The state’s largest annual ice-fishing derby on Sebago Lake has been called off four times in the past 12 years because of unsafe ice, and organizers are considering whether to cancel it permanently.

The Windham Rotary Club, which hosts the event, will determine at the end of May whether to stop holding the derby, said derby director Steve McFarland.

The Sebago Lake derby has drawn as many as 5,000 anglers to sample the lake’s famous togue fishery and is an economic boost to the region, but one in three cancellations over 12 years are not great odds when holding an event that takes eight months to plan.

An apparent warming trend in recent years in southern Maine is having its impact on many outdoor winter sports that rely on cold temperatures, including ice fishing. This winter has seen unsafe ice on Ossipee Pond in Waterboro, Kennebunk Pond in Lyman and Crystal Lake in Gray, as well as Sebago Lake.

But long-term winter-temperature trends are difficult to analyze. The recent experience of derby organizers is a prime example.

“It’s been a tough three to four years, but because it’s such a positive event for the community, we’re not ready to throw in the towel just yet,” McFarland said. “We need to look at our business model. There are a lot of factors. If it’s a good year, the derby does amazing things for the local economy and for charities. And I think from a club’s perspective, it’s hard to walk away from that.”

Sebago Lake and its famous togue fishery are certainly a draw to ice-fishing fans.

Jeff Webber of Windham fishes the derby every chance he can. Not holding the Sebago derby would be a loss to the region, he said.

“I think it brings a lot to the region, and it gets rid of a lot of togue (which compete with landlocked salmon in the lake). It just gets a lot more people out there. It’s like a big get-together,” Webber said.

At Jordan’s Store on the west side of the lake, Carrol Cutting, the 84-year-old owner, was saddened to hear the derby might end. The excitement, not to mention the business, that the derby brings to lake communities is unparalleled, Cutting said. And there also is the mystique and lure of a big lake trout, he added.

“It’s strange to see fish like cusk and pickerel in a Maine derby. Sebago (and its togue population) is an important fishery in the state of Maine, and it’s close to a populated area. People from outside the state came for the derby, too. I hope they have it one more year, just to see, take a chance that maybe the weather will be such the entire lake will freeze next winter,” said Cutting, who’s owned the store for 54 years.

WINTER DIFFICULT TO FORECAST

But predicting winter is a hard task for meteorologists, let alone derby organizers.

Consider that this year already ranks as one of the snowiest winters in Portland on a list that dates back to 1881, the first year snowfall records were kept by the National Weather Service.

But in southern Maine, temperatures have been warmer than the 30-year average — 25.6 degrees Fahrenheit — for the meteorological winter (December through February) two of the past three years and five of the past seven.

But only half the winters in the past 10 have seen average temperatures exceed the 30-year average. So knowing whether the recent warm trend will continue is difficult, said weather service meteorologist Mike Kistner in Gray.

Moreover, Kistner said, such warm periods are not unusual.

In the 1940s and 1950s, there were also stretches when average winter temperatures were warmer than the 30-year average. From 1948 to 1953, average winter temperatures were all around 28 degrees, but in 1947-48, the average was 18.9 degrees.

“It is tough to say whether we are stuck in a trend or whether temperatures will get colder,” Kistner said. “Last year was one of the warmest on record, but if you look up in Alaska, last year was one of the coldest on record. Definitely the past three years, including last year, were warm. However, this winter has been fairly close to average.”

This year the ice was poor across southern Maine, said Sgt. Tim Spahr with the Maine Warden Service.

“My observations are purely anecdotal, but I would say there are less ice (fishing) shacks out this year,” said Spahr. “I crossed Long Pond in Limerick just a few days ago and I started to get concerned in the middle. I was probably standing in 10 inches of slush. Under normal conditions this time of year, that would have been frozen. Conditions are poor and the ice is thin.”

And regional fisheries biologist Francis Brautigam in Gray said it is because there have been mild winters in southern Maine and along the coast the past several years that the state opened more stocked lakes and ponds to year-round open-water fishing in 2012. The additional year-round waters were added so anglers could legally cast a line during the traditional ice-fishing season, in case there was no ice.

“We could see the evolution and the trend, the need to increase fishing opportunity. We were already heading down that path offering more fishing opportunities in stocked fisheries where there were no wild fish. In southern and coastal Maine where we have more temperate seasonal conditions, it’s not like we have a lot of wild fish resources,” Brautigam said.

IMPACT BEYOND THE DERBY

For derby planners, the weather poses a dilemma.

On the one hand, McFarland said, the Sebago Lake derby packs the small stores around the lakes region as fishermen come to fish for the big togue for which the lake is known. On the other, the lake’s big bay has frozen over just once in the past four years.

And while the Rotary Club has staged a companion derby on a statewide and county-wide basis in recent years, these don’t compare to the Sebago derby. Sebago boasts lake trout as big as 30 inches long.

“There was a gentleman who has a place on Sebago Lake and the day we canceled the Sebago portion this year, he told us he had 12 people lined up to come stay for the weekend and all but two backed out,” McFarland said. “That speaks to the lure of Sebago. People like to fish for togue, and Sebago has togue. We’re trying to make the best decision for the goals of the community and the goals of the club. The derby is a lot of work.”

To the north and east, the ice-fishing season has been fine, and winter in Maine looks like winter in Maine.

At Maine’s biggest lake next to Greenville, ice-fishing fans were out last weekend on Moosehead Lake, said regional state biologist Tim Obrey. And while the season got going a bit late this year, it was business as usual after the second week of January.

“It’s very good conditions. Right now there is probably 3 feet of ice over most of the lake, a full auger blade,” Obrey said Tuesday.

And in the Down East region, where some of Maine’s most popular ice-fishing lakes draw fishermen, crowds were out in February in full force, said state biologist Greg Burr.

“The only thing limiting us is traveling conditions and the price of gas,” Burr said. “But this time of year, usually they go farther north to fish. At East Grand, there is still 20 inches of good ice.”

Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at:

dfleming@pressherald.com

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