With just days remaining until this weekend’s 11th annual Fort Kent International Muskie Derby, organizers are expecting a large crowd of anglers to flock to northern Maine to take part.
“We’re seeing more pre-registrations this year than I’ve ever seen,” said derby board member Ben Rioux. “[There is] a lot of downstate interest, a lot of people from farther away.”
Rioux said he was unsure how many participants fished in the derby in 2013, but said that tourney numbers have increased each year.
“And we’re [receiving] 30 or 40 [entry blanks] a day,” he said.
This year’s derby will run from Friday, Aug. 8 through Sunday, Aug. 10. The weigh station at Quigley’s Outdoors will be staffed from 9 a.m. until 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, and from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. on Sunday.
Fishing will be allowed in the St. John River west of Grand Falls, and in all of the tributaries of the St. John.
Rioux, who works for Quigley’s Outdoors, said the derby has intrigued people since its inception.
“I think it’s a relatively new fishery,” Rioux said. “The chance at catching such a giant fish, I think, is what draws people to the area. They want to learn about that fishery, to take a break from trout and salmon. That’s the vibe I’m getting.
Rioux said that if the top angler surpasses the existing state record for muskellunge — 31.69 pounds — they will win a new Ford F-150 pickup truck, courtesy of Pelletier Ford. The derby prize pool is set at $10,000.
And while the derby has been staged during extremely low and extremely high water conditions in some past years, Rioux said anglers will have no problems with the water level in rivers this weekend.
“We’ve had some rain the last few weeks that have brought it up a little bit,” Rioux said. “It’s probably average, maybe a little lower than average for this time of year.”
Rioux said anglers will likely fish in different spots depending on what kind of boats they’ll be fishing out of.
“I think most of the guys with the larger boats will be in the Frenchville, Van Buren area,” he said. “Around Fort Kent, it will be fine for fishing with canoes.”
Rioux said the success of the derby, and the interest in muskie fishing in general, led Quigley’s, a hardware store, to expand.
“We kind of built this store around muskie fishing,” Rioux said. “We just opened up [a separate outdoor store] in January. We were in the back corner of the hardware store [since 2011].”
Muskies slowly worked their way into the St. John River system after being introduced by biologists in Lac Frontiere, Quebec. The presence of the top-end predators has devastated the native brook trout fishery that formerly existed in many of the St. John’s tributaries; locals, and more recently, traveling anglers have been taking advantage of the unique fishery that does exist: Big, toothy muskellunge that be 40 inches or longer and weigh 20 to 30 pounds.
“It’s very much a word-of-mouth fishery, from what I’ve found,” Rioux said, describing the small-town dynamic that exists in many places: If anglers are struggling to catch fish, many of their friends will refuse to go fishing. When the fishing gets hot, everyone wants to buy a lure and give it a try.
“The fishing wasn’t as good in early spring as it has been,” Rioux said. “Everybody talks, so not as many people were fishing.”
Since then, the fishing has steadily improved.
“This is the right time for the derby,” Rioux said.
For more information about the derby, go to http://www.fortkent-muskie.com/