Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife is proposing another step to protect wild and native brook trout by banning the use of live fish as bait on 16 brook trout waters. The move is long overdue, but is expected, nevertheless, to generate significant opposition, mostly from bait dealers.
I've posted a list of the 16 waters in my Bangor Daily News blog.
Two weeks ago in this blog, I reported on a meeting of DIF&W’s new brook trout working group where participants spent most of the day arguing about the use of live fish as bait on the 267 waters that DIF&W calls the “B” list. These waters hold native and wild brook trout and have not been stocked in 25 years.
Legislation proposed by the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, when I served the organization as executive director, and enacted by the legislature, protected brook trout in 331 ponds on DIF&W’s “A” list that have never been stocked. Both stocking and the use of live fish as bait are prohibited on those ponds.
While DIF&W’s leaders deserve credit for bringing this proposal forward, I must also note that they have set aside, for consideration next year, the entire Allagash Waterway. They also set aside the Fish River Chain. It’s likely that those waters will be permanently taken off the brook trout list, because they are now managed primarily for landlocked salmon.
The department’s new “B” list proposal, distributed to members of the agency’s Advisory Council last week in “Step One” of the agency’s rule-making process, is on the agenda for the September 24 meeting in Enfield of the brook trout working group.
DIF&W will host three public hearings on the proposal in October, and present it in “Step Two” at the November 15 Council meeting. That will also be the final day for public comments on the proposal. The Advisory Council will vote on the proposal at its December meeting.
As we approach the September 24 working group meeting meeting, I want to present more of my notes from the last working group meeting held on August 29 in Strong. Here’s more of what I learned and heard at that meeting.
You can use live fish as bait on 2,300 Maine waters, including 79 percent of the state’s Great Ponds.
Once a competing species gets into a brook trout water, it’s almost impossible and very expensive to get them out. DIF&W Fisheries biologist Tim Obrey reported on a project in six Moosehead Region ponds to get rid of suckers. Tim said the project is not designed to eliminate suckers but to kill as many as possible.
He’s working with a Greenville nonprofit organization that is paying kids to do the work, using DIF&W’s nets, boats and motors, and with DIF&W supervision. They are doing two or three ponds a year, and “I have a long list of waters to go,” reported Obrey.
The trout populations are rebounding in the six waters. “After three years of trap netting, intensively, we’re seeing tremendous improvements in brook trout,” he said.
Retired Maine game warden John Whalen, who grows and sells baitfish, had a lot to say at this meeting. Along with David Allen, another retired game warden who owns a sporting camp in the North Woods, Whalen is a strong critic of limits on the use of baitfish.
Noting that “Some species do better as water temperatures have risen,” he said, “There’s a possibility that all of our work is for naught, if the climate continues to heat up along with water temperatures.” Whalen also said he finds smelts in waters that no one knows about and thinks they’ve been there “forever.”
Dave Allen reported that all of his camps have posters and literature to educate anglers on these issues, saying, “Our fishermen are educated.” Matt Libby, another sporting camp owner, agreed, but said anglers in out camps are not being reached, a lot of land is changing hands, lots of sporting camps are for sale, and the “future is challenging.”
Libby said “we need options for the best way to handle this – regulations, education. It has to be easy. It has to be seen.” He reported that “a lot of illegal fishing is going on. There is a lot more access to the Allagash – a lot more people coming in.”
Allen said he’d talked to John Boland three years ago, when he was the Fisheries Division Director (Boland is now the top guy in both the Fisheries and the Wildlife Divisions) but “he wasn’t willing to compromise. He wanted no live fish as bait, period.”
“If there isn’t a slight opening in the door with John (Boland), why are we here?” questioned Whalen.
Mike Brown, DIF&W’s Fisheries Division Director, reported that Boland “still has a lot of concerns.” I know that to be true, as well as the fact that Boland believes strongly that the use of live fish as bait is jeopardizing brook trout populations in all of the “B” list waters.
Whalen, seemingly tone deaf to the threat, said, “Once you ban bait, you’ll never go back. Why the fire drill?” he asked. “Why is this so urgent, when it’s been happening for years?”
Brown quickly offered an excellent response: “We only have X number of wild brook trout waters. The number of years we wait, the more waters and populations we put at risk.”
Whalen responded by saying that “most introductions are deliberate, with larger fish. The problem is that too many anglers don’t care about our cold water fishery. When they move up here, at their camp, they want to cast into the weed bed and catch bass, and sure enough, the bass show up.”
Gary Corson reported that in 1959 in the very first edition of DIF&W’s Fish and Wildlife Magazine, one of the articles was about live fish as bait, talking about the need to educate anglers. “We’ve been educating them for a long long time,” he noted. In that magazine article, it was reported that DIF&W was planning to take the problem of illegal introductions of yellow perch to the legislature for action.
And the debate continues, more than 50 years later!