Master Angler Barbara Cotton
Lake Winnipesaukee
New Hampshire

The Grand Dame of Lake Winni New Hampshire Anglers. Barbara Cotton passed on in 2005 at age 96 to  the “Land of Great Anglers”. She is missed by many.

Barbara Cotton

When I began seriously working on my book, asking others who they thought were the Master Anglers of Lake Winni, New Hampshire, the name Barbara Cotton, kept coming up. One of our other Master Anglers, Chuck French, told me that every Opening Day, April 1st, would find him at her place, where he would launch his boat after being treated by Barbara to a fresh cup of coffee.

Opechee Trading Post

People would say in writing about the history of angling in Lake Winni, that I needed to write about Barbara Cotton, who, with her late husband, Mert, founded a small landmark called the Opechee Trading Post on the shore at the end of Lake Opechee where the Winnipesaukee River begins.

When Barbara Cotton went to the Orvis Dealer annual meetings in Vermont, they had her stand for recognition as the oldest living Orvis Dealer in America.  I finally found her phone number and asked if I might call on her to discuss angling. She was very gracious and said that she would be pleased to meet me.  What a delight!

This then 94-year young lady was always gracious when we met to talk about fishing. Barbara Cotton would politely interrupt me from time to time to tell me an angling story.  She knew all the old timers well as she had supplied them with their tackle and bait.

Barbara Cotton had not been well, and after 5 visits to her place by the lake, she finally consented to being videotaped, if her son, John, also an experienced angler, would help her with her questionnaire and with the arrangements for the videotaping.

Good Anglers

Just before Christmas 2003, Barbara Cotton had a stroke and had to go into the hospital. I visited Barbara at the St. Francis Home in Laconia in 2004. She announced to some friends that I had it all wrong listing her as a Master Angler, and that some of the really good anglers (she named several already in this book) would be upset to find that she was listed as a Master Angler. I told her that was just not so.

Master Anglers Jim Warner, Bill Martel, Chuck French, and Carl Gephardt had all said from the beginning, "If you're writing about Master Anglers of Lake Winni, New Hampshire, you must have Barbara Cotton on your list!" I told her this. Her response was that she needed to get on home to open her angling store "… as anglers might be needing some things."

Master Angler Barbara Cotton

Barbara Cotton“I was born Barbara Beaton on July 29, 1909 in South Ryegate, Vermont. My father owned and operated a granite quarry and my mother was the postmistress of the post office. I boarded with relatives in Barre during high school, graduating from Barre High School in 1926.

"I earned a BS degree in Library Science from Simmons College in 1930, leaving on commencement day to assume a library position at Mt. Holyoke College. I married Laconia native, Merton Cotton, in 1933 and moved to Opechee Street in Laconia in New Hampshire.

Moving To Laconia

“Things were different in 1933 – a week’s salary might be $7 or $8 and waterfront lots on Governors Island were selling infrequently for $1 a front foot.

“On the assumption I would leave after a short time, I became the head librarian of the Laconia Public Library in 1944; but time flies when you are having fun and I didn’t retire until 1978.

“My husband, Mert, resigned as assistant treasurer of the Laconia Savings Bank and opened the Opechee Trading Post on Lake Opechee in New Hampshire in December 1944.

“His father Edwin Cotton and our son, John, assisted, but as years sped by, I gradually became the most dedicated partner. I became the sole proprietor when my husband, Mert, died in 1985.

“For nearly 60 years the store has been a favorite gathering place for fishermen – a place for spinning both truths and tales.

The Best Game In Town

"As years went by, fly fishing equipment and fly tying materials increasingly became the specialty of the store, and I, at the young age of 94, am the oldest Orvis dealer in the United States. I pride myself in being a facilitator. My son says that is because I talk the “best game in town.” "Few can sell a one ounce-weight rod to a 250 pound hulk," he said about a job I once did.

"Although the yellow hornberg is my favorite fly for brook trout, I am mightily pleased with the “Barbara Cotton" -- a salmon streamer originated by Ken Welch of Bow, New Hampshire in my honor. This streamer is now a published pattern.   Master Angler Jim Warner also made his own version called the Barbara Cotton Special.


Barbara Cotton Salmon Streamer

“Right after the end of World War II and into the 1950s, the opening of salmon season was a really big affair, much larger than in recent years. On April 1, the Trading Post was open at 3:30 AM, and I was dishing out bait and hot coffee to those who could barely wait for dawn.

"Behind the store, open water was limited to where current prevented ice, so only 2 or three boats were commonly in the narrow channel. However, dozens of fishermen (and we have counted more than 100) would line the banks from the store down stream to the railroad bridge and beyond.

“Others would head for other open water “spots” like the Winnipesaukee River inlets to both Opechee and Winnisquam and the traditional favorites on the Big Lake – the bridges at Governors and Long Island, the Weirs channel, Melvin Village, Wolfeboro and the Merrymeeting River at Alton Bay.

"Now on April 1, there seem to be much larger ice- free areas at these locations than in past years, a likely result of global warming.

“Each year surface trolling for salmon and lake trout followed the receding edges of ice. Store talk would focus on the hottest single and tandem streamers during this most productive period.

"Of course, one could always get skunked when trying to show off the fishery, like in 1953 when Mert and our son, John, took Tommy Envinrude trolling for a day and never got a strike

“Here in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire in the 1940s and 1950s, bass fishing was more subdued than today. Then the fishery was primarily smallmouth bass.

"With the introduction of and reproductive success of largemouth bass, the popularity of bass fishing has skyrocketed as has the horsepower of the boats that chase them.

"Greatly diminished is the peaceful, quiet nighttime paddling while casting surface plugs and poppers toward hanging limbs on darkened shores, no doubt the result of intensive shorefront development with impassioned desire for perfectly trimmed and neat shorelines

“One low-key fishery, past and present, is native brookie and rainbow fishing in small tributaries to the Big Lake. Naturally, fishing for natives ‘ain’t what it used to be’ but a few fishermen successfully sneak around for the best tasting little ones. And true to tradition, I will not reveal the best spots.

Live Bait

“An annual fall activity was trapping shiners and roach to sell as live bait for both ice fishing and the nextBarbara Cottonspring and summer season. Glass and copper wire traps were most commonly used.

"For many years, the catch was temporarily stored and transported in two 50-gallon drums mounted horizontally in an old 1937 Chevy panel truck of ours. (Later, in the 1960s and 1970s, smaller containers were placed in a 1958 Dodge Sierra station wagon. Trapping was discontinued in the late seventies.)

"Bait would be kept over winter in large “bait boxes” with screens only on the bottom placed along the 50-foot dock at the store. Most of the trapping was done in Lake Winnisquam and tributaries to the Winnipesaukee River. However, Minge Cove (before much development) was a favorite location on the Big Lake (Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire.)

 Barbara Cotton Ice Fishing Story

“Once while ice fishing with my husband, my tip up flag went up and I set the hook on a big fish.  He was at a neighboring bob house swapping stories with a friend. I carefully worked in the monster and finally his head appeared in the opening in the ice.

"Afraid I'd break the leader, I held the line tight with one hand and reached the other down and into his gills, hoisting out the biggest laker of my life!  Unknown to me a game warden was standing behind me.  Not seeing him, I grabbed the big trout to my chest and ran in the direction of the bob house where my husband was to show off my prize.

"The shocked game warden thought I was running away from him, and suspected I did not have a license, which was not the case. After showing off my prize to my husband and his friends, I came out to find the game warden standing outside waiting to give me a citation. 

"After he wrote it up, he asked me why I thought I could get away ice fishing without a license. I told him that I did not think I could…and that I HAD my license, which I showed him to his chagrin!

"I asked him why he thought a nice angler like me would be fishing without her license.  He walked away embarrassed at jumping the gun on a poor old lady!

Love of the Lake

“I love the Lake and the people who fish it; they are a special breed of New Hampshire folks. Many of the other Master Anglers, like Bill Martel, Chuck French, Carl Gebhardt, and that fine ‘tall glass of water’ gentleman fly-tier, Jim Warner, are old friends of mine.

"I am honored that Hal has invited me, Barbara Cotton, to be listed in this book as a Master Angler with them.  I am not really a Master Angler, but I am an angler who has always befriended and supported other Master Anglers!  God bless them all!”

However bad the sport, it keeps you young, or makes you young again, and you need not follow Ponce de Leon to the western wilderness, when in any water you knew of yore, you can find the fountain of youth.

~Andrew Lang

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