Most of the roughly 6,000 ice fishermen who descend on Sebago Lake each February for the annual ice fishing derby don’t know Tom Noonan.

And chances are by the time Noonan grows March’s statewide derby to where he wants it, the ice fishermen who fan out across Maine won’t know him, either. And that’s all right.

The founder, director and mastermind behind Maine’s biggest derby prefers to spread his brand of fishing fever on the down low.

But give Noonan five years, and quite a few people in Minnesota will know him — some 20,000 to be exact. That’s because Brainerd, Minn., is home of the nation’s largest ice fishing derby, and Noonan wants the title.

Earlier this year, Noonan left the Sebago Derby to focus whole-heartedly on growing the statewide derby that is held the following weekend. He asked the Windham Rotary Club to take over all aspects of the Sebago charity contest while he forges ahead growing the statewide derby. And his fellow Rotarians who have worked with him on the derby couldn’t say no.

Because, they say, he’ll deliver and lead 20,000 ice fishermen onto the ice across Maine on the same weekend in March.

“It was all his brainchild. We all relied on him. Sometimes when things got tough, he’d do it himself. He did a lot of work, many, many hours. I bet he does it every day,” said Ingo Hartig, a 23-year member of the Windham Rotary Club

“I think the state of Maine gives him another frontier. It’s something he can work on, the entire state. I think it can be done. He will do it together with other organizations. He’ll franchise it.”

In fact, Mainers across the state who met Noonan for the first time this fall said after hearing his sales pitch that they believe.

“With his energy, I think he can. When he talked about it, the focus being on the charity and giving to others, it’s pretty striking,” said Joyce Hedlund, President of Washington County Community College in Calais.

“And he’s got a good plan. I walked away feeling in a couple of years we could be there. I think five years is realistic. There is a lot of ice fishing in the state. He’s tapping into that.”

Rapid Growth

Eleven years ago, Noonan wanted to help thin out the togue in Sebago Lake. So this real estate agent with a penchant for multi-tasking turned Sebago’s first annual lakewide derby into a fundraiser.

The event has raised $750,000 for local charities and has jump started a free kids derby tradition while becoming one of the five biggest ice fishing derbies in the country.

From the start, Noonan’s goals were to thin the lake trout in Sebago Lake to help the precious salmon — and raise money for local charities. Then, several years ago, Noonan started talking about Brainerd, Minn., where one of North America’s biggest ice fishing derbies has raised as much as $200,000 for charities annually since 1990.

Minnesota’s famous derby is run over two days on one lake. The statewide derby also is run over a weekend, but takes place on water bodies across the state using weight stations that work in concert to raise money for the charity event.

For several years, Noonan felt Maine’s could be bigger. Then he got impatient.

“I felt it was important to say, ‘I need to resign and focus on this.’ The statewide requires that it is revamped in how it’s being run organizationally. That is going to take a few years to build up. I feel once we get going it will be something. Give me five years,” Noonan said.

Noonan has a proven track record for this sort of thing. When warm weather forced the cancellation of the Sebago derby, he created the statewide derby, then grew it. After he introduced the free kids derbies, he expanded that to three ponds, in Raymond, Poland and Winthrop.

Noonan grew up a fisherman. Born in Portland, he has spent only one year of his 60 outside Maine.

His friends say that when he’s not selling real estate, he’s on the ice or talking derbies.

“Tom has done quite well for 11 years. He had it all in his head. He knew what to do and when. I bet he works on it every day. If you put in two hours every day, how many hours is that?” Hartig wondered.

Building a network

Mark Cobb has been involved in the statewide derby since the beginning in 2007, and he sees the potential.

He runs a collision shop in Windham and owns a camp in Springfield, where he likes to snowmobile. He knew the wild land there was ripe for a big ice fishing derby. So several years ago, Cobb told Noonan to get the snowmobile club there involved, get the riders to volunteer and run the fundraiser, which is what snowmobile clubs do anyway.

Noonan embraced Cobb’s good idea. Now it’s his model.

Since then, Noonan has gone into small communities around Maine to partner with local clubs. They get half the money raised for their local charity, Noonan builds more ice fishing mania.

“Snowmobile clubs are a prime candidate. Most are looking for fundraisers to run for charities. It gives us a focal point to gather around,” Cobb said.

Now Noonan is building on past success.

Donald Bolduc, Millinocket’s police chief, had never met Noonan or heard much of the statewide derby until this fall. Now he wants to help grow it.

“I thought it was just about big fish. I didn’t know if you bought a ticket and caught a bunch of pickerel that you could be entered into a drawing. I think a lot of people here would be interested in that,” Bolduc said.

Now the police chief is like other Mainers who have volunteered for Noonan over the past 11 years, working hard to promote ice fishing and believe in the good that can go with that.

“He definitely cares,” Hartig said of Noonan. “We call him Mr. Togue — he’s Tom Togue to his friends.”

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