Each year, dozens of ice fishing tournaments are staged throughout Maine. Some are smaller, local events, while others drawn anglers near and far for the chance to win cash, prizes and bragging rights. Two of the latter derbies are on tap this weekend, and each will draw hundreds of participants to their respective regions.

Organizers of the Long Lake Ice Fishing Derby with Ricky Craven, which actually includes 10 bodies of water in the St. John Valley of Aroostook County (and Canada), and the Moosehead Lake Togue Derby are finishing up their preparations and expect large crowds again this year.

Up in Greenville, Tim Obrey serves as president of the Natural Resources Education Center at Moosehead, which is organizing this year’s 10th annual Moosehead derby. He’s also the regional fisheries biologist for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, which has cooperated with the NREC on the derby since its inception.

This year’s event kicks off on Friday and runs through Sunday. Obrey explained that the original plan for the derby was to utilize recreational anglers to help meet fisheries management goals.

“The derby was initiated as one of several strategies to help reduce the lake trout [or togue] population in Moosehead Lake,” Obrey said in an email. “We had too many lake trout, which created a shortage of forage and resulted in poor growth for lake trout and salmon.”

The question: How do you reduce the number of lake trout swimming around in the state’s largest lake?

One answer: Change the fishing rules.

“[The DIF&W] worked with several groups in town to develop the derby, and we also implemented a no size or bag limit [rule] on lake trout under 18 inches [long] for several years,” Obrey explained. “We immediately saw an increase in the harvest of lake trout.”

That meant that no matter how short the fish, anglers were allowed to keep them, as long as they were under 18 inches long. And with no “bag limit,” they could keep as many of those small fish as they wanted. The goal: Reduce the number of fish competing for a limited forage base.

That harvest was impressive. Obrey said that before the rule change, biologists estimated the annual winter harvest of smaller lake trout at 3,000 to 5,000. During the winters of 2008 and 2009, between 20,000 and 30,000 small lakers were removed from the lake each year.

And as the population came more under control and the catch declined, the DIF&W responded by changing the rules in 2011 and instituting a five-fish limit on smaller togue.

“We are now experiencing some of the best growth for both lake trout and landlocked salmon in Moosehead Lake,” Obrey wrote. “We conducted our annual trap-netting of salmon in October this year and found they were at a peak in terms of ‘fatness.’”

Obrey said that in a typical year, between 300 and 400 tickets to the derby are sold; Two years ago, more than 700 entered. Tracking actual anglers is more difficult, because many people buy tickets without actual plans to drill a hole and set up a tip-up. Instead, they’re looking to support the NREC and take a shot at winning one of the numerous door prizes, which include vacation trips, fishing gear and firearms.

Obrey said the weather forecast for this year’s event looks good, but said anglers should still use caution on the ice.

“The ice is in pretty good shape. Anglers need to avoid the usual bad spots near moving water, and we haven’t checked on the backside of Mount Kineo, which is the deepest area of the lake and the last to freeze,” Obrey wrote. “But most of the lake has at least a foot of ice and we got a few more inches of snow on Tuesday, so there is sufficient snow cover for snowmobiles.”

Tickets cost $25 for an individual or $40 for a family. A youth door prize ticket costs $5. To register, go to NRECmoosehead.org.

In the St. John Valley, anglers will flock to area lakes for three great reasons: First, some of the most productive waters in Maine are among the 10 derby waters. Second, the Edgar J. Paradis Cancer Fund is the beneficiary, and over the past 11 years, more than $51,000 has been raised through the derby. And third, winners can make a bundle of cash: Adults who catch the largest salmon and lake trout will take home $1,500 each.

Derby waters include Long, Cross, St. Froid, Square, Eagle, Glazier, Beau and Portage lakes, Carr Pond and the St. John River.

The derby has grown each year, according to chairman Paul Bernier, and 893 people registered for last year’s event.

“I think the cause is definitely a draw, but the purse is a huge draw. That’s big money there,” Bernier said.

The derby bills itself as “Maine’s largest cash prize ice fishing derby,” and boasts a total cash prize pool of $16,000.

Bernier said ice conditions continue to improve.

“Three weeks ago conditions were very variable,” Bernier said. “But that rain we had about three weeks ago and then the cold weather after that have really buttoned things up. You take Long Lake, for example, and we’ve got an average of 14 to 20 inches [of ice], depending on where you go … at the Sporting Club in Sinclair there’s 16 to 20 inches, and that [thickness] stretches all the way to Van Buren Cove. ”

And snowmobilers will have no problem getting around, he said.

“The trail system is awesome from lake to lake,” Bernier said. “And anything can get on [the lakes] … what we got [for precipitation Tuesday] night was basically four inches of sleet … that’s not going to hamper anything.”

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John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. He spent 28 years working for the BDN, including 19 years as the paper's outdoors columnist or outdoors editor. While...