Legislature tackles controversial issue of protecting wild brook trout

The first question in my new Sportsmen Say Survey is about this issue. Please read this column and then go to my website, www.georgesmithmaine.com, select “Sportsmen Say Survey” on the website and complete the survey. Make your voice heard on this critical issue! The legislature’s Inland Fisheries and Wildlife will receive a report and recommendations from Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife on this issue on February 11.

The Issue

DSCN4012A management plan for wild brook trout in waters that haven’t been stocked in 25 years, the so-called “B list,” along with a list of those waters, is scheduled for delivery to the IFW Committee on Tuesday, February 11. This will be a hot topic, focused on the use of live fish as bait in some of those waters.

The legislature overturned a decision by DIF&W and its Advisory Council to ban the use of live bait on four B list waters last year, but also pulled language from a bill that Representative Jeff McCabe sponsored at my request that directed the agency to submit an updated B list and a policy and management plan for waters on that list.

The legislature also ordered DIF&W to adopt rules governing the use of live fish as bait on waters that contain native and wild brook trout, while designating those rules as “major substantive,” meaning they will be subject to the approval of the legislature. That has not happened yet.

I expect the department will only present a policy for wild brook trout waters, and dodge the more complicated and controversial directive to create a list of waters where that policy will be applied. That fight is likely to come later. First, they’ll try to establish a credible policy and win the legislature’s support for that policy.

Here are my thoughts on the issue, expressed in a column I originally posted last fall.


Sourdahunk’s Lessons – Why not the best for Maine’s brook trout?

With a stunning sunset to the west and a ring of pink clouds surrounding the magnificent Mount Katahdin and its surrounding mountains to the east, I had to put down my fly rod for a moment and enjoy the views. For the past 90 minutes, my view had been focused almost entirely on the Yarn fly at the end of my line.

You know how it is when the brook trout are biting. A hatch of the famous Green Drakes was bringing up the trout, and plenty of them were mistaking my Yarn fly for the real thing. I had already hauled in more than a dozen, and despite the intensity of my focus, missed a lot of strikes.

Nesowadnehunk  (pronounced Sour-da-hunk) is the largest fly-fishing-only lake in Maine. It isn’t stocked and is chock full of native brookies.

The requirement that a water be limited to fly fishing is still controversial in Maine. I don’t know why that is, except that many anglers hate change. We settle into our fishing methods and cling to them like they are the Holy Grail.

I didn’t get serious about fly fishing until we bought out camp on Sourdahunk in 1991. I began with a three-day course at LL Bean where I learned to cast. That’s really the critical element of fly fishing. And anyone can learn. Daughter Hilary was seven. Dad was 70.

As I sat there in the boat, enjoying the end of a blessed night of fishing, I wondered why it is that we are engaged in such a fierce battle over the management and protection of our remaining wild and native brook trout waters. After taking steps to protect just nine more wild trout waters, by banning the use of live fish as bait there, Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife suffered a setback last month when the legislature overturned those rules on four of those waters, to please ice fishermen.

The uproar over the rules reminded me of the fight to protect brook trout in waters that have never been stocked. As the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, which took the lead in that effort, I can tell you that it was not an easy path. It’s a long story, and I’ve told it often, so I won’t repeat it here. Eventually, with the support of Governor Angus King and the Maine legislature, we established the “A list” of brook trout waters (waters that have never been stocked) and banned the use of live fish as bait on those waters (to prevent the inadvertent establishment of other species of fish).

Chandler Woodcock, now DIF&W’s Commissioner, was the State Senator who sponsored SAM’s bill, and his hard work had a lot to do with the bill’s success. No one should doubt Chandler’s commitment to our wild and native brookies.

The battle has now moved to a new field – a “B list” of waters that hold wild brook trout and have not been stocked in 25 years or more. Despite the success of our protection and management of the “A list” waters, many anglers simply cannot accept the same management and protection of the “B list” waters – primarily because it would force them to change the way they fish those waters.

For 150 years, we’ve erred on the side of anglers – stocking every water we could reach, removing huge stringers of huge fish until there were no more huge fish, illegally establishing competing fish species like northern pike and crappie, and playing God with Maine’s beautiful native brook trout. Sadly, those brook trout have disappeared from most of southern Maine and more than a thousand lakes and ponds – replaced by hatchery-reared trout and/or nonnative fish. God would have done better without our help.

As I cast a glance back toward Katahdin that night, I thought about how much I enjoy fishing for native trout in Baxter Park’s small ponds, streams, and brooks. The Park includes 55 lakes and ponds and hundreds of miles of brooks and streams. For more than 50 years, the native brook trout in those waters have been protected. Most of the waters are fly-fishing only. None allow the use of live fish as bait. All remain unstocked. These fish are a national treasure. And I don’t think I’ve ever heard a word of complaint about the way they are protected and managed in the park.

So why do we not respect and protect our native and wild brook trout outside the park as well as we do inside the park?

Surprisingly, even some of DIF&W’s fisheries biologists – past and present – oppose protective regulations like no-live-fish-as-bait for our wild trout waters. Their opposition was an embarrassment and serious problem for Commissioner Woodcock as he sought to ban the use of life fish as bait on that very modest list of nine waters this year.

As I motored in to camp that night, so pleased by a spectacular evening of fishing for a spectacular native Maine fish in a spectacular setting, I was more convinced than ever that it is time to err on the side of the fish. You just can’t deny 150 years of history, or the gorgeous national treasures at the end of my fly line that evening. They are worth protecting, fiercely, everywhere they still exist.


George Smith

About George Smith

George stepped down at the end of 2010 after 18 years as the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine to write full time. He writes a weekly editorial page column in the Kennebec Journal and Waterville Morning Sentinel, a weekly travel column in those same newspapers (with his wife Linda), monthly columns in The Maine Sportsman magazine, two outdoor news blogs (one on his website, georgesmithmaine.com, and one on the website of the Bangor Daily News), and special columns for many publications and newsletters. Islandport Press published a book of George's favorite columns, "A Life Lived Outdoors" in 2014. In 2014, George also won a Maine Press Association award for writing the state's bet sports blog. In 2016, Down East Books published George's book, Maine Sporting Camps, and Islandport Press published George and his wife Linda's travel book, Take It From ME, about their favorite Maine inns and restaurants.