Winter is coming, and so is the Sebago Lake Ice Fishing Derby.

Organizers of Maine’s biggest ice fishing derby, despite being forced to cancel part or all of the event four times since 2002 and disappointing thousands of anglers, are moving forward with the mid-February event even if the ice is not thick enough on Sebago Lake.

The historical intent of the derby – culling the lake trout population in Sebago Lake – will shift as the derby directors search for an alternative lake for derby competitors to fish in the event Sebago Lake does not produce safe ice. The Windham Rotary Club intends to find another robust fishery for lake trout (also known as togue) within a 50-mile radius of Portland to use this winter if the ice on Sebago Lake proves too unsafe to hold thousands of ice fishermen, said derby director Toby Pennels.

Directors of the derby, which has drawn as many as 6,000 ice fishermen for the two-day event and raised funds for local charities, are meeting with state biologists Monday about alternative togue waters where the derby could be held. And Pennels said the derby will continue to have the $100,000 prize for anyone who catches the state record togue through the ice in Sebago Lake. The record 31.8-pound fish was caught by Hollis Grindle of Ellsworth in 1958 on Beech Hill Pond in Otis.

Nonetheless, organizers are at the mercy of the weather.

Since it began 13 years ago, the derby was canceled in 2002, 2012 and 2013 because of a lack of hard ice on the lake. And in 2010 the two-day event was canceled the second day when mild temperatures made Maine game wardens unsure of the safety of the lake’s ice.

“Unfortunately, Sebago is in the southern part of the state and you can’t control Mother Nature. Some years, safe ice is a big issue. And there seems to be a trend of late that the ice sets up late and ice out is earlier,” said state fisheries biologist Francis Brautigam in Gray. “There seems to be a trend of declining winters in our area. And if it continues it will make it difficult to hold ice fishing derbies on Sebago.”

The irony in this new plan is that the original intent of the Sebago Lake derby, which began in 2001, was to cull the togue in the lake to help the landlocked salmon population, as Sebago is one of the original watersheds of the prized game fish. But now the state’s biggest ice fishing derby has become a fishing festival celebrating the voracious, long-lived and massive togue, a fish that can grow to more than 30 pounds, and has depleted the salmon fishery in Sebago.

“There is a sort of a mystique about Sebago as a togue lake. There is no question Sebago has a lopper or two in it,” said Pennels, of Casco. “It’s wonderful to have that water. It’s interesting how it’s evolved. I think we achieved some of the things we set out to do in respect to the togue population, and we’ve obviously reduced it and in turn turned it (back) into a premier salmon fishery.”

Lake trout is a popular game fish and a draw for ice fishermen in winter. The fish can thrive for 30 years and is plentiful in Sebago, Brautigam said.

In the past 10 years, the winners of the Sebago derby have hauled out of the lake togue between 15 and 20 pounds. And Brautigam said Sebago has a plethora of togue between 18 and 24 inches in length, as well as a fair number in excess of 33 inches.

At 30,000 acres, Sebago simply has an abundance of productive togue habitat, said Brautigam. That’s bad for salmon, which the togue prey on, but good for ice fishermen.

“The two are contradictory,” Brautigam said. “Don’t misunderstand me, we don’t have a disdain for togue. And a lot of people enjoy catching them. We just want to manage for a healthy salmon population.”

Brautigam said it’s possible other togue waters could be added as alternative waters to the derby, but it’s unlikely anything will come close to what Sebago means to ice fishermen.

“Thompson Lake (in Casco) is a trout lake; there are a lot of togue there. But it’s 4,000 acres in size,” Brautigam said. “We just don’t have large water bodies with togue (in southern Maine).”

Still, the search for a long-standing “Plan B” for Sebago ice fishing fans is good news.

“Yes I’m excited,” said Tom Noonan, one of the original organizers who tried to grow it into a statewide event before stepping away from it last year.

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

dfleming@pressherald.com

Twitter: FlemingPph