Ice fishing derbies typically offer participants the chance to engage in some good-natured competition, and to perhaps take home a prize for their efforts. In Greenville, organizers are preparing for a derby that has helped reshape the fishery in the state’s largest lake.
The Moosehead Lake Togue Derby with Ricky Craven, which will be held for the 12th time Friday through Sunday, was begun as part of an initiative undertaken by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
Tim Obrey, a state fisheries biologist who is also on the board of directors for the Natural Resources Education Center at Moosehead, which organizes the derby, said the event was first staged to address a problem that the Maine DIF&W had identified.
There were simply too many lake trout, also called togue, in Moosehead Lake.
“We had some really serious growth issues, really from the early ’90s up through the 2000s. The problem was we had too many lake trout, and they were eating all the smelt,” Obrey said. “We tried a bunch of different regulations to sort of nibble away at it, but we never could get ahead of the togue population, so our growth was really languishing.”
For three years, the DIF&W instituted a fishing regulation designed to remove a lot of hungry mouths from Moosehead: There was no daily size or bag limit on lake trout under 18 inches, and anglers were also allowed to keep two lakers longer than 18 inches.
And the department talked with interested anglers and town leaders about holding a togue-only derby to help jumpstart the effort to reduce the population.
“We realized that the fishing pressure just wasn’t what it used to be, so we decided to work with, at the time, the chamber of commerce and NREC to develop this derby, to bring people up and sort of be the gas in the engine, to get this thing going,” Obrey said.
The effort worked.
“We had three years of that regulation, and we took out about 80,000 of those little togue over those three years [winter and summer]. And then another 10,000 or 15,000 of the lake trout that were over 18,” Obrey said. “That really was what turned things around for Moosehead.”
Those numbers are even more striking when compared to the harvest of lake trout immediately prior to the liberal regulation going into place.
Obrey said about 5,000 to 7,000 small togue were harvested each year before that regulation went into effect, and about 45,000 were harvested the first year after the regulation change, in 2008. Another 30,000 small togue were removed the next year, before biologists saw a major change that they’d hoped for.
“The harvest dropped off sharply to 7,200 in 2010, which was the result of lower catch rates because the anglers had successfully thinned the herd,” Obrey said. “This told us it was time to change the regs back to the five-fish limit. The catch rates for these smaller togue have been remarkably stable since 2010, and at a rate that is very close to the goal that we had set.”
Today, that special regulation does not exist. There’s now a five-fish limit on togue under 18 inches.
Obrey said more readily available smelts have led to good growth in togue, landlocked salmon and brook trout, with several large brookies having been caught through the ice already.
“We’ve had a great season for brook trout, but we probably ought to remind people that this is a lake trout derby, not a brook trout derby,” Obrey said. “It’s all lake trout.”
What you need to know about this year’s derby:
— Legal fishing begins at 12:01 a.m. Friday, Jan. 25 and lasts until 4 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 27.
— Tickets: $25 for an individual, $40 for a family, which can consist of parents, grandparents, guardians and children age 17 and younger.
— A spaghetti dinner will be held Saturday, 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., at the Bartley Event Center.
— Largest togue wins the angler $1,500. Second prize is $500, third wins $250.
— More than 50 door prizes will be up for grabs.