Splake: Bad Science...
(As appeared in The Maine Sportsman)
By Bob Mallard

Having recently been referred to in another publication as the “Wonder Fish”, splake prove once again that one mans trash is another mans treasure!  In regard to fisheries management, the splake is in my humble opinion, turn-of-the-century “fish husbandry” at its worse.  Creating a hatchery hybrid strictly to support put-and-take fishing reeks of bad science and gives credence to the saying that “just because we can doesn’t mean we should”.   

A Frankenstein fish that is stocked solely because it grows fast and is easy to catch, splake show just how little some sportsmen have come to expect from their prey.  What next, grouse/ostrich hybrids that get big fast, can’t fly, and are easy to shoot?  At what point do sportsmen step up say enough is enough.  Would bass anglers accept a stocked bass/carp hybrid just because they got big and were easy to catch?  What about deer hunters; would they accept deer/cow hybrids? 

The reality is that while some anglers have come to accept (and apparently even like) splake, I can’t help but wonder if these same anglers would prefer brook trout, salmon, togue, browns, or rainbows given the choice?  I also wonder if there would there be any market at all for splake if we had managed our traditional salmonid fisheries properly (i.e., for sustainable “quality” angling as opposed to maximum sustainable harvest).  Once again, do anglers really enjoy catching splake, or is something to catch better than nothing to catch?

Like them or not, splake are now being stocked in places that most anglers would not have expected to see them even in their wildest dreams.  Worse is that they are popping up in non-target waters at an alarming rate due to an apparent propensity to migrate out of the waters that they are stocked in.  In fact, the wanton stocking of splake is now threatening some of Maine’s finest wild salmonid waters.

How many know that splake are now showing up in the Rapid and Magalloway rivers (arguably Maine’s two finest brook trout rivers)?  Due to an ill-advised state-sponsored stocking program on Sturtevant Pond, these hybrids are now dropping down into Umbagog Lake and finding their way into the Rapid and Magalloway (while the Maine DIF&W is asking NH for help regarding unwanted bass that are moving into the Rapid from the same lake?).

Ditto for Chesuncook Lake (once considered by many to be Maine’s finest wild landlocked salmon water), where splake catches are now commonplace.  In the case of the Chesuncook system which includes both Caribou and Ripogenus lakes, splake are dropping down from at least two waters (Ragged Lake and Deer Pond) and possibly a third (Chesuncook Pond).  How long will it be before we see splake in the upper and lower West Branch?  Imagine, splake fishing at the famed Foxhole!

Splake are now common throughout the middle and upper Kennebec system including the famed Wyman tailwater (and on top of Maine’s only viable wild rainbow trout fishery), Harris Dam, The Kennebec Gorge, Grand Falls on the lower Dead River, and as far downstream on the Kennebec as Solon/Embden.  These splake are the result of a stocking program on Wyman Lake in support of ice-fishing that has dumped over a half a million splake into the system in just 9 years.  In this case, the splake are competing with wild brook trout that are already under stress from illegally introduced smallmouth bass. 

There are now splake in the Seboeis River which based on what we have seen elsewhere means that it is just a matter of time before splake show up in the East Branch of the Penobscot and Wassataquoik Stream.  What about Millinocket Lake which drains into the Aroostook River and whose outlet is connected to Munsungan Stream.  Is this a wise place to stock splake?  Well, we are.  A splake was even caught in fabled Pierce Pond (and no one is quite sure how it got there).

How many anglers are aware that we now stock over 60 waters with splake?  How about the fact that Piscataquis County and Region E (Moosehead) now account for the highest number of waters stocked with splake respectively.  Do you know that while we are stocking fewer splake, we are stocking larger splake – some of which cost $3.50 per fish according to the DIF&W (can we afford to stock ANY fish that costs $3.50?).  At $3.50 per fish, an angler is a liability after harvesting just 7 fish! 

The number of waters stocked with splake has gone up steadily since 1981.  In fact, the number has gone up 15 of the last 23 years, 6 of the last 10 years, and 3 of the last 5 years.  Most importantly, the 5 highest number of waters stocked in a given year occurred in the last 7 years, with 4 of the 5 occurring in the last 4 years.  The single highest number of waters stocked in a given year occurred in 2003. 

While Piscataquis County had 16 waters stocked with splake in 2004, there were no waters stocked with splake in four counties in 2004 (Knox, Sagadahoc, Waldo and York).  As you would have expected, regions A, B and C accounted for the highest number of waters stocked with splake from 1981 through 1988.  However, Region E stocked the most waters in 1989, 1993-1994, 1996-1998, and 2000-2004.      

The four counties noted above represent areas where suitable habitat for brook trout is very limited yet they have no waters actively stocked with splake (wasn’t that the purpose – “provide acceptable fisheries in waters where stocked brook trout had failed [DIF&W]”?).  Worse is that Region E, home to what is arguably our finest brook trout habitat is now stocking the most waters with splake.  Is this where we should be using splake?  Why would we not be using brook trout here? 

We have spent roughly 75% as much money on splake in the first half of 2000-2009 as we did in the entire 1990’s.  The cost of the splake stocked in Wyman Lake alone between 1997 and 2004 was well over $75,000.  In the case of Wyman Lake, the entire project is in support of seasonal put-and-take ice-fishing on what the DIF&W calls a marginal body of water and at the expense of an invaluable and highly popular spring through fall moving water wild salmonid fishery. 

The cost of the splake stocked in Thissell Pond between 1998 and 2004 under the guise of “smelt-eradication” to protect wild brook trout was $11,660.  According to the DIF&W, the cost to rotenone Thissell Pond (which has been done in the past) would be between $9,978.57 and $19,986.75.  While it has taken 7 years for the splake to supposedly eradicate the smelts, chemical reclamation would have been a one-time event.  In addition, splake will be in the system for some time to come.  Lastly, it is unclear at this time whether subsequent brook trout stocking will be necessary.   

Having just completed an extensive analysis on splake, I can assure you that what you do not know about splake would scare even the most optimistic and naïve sportsman.  While the DIF&W repeatedly tells us that splake cannot reproduce, a simple Internet search will yield testimonies from other states and Canada of not only self-sustaining splake populations, but of self-sustaining splake/brookie backcross populations (splake that have apparently reproduced with brook trout!).   

While the DIF&W does admit in their Splake Management Report that they are the “only salmonid cross capable of reproducing for an indefinite number of generations”, they insist, “Successful reproduction has only occurred in hatcheries”.  However, one expert after another refers to splake as a “fertile hybrid” and that there is “potential for hybridization with either parent species [Kerr, 2000]”. 

In fact, according to what I found on the Internet, self-sustaining populations of splake (that originated from hatchery stock) have been found in Lake Agnes, Alberta (Handbook of the Canadian Rockies, ISBN 0-9692631-1-2), Lake 17, Ontario (Spangler and Berst, 1978), and Lake Huron (Fuller and Williams, 1999).  In addition, naturally reproducing splake/brook trout backcrosses were noted in two studies that I read (Berst and McCombie, 1975 / Buss and Wright, 1958).

Also note that while the DIF&W has admitted that splake prey on smelts, we are being told that splake do not pose a real threat to juvenile salmonids (“They rarely feed on other coldwater gamefish”).  However, apparently Colorado has used splake to eradicate stunted non-native brook trout populations (Northern Sky News, 2005)!  Another study stated that “splake stocking may also be an effective means of reducing brook trout density [Satterfield and Koupal, 1994]”.  If true, this does not look good for the Rapid, Magalloway, Seboeis and upper Kennebec river wild brook trout populations!   

Then there is the issue of competition between splake and other salmonids in regard to habitat.  Even the DIF&W says that “Splake have been reported on traditional lake trout spawning shoals during October in Lake Huron and in brook trout spawning areas in Redrock Lake in Ontario”.  I also read where “early and prolonged presence of the splake on the brook trout spawning grounds forced the brook trout to spawn in a very short period of time [Hanson, 1972]”.  This same study said that the entire “early maturing brook trout” spawning was lost due to the presence of splake.  Once again, this raises some serious concerns for me.  

There is also the potential that splake could compete with other salmonids in regard to food.  According to the DIF&W, “There is a considerable overlap in food habits of splake and landlocked salmon. Both rely heavily on smelts at certain times of the year.” What is the potential impact of this on the Chesuncook system?  In fact, while the DIF&W has recently closed Ragged Stream to smelting in response to a population decline, they are loading up Ragged Lake with splake which are dropping down into Chesuncook en masse and can now be caught at the mouth of the stream right in the middle of the smelt run!  The DIF&W also states that “…splake competed for food with rainbow trout especially during the spring and fall when both species were feeding in shallower waters.” (Wyman Tailwater!)

As for how splake are viewed by us sportsmen, a 1998 SAM survey showed that 86% of those responding preferred rainbows to splake (and there are far fewer opportunities to fish for rainbows).  A Maine Sportsman poll showed that 40% of those responding favored elimination of the splake program.  Only 1.1% of those responding to a TripTracks survey reported targeting splake.  Even the DIF&W’s own 1999 survey ranked splake 11th and behind all other salmonids, both bass, and even white perch.

And this from George Smith, Executive Director of SAM:  “SAM opposes the use of splake in Maine waters and has tried every way possible to eliminate them, including advocating for their elimination in the deliberations of the Hatchery Commission.  Our motion to eliminate splake failed, but the Commission did vote to reduce splake stocking by 50 percent.  Unfortunately DIF&W has ignored the Commission’s recommendation.” 

As for the DIF&W, they think the problem is us sportsmen! I pulled this from their website: “There is a lack of understanding of the role and importance of splake to Maine’s inland sport fisheries by the general public that often results in little support or outright opposition for new and/or existing programs.”  And what do they plan on doing about it, “Renew efforts to educate the public by writing popular articles for local newspapers, outdoor sporting journals and Department news releases”.

I could go on and on but I am sure that you can see my point.  With all due respect, the only “wonder” I see in regard to splake is why we continue to stock them knowing what we know and with so many other options available to us?  In fact, as the experimental rainbow trout stocking program winds down, the popularity of this nationally revered and highly sought after game fish will most likely dictate a more permanent program here in Maine.  As such, we will need to free up some hatchery space to make room for them.  Rather than sacrifice the popular brown trout as has been suggested by some, wouldn’t it make far more sense to reduce the space allocated to raising splake?  

The experts have spoken and equally or more important, the anglers who foot the bill for our fishery programs through the purchase of their licenses have spoken.  Can’t we simply admit that this experiment has got out of hand and get back to a fair and sound management plan that puts wild fish ahead of stocked fish, naturally occurring fish ahead of hatchery hybrids, and anglers well-formed opinions in regard to what they want out of our resources ahead of fisheries managers desire to test the limits of biology and man’s ability to manipulate the outcome?    

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.