Olivia Loudermilk, 11, of Auburn, left, and Cassidy Sawyer, 11, of Raymond clear out ice from a hole while fishing with Cassidy’s family on Long Lake in Naples on Wednesday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

NAPLES — Brian Donegan is certain ice fishing is the new TikTok.

Well, not exactly. But the Massachusetts resident, who fishes the Sebago region in the summer, tried ice fishing there for the first time last week – and he said the sport is bound to draw converts during the pandemic.

Donegan’s fishing party at Long Lake on Wednesday included seven children, aged 12 to 14. None in the group had fished before. And despite a persistent, frigid wind, the day was declared a rousing success.

“Three of the boys already asked to go again, if that tells you anything. They’re all mad we had to pack up,” said Donegan of Wakefield, Massachusetts, after three hours of fishing. “I think they just like being outside. And the locals are so nice. They stop to help. They share their bait. This is a good choice during the pandemic. It makes it easy to social distance.”

Many longtime ice fishermen and bait dealers last week reported seeing larger ice fishing crowds than usual this winter in the Sebago Lakes Region. Still, it’s unclear how many newcomers to the sport will stay with it.

“You know when you’ll know? When it’s March and the days are warmer. That’s different than being out when it’s 25-degrees with a stiff wind,” said long-time ice fisherman Jack Stefancyk of Sebago, as he fished Bridgton’s Moose Pond with two friends.

In 2019 – the most recent year that data was available from the state – there were 263,650 resident fishing licenses and 85,418 non-resident licenses sold, according to the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. Those numbers have been steadily rising for the past several years, and that trend is expected to continue, said Mark Latti, IFW communication director.

However, youth ages 15 and under do not need a license to fish, so it’s unclear exactly how youth fishing numbers are trending. And because a fishing license allows a person to fish either the open-water season (in the spring, summer and fall) and the ice fishing season, it’s unknown exactly how many of those Maine anglers are ice fishing.

People tend to their traps while fishing on Long Lake in Naples last week. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The Sebago Lake Ice Fishing Derby taking place this weekend on Sebago Lake and lakes throughout Cumberland County was down in registration – but that’s typical during the week leading up to the derby on a year when much of Sebago is free of ice, said Cyndy Bell, the derby’s spokeswoman.

“Sebago is the draw,” Bell said.

But many long-time ice fishermen last week reported seeing crowds on the weekends this winter, especially over the Presidents Day holiday weekend.

Jerry Jordan of Gorham said the southern end of Sebago Lake, called Sebago Station, “was a zoo” on Presidents Day. At Long Lake, the southern end near the boat launch, “looked like a block party,” said Charlie Sawyer of Raymond.

And bait dealers across southern Maine have reported record sales this winter – and many newbies among their customers.

“Sales in the past six weeks are better than all of last year,” said Sebago Bait owner Wayne Berzinis in Windham. “It’s crazy. There are a lot of families. I think a lot of people are looking for something to do. And a lot of them need help. They are people who need everything from the trap to line to leader to hook. We have a line out the door.”

In Shapleigh at Beadles Tackle Shop, co-owner Brian Beadle said this year has been one of his busiest in the 30 years his family has owned the bait and tackle shop.

“We are selling a lot more tackle than we ever have. It could be that we are now on Google, and that helps people find us,” Beadle said.

Likewise, Larry Scholz, owner of Unc’l Lunkers in Bridgton for 15 years, said business during the coronavirus pandemic is up 20 to 30 percent.

“People are really trying to get outside. Which is a good thing,” Scholz said. “Ice fishing is the perfect thing to do to spend time with family and friends. You get out and enjoy nature.”

Helena Sheldrick, 12, removes a trap while fishing on Trickey Pond in Naples last week. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Some ice fishermen agree that the pandemic is driving people to the cold-weather sport – as it has with so many outdoor sports the past year, such as camping, ATV riding, cycling and Nordic skiing.

Jordan of Gorham, who was heading out for his 14th day of ice fishing on Wednesday on Sebago, said he has seen “a ton of kids fishing this year.”

Likewise, Dave Sheldrick of Sebago fishes most weeks with his 12-year-old daughter, Helena, and Sheldrick has seen more children fishing this winter than ever before. It’s likely because of the pandemic, he said.

At Long Lake, where Jackie and Charlie Sawyer brought their 11-year-old daughter, Cassidy, and two friends to fish, Charlie Sawyer thinks the sport could be growing.

“Without a doubt, I think COVID has taught us we need to find and try new things,” Sawyer said. “It has altered the way we do things. People need to get outside.”

Tyler Leach tried ice fishing for the first time last week with the Sawyers. A coworker of Sawyer’s who moved from Virginia to South Portland in the past year, Leach said he was instantly hooked.

“The first thing I said to them was, it’s so quiet,” Leach said as he looked around on Long Lake. “Absolutely I will do this again. It’s easy fishing, you pull the grill out, you’re outside. It’s relaxing.”


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