Maine’s brook trout deserve the best

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.

The outspoken opposition to the new rules of one of DIF&W’s retired fisheries biologists, Paul Johnson, a man whom I respect, reminded me of Paul’s words when SAM first proposed protective measures for native brook trout on the “A list” waters.

“Over my dead body,” trumpeted Paul. Well, we got it done and he didn’t die.

But he’s still at it and his opposition stuns and stumps me. Paul is leading the campaign to prevent nonnative competing species from accessing brook trout rivers and streams in northern Maine via the bypass being constructed at one of the Penobscot River’s major dams (part of the Penobscot Restoration Project).

He understands the dangers of introducing nonnative and competing species to waters filled with native and wild brook trout. So how can he continue to advocate for the bait bucket – which is how so many new species have been established in many Maine waters.

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. George also hosts, with Harry Vanderweide, a TV talk show called Wildfire, now in its 13th year and focused on hunting, fishing, environmental, and conservation issues. The show is owned and produced by Maine Audubon and seen on its website as well as on the Time Warner cable TV station throughout the state.