Danny Paradis of Frenchville holds the winning salmon – 6 pounds, 3.4 ounces – in the 2020 Long Lake Derby in St. Agatha. This year, the Long Lake Derby is giving out $22,000 in cash prizes and $45,000 in prizes. It is Maine’s richest derby. Jean Paul Paradis photo

For nearly a quarter century, the Sebago Lake Ice Fishing Derby has been the largest of the dozens of ice fishing derbies held across Maine each winter. Now, an event in Aroostook County has taken over that mantle.

The Long Lake Derby in St. Agatha drew just 290 fishermen at its inaugural event in 2006, but has steadily grown to include as many as 1,800 participants. It is now held on 10 lakes in the Fish River chain of lakes and has drawn more than 1,000 participants each of the past four years. This year, the Long Lake Derby will give out $22,000 in cash prizes for those who place in the big-fish categories and $45,000 in total prizes, including a Polaris side-by-side ATV and a fully outfitted ice shack.

Aroostook County is a solid six-to-seven-hour drive from southern Maine, but fishermen who make the trek say it’s worth it. The Long Lake Derby is scheduled for Jan. 28-29.

“I have been going there to ice fish with my friends in the winter for 10 to 15 years and to the derby the last seven years,” said David McQuade of York. “It’s more remote. You could be fishing all by yourself. The next ice shack might be 200 to 300 feet away, but that’s not every year. Some years, the next one is a quarter mile away in either direction. The people are friendly and I think the fishing is more spectacular because there’s more native species. You don’t find that down here.”

The Sebago Lake derby was first held 22 years ago. The event shifted to a Cumberland County-wide derby that included 25 water bodies starting in 2013, after it had been canceled because of lack of ice four times in 12 years.

The event has drawn 500 to 1,200 participants over the past several years since the county-wide format was adopted, said derby organizer Cyndy Bell. This year, it will award $5,000 in cash in a grand-prize drawing and a total of $15,000 in prizes. 


Both derbies donate to multiple charities each year. Registration for the Sebago Derby cost $25 for individuals and $35 for families (two adults and up to four children). Registration for the Long Lake Derby costs $20 per day and $30 for the weekend for adults and $10 per day and $15 for the weekend for youth ages 13 and under.

Fishermen who enter the Long Lake Derby every year are drawn by the remote outdoor wilderness and the lack of fishing pressure in Aroostook County, which is home to 67,000 residents in the largest county east of the Mississippi, according to the U.S. Census. And they also come for the promise of big fish.

Ice fishing participants in the Long Lake Derby can spread out, as shown above in 2020 on Long Lake in Sinclair. It’s one of the 10 bodies of water in the derby, Maine’s largest and richest, with $22,000 in cash prizes and more than $45,000 in total prizes. Jean Paul Paradis photo

The Long Lake Derby has a tradition of big winners with the largest salmon to date weighing 7 pounds, 14.2 ounces and the largest togue, or lake trout, to date weighing 18 pounds, 9.6 ounces. The largest brook trout caught in the derby was 3 pounds, 14 ounces, while the largest muskellunge, which is not native to Maine and not found in southern Maine waters, weighed 26 pounds, 9.9 ounces.

“It’s a big territory where there are big-sized fish,” said Tom Young of Hookset, New Hampshire, who fishes the derby every year. “People come for the camaraderie, they like the adventure, they like the winter atmosphere, the generous prizes and, of course, the big fish.”

They’re also drawn by the native, wild trout, which are plentiful.

Trout Unlimited reported that Maine is the last stronghold in the Northeast for wild brook trout with the state boasting 97 percent of the intact wild lake and pond brook trout populations in the eastern United States. And many of those waters are in northern Maine, according to the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.


Daniel Sheffer of York holds up a lake trout on Eagle Lake near Fort Kent during the Long Lake Derby in 2020. David McQuade photo

Half the registered fishermen for the Long Lake Derby come from southern Maine, said Paul Bernier, who founded the Long Lake Derby when he worked for the town of St. Agatha in 2006 and has continued as its director.

Sometimes temperatures can dip into the sub-zero range and get as cold as 10 to 20 degrees below zero. McQuade said you just layer up and make use of an ice shack. Regulars say it’s a welcome climate knowing it produces very thick and safe ice.

“Being in southern Maine I might as well be in New Jersey as far as the weather goes,” said McQuade, who’s 71, and loves to cross-country ski as well as ice fish.

The mild start of this winter has left open water and questionable ice thickness throughout the state – including in northern Aroostook County.

Jean Paul Paradis of North Carolina jigs on Square Lake in the Long Lake Derby in 2014. Courtesy of Jean Paul Paradis photo

Sgt. Mike Joy, with the Maine Warden Service in Aroostook County, said on Jan. 10 that many of the larger lakes in the Fish River Chain of Lakes had open water or thin ice. Typically, some of those lakes are frozen in November, but Joy said the rain and wind that came to the region after the Christmas storm opened up some waters on the big lakes.

“The bigger lakes – Eagle, Square, and Long Lake – are very popular this time of year. Long Lake can potentially produce historically big landlocked salmon. That’s the prize for people fishing Long. It historically freezes first, but people are not venturing out beyond the coves,” Joy said.


The forecast calls for temperatures in St. Agatha to be below freezing – day and night – during the two weeks leading up to the derby, according to weather.com.

Jean Paul Paradis of Huntsville, North Carolina, plans to travel to The County for the derby as he does every year, like a lot of Fort Kent natives. Paradis wants to help the local charity and visit family. But he also loves the friendly camaraderie and the spirit of Aroostook County that’s evident in the ice derby’s vibe, he said.

“The derby is very dear to my heart and to the hearts of a lot of locals,” Paradis said. “I already put in my registration fee. Maybe this year we’ll hit 2,000. It’s very much a big deal up there. I love fishing and this is an awesome place to do it. It’s really cold. But it’s beautiful. It’s not an easy experience. Sometimes you have to drill a hole through 40 inches of ice,” he added with a laugh.

Both of Maine’s biggest ice fishing derbies raise money for charities.

Since it was founded in 2006, the Long Lake Derby has continued to donate funds to the Edgar J. Paradis Cancer Fund in Aroostook County, which it gave $10,000 to last year. In the past three years it also has donated $12,000 each year to the Northern Maine Medical Center Foundation.

The Sebago Derby chooses different beneficiaries each year, such as local food pantries. This year it will donate to the Feed the Need Food Pantries. It also donates all lake trout caught for meals for the homeless and the food insecure at Preble Street. Last year, 7,500 pounds of fish were donated, Bell said.

Also part of the Sebago Derby’s original mission is culling the lake trout in Sebago to help the wild landlocked salmon populations, and the derby has done that. Regional Fisheries Biologist Jim Pellerin said the Sebago ice fishing derby combined with the two other togue derbies held on Sebago during the open-water season help to thin the lake of smaller togue, which benefits the native salmon.

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