About five years ago, hooked by the muskie-fishing bug, the Cabaniss family of Vassalboro began looking for places to fish.
“My husband, he’s been fishing, or trying to fish, for muskies for several years,” Debby Cabaniss explained. “He went to Wisconsin with my son five years ago, and then we realized that we had some [muskies] that were closer than Wisconsin. So we started going to Fort Kent.”
On Friday, the Cabaniss clan was back in that Aroostook County town, competing in the 11th annual Fort Kent International Muskie Derby. And before the day was done, Debby Cabaniss had caught the eventual derby-winner, a monster fish that measured 44⅜ inches long and weighed 23 pounds, 13 ounces.
And it could have been bigger, the winning angler said.
“When we measured it it was actually about 46 inches long,” Debby Cabaniss explained. By that point, however, the official weighing station was closed, so she and her husband, Chuck, had to wait until the next morning to register their fish.
Debby Cabaniss said that the fish could just as easily have been her husband’s.
“We had just boated one — my husband had — before we caught this one,” Debby Cabaniss said. “It was 36, 37 inches, just below [the minimum length of 38 inches that derby organizers require]. We were trading reeling them in, so it was my turn to reel [the winning fish in].”
Winning fish are judged according to their length, not their weight, but Cabaniss’s muskie topped the chart in both categories.
Taking second was first-day leader Cody Daigle of Wallagrass, who landed a 42⅜-inch fish that weighed 20 pounds, 11 ounces. Third place went to Sarah Soucy of Fort Kent for her 42¼-inch fish, which weighed 20 pounds.
Cabaniss took home $2,100 ($2,000 for the win, $100 for catching Friday’s biggest fish), while Daigle earned $1,600 and Soucy won $1,000.
Competitors in the three-day derby can choose from a variety of waters, including the St. John and Allagash rivers and Beau and Glazier lakes. Conditions were near perfect, derby organizer Justin Dubois said.
“I think we had enough rain that allowed people to get to a lot of different places,” Dubois said.
That’s a bit of a change: By early August in some years, water levels in the rivers are low, making fishing quite difficult.
“People did better in the rivers than they did in the lakes [this year],” Dubois said. “We didn’t have any [prize-winning] fish coming in from the lakes. In the last couple of years, we’ve had at least one fish — and usually a bigger fish — at Glazier or Beau lake. This year they weren’t biting at all.”
Debby Cabaniss said that proved true for she and her husband: This was the first year of competing that they hadn’t fished Glazier Lake. Instead, they concentrated their efforts on the St. John River, and that plan paid off.
After some unsuccessful trolling for fish, the winning fish was caught on a cast.
Dubois said a record 420 anglers participated this year.
“That was very good. We typically do about 300,” Dubois said. Dubois said last year’s Acadian Congress dominated the St. John Valley’s calendar, and might have led to a decrease in participation.
“And [this year’s] weather was nice,” he said. “We had a lot of registrations the day of [the derby] and the week of, after people looked at the weather report.”
After catching the winning fish, the Cabaniss team had to wait for two full days to see if Debby’s fish turned out being the winning entry. Frequent text messages from derby headquarters kept them up to date on the situation.
“And we didn’t have any luck the rest of the time,” Debby Cabaniss said, although her son did briefly hook a fish on Sunday, just as the group was getting ready to head back to town for the awards ceremony.
Debby Cabaniss said she and her family enjoy their triips to Fort Kent, and said her husband has made several trips there over the past few years, trying to learn the tricks of the finicky muskie. She said the employees of Quigley Outdoors have been a great help over that time.
And she said the family has grown to love Fort Kent.
“Mostly what drew us [to town] was the fishing, but we really enjoy it up there,” she said.
Even, she said, when she found out that she’d become semi-famous.
“It was kind of strange for me,” she said. “On Saturday I went to the grocery store and some people actually recognized me. They said, ‘Hey! You’re the one with the fish!’”
John Holyoke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 990-8214. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnHolyoke