RAYMOND — For the first time in three years, the Sebago Lake Region Ice Fishing Derby was back Saturday. While the crowd was down from what it’s been in other years over the derby’s 14-year history, fishermen and organizers alike said it showed staying power.

Some locals expressed disappointment, however.

A dozen fishermen off Raymond Beach were new to the derby. The newcomers – from as far away as Portsmouth and Manchester, N.H., as well as Burnham and Bangor – said they had wanted to fish it for years.

The derby, canceled because of poor ice conditions three times in the past four years, still is far from what it was in 2005, when organizers say as many as 2,000 ice fishermen took to the 28,700-acre lake.

This year, 1,000 registered for the two-day derby despite a snowstorm that hit Saturday, according to the Sebago Lake Rotary Club, which runs the derby.

But organizers think the derby will re-establish itself since a second lake was added this year. Kezar Lake in Lovell is now part of the derby, as well, and at just 2,500 acres, it’s a sure bet to host a derby even during a mild winter.

“I’m ecstatic. We went over 1,000 entries last night and that was my goal,” said derby director Toby Pennels. “And there’s great ice on most of Sebago. Most of the fishermen are spread out over the ice. They’re looking for the big one.”

Dubbed “Maine’s richest derby,” the two-day contest offers $22,500 in prizes and cash awards. The biggest togue, the species the derby was founded around, will win one fisherman an all-terrain vehicle valued at more than $6,000. And a state-record catch would fetch one very lucky fisherman $100,000.

The 56-year-old state record for lake trout is 31 pounds, 8 ounces. It was set by Hollis Grindle of Ellsworth in 1958 at Beech Hill Pond.

On Saturday, Ryan Weare, 14, of Cape Elizabeth wanted to be in the running to place for cash of any amount; and didn’t think his 3.28-pound togue would bring top billing. He entered the second fish he caught, anyway.

Weare was one of many who were new to the derby. Some didn’t even know about the prizes. But with a 35-degree day, conditions were perfect for ice fishing.

“I didn’t even know what a togue was before I got here,” said Bill Russell of Billerica, Mass., who brought his young son to fish.

All around Russell, other Sebago derby newbies were excited to be in a big-money derby, even if they didn’t think they would win big money.

Brad Meade of Portsmouth, N.H., was there for the first time.

Meade was awestruck by the grandeur of Sebago Lake and impressed by the number of fishermen on the lake.

“This is beautiful. And a pretty good-sized crowd,” he said as he put live bait on his line.

Still, some were disappointed with the turnout, saying it paled in comparison to past years.

David and Merissa Lind of Raymond fish the derby every year it is held. They say it’s had so many false starts in recent years, it will take many good years to build it back.

“We live right on the lake. I come out to plow (makeshift roads) for the derby, to volunteer,” David Lind said as he waited for his wife to arrive in her ATV.

“There are not very many people here. I was expecting 2,500. I was expecting it would be like it used to be. But it has to re-establish itself.”

Several years ago, when the ice was thick and the entire lake iced over, one couldn’t walk a half-mile off Raymond Beach without passing dozens of groups and parties of fishermen. Not so this year.

When Merissa Lind arrived, she was disappointed, too.

“It hasn’t been a big thing for six to seven years,” she said. “It’s sad. It’s nice having all the people come to town. There is usually more music and stuff on the lake.”

To the newcomers, however, the derby was an experience unlike any other, given the sheer size of Sebago Lake and the money at stake.

Corey Alton and Carl McAlpine from Burnham started a tour of Maine ice fishing derbies this winter after building a small mobile trailer they use as an ice shack. Their ice fishing shelter has two bunks, a stove and plenty of room for wood.

It’s a bit like a hot dog stand with no counter to place an order. They love it, and hope to take it to other derbies in other states.

“It gets called a lot of things. One lady in Aroostook County called it ‘that cute little thing,’” Alton said.

To these fishermen, the Sebago derby had it all: a big lake with fishermen kicking back all around them. To them, the fact that they are not good at ice fishing is secondary.

“We’re horrible ice fishermen. We just like doing it,” McAlpine said.

Paul St. Clair was one lone Sebago derby veteran who was fishing close to shore. He had wanted to be farther out, but when he went to leave his home in Auburn at 4 a.m., his trailer light was out. That meant he couldn’t take his ATV. And that meant he was stuck by Raymond Beach, much to his disappointment.

“All those people on the horizon? I’d rather be fishing out there – there on deep water,” St. Clair said as he sat over his ice hole, jigging.

“Tomorrow I’ll be out there. I’m going for the big one.”

Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at: dfleming@pressherald.com

Twitter: FlemingPph