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STAFF PHOTO/ROBERT BAKER The North Branch Trout Fishing Derby near Lovelton is a real magnet for kids and their parents or caregivers.

During a normal year, Bruce Pitts would’ve spent Saturday watching 200 kids cast for trout and handing out prizes for the biggest fish.

Instead, the president of the North Branch Trout Derby Association in Wyoming County spent May 16 — the date for this year’s event – lamenting what could’ve been.

The derby was one of several kids’ fishing events in the area canceled because of the COVID-19 crisis.

For Pitts and the members of the association, calling off the derby, along with a planned fishing event for those with special needs and disabled veterans, wasn’t an easy decision.

“It tears us up,” Pitts said. “This would’ve been our 11th year. I didn’t want to throw in the towel, but we had no choice.”

Neither did other derbies in the area.

The Ashley Area Children’s Trout Stocking Association, which held an annual derby on Solomon Creek in Ashley Borough since the early 1980s, canceled its event, which was scheduled for April 18.

In West Nanticoke, the Nanticoke Conservation Club decided to cancel its annual Kid’s Trout Fishing Day, scheduled for May 9 on Harveys Creek. Club president Gary Gronkowski said there wasn’t any other choice after the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission and state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources withdrew permits that had been issued for the event. The permits are needed because the derby is held on an approved trout water and it’s located on state-owned property.

The club had been holding the annual event since 2015, and the members purchased and stocked $1,000 worth of trout in a section of the stream. Gronkowski said 150 kids signed up to fish each year, and he doubts the club will reschedule.

“For all the uncertainty with the next couple of months, we just can’t pick a date and get the permits, insurance and other things lined up,” he said. “We’re disappointed, but it’s understandable considering the state of the pandemic. If and when the restrictions are removed, we’ll try to get back to normal with the event next year.”

The derby hosted by the North Branch Trout Derby Association is held on private property in North Branch Twp., near Lovelton. In addition to fishing, the association held numerous games and educational displays for kids. Pitts didn’t rule out rescheduling the derby later this year, but with warm weather approaching they’re running out of time.

“We stock 1,000 trout in the pond, but if the water gets too warm the survival rate of the fish is in jeopardy,” he said. “It takes us an entire year to make this come together and our members plan their vacations around this.

“We cleaned up the property in March, had the fish ordered and raffle tickets were being sold, and then the door closed.”

As of Saturday, Wyoming County had 29 confirmed COVID-19 cases and four deaths, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health. Gov. Tom Wolf said Wyoming County is one of 12 counties that will move from red to yellow phase of reopening Friday. However, Pitts said the derby is considered a recreational event so it isn’t allowed to be held, per state guidelines.

The North Branch derby first took place in 1980 and it was organized by Lovelton residents Chuck Richter and Clesson Shotwell. After a brief hiatus, the association formed to bring the derby back and it has become a family tradition, according to Pitts. Tickets are still being sold for a raffle, which will take place at a later date, and the association still hopes to hold a fundraiser dinner planned for June 6, Pitts said, depending on the restrictions in place at the time.

“If things change and there’s a chance to hold the derby at some point, we can do it relatively quickly,” he said. “This is something where kids and families make so many memories and it also helps the local economy. We’re trying to come up with other options.”