FORT KENT, Maine — For this weekend at least, size definitely mattered.
From the 12-foot diameter buckwheat pancake to a 20-pound fish, bigger was definitely better — not to mention tastier — at the annual Fort Kent Ploye Festival and International Muskie Derby.
While hopeful anglers trolled up and down the St. John River, and its lakes and tributaries, all day Friday and Saturday, landlubbers took in the sights and events on dry land at the ploye festival highlighted by the annual creation of the world’s largest ploye.
A ploye is the traditional flat bread of the early St. John Valley settlers. It is made of buckwheat, baking powder and water.
“I’m completely flabbergasted by this,” 82-year-old retired farmer Alban Bouchard said Friday night as he waited next to the custom made 12-foot diameter griddle heating on a bed of coals made from 15 bags of charcoal.
In the early 1980s Bouchard’s children came up with the idea to package and market a mix based on the family’s recipe and using the Bouchard Farm’s own buckwheat.
“In the 1970s the ploye was a thing of the past,” Bouchard said. “No one was growing buckwheat anymore.”
That’s all changed and today, Alban Bouchard’s son Joey and his wife Janice run the farm with Bouchard’s Family Farm Ploye Mix is sold throughout Maine and shipped around the world.
It takes 20 gallons of the batter and an army of volunteers to create the once-yearly giant ploye. Over the last six years, the family has the process down to something of a science.
“I stole some people from the crowd and we’ve got relatives and people from New Hampshire and New Jersey giving us a hand,” Joey Bouchard said. “We’ve got a good crew.”
When the temperature was just right, members of that crew began dumping 5-gallon buckets of batter on the griddle as Alban Bouchard and fellow volunteers spread it evenly with giant squeegees.
Minutes later the group hefted the griddle off the coals and set it down — cooked to perfection in front of an applauding crowd numbering in the hundreds.
“This is just fantastic, isn’t it?” Muriel Labbe of Fort Kent said, as she accepted a piece of the ploye and helped pass other samples out to those around her.
Labbe was one of the many fed by the Bouchards’ creation and within a half-hour of it’s cooking, not even a crumb remained.
“I remember my mother making ployes when I was growing up, 85-year-old Annette Daigle said. “She would use buttermilk and let the batter sit overnight.”
A huge fan of ployes of all makes and models, the St. John Valley native did have a confession.
“I’ve never made a ploye in my life,” Daigle said. “My husband always made them for me.”
A stone’s thrown from the giant ploye, the official weigh-in for the muskie derby was in full swing with what many were predicting to be the winner already on ice Friday night.
Justin Soucy of Fort Kent earlier that day landed a 42.5-inch, 20.13-pound muskellunge in the St. John River below Fort Kent.
The largest member of the pike family, the muskellunge —or muskie for short — was introduced into Quebec several decades ago as a sport fish.
Eventually the predator made its way down through Glazier Lake on the Maine-New Brunswick border and into the St. John River.
Jesse Saunders has fished the waters of northern Maine his entire life and is a recent convert to muskie fishing and eating.
“With these muskies you can get some great fishing in the St. John River,” Saunders said as he waited for some samples of fresh fried muskie Saturday afternoon. “Even when it was at its height, salmon and trout fishing in the St. John (River) was mediocre at best and now you can pull out a 20-pound muskie.”
Admitting he was skeptical about the taste of the giant fish at first, Saunders said his first meal was all it took to change his mind.
“I’d have to say this is at the top of the list,” he said, helping himself to another sample.
Rolande Pelletier of Cross Lake is an avid ice-fisher but said she had no real interest in going after the muskie.
“I would like to see one brought into a boat,” she said. “But I don’t want to go fishing for one.”
Minutes later, after trying her first taste of the fish, Pelletier was having a change of heart.
“I never thought it would taste this good,” she said. “I’m thinking I may have to change my mind and go fishing for them.”
The fried hunks of fresh fish were coming compliments of derby participants who donated more than 300-pounds of fish by Saturday afternoon.
Among those skinning, breading and deep-frying the fish was Darlene Kelly-Dumond, event organizer.
“This is the worst job I’ve had all day,” Kelly-Dumond said with a laugh as she pulled the thick skin from a fish next to the official derby scales. “Talk about taking out your festival frustrations.”
Derby headquarters was set up and Kelly-Dumond’s business Bee-Jay’s tavern and people were lining up early for the chance to sample the fish.
“The first year we did this no one wanted to even hear about trying muskie,” Kelly-Dumond said. “Now we can’t keep up with the demand.”
More than 400 had registered for the derby from around Maine and New England, she added.
For Kelly-Dumond, who grew up along the Allagash River, the event is more than a fun tourist attraction, it hits home.
“To see the river traffic again is wonderful,” she said. “This morning I looked out my window and saw canoes passing each other on the St. John River and it just gave me chills.”
The derby and festival, Kelly-Dumond said, show Aroostook County at its best.
Kelly-Dumond didn’t have time to stand still long to talk as more fish were coming in, destined for her cooking pot.
“I may have to open a muskie restaurant,” she said.