NAPLES — The 45-degree January day that left slick ice across Long Lake last Sunday discouraged ice fishermen from joining the likes of Robert Brumell and Fred Gallant Jr., given the surface was a landscape of deep puddles and messy slosh.

“There’s usually an ice shack shanty village here. You see the same people every year. Everyone gets to know each other,” Brumell said with a nod to the lake’s middle.

The January thaw last week brought out fishermen in small numbers; but as ice fishing season swings into full gear with cold weather and derbies ahead, it could amount to one of the best in years, officials say. The thick ice that formed earlier in winter, compliments of the Arctic blast the region got, is the reason.

This time next weekend two of the bigger ice fishing derbies in southern Maine will take place – one at Crystal Lake in Gray and another in Limington at Pequawket Lake – with more to follow, including the biggest one in the state at Sebago and Kezar lakes on Feb. 15 and 16.

The fact last week felt like spring won’t affect the ice that formed, biologists say. And the fact that this week’s weather looks like it will head back near single digits at night makes ice fishermen happy.

“I’m psyched. As long as we have some cold nights, I’m optimistic we’ll be fishing for a long time. If we get back down under zero at night, we might see the big bay freeze up (on Sebago),” said the Sebago Derby director, Toby Pennels.

“We lost a little, but as long as we have ice on Jordan Bay, I think we’ll be OK.”

The Sebago Lake Rotary Ice Fishing Derby has been canceled three of the past four years due to poor ice and warm weather. But just when the Sebago Lake Rotary Club came up with a contingency plan, this winter looks to be one of thick ice and bustling shacks.

This winter the club changed the derby rules to include Kezar Lake in Lovell as one of the two togue waters that will now be used in the big-money derby. If Sebago has unsafe ice, there is a smaller togue lake ready to be fished.

“Kezar Lake is full of togue,” Pennels said. “I’m pretty optimistic it’s going to be a good season. Other than the past five to six days, it’s the thickest ice we’ve seen on Jan. 1. In my opinion that’s the earliest we’ve seen Jordan Bay lock up in years.”

Southern Maine regional fisheries biologist Francis Brautigam agreed.

“It’s the first time I can recall that we’ve had that much ice,” Brautigam said. “The smaller ponds in the region set up well in advance of Jan. 1. Right now we have a little fog, but once we get through this and have some cooler temps, we’ll be in pretty good shape.”

Last weekend fishermen were few in numbers around Sebago. But Brautigam said that will change if the Sebago derby is held on southern Maine’s biggest lake next month.

“The odds are in their favor, but a lot of years there is not great ice at Sebago Station or at Raymond Beach (on Sebago Lake). Now at least they have a second body of water to hold the derby on. And in the future, they will have a certain level of consistency,” Brautigam said.

Smaller derbies on smaller lakes and ponds have that consistency. And last week officials for those derbies said the ice fishing season should be strong given the thick ice that already has coated a number of water bodies.

Joe Jack, director of the Youth and Ice Fishing Derby on Long Lake, which is slated for Feb. 22, questioned the ice thickness in southern Maine during the January thaw last week as far as safe snowmobiling goes. But he said north of Lewiston, ice could be found everywhere.

“This weekend I’ll see 50 ice shacks from my deck,” said Jack, who has a house on Pushaw Lake in Old Town. “I think it will be a better season well into March.”

But at Long Lake last weekend, Gallant and Brumell came to herald in the season on a mostly deserted body of water. Despite the fast start to this winter ice-wise, it was slow going here last week during a classic January thaw in Maine.

As Gallant’s father, Fred Sr., pulled a sled out onto the lake, the father-and-son fishing team reminisced about the years spent running augers up in the Fish River Chain of Lakes near Fort Kent, where lake ice can be found all winter. During Fred Jr.’s college years there, they fished Aroostook County’s lakes all winter.

“I’ve been ice fishing a good 50 years,” Fred Sr. said. “The ice fishing up there in Fort Kent is quite a bit different. It’s a different climate. It’s 350 miles from here.”

“As far away as New York City is from here,” Fred. Jr. added. “I miss ice fishing up there. But I like it here for different reasons. It’s more social.”

And with that, Fred Jr. fired up his auger to drill into a good 6 inches of ice. For Gallant and his fishing buddy Brumell, ice fishing season had begun.

“I think last week the cold kept everyone away. But next weekend, all of a sudden, everyone will start showing up,” Brumell said.

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

dfleming@pressherald.com

Twitter: FlemingPph