One thing always struck Jeff Witham when he was out on the ice: there seemed to be a lot of children 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 noticed that kids are out there not fishing because they didn’t have a trap,” he said, “so I started pulling them off my shop walls at the time and going to a derby here and a derby there and just gave out traps to kids.”
That was the unofficial beginning of Traps for Kids, an organization Witham started to distribute tip-ups to youngsters who need them. He closed his shop after the onset of the pandemic, but that hasn’t slowed the growth of the program — Witham estimates that Traps for Kids has given away close to 4,000 tip-ups during 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 aim of the program is simple.
“Our slogan is, ‘Get kids off electronics and out making real memories,’” Witham said. “Too many kids get their heads shoved into tablets, Xboxes, Playstations and Nintendos.”
Charlie Oeser is an active outdoorsman who has witnessed the benefits the organization is providing.
“These guys are doing such a good thing and helping to get kids outside and active,” Oeser said. “A child that has his/her own traps lights up when they can catch fish on their own gear.”
Traps for Kids holds raffles, bottle drives and other events prior to the season to raise money to buy more tip-ups. They are fortunate to have the help of numerous sponsors, including Cobbossee Ice Shack Rentals, Jack Traps and Sebago Bait, which provide traps and other ice fishing gear that can be given away.
“We take donations of new traps, we take broken traps and fix them and we will buy new, so we usually have a good array of traps,” Witham said.
Traps for Kids sets up its display at derbies and distributes one trap to each child who asks for one. Some youngsters eventually return to report that they now have a full set of five tip-ups, courtesy of the organization.
That kind of goodwill is contagious for folks who have witnessed how young people are benefitting from the program.
Oeser sells a product he designed called “Reel Wraps,” which are straps that secure the hook and line neatly and safely on the spool 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 am an avid hunter and fisherman and I see less and less young people getting outdoors.”
This winter, Traps for Kids is adding to its list of activities by hosting the inaugural Traps for Kids Ice Fishing Derby. The free day-long event, which is for youngsters age 15 and under, is scheduled for Feb. 12 at Long Lake in Harrison.
Witham said Traps for Kids will hand out a free trap to each participant, while supplies last, and also will be providing bait at no cost.
“If a kid wants a trap, they can have one,” said Witham, who gave out 500 traps last winter.
However, Traps for Kids has been dealing with the rising price of tip-ups. Ice fishing traps range in price from approximately $15 to upwards of $70 each, depending on style and quality.
Fishing prizes will include trophies for the top three entries including the largest trout, bass, perch and pickerel. Weigh-in and registration will be held at the Harrison boat launch.
The derby also will offer an Ice Fishing 101 class with the Hardwater Hitmen, a clinic on using electronics on the ice and an ice safety session conducted by Randy Sullivan.
Witham’s aim is to make sure the youngsters have fun on the ice, but at most derbies, you also can find him cutting holes and setting traps.
“I hope they catch bigger fish than I do,” Witham said of the kids, “and I tell them that.”