Ice fishing is a family affair. (Courtesy Laura Hunter)
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Aroostook is the county furthest north in Maine, and the first question people ask about it is what is there to do in the winter when snow piles up – sometimes topping 5 feet – and temperatures hover at zero or lower. 

Well, these conditions are perfect for ice fishing, and nothing marks the celebration of the sport better than the Long Lake Ice Fishing Derby in St. Agatha, set for Jan. 30 and 31. 

Now in its 16th year, the contest draws people from across the state and beyond who are angling for a shot at nearly $40,000 in cash and other prizes – along with bragging rights. All proceeds go to the Edgar J. Paradis Cancer Fund.  

“The first time we did it, it was a shot in the dark,” event Chair Paul Bernier said. “But 400 people showed up. It keeps growing every year.” 

Last year there were more than 1,600 registrants, and Bernier said there has been a lot of talk about how the coronavirus pandemic might affect the derby. But it’s almost the perfect activity: It’s outdoors, with people separated from each other in small ice shacks and shanties, often with small heaters, waiting for the flag on their gear to pop. It’s easy to isolate from other people, although changes have been made with COVID-19 in mind.

The opening ceremony at the Long Lake Sporting Club has been canceled this year, as has the awards ceremony; winners will be posted the Monday after the event on the St. John Valley Facebook page. Participants will also have to be masked when they register, fish, or come to see fish at the Long Lake Sporting Club.

Fishing begins at 12:01 a.m. on Saturday, Jan. 30, and fish registration is open both Saturday and Sunday until 5:30 p.m. at the Long Lake Sporting Club. The lakes included in the derby are Long Lake, St. Froid, Cross Lake, Eagle Lake, Beau Lake, Glazier Lake, Portage Lake, Carr Pond, Square Lake, and the St. John River, offering plenty of space for ice anglers.

But freeze-up has been slow this year, with temperatures generally warmer than usual, so not all lakes are completely frozen.  

“There’s still plenty of places to fish,” Bernier said, “but we are monitoring ice conditions.” 

The event is so popular that lodging is going fast, and Bernier said many participants book their lodging for the next year before they leave. But there are hotels and motels in Madawaska at Martin’s and the Northern Door Inn, and south in Caribou and Presque Isle, if you don’t mind driving a bit. 

“People should make sure they come prepared and dressed for the weather,” Martin advised. 

Some ice shacks and shanties are already popping up on the lakes, as people test the waters beneath the ice. The derby is another great opportunity for families and friends to take their love of fishing and spend time outdoors, support a good cause, and possibly earn bragging rights.  

So pack up the fishing gear, plenty of warm clothes, and head up to the northernmost reaches of the state to enjoy a weekend of fishing and the possibility of putting some extra cash in your pockets. Hope to see you there. 

Jan Grieco is a retired college instructor and former reporter for The Forecaster. She lives in Perham, where she farms and lives off the land.

FMI: Go to longlakeicefishingderby.com or call Paul Bernier at 207-227-5252.