Native Brook Trout: A Resource Worth Protecting
(As appeared in The Maine Sportsman)
By Bob Mallard

As many of you are already aware, Maine has recently made some changes in regard to how we manage our native brook trout.  While the term “native” can be a bit confusing, used in this context it refers to populations of brook trout that to the best of our knowledge have never been stocked over with brook trout (referred to as intra-specific stocking).  These populations of brook trout represent our most genetically pure strains and as such are invaluable natural resources. 

To help you understand why some of us felt that this was so important address; let me give you some facts.  An article in Trout magazine published in 1993 and written by Ted Williams stated that there were 432 native brook trout lakes and ponds in Maine.  Three years later in 1996, an internal DIF&W document stated that there were 424.  A recent list published in 2005 by the DIF&W states that there are just 296 left (and even this is questionable). 

What this means is that Maine has lost roughly 35% of its remaining native brook trout lakes and ponds in just 12 years.  While some waters were lost due to the identification of turn-of-the-century federal stocking records that had been recently discovered, many were in fact lost due to state-sponsored stocking or the in-migration of state-stocked fish from another body of water (both of which point to serious problems in our management policies).       

These genetically pure populations of brook trout have evolved over thousands of years to a specific set of conditions found in the respective body of water.  When we stock it is like starting all over again (and we can never recreate what we once had).  When you consider that in some circumstances a brook trout spends its entire life living in a world measured in just a few acres, it is easy to understand why each population is so important – they are unique.

A project to try to provide a higher level of protection for these special fish was initiated by SAM’s Fishing Initiative Committee a few years back.  After an extensive analysis of the facts, we presented our case to the Maine legislature for their consideration.  Much to his credit, Senator Woodcock from Oxford County felt strongly enough about what we presented to agree to sponsor a piece of legislation known as LD 1131, or the Heritage Brook Trout bill.

The initial bill was written to address two things, naming the brook trout Maine’s “Heritage” fish, and prohibiting the stocking (with any species) of waters that contained populations of native brook trout.  In the first case it was simply a title that would imply that these fish were in fact special.  In the second case, it was some real protection.  In fact, stocking on top of these fish is one of the few things that we cannot reverse (the damage is permanent).    

Early on in the process it was determined that while brook trout were of the utmost importance to Maine, they were not our only important native game fish.  In fact, they are not even our state fish (the landlocked salmon is).  As a result, the proposed designation was changed from “the” Heritage Fish to “a” Heritage Fish leaving room for similar classifications involving landlocked salmon, togue, blueback char, and whitefish in the future.

The all but unanimous opinion (one member of the Joint Standing Committee for Fish & Wildlife opposed the bill) was that stocking over these unique and irreplaceable fish should not be allowed.  As such, this provision in the proposed legislation was adopted as presented.  It is important to note that 23 waters on the 2001 “native” list (in effect through mid-2005) were in fact stocked by the DIF&W in 2004.  This proves that this action was absolutely necessary.  

Another issue that we discussed was brought to the attention of the Joint Standing Committee by me, and addressed the use of live fish as bait on these waters.  Much to the surprise of those at the public hearing (including the DIF&W), roughly 45% of the remaining native brook trout waters allowed for the legal use of live fish as bait.  If stocking was not going to be allowed, how could we allow live fish as bait?  Once again this proved how necessary this action was. 

To their credit, the Joint Standing Committee amended the bill to include a ban on live fish as bait.  Effective 2006, all lakes and ponds with native populations of brook trout that are currently managed for General Law will be changed to S-4.  The Joint Standing Committee also requested that the DIF&W publish the list of waters with native brook trout populations and look at what if any other waters should be included in that list.  This list will be referenced in the formal law.  

While clearly a necessary move and a step in the right direction, I feel that the recent legislation is a temporary fix, not a permanent solution.  Specifically, there are no stocking trucks parked at the edge of our lakes and ponds just waiting to dump fish in.  What we have is a situation where liberal regulations result in too many fish being harvested, the fisheries decline accordingly, anglers complain about the poor fishing, and the DIF&W responds by stocking.         

While it would be easy to say we have accomplished our goal in regard to protecting our native brook trout, what we have really done is to buy some time.  Stocking is merely the symptom of a much larger problem; many of our fisheries cannot sustain the level of harvest that is allowed.  The Heritage Brook Trout bill was the easy part; low hanging fruit as I call it.  If we stop here all we will end up with is a bunch of marginal fisheries that we cannot stock. 

While we are told to the contrary, Maine is not leading in regard to wild trout management.  Many states (even neighboring NH) have formal programs regarding wild trout management and have for some time.  Maine has none.  Worse is that while other states are backing off of stocking (and eliminating it in wild waters), Maine is ramping up its hatchery production and in many cases is stocking waters that once contained wild populations of trout.       

The reality is that we often go from General Law management to stocking with no interim step.  In other cases we stock under the guise of maintaining a “viable fishery”.  While we are lead to believe otherwise, what this means is that the water cannot handle the amount of harvest that we allow, not that it could not provide a sport fishery under a different management strategy (stricter regulations).  This is our biggest failure in regard to how we manage our fisheries.

Stocking cost money (that would be better spent on land acquisition, habitat restoration, etc.) while producing an inferior product.  Study after study shows that anglers prefer wild fish over stocked fish.  I challenge each and every one of you to look at what other states are doing.  Our management in this regard looks more like Massachusetts than Montana.  We should expect and demand more from our fisheries managers than what we are getting.         

Bob Mallard has been a flyfisherman and fly tyer for over 25 years and is the owner of Kennebec River Outfitters on Route 201 in Madison, ME. He can be reached at (207) 474-2500 or www.kennebecriveroutfitters.com.