Mild weather this winter once again has organizers of ice-fishing derbies across Maine scrambling to keep their events afloat.

Several fishing derbies from Mousam Lake to Moosehead have been canceled or postponed this month. Event organizers are counting on forecasts of sub-freezing temperatures in the evenings to thicken ice and allow their derbies to go on as scheduled.

The dilemma is nothing new. Many fishing derbies – particularly in southern Maine – were canceled when temperatures were higher than average during five of seven winters between 2007 and 2013. Officials even considered permanently ending the Sebago Lake Rotary Ice Fishing Derby three years ago after having to cancel the event four times in 12 years because of unsafe ice.

Tim Hansen of Buxton checks his bait while fishing at Limington’s Horne Pond on Tuesday. With about 8 inches of ice there, a derby is set to go on Saturday.

Tim Hansen of Buxton checks his bait while fishing at Limington’s Horne Pond on Tuesday. With about 8 inches of ice there, a derby is set to go on Saturday. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

Guidelines on the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife website say that ice needs to be at least 4 inches thick for safe foot travel and at least 5 inches thick to support snowmobiles or ATVs. The website emphasizes that the guidelines are for “new, clear, solid ice,” and that other factors besides thickness can cause ice to be unsafe.

So far, this winter has been remarkable for many lakes being slow to freeze, the result of record-breaking warmth in December and above-average temperatures in January.

“This is the latest I can remember Moosehead setting up. And I’ve been here since 1988,” said regional fisheries biologist Tim Obrey in Greenville.

Organizers of the ninth annual Moosehead Lake Togue Derby, scheduled for this weekend, added a second weekend in February because they realized attendance may be low.

“Most say it’s the latest they’ve ever seen the lake lock up. That’s what the old-timers are saying,” said Suzannah Sinclair of Greenville, one of the event’s organizers.

“We’re still going to have weigh stations on the lake this weekend. But we’re telling people to use caution. The safer spots are closer to shore.”

UNUSUALLY LITTLE ICE

In central Maine, even the ice on small lakes and ponds is questionable. That’s atypical for late January, said Wes Ashe, a state fisheries biologist in Sidney.

At Chickawaukie Lake in Rockland – a shallow 200-acre pond – there was only 6 inches of ice this week. Normally, the lake has 2 feet by now, Ashe said.

“Up north even some larger lakes are still sketchy,” Ashe said.

NORTH WATERBORO, ME - JANUARY 26: Al Bates, 81 of Alfred, watches a trap while jigging for fish at Little Ossipee Lake in North Waterboro on Tuesday January 25, 2016. “I’ve got some good ones here in the past, but its the first time I’ve fished here this year because of the ice, said Bates. (Photo by Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer)

Al Bates, 81 of Alfred watches a trap while jigging for fish at Little Ossipee Lake in North Waterboro on Tuesday. “I’ve got some good ones here in the past, but it’s the first time I’ve fished here this year” because the ice has been too thin, said Bates. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

In southern Maine, the seventh annual Crystal Lake Ice Fishing Derby in Gray was moved from this weekend to Feb. 13 in hopes of assuring safe ice. The event typically draws a few thousand ice fishermen, event director Herb Blake said.

The popular derby always is scheduled for the end of January, but Blake said, “This is the third time we’ve moved it (to February).”

It’s not unusual for ice-fishing derbies in January to be called off, and one reason the majority of the state’s derbies – about 60 in total – are scheduled for February.

“Any time you have a derby in January, those derbies are a little riskier than the ones in February. Most of the time by the end of January, we have ice,” said Francis Brautigam, southern fisheries biologist with the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

However, the long-range forecast may not provide much relief for ice fishermen. A 30-day outlook by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration projects a 40 percent probability that temperatures will be above average in Maine.

This comes after Portland’s average temperature of 38 degrees shattered records in December. So far in January, the average temperature in Portland is 25.7 degrees – 3.3 degrees above normal, according to the National Weather Service.

Yet the show will go on at some lakes and ponds.

Ice fisherman Peter Malia of Limington said the Horne Pond Derby in York County is on schedule for Saturday, no question about it.

Now in its 12th year, the derby is expected to draw close to 500 fishermen vying for the largest wild brown trout and brook trout in the lake – as well as the $2,500 prize purse.

“Now the nights are really cold. Right now we’re making more ice than we’re losing during the day,” Malia said.

And John Wiesemann, director of the Denmark Rod and Gun Club’s derby, said there are no concerns for the York County ice-fishing event scheduled for this weekend.

“We haven’t found any pond that has less than 6 inches (of ice). I’ve seen ice fishermen on Hancock Pond every day,” Wiesemann said. “The long-range forecast calls for temperatures below freezing every night.”

SEBAGO BACKUP PLAN

The state’s largest ice-fishing derby is scheduled for the final weekend of February at Sebago Lake. The Sebago Lake Rotary, which runs the derby, created a contingency plan after having to cancel the event four times: If there isn’t enough safe ice on the big lake, they will move the derby to smaller lakes and ponds throughout Cumberland County.

Dylan Larose, an avid ice fisherman and the owner of Dag’s Bait and Tackle in Auburn, said ice fishermen feel cheated out of part of their season.

A shiner escapes in the exchange from Lacey Lang to her boyfriend, Tim Hansen, while they ice fish Tuesday on Pequawket Pond in Limington. Lang said she won't fish on ice that's less than 6 to 8 inches thick. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

A shiner escapes in the exchange from Lacey Lang to her boyfriend, Tim Hansen, while they ice fish Tuesday on Horne Pond in Limington. Lang said she won’t fish on ice that’s less than 6 to 8 inches thick. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

“We got the family out a couple of weeks ago after I felt sure the ice was good and safe. Normally we’re out earlier. We were a full month behind. Instead of us taking the kids out the beginning of December, we took them out the beginning of January,” Larose said. “I think I can speak for ice fishermen around the state when I say all of Maine is a full month behind.”

Tim Hansen of Buxton usually ice fishes as many as 30 days a winter and was out on Pequawket Pond in Limington with his girlfriend, Lacey Lang, on Tuesday. He’s disappointed he couldn’t get out four weeks ago, but said there’s plenty of winter left to get his fix.

“I would have loved to start Jan. 1, but it just hasn’t been feasible,” Hansen said on his second day of ice fishing.

Lang, an ice fisherman for 20 years, said many years she doesn’t set up her traps until late January. She doesn’t like to chance it on thin ice.

“I don’t come out if it’s less than 6 to 8 inches. I don’t like to come out when it’s too scary,” Lang said.