March 23, 2013

Ice fishing feels the heat

Thin ice, prompting cancellations, has organizers fearing the Sebago Lake derby is slipping away.

By Deirdre Fleming
Staff Writer

The state's largest annual ice-fishing derby on Sebago Lake has been called off four times in the past 12 years because of unsafe ice, and organizers are considering whether to cancel it permanently.

click image to enlarge

An ice fisherman on Kennebunk Pond in Lyman on Wednesday makes his way to his ice-fishing shack, which was located about 100 yards from open water near the public boat launch.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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The ice on Sebago Lake was thick enough to support an ice-fishing derby in 2010, when Paul Willette of Cape Elizabeth caught an 11-pound, 9-ounce togue, or lake trout.

2010 Staff File Photo/Derek Davis

Additional Photos Below

The Windham Rotary Club, which hosts the event, will determine at the end of May whether to stop holding the derby, said derby director Steve McFarland.

The Sebago Lake derby has drawn as many as 5,000 anglers to sample the lake's famous togue fishery and is an economic boost to the region, but one in three cancellations over 12 years are not great odds when holding an event that takes eight months to plan.

An apparent warming trend in recent years in southern Maine is having its impact on many outdoor winter sports that rely on cold temperatures, including ice fishing. This winter has seen unsafe ice on Ossipee Pond in Waterboro, Kennebunk Pond in Lyman and Crystal Lake in Gray, as well as Sebago Lake.

But long-term winter-temperature trends are difficult to analyze. The recent experience of derby organizers is a prime example.

"It's been a tough three to four years, but because it's such a positive event for the community, we're not ready to throw in the towel just yet," McFarland said. "We need to look at our business model. There are a lot of factors. If it's a good year, the derby does amazing things for the local economy and for charities. And I think from a club's perspective, it's hard to walk away from that."

Sebago Lake and its famous togue fishery are certainly a draw to ice-fishing fans.

Jeff Webber of Windham fishes the derby every chance he can. Not holding the Sebago derby would be a loss to the region, he said.

"I think it brings a lot to the region, and it gets rid of a lot of togue (which compete with landlocked salmon in the lake). It just gets a lot more people out there. It's like a big get-together," Webber said.

At Jordan's Store on the west side of the lake, Carrol Cutting, the 84-year-old owner, was saddened to hear the derby might end. The excitement, not to mention the business, that the derby brings to lake communities is unparalleled, Cutting said. And there also is the mystique and lure of a big lake trout, he added.

"It's strange to see fish like cusk and pickerel in a Maine derby. Sebago (and its togue population) is an important fishery in the state of Maine, and it's close to a populated area. People from outside the state came for the derby, too. I hope they have it one more year, just to see, take a chance that maybe the weather will be such the entire lake will freeze next winter," said Cutting, who's owned the store for 54 years.


But predicting winter is a hard task for meteorologists, let alone derby organizers.

Consider that this year already ranks as one of the snowiest winters in Portland on a list that dates back to 1881, the first year snowfall records were kept by the National Weather Service.

But in southern Maine, temperatures have been warmer than the 30-year average -- 25.6 degrees Fahrenheit -- for the meteorological winter (December through February) two of the past three years and five of the past seven.

But only half the winters in the past 10 have seen average temperatures exceed the 30-year average. So knowing whether the recent warm trend will continue is difficult, said weather service meteorologist Mike Kistner in Gray.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Derby participants turn out for the Sebago Lake Rotary Club Derby on Feb. 26, 2010.

2010 Staff File Photo/Derek Davis


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