Why doesn’t Maine value its spectacular native Brook trout?

DSCN4010It was bad enough when smallmouth bass migrated from Umbagog Lake into the Rapid River to threaten and compete with the river’s spectacular native brook trout. But now, the news is even more discouraging. Our own fisheries biologists have allowed inbred brook trout from a diseased water to infest the Rapid. Their stunning lack of appreciation for Maine’s native brookies is appalling.

Of course, I’m not surprised, given the many years it took the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine to get the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife to recognize and protect our native brookies. And we had to take the issue to the legislature to accomplish that goal.

Anglers who love the native brook trout in the Rapid River, just west of Rangeley, alerted me to this problem. Here’s what I’ve discovered.

According to a 2013 DIF&W population survey, the Richardson Lakes are now, for the most part, a stocked brook trout fishery (77-88% depending on which set of conflicting numbers are most accurate). This means that Upper Dam Pool – a place where I love to fish – is primarily a stocked brook trout fishery because all the fish come from the Richardson Lakes.

Most of the brook trout stocked in the Richardson Lakes are Kennebago Strain–referred to as “Local Strain” by DIF&W. This strain has not had its brood replaced in more than a decade due to a disease in the source water – Kennebago Lake. This results in a loss of genetic diversity–inbreeding.

DIF&W reports that they can’t go back to the Kennebago drainage for more brook stock, to improve diversity, because fish health testing between 2002 and 2004 indicated the presence of IPNV (Infectious Pancreatic Necrosis virus) and furunculosis (Aeromonas salmonicida) in Kennebago Lake.  Sad, but true.

Stocked fish invade the Rapid

According to DIF&W there is nothing to prevent the stocked fish from the Richardson Lakes from entering the Rapid River. And once these stocked fish get into the Rapid they can also migrate into the Magalloway, another place where I have caught wild brookies exceeding 5 pounds.

Initially, DIF&W disputed this. But according to hatchery receipts, they did “unknowingly” stock 2600 Kennebago strain brook trout at South Arm Boat Launch just 4 miles from Middle Dam–the source of the Rapid River, in 2014. I guess DIFW understands that this was a terrible mistake because they’ve said they will not do this again.

The worst thing about this is that these hatchery fish could interbreed with our wild trout. But we won’t be able to track the invasion of the Rapid by these stocked fish, or the interbreeding, because according to the hatchery receipts DIF&W marked only 5,200 of the  85,700 Brook trout stocked in the Richardson lakes since 2000. The agency now says they will mark all fish going forward. I wouldn’t even credit this decision as being better late than never.

Landlocked salmon are another problem. They’re now invading the Rapid from both ends of the river: from New Hampshire’s Umbagog Lake and the Richardsons. We can’t do anything about the Umbagog invasion, but we ought not to be making things even harder for the Rapid’s brook trout by putting more salmon in the river. Landlocked salmon were stocked at South Arm Boat Launch in 2013 and 2014 for the first time, even though we know they compete with the wild Brook trout in the Rapid for food and space. But DIF&W says that because “salmon continue to be abundant in the Rapid… fretting about outmigration from South Arm doesn’t seem productive.”

Really? Fretting about the future of what may have been Maine’s most outstanding native Brook trout fishery?!! Well, shame on us!

What troubles me most is that a high-value wild and native brook trout fishery of national significance—-and arguably the most significant fishery in the state–is being knowingly negatively impacted to by a stocked nonnative fishery.  And Maine’s Fish and Wildlife Department doesn’t seem to care. Indeed, they are partly responsible for this problem.

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.