Thin ice has forced cancellation of the annual ice fishing derby on Sebago Lake for the third time in the event’s 11-year history.
Now the prizes that would have been given out Feb. 18 and 19 – including $100,000 for a state record fish — will be up for grabs in the statewide ice fishing derby March 3 and 4.
That will keep skilled togue fishermen hopeful, but it won’t help businesses around Sebago Lake, where as many as 6,000 people have gathered in past years for the derby and related events.
Since it was started by the Windham Rotary Club, the Sebago Lake Rotary Ice Fishing Derby has been canceled in three years — 2002, 2007 and now 2012 — and ended early in 2010 after seven people and a number of vehicles fell through thin ice.
Last year, the derby created a buzz with the introduction of a $100,000 prize for anyone who could break the state record for togue — lake trout. The record was set in 1958 when Hollis Grindle of Ellsworth caught a 31-pound, 8-ounce trout in Beech Hill Pond in Otis.
The $100,000 offer now will apply to all lakes in Maine during the statewide derby, which also is run by the Windham Rotary Club.
Losing the crowds that would have come to the Sebago Lake region this month for the derby will affect small businesses, said Barbara Clark, executive director of the Sebago Lake Region Chamber of Commerce.
She said the loss could end up being part of a larger problem in this generally warm winter: a widespread drop in tourism.
“We all agree that it’s challenging,” Clark said. “The Crystal Lake derby is postponed. That attracts 6,000 people. Next weekend is the Naples Winter Carnival. There is a question mark there, too. If none of those events took place, there would be a huge impact in the month of February, at a time when we depend on seasonal visitors to come here.”
Allen Aaskov, who owns Alyssa’s Motel in Casco, said the lack of true winter weather definitely has hurt his business. The lack of ice means there are fewer ice fishermen, and the lack of snow means no snowmobilers or Nordic skiers.
“If the ice fishing is good, ice fishermen will come. When the weather doesn’t cooperate, it is really tough,” Aaskov said.
This is the earliest the Windham Rotary Club has ever canceled the Sebago Lake derby, which drew about 3,500 anglers last year.
Tom Noonan, the derby’s founder and the statewide derby’s director, said the ice was unsafe on the coves of Sebago Lake, and with good ice in other parts of Maine, officials decided to direct all attention to the statewide derby.
“Basically, we closed it down because of obvious safety issues. But there are a lot of places in Maine with decent ice,” Noonan said. “We decided not to wait to the last minute, so people could make plans.”
After running the Sebago derby for 10 years, Noonan decided last year to work full time on the statewide derby to try to expand it into the largest event of its kind in North America, with more than 20,000 anglers. The $100,000 prize may be the hook he needs.
Twenty weigh stations in Maine are signed up to participate in the statewide derby, and Noonan expects that number to grow with the $100,000 prize at stake.
The statewide derby also will offer a $20,000 prize pool. But, unlike in past years, no pickup truck will be given away.
“We’re working on that,” Noonan said. “But $100,000 is nothing to shake a stick at. You could go buy three trucks with that.”
Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at: