvania, for the tournament, the boys finished second and third in the youth division.
Bryce and Dylan argued about who caught the biggest fish. Bryce caught the longer fish, but Dylan’s fish was fatter. The length and girth of the fish combine for the overall score. Three-quarters of an inch separated the two.
Brian Martin was proud of his nephews. And despite not having any luck on Sunday he plans to make the long drive from Mt. Joy again for next year’s tournament.
“I don’t know how many times I’ve been here, but each time I can’t believe how beautiful it is here. It’s breathtaking,” Martin said.
Emmarie Fauver, daughter of Jeremiah “Odie” Fauver of Basin, won the youth contest by about 5 inches, while her father finished in second place in the main event, losing to team Mari by 5 inches.
Tess Tom, tournament organizer, said it’s an important event for the town of Meeteetse, population 327. The tournament is sponsored by the Meeteetse Visitors Center.
“Events like this help fund and keep the doors open,” Tom said. “And it’s a lot of fun.”
Top 3 finishers (six fish)
Terry and Brenda Mari, Powell — 189.75 inches
Team Fauver, Basin — 184.75 inches
Team Ebright, Cody — 178.50 inches
Small Fry (two fish)
Emmarie Fauver, Basin — 54.25 inches
Dylan Martin, Powell — 49.50 inches
Bryce Martin, Powell — 48.75 inches