Registrations for the 15th annual Sebago Lake and Cumberland County Ice Fishing Derbies were down considerably this year, due to snowy conditions and freezing temperatures, derby organizers said.

Individual and family registrations were down from roughly 1,000 last year to 560 this year, according to lead derby organizer Deb McPhail, the president of the Sebago Lake Rotary Club.

“Everybody feels the weather is what brought the numbers down, with all the snow and the cold,” McPhail said. “We’ll do it again next year but I think we’ll do it at a later date – a week or two later.”

With deep snowpack on Sebago Lake as a result of the repeated snowstorms that have pummeled the Lakes Region this year, organizers say it was difficult for people to drive ATVs or trucks onto the ice, further limiting the appeal of this year’s derby.

McPhail said that derby proceeds had also dropped significantly, but declined to provide details on the scale of the decline.

“We usually have a lot of money to give out and I don’t think we will be able to this year,” she said, referring to the derby’s annual charitable donations. “We’ll still make money. We’re not going to go in the red because of it.”

On late Saturday afternoon, with snow falling and local meteorologists projecting a 2-foot accumulation from a blizzard, McPhail decided to cancel Sunday’s portion of the derby, following a recommendation from Sgt. Jason Luce of the Maine Wardens Service. The Sunday awards ceremony was pushed back a week, and will be held at 6 p.m. on Saturday at the Windham Veterans Center.

“There was a lot of disappointment that we canceled on Sunday, but it was because of advice from the wardens service because of the cold, the gales, the visibility,” McPhail said.

Although only a few inches fell, Luce said, he thinks McPhail made the right call.

“It was her call,” Luce said. “I will take the blame for recommending it. It was the right call. The weather was horrible. There was a gale all day.”

“Our main concern was Saturday night, people staying out on the lake,” Luce added. “The big portion of the lake had just frozen the week before, so we had unknown ice conditions out there. My biggest concern was that people were going to get lost and wander out onto unsafe ice.”

It wasn’t all bad news at this year’s derby. The 13th annual Shaw’s Polar Dip, held at Raymond Beach, raised roughly $60,000 toward the Maine Children’s Cancer Program, according to the program’s development manager, Tara Studley. The dip raised about $65,000 last year, Studley said.

Meanwhile, Brady Ouellette, 21, of Auburn, took home a $1,500 ice-fishing package for his first-prize catch of a 39-inch, 14.88-pound togue. Ouellette said he caught the togue – the biggest fish he’s ever caught – around 11:30 a.m. with his friend, Tim Larracey, near the Dingley Islands on Big Bay.

“I freaked out on the ice,” Ouellette said. “I was yelling and screaming. My buddy, he helped me pull the fish out of the hole.”

Ouellette said he immediately headed for the nearest weigh station, and then went home.

“Half an hour after we caught it we packed up and left,” Ouellette said. “We wanted to get that fish as fast as we could to the weigh-in. We didn’t want it to lose any weight.”

Ouellette, who has fished the Sebago derby four times before, said he was thrilled to win his first derby on one of his favorite lakes.

“This is the one derby I love fishing,” he said. “I spend all my time out on Sebago during the winter. It’s a class A fishery. There’s always a chance for a fish like that.”

Other fishermen were not so lucky. Around 11:30 a.m. on Saturday, Jeremy Farley, of Presque Isle, had placed 10 traps near the Standish Boat Launch, but had not caught any fish at his first Sebago Lake derby. But Farley, who was hanging out with his brother, two nephews, and a friend in a wooden shack named “The Chateau,” said he was not discouraged.

“We haven’t got nothing,” he said. “For us it’s vacation. If we get something, we do; if we don’t, we don’t.”

Was it worth it in the 5-degree weather?

“It’s nothing,” Farley said. “It’s 23 below in Presque Isle today.”

At Raymond Beach, many fishermen were disappointed by the low turnout. Bill Rowe, of Naples, who has been to five Sebago Lake derbies, was drinking with a dozen friends in a well-heated shanty equipped with a flat screen TV. Outside the shanty, Rowe said, the derby was lacking the festive quality of yesteryear.

“It’s horrible,” Rowe said. “No one (else) is drinking today. They’re all worried about the snowstorm.”

“I’ve seen more people out front of my house,” he added. “It’s a letdown.”

Don Bancroft and Geoff Grigsby, both of Raymond, had arrived at 8 a.m. and dug out several feet of snow in order to take cover from the biting wind. Bancroft, who has attended the derby since 2010, recalled seeing thousands of people gathered in tent cities partying when he first started attending the event. Looking out at the relatively empty ice, Bancroft pronounced the scene “desolate.”

Grigsby, a close friend of Bancroft’s son, figured the low attendance had to do with the cold. He estimated that there were twice as many people fishing near Raymond Beach last year.

“The last two years have been rough just because there’s been so much snow out on the ice,” he said. “It makes it tough to get around and do anything. This year it’s so cold. It’s not like you can do it with the family.”

Gary James, of Bristol, Conn., had set up four traps around 10 a.m. with his girlfriend and two grandchildren.

“The girlfriend and grandkids came out here for a few hours and then they went in,” James said. “They couldn’t take it anymore.”

Although James had not yet caught any fish in the 22-foot-deep waters, he said he was enjoying spending time outside. An avid ice fishermen, James said the low attendance fits into a larger pattern that he’s noticed.

“I like to try to come up here and hit one derby every year,” he said. “They seem like they’re getting thinner and thinner. It’s expected. They’re a lot of work and somebody has to take the responsibility of getting that all together.”

At the Shaw’s Polar Dip just off Raymond Beach, Team #HayleyStrong jumped on behalf of Hayley Desjardins, a Saco child diagnosed with aplastic anemia. Organizers said the dip proved popular this year, while weather impacted overall attendance at the Sebago Lake Derby.Staff photo by Ezra SilkSnowmobile riders prepare to head out onto Sebago Lake from the Standish Boat Launch. Derby organizers said the large snow accumulations on the lake made it difficult for truck and ATV drivers to drive onto the lake. Staff photo by Ezra SilkBrady Ouellette, 21, of Auburn, took home a $1,500 ice fishing package for his first prize catch of a 39-inch, 14.88 pound togue.Courtesy photo

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