SEBAGO LAKE – After a few years with lousy ice conditions on Sebago Lake, organizers have devised a plan they hope will ensure the event goes on as planned.

No longer is the event confined to Sebago Lake. All lakes and ponds in Cumberland County are open to fishing in what is being billed this year as the Sebago Lake Rotary Ice Fishing Derbies, taking place Feb. 16-18.

According to event co-director Steve McFarland, who is partnering with fellow Rotarians Ingo Hartig and Ed Ricker to direct the derby, ice fishermen have two events to take part in. While the Sebago Lake Derby, with its larger prize pool, is limited to Sebago Lake, fishermen also have the chance to fish smaller lakes elsewhere in the county that are more likely to freeze. Adding the smaller lakes in Bridgton and Naples and Raymond will ensure, save for extreme conditions, that Maine’s largest ice fishing derby will go on even if Sebago Lake doesn’t freeze over.

“Three years ago, ice melted quickly. Last year, we cancelled Sebago on Feb. 1. That’s partly why we’ve created the Cumberland County Derby because there are many beneficiaries that rely on our donations, and so the ice fishing must go on,” McFarland said.

While all entrants are eligible to compete in both derbies, the two derbies have different rules. On Sebago Lake, fishermen can only reel in togue and northern pike, fish species that are out-competing the more desirous landlocked salmon for the limited smelt population. In the Cumberland County Derby, which can include lakes or ponds – not rivers – that are partially or wholly within the county’s boundaries, the competition is limited to catching cusk, perch and pickerel.

“It’s on any legal lake or pond in Cumberland County. All state of Maine fishing rules apply. Know your rules,” McFarland said.

Rounding out the weekend event, which McFarland said can draw up to 3,000 fishermen in a good year, is the popular Kid’s Derby sponsored by Kittery Trading Post on Monday, Feb. 18, President’s Day. Children age 12 and under can fish at Range Pond State Park in Poland from 8 a.m. to noon. Since the event is hosted by Hooked on Fishing, Not on Drugs, and is meant to expose kids to the fun of ice fishing, there will be free ice fishing equipment sponsored by Kittery Trading Post for 500 kids.

Parents bringing kids to Range Pond should note that while children 12 and under are free, there is a state-mandated gate fee of $1.50 per person over the age of 12, which will be collected at the park entrance.

With Feb. 16 and 17 designated as a free fishing weekend for Maine residents, no fishing license is required for derby entrants. Entrance fees remain at $30 for individuals and $50 for a family.

Prizes this year are worth braving the elements. The grand prize, sponsored by Oxford Casino, is $100,000, which goes to anyone who catches a togue larger than the 1958 state record of 31 pounds, 8 ounces.

Beyond the grand prize, all fish prizes this year are cash. The $15,000 total prize pool for the Sebago Lake Derby will be divided among those who catch the top six togue and top three pike on Sebago Lake. A fish pool will also allow those who don’t catch trophy-worthy fish a chance to win. Those prizes are also cash. In the event of a tie, length of the fish determines the winner.

At the Cumberland County Derby, the $7,500 prize pool will pay prizes for the top three places for each of three different species – perch (white or yellow), pickerel and cusk. Fish pool prizes will also be given for the county derby.

“We’re doing all cash prizes this year for the big fish, and then there will be a lot of door prizes. Every fish caught will get entered into our fish pool and total prize pools are going to exceed $25,000,” McFarland said.

While some things are new this year, charities that benefit from the weekend event will remain the same. Good Shepherd Food-Bank, Camp Sunshine, Dare to Adventure and Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife are the derbies’ main beneficiaries with Maine Children’s Cancer Program and Maine Medical Center will receive donations from the Shaw’s Polar Dip, sponsored by Shaw’s Supermarket. Derby charities can receive up to $40,000 from the event, and Shaw’s is known to raise three times that amount for the polar dip.

Also new this year is a beer tent on the ice at Raymond Beach. Organizers are still trying to find a brewery or restaurant who would sponsor the tent, which was approved by the Raymond Board of Selectmen.

“We’re planning to have a small beer tent. We’re going to keep it small and low-key. If people want to stop and have a beer, that’s great,” McFarland said.

McFarland also said this year also marks a pause in the Statewide Derby since staffing is limited with a decrease in the membership of the Sebago Lake Rotary Club. Also, longtime derby coordinator, Tom Noonan, is busy recuperating from a health issue and needs to take a year off.

“Our club has shrunk a bit. We grow and shrink with the economy and we’re down to about 20 members. So, we felt we couldn’t do a good-enough job on the statewide so we’re taking a year off and we’re going to focus our efforts in Cumberland County,” McFarland said.

Back again this year is “30 Days of Derby,” a pre-event prize pool. All those who register for the Sebago Lake or Cumberland County derbies are eligible for the 30 Days of Derby prize drawing, so the earlier you register the more chances you have to win.

Starting Jan. 17, organizers will randomly draw one name from all paid entries at that time. The winner will receive one or more gift certificates totaling between $100 and $200 each day until Derby Day, Feb. 16.

With the expansion into northern Cumberland County, two new weigh station sites have been created. In addition to traditional stations at Jordan’s Store, Sebago Lake Station, and Raymond Beach, new weigh stations have been added at the Big Apple on Route 26 in Welchville to serve the Thompson Lake area. Another weigh station will be located in Bridgton but is as yet to be determined.

McFarland is looking for volunteers to help man the five weigh stations and perform a host of other duties. Contact him at [email protected]

And while the club has the back-up plan in place with the newly minted Cumberland County Derby, McFarland is confident Sebago Lake will ice-up nicely this year.

“Carroll Cutting over at Jordan’s Store, who keeps records of these things, says seldom does Big Sebago see ice before the middle of January and normally not until the end of January, so we’ve got time. We’ve still got time, and we’re pretty confident,” McFarland said.

The Sebago Lake Rotary Club, with its band of 20 hard-working members and numerous other volunteers, hosts the biggest winter event in the area, drawing thousands of ice fishermen and spectators.
The Shaw’s Polar Ice Dip, set for Saturday, Feb. 16, is a popular draw. Last year, it raised more than $120,000 for the Maine Children’s Cancer Program.  

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