New prizes at winter fishing derbies and changes to regulations that take effect on the first of the year are among the ways state biologists hope to cull overabundant togue populations in Maine waters this ice-fishing season, which has already started in southern Maine and kicks off for the northern half of the state on New Year’s Day.

The epicenter of these efforts is Sebago Lake, where an overabundance of togue is a decades-long problem, but attempts to combat the issue are happening throughout the state, including on Moosehead Lake, Eagle Lake in Aroostook County and Beech Hill Pond in Hancock County. The reason, as always, is that the voracious togue, also known as lake trout, deplete the supply of forage fish that sustain prized game fish like brook trout and salmon.

While togue are native to about 21 waters in Maine, the species has been stocked elsewhere, either by biologists or by fishermen who did so illegally to create another fishery for the long-lived, large-growing game fish. But state biologists say, as fishing habits have changed in the last few decades, fewer fishermen have been killing and keeping fish to eat, and as a result, togue populations around Maine have exploded.

The most change this winter is taking place on Sebago Lake, where starting Wednesday – Jan. 1 – rules will loosen for the second year in a row to encourage ice fishermen to keep more togue. In addition, there will be a veritable meals-on-wheels program for injured wildlife, using a new drop-off station for dead togue. And the Sebago Lake Rotary Ice Fishing Derby is getting rid of the $100,000 prize for a state record – which has been on the table for nine years but never awarded – in favor of more prize-money payouts.

Here’s what you should know going into this ice-fishing season in Maine.

Trevyr Thomas of Gray warms up while waiting on a bite at Chaffin Pond in Windham at the start of the ice fishing season on Dec. 21. Staff photo by Jill Brady Buy this Photo

Southern Maine: Starting in January in Sebago, in addition to unlimited togue under 26 inches, fishermen can keep one over 26 inches each day. (Previously fish between 26 and 33 inches had to be thrown back and only one over 33 inches could be kept.)

The hope is that fishermen will keep more small fish, since they make up the bulk of any fish population and biologists say culling them is the best way to reduce an overabundance.

Southern Maine Regional Biologist Jim Pellerin also asked the Sebago Lake Rotary Club to tweak the rules for its derby, planned for Feb. 22 and 23, to encourage the harvest of more togue. Instead of offering a $100,000 prize for a state record togue, the derby now will pay out more cash from a drawing, in which fisherman can improve their chances of winning one of at least 25 cash prizes of $100 by turning in as many legal-sized togue and northern pike as they catch. In the past, in a smaller drawing, only six togue could be turned in for a chance at the cash prize.

The $100,000 prize was never awarded because nobody ever beat the record: a 31.8-pound togue caught by Hollis Grindle of Ellsworth in 1958 on Beech Hill Pond in Otis. Other fish species will earn derby prizes, but the derby was created in 2001 specifically to thin the togue.

Jack Morey of New Gloucester prepares one of five traps while setting up for the morning at Chaffin Pond in Windham. Staff photo by Jill Brady Buy this Photo

Throughout the winter, fishermen can donate togue they don’t want to a good cause. Pellerin has worked with local fishermen to help set up a freezer “drop station” at Jordan’s Store in Sebago where anglers can turn in dead togue that will go to feed injured wildlife. Fern Bosse, one fisherman helping with the effort, said as many as 15 wildlife rehabilitators living within an hour of Sebago will collect the frozen fish. If the program proves successful, another freezer will go in on Sebago’s western shore, Bosse said.

“Last winter there were a lot of fish left on the ice. The eagles ate them. They didn’t go to waste,” said Greg Cutting at Jordan’s Store. “The store is right at the access to the lake. So in the winter the ice fishermen can come right off the ice and bring them right here to the freezer.”

Down East: In 1,350-acre Beech Hill Pond in Hancock County, the bag limit on togue will change New Year’s Day from two to six fish under 23 inches, with no fish in the 23- to 33-inch range and only one over 33 inches. The togue population has exploded here, as well, hurting the salmon. Regional Fisheries Biologist Gregory Burr is hopeful but knows togue can be a difficult fish to thin out.

“You’ve got to fish deep. People don’t always want to do that. It requires specialized gear,” Burr said. “And it’s a fish they don’t like to eat, especially the small ones. You’ve got to know how to cook a lake trout.”

Three of the biggest derbies in the region – the Downeast YMCA Derby (Feb. 8 and 9), Slims Fishing Derby (Feb. 15 and 16), and the G&M Market Fishing Derby in Holden (Feb. 22 and 23) – all award the prize for the smallest six togue. Normally, fishing derbies award the fishermen with the biggest catch, but the unorthodox prize works to encourage anglers to haul in more small fish, Burr said.

Jack Morey of New Gloucester baits a hook while getting a jump on the season at Chaffin Pond. Staff photo by Jill Brady Buy this Photo

The Holden Derby usually draws the most fishermen – around 400 to 450, Burr said. But by far the largest derby attendance in the area is on Mount Desert Island on Feb. 1, where derby organizers from the Tremont Consolidated School give out $8,000 in prizes to anyone who buys a raffle ticket; no need to fish at this one.

“They spend over an hour calling out tickets. The whole community comes out,” Burr said.

Moosehead Region: Fishing for togue in 74,900-acre Moosehead Lake has become a more popular pastime, thanks to the Moosehead Lake Togue Derby, happening Jan. 24-26. It drew 2,000 to 3,000 anglers the past few years.

Regional Fisheries Biologist Tim Obrey started liberalizing regulations on togue on the lake in 2008, the same year the derby started. Obrey said both efforts were effective in thinning the togue population. In 2011, the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife loosened the limit again, to five fish a day with a minimum length of 14 inches and one fish over than 18 inches.

The numbers show that there are far fewer togue in Moosehead today. Prior to 2008, Obrey said, anglers were harvesting about 5,000 to 7,000 togue under 18 inches each year. But for the past four years, he said the annual harvest of togue that size has been about 1,000 to 4,000 – a sign there are fewer fish in the lake. And fewer fish mean the ones that are there can grow fatter, as Obrey said was proven by his trap net in 2019, where 4-year-old salmon ranged from 18 to 22 inches.

“The fishing on Moosehead is pretty good right now,” Obrey said. “It’s a big lake with plenty of places to fish.”

Another place biologists want the togue thinned: Allagash Lake on the Allagash Wilderness Waterway. To achieve that, this winter state biologists have increased the allowable number of trap lines – from two to five – and extended the season from one month (February) to three (Jan. 1 to March 31).

Northern Maine: In Aroostook County, the story with togue is similar. Beginning in the new year on Eagle Lake, the bag limit will increase from three to six fish under 23 inches (along with one fish over 23 inches).

Also, a new effort to reduce an overabundance of salmon in the lake is good news for fishermen who love the open-water season. Starting in the new year, winter open-water fishing will be allowed when there is running water at the two inlets to Eagle Lake: one from Square Lake, the other from St. Froid Lake.

Regional Fisheries Biologist Frank Frost said the same opportunity was created on a lower section of the Fish River Chain of Lakes and younger fishermen are hooked on it. “I think we will see people open-water fishing in January and February when there is a thaw and warmer days,” he said.

Meanwhile, the biggest derby in the region has become one of the biggest in the state, at least in the amount of money awarded. The Long Lake Derby held Jan. 25 and 26 gives out $20,000 in prizes. As a result, participation in the annual derby has steadily increased from 290 in 2006 to 1,120 last year.

“We see a ton of people from southern and central Maine coming up for it. They rent places; bring their snowmobiles. It’s a huge boost to The County for those few days,” Frost said.

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