With 16 to 18 inches of solid ice in places on Maine’s second-largest lake, this could be the year the Sebago Lake Fishing Derby gets back to attracting the thousands of anglers it has in the past.

Derby organizers and fishermen certainly think so.

“Everyone is talking about it,” said Dave Donnelly, of Windham, who won the derby’s top prize the last time it was held in 2011. “I’m right from the area. I live on the lake. Everybody I know who fishes is fishing it. I’ll be in my shack all weekend.”

In 2005, the derby hit an all-time high in attendance with close to 2,000 competitors, according to derby founder Tom Noonan of the Sebago Lake Rotary Club, which organizes the derby.

But the state’s richest ice fishing derby was canceled the past two years because of poor ice conditions on 28,700-acre Sebago Lake, and was halted a day early in 2010 when mild temperatures made for unsafe ice. The only other cancellation was in 2002.

Last spring, questions swirled around whether the derby would ever be held again.

As of Thursday just 600 fishermen had registered for this weekend’s derby, but derby director Toby Pennels said many register at the event, and he hopes up to 1,500 will sign up. Pennels thinks the derby can build back to the big-crowd pleaser it once was.

“We want to get out of the business of canceling the derby. We want to get away from that word,” he said. “I’m optimistic. We could have six to eight years of good ice starting this year. That happened before.”

Donnelly, who won a boat in the 2011 Sebago derby after catching a 14.14-pound togue, said he thinks so, too.

“I’ve been fishing the past two weekends. It’s like having Christmas,” said Donnelly, 42.

What is giving fishermen and organizers hope – along with the thick ice on Sebago Lake this year – is the contingency plan adopted by derby organizers. The Rotary plans to hold it on Kezar Lake in Lovell if the ice on Sebago isn’t safe. At 2,500 acres, Kezar Lake always has ice safe enough for the derby, even during mild winters, organizers say.

Fishermen say it’s a good plan because it preserves the derby and the more than $10,000 in cash and prizes it awards to top anglers.

This year, the derby will award up to $22,600 in money and prizes, not including the $100,000 that would go to any fisherman catching a togue that beats the state record of 31 pounds, 8 ounces. The prize money draws competitors, fishermen say.

One regular entrant, three-time prize winner Jerry Parlin of Pittston said what separates Sebago from other derbies, besides the thrill of catching a big togue on a big-togue lake, is the money and prizes.

“Lots of derbies are put on, but they’re not put on for fishermen like this one. This has a $7,000 (ATV),” said Parlin, 60, an ice fisherman for 38 years. “Other derbies will have a 4-wheeler or ice auger, but they’ll give them as door prizes. Sebago gives it (for) the biggest togue.”

Parlin, the only ice fisherman to win prizes in three different Sebago Lake derbies – first-place in 2008, and second-place finishes in 2007 and 2010 – said he was so discouraged when the derby was canceled last year, he sold his ice shack. This coming summer, he said, he’ll buy another now that it looks like the Sebago derby is here to stay.

The Sebago Lake Fishing Derby is being held Saturday and Sunday, with weigh stations open from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day. Entry fees are $25 for individuals, $35 for families. Prizes are awarded for the three heaviest togue and three heaviest pike.

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

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