One thing always surprised Jeff Witham when he was on the ice: There seemed to be a lot of kids who weren’t fishing.
As the then owner of Jeff’s Bait and Tackle Shop in Oxford, the Gray resident decided to do something about it.
“I realized the kids were out there without fishing because they didn’t have a trap,” he said, “so I started pulling them off the walls of my shop at the time and going to a derby here and a derby there and I just gave in. tricks for kids.”
This was the unofficial beginning of Traps for Kids, an organization Witham started to distribute tips to youngsters who need them. He closed his shop after the start of the pandemic, but that hasn’t slowed the program’s growth: Witham estimates that Traps for Kids has given nearly 4,000 tips over the past seven years.
Witham, who works alongside good friend Jason Senechal of Porter and other volunteers in coordinating Traps for Kids appearances at derbies and other events, said the goal of the program is simple.
“Our tagline is, ‘Get kids off the electronics and off to make real memories,'” Witham said. “There are too many kids getting their heads into tablets, Xbox, Playstation and Nintendo.”
Charlie Oeser is an active outdoorsman who has witnessed the benefits the organization provides.
“These guys are doing such good things and helping to get kids outside and active,” Oeser said. “A boy who has his own traps lights up when he can catch fish with his own gear.”
This collage shows the smiling faces of numerous kids who have benefited from free ice fishing tips from Traps for Kids. Credit: Courtesy of Jeff Witham / Traps for Kids
Traps for Kids holds raffles, bottle drives and other events before the season to raise money to buy more tips. They are fortunate to have the help of numerous sponsors including Cobbossee Ice Shack Rentals, Jack Traps and Sebago Bait who provide traps and other ice fishing items that can be given away.
“We take donations of new traps, we take broken traps and fix them and we’ll buy new ones, so we usually have a good variety of traps,” Witham said.
Traps for Kids sets up their display at derbies and distributes a trap to every child who asks for one. Some young people eventually return to report that they now have a full set of five suggestions, courtesy of the organization.
That kind of goodwill is contagious to people who have seen young people benefit from the program.
Oeser sells a product he designed called “Reel Wraps,” which are straps that neatly and securely secure the hook and line to the reel of an ice fishing trap for storage.
“I’m proud to have a small part with the organization,” Oeser said of Traps for Kids. “I donate to their raffles and their ice fishing derby. I’m an avid hunter and fisherman and I’m seeing fewer and fewer young people getting outdoors.”
These youngsters are among many Mainers who have benefited from the Traps for Kids program.
This winter, Traps for Kids is adding to its list of activities by hosting the inaugural Traps for Kids Ice Fishing Derby. The free one-day event, which is for youth 15 and younger, is scheduled for Feb. 12 at Long Lake in Harrison.
Witham said Traps for Kids will give each participant a free trap, while supplies last, and will also provide bait at no cost.
“If a kid wants a trap, they can have one,” said Witham, who donated 500 traps last winter.
However, Traps for Kids has been dealing with the increased price of tips. Ice fishing traps range from about $15 to over $70 each, depending on style and quality.
Jeff Witham of Traps for Kids hands out free ice fishing tips to youngsters at a derby last winter. Credit: Courtesy of Jeff Witham / Traps for Kids
Fishing prizes will include trophies for the first three entries, including largest trout, bass, perch and pike. Weigh-in and check-in will take place upon departure from the Harrison vessel.
The derby will also feature an Ice Fishing 101 class with the Hardwater Hitmen, a clinic on using electronics on the ice and an ice safety session by Randy Sullivan.
Witham’s goal is to make sure the youngsters have fun on the ice, but at most derbies, you can also find him digging holes and setting traps.
“I hope they catch bigger fish than I did,” Witham said of the kids, “and I tell them that.”