In a way, it was like fishing for the hundredth time on a water. That water would have to be full of fantastic fish to make that hundredth visit memorable. Unfortunately, the debate over the use of live fish as bait on wild brook trout waters – an issue that dominated the August 29 meeting of DIF&W’s new Brook Trout Working Group - wasn’t what you’d call fantastic or memorable. More like discouraging and repetitive.
But we may be headed for a showdown on this key issue.
Earlier this year, DIF&W Commissioner Chandler Woodcock named the following to his new Brook Trout Group: Gary Corson of New Sharon, John Whalen of Canaan, Matt Libby of Ashland, Ted Koffman of Falmouth, Dan Tarkinson of Portland, Dave Allen of T8R11, and Bonnie Holding of Eustis. At the same time, Woodcock disbanded the previous brook trout group.
Gary Corson is a longtime member of the Fishing Initiative Committee of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine and the principle advocate for year-round fishing. John Whalen is a retired game warden who operates a smelt hatchery. Matt Libby and his wife Ellen own the Orvis-endorsed Libby Camps on Millinocket Lake and is a former member of the Fish and Wildlife Advisory Council.
Ted Koffman is Maine Audubon’s executive director. Dan Tarkinson owns a fly fishing website (Fly Fishing Maine). Dave Allen is a retired game warden who, with his partner Josie McPhee, owns Macanamac Camps west of Millinocket. Bonnie Holding is a top western Maine fly fishing guide.
These are good people, but like their predecessors, they just can’t seem to agree on the steps needed to protect Maine’s wild and native brook trout. The Maine legislature, acting several years ago on legislation submitted by the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, protected our native brookies in waters that have never been stocked, the so-called A waters.
Since then, the argument has focused on the next group of B waters that contain native brook trout and have not been stocked in at least 25 years. There aren’t that many, slightly more than 200. Some are focused on the 69 waters that haven’t been stocked in 50 years.
The group that met on August 29 is new, but they’re stuck on the same old issue that has dominated discussion for far too long, with very little to show for it. Honestly, I don’t see how this is going to ever be resolved, unless DIF&W’s leaders step up to the plate with courage and determination. And yes, it could happen.
For one thing, Chandler Woodcock was the Senator who sponsored SAM’s legislation that protected brook trout in the A waters, including a ban on the use of live bait on those waters. Chandler has stated, many times, that brook trout issues and initiatives are a primary focus of his tenure, along with rebuilding the deer herd.
And I got a glimpse of the courage and determination that will be required to get this job done, from Mike Brown’s performance at this meeting. Mike is DIF&W’s new Fisheries Division Director. He came over from the Department of Marine Resources where they do things quite differently – basing their decisions on science. And he recognizes that many of DIF&W’s fisheries decisions in the past have not been science-based. With the help and support of his boss, John Boland, he intends to make that change.
Mike was repeatedly questioned at the meeting about his thoughts and challenged about his intentions. All day long, the group bantered back and forth over the possibility of banning the use of live fish as bait on the B waters, to assure that nonnative species are not introduced accidentally there.
Mike suggested that the map showing these so-called B waters should be a “road map for protection.” He insisted that smelts “always compete with brook trout.” He reiterated, “My guess is brook trout would do better everywhere without the competition,” from smelts. He also said, “Certified bait is needed statewide, something we need to work on this winter.”
When asked by Dave Allen to explain what he meant when he said these fish need protection, Mike cited habitat, water quality, and the elimination or prevention of competing species as key factors. “Our directive is to protect wild brook trout, particularly in B waters,” he told the group. And clearly, that directive comes from the Commissioner.
Yet Mike continued to be challenged. Later, he said, “What we’re really looking to protect is the ability of these trout to reproduce and thrive. To allow these populations of trout, without stocking, to exist, reproduce, and provide a fishery. And also to recognize the ability of each water to produce specific sizes of fish.”
And Mike challenged the group, citing the new mix of people, and telling them he’s looking for “new ideas.” John Whalen, a retired game warden and bait dealer, and the most outspoken proponent of the use of live bait, questioned Mike sharply throughout the day. “Once you ban bait,” said John, “you’ll never go back. Why is this so urgent,” he asked?
“We only have x number of wild trout waters,” responded Mike. “The number of years we wait, the more waters and populations we put at risk.” That was a great answer!
For me, the fact that the entire day was spent talking about live fish as bait, without any agreement, tells me this group, like the one before it, is headed to failure. At least, it will not be able to offer DIF&W a unified set of suggestions that will protect wild brook trout in those B waters.
There was no talk of other needs: staff, research, engaging and educating anglers, increasing economic opportunities, marketing, habitat protection and enhancement, and perhaps most important, creating a quick response team when new species are illegally or accidentally introduced into these waters.
Mike noted that his division’s information on the B waters has yet to be computerized, and throughout the day, cited other problems relating to lack of staff, money, time, and attention.
I took five pages of notes, and will try to clean them up and post more of the day’s lively debate. But for now, all you need to know is that there was a debate – the same one we’ve been having for 10 years – and there was no resolution to this confounding problem.
It’s my guess that sometime soon, Chandler Woodcock, John Boland, and Mike Brown, will propose a ban on the use of live fish as bait on the B wild brook trout waters, with or without support from their brook trout working group.