Monday, March 21, 2011

Maine Humble Pie

An ice fishing road trip that I pencil in every season is to Maine's Sebago Lake. Good friends of my family have lived next to this massive body of water since I can remember. Every February for the last several years they have hosted me for the Derbyfest. This annual two-day tournament draws thousands of ice addicts from all over New England to Maine's deepest lake to compete for the heaviest lake trout, also referred to as togue or lakers. Coveted prizes like boats and snow mobiles are given out to top finishers, which normally require a trout well over the double-digit mark. To up the ante this year, a $100,000 reward was posted for anyone who could topple the state record togue, a 31-pound beast caught in 1958.

Aaron's new fishing mobile received baptism by fire on this trip
Derrick, Aaron and I met on a rainy Friday morning and packed Aaron's new truck for its inaugural fishing trip.  What a better way to break it in than a run up to Maine in gnarly weather?  We packed as "light" as we could, yet still needed to strap three sleds and a pop-up shelter to the roof just to fit everything.  We made it to Kittery without issue and stopped for some fine New England sea fare at Bob's Clam Hut.  After getting back on the highway, we soon crossed the rain/snow line and the road conditions instantly turned treacherous. An oblivious driver in an FJ Cruiser sped past us in the fast lane, lost control and hit a snow bank, causing the vehicle to barrel-roll three times. Thankfully, it landed right side up and looked relatively unscathed, though I dialed 911 and a few other cars stopped to assist regardless. We continued on at a snail's pace shaking our heads as to what had just happened.

After another long hour on the road, we pulled up to Jordan's, a rustic lake-side general store that's always buzzing come Derby time. This is where we stocked up on bait, live white suckers and rainbow smelt, as well as picked up our Derby registration and three-day licenses. Next stop was Wayne's house, our headquarters for the weekend. After a big Maine dinner, we sat around the wood stove catching up, tinkering with new gear, and hatching a game plan for the next morning. With a fresh foot of powder on the lake and no snow mobile, our crew would be severely limited on where we could fish.  We scoured a Sebago depth chart for some sharp drop-offs that were walkable distances from shore. A spot was agreed upon, yet with no recent scouting it was like throwing a dart at the map.   

Sebago drops to a mind-boggling 314 deep in its Big Bay
We got a later start the first day than we would have liked, mostly due to the home-brew Wayne's brother busted out the night before.  And as expected, the snow slowed us down quite a bit, although we managed to carve out a nice piece of real estate with the depths we were looking for.  Our tip-ups were set off bottom in water ranging from 60 to 110 feet deep.  I also drilled a few dozen extra holes in between for jigging.  It was slow going in terms of action.  We marked some fish on our electronics, though they were acting far from aggressive.  Enticing these lakers into their characteristic cat-and-mouse chase was difficult.  The tip-up action wasn't much better either.  Sometime mid-morning I got my one and only flag of the weekend, which turned out to be a "chew and screw" with about 20 yards of line taken out and no one home.  We kept working hard though, changing jigs and presentations, moving traps around, and varying depths, all the while cooking, eating, and BSing the day away.  Staying mobile and purely jigging is arguably the most effective tactic for icing lake trout, yet with a group of our size that is there for fishing and camaraderie, staying put and hammering a chosen area was the plan of attack.

Trap fishing with smelt set off bottom can be an effective tactic for Sebago lake trout
Derrick eventually put the group on the board when his sole flag of the weekend produced a small lake trout from 67 feet down.  It was the right species, just the wrong size by about 12-pounds we would later find out.  As day one wore on, the lack of life underneath us only became more apparent.  The bite was off plain and simple.  After a full day working hard with little to show, we packed up and went back to the drawing board.  A hot meal was waiting for us back at headquarters and we sat around the table staring at the map again.  We could have easily gone back to spot number one, taken what we had learned and tweaked our presentations for day two.  However, we chose a spot about a mile away, directly in front of the family lake house, hoping that the home turf would would generate some good luck.

Derrick's small lake trout that ate a smelt was the only one we saw all weekend

In short, Sebago didn't treat us any better on Sunday.  Old Man Winter welcomed us back to the lake with a raw wind and mixed precipitation that came in sideways.  The warm confines of the pop-up shelter were inviting, though we mostly braved the elements and jigged like mad-men knowing our time in Maine was growing short.  Unfortunately, for the second day in a row our fish finders stayed blank for the most part.  A few willing fish rose off bottom, yet triggering them into biting was difficult to say the least.  In my limited experience, when the bite is "on", it's really on.  Many seasoned anglers caught their share of lakers that weekend, including one lucky Mainer with a 14.14-pounder that took first place, but we just couldn't make it happen.  However, a phone call one week later had me scratching my head, as our host and his brother caught 10 lake trout a piece up to 6-pounds.  It was like the lake trout action turned on like a light switch.  Air plane jigs, spoons, tip-ups with smelt - it didn't matter.  With my jaw dropped, Wayne told me fish were bursting 40 feet off the bottom in 70 feet of water to smash their baits without hesitation.  Man, I wish that was the case during our trip, but that is the roll of the dice that are road trips.  All in all, it was a classic time as always.  And one of these years we're bound to get lucky and hit pay dirt.  Unbeknownst to me, this trip would be my last real trip of the 2010/2011 ice season.  It will be good to get back in the swing of open water fishing until I'm chomping at the bit for ice again next November... 

The Motley Crew with high hopes on day one

Until next year....


  1. Nice post, but show me some spring, man! You remember spring, right? Green leaves, skunk cabbage, herring...

  2. I hear you, T.J. Soon... I'm not sure about in Ohio, but it's snowing today in Connecticut!