Saturday, February 8, 2014

Gearing up for annual fishing derbies - By Elizabeth Richards

The last two years have been tough ones for the Sebago Lake Rotary Club’s annual ice fishing derbies, but it looks as though that luck will change this year. “Big ice is a chance for a big derby, and we’ve got big ice coming on right now,” said Toby Pennels, the event organizer. 
Though the derbies include Kezar Lake and all legal Cumberland County waterways, good ice on Sebago is key to a successful event, said Pennels. “There’s always ice to fish. It’s the allure, maybe the magic, of Sebago that’s the draw. If we don’t have good ice on Sebago, we suffer,” he said.

The last two years were tough, and this year the club considered not even running the derby. Pennels agreed to be the point person, and the club rallied to make it happen, gathering sponsors big and small. “The message that I’m the most proud of is that in the wake of two pretty miserable years for the derby in terms of weather conditions, is that our local businesses have stood up beyond belief,” said Pennels. “The $100, $250 and $500 contributions have been amazing. That’s why we have a derby, because the community stood up and wrote the checks.”

It’s sometimes easy in a bad ice year to forget all the good stuff, said Pennels. And yet, even in a “bad year” thousands of dollars have been raised. “Last year was a bad derby year and they raised over $60-70,000 for Maine Children’s Cancer. It’s amazing, and we forget that,” he said. The Polar Dip, sponsored by Shaw’s and run by the Maine Children’s Cancer Program with assistance from the Rotary Club, is the most consistent fundraiser, since it can occur even when there is no ice, said Pennels. 

The Derby was shifted to the first weekend of school vacation to coincide with free fishing weekend in Maine. This year, it will be held on Saturday, February 15th and Sunday, February 16th. Weigh stations will open at 7 a.m. each day, and will close at 5 p.m. On Sunday, the 5 p.m. time is a hard close, meaning you must be in line by then to be weighed. A kids derby will be held on March 8th, rather than the same weekend as the regular derby, this year. The change is due to both limited volunteers and a hope for warmer temperatures. “Last year was brutal. It was about a five minute stay time on the ice and you couldn’t do it anymore,” said Pennels. 

The derbies serve three purposes; to raise money for charity, to serve as a fish management tool for the state, and, this year, to feed hungry people in Cumberland County. An organization, Hunters for the Hungry, plans to gather unwanted fish from the ice, bring them to a food processor that has agreed to process the fish according to regulations, and feed people throughout the area.

Registrants can fish for all four species – pike, pickerel, perch and togue on both Sebago and Kezar Lakes. The objective in having another togue location was to have a backup body of water, in case Sebago didn’t freeze. Cancelling the derby has a great impact on anyone coming from a distance, so moving weigh stations and recommending another venue is preferred, said Pennels. The management objectives of Kezar Lake are the same as those for Sebago, and therefore this lake can also offer the unlimited fish pool prizes according to state law. “This is the state working with us, understanding the problem – it was perfect,” said Pennels. The Cumberland County Derby allows for fishing of the other three species on all legal ice fishing waters in the county.

There are three ways to win in this year’s derbies. The 30 days of Derby is an incentive for people to register early. Anyone registering between January 15th and February 10th is entered into a drawing for a variety of prize packages. Early registrations can eliminate the need to hire outside administrative help, preserving more dollars for charity. 

There are big fish prizes, including a $100,000 prize for catching the largest togue that breaks the state record of 31 pounds, 8 ounces. There are prizes for the top three fish for all four species, including a 2013 Polaris Sportsman ATV for the largest togue.

Finally, there are the fish pool prizes. Any fish caught, up to the limit of six per species per day, will earn the registrant an entry into the fish pool drawings. This encourages those fishing to bring in the smaller fish so biologists can examine the catch and gather important data. 

This year two reality television shows will be joining in the fun. The National Geographic Channel is sending a production crew to film a reality-based show about ice fishing. Signs placed all around the filming areas will serve as permission for anyone in that area to appear on camera. Though Pennels doesn’t know the name of the show or any details, he said, “What I do know is that if it is done right, there is comedy on the ice for sure.” The reality show Northwoods Law will also be filming at the derby. 

Other events for the weekend include the polar dip, helicopter rides at Raymond Beach, vendors for food, ice fishing equipment and bait, and the Sebago Speed Trials on Sunday. Rules, registration forms, prize lists, weigh station locations, and more information can be found on the website,

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