Back in 2003, an angler who was fishing from a dock at Pushaw Lake hauled in a fish that weighed six pounds. It had sharp teeth. And the presence of that single fish changed everything.
The angler tossed the fish back into the water, but word quickly spread. Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife biologists were called and told the sobering news: It appeared that northern pike had been illegally introduced into the sprawling 5,056-acre lake that stretches through parts of Old Town, Hudson, Glenburn and Orono.
Northern pike are top-end predators who eat … well … whatever they want. Record-setting pike in other states have tipped the scales at 40 or more pounds. They are not native to Pushaw.
But there they were.
Further research confirmed that original report and over the past eight years, fisheries professionals have spent countless hours facing the harsh realities that the presence of northern pike pose.
Since 2006, the DIF&W has worked in collaboration with the Maine Department of Marine Resources to set trap nets during the early spring spawning season, hoping to capture and eliminate as many pike as possible from the lake, its inlets and its outlet.
Gordon “Nels” Kramer has been a DIF&W fisheries biologist for nearly 30 years. He’s responsible for the region that includes Pushaw. And for the last eight years, he has spent an inordinate amount of time worrying about a species that he would rather not have to encounter at all.
“None of us ever thought that we’d be dealing with pike when we became fishery biologists in Maine, at least in this part of Maine,” Kramer said on Thursday, as another round of yearly trap-netting nears completion. “All of the resources and time that’s gone into this effort, it could have been used for so many other enhancements for our cold-water fisheries. It’s just really, really disgraceful.”
Disgraceful it is, that a single selfish person could wreak so much havoc on the ecosystem by tossing a few pike in a lake. Disgraceful that such acts have become so common. Disgraceful that the DIF&W is left to play catch-up in a scenario that even Kramer admits is essentially futile.
“It is what it is,” Kramer said. “We have no expectations that we will control or contain the population. Right now we’re just trying to document what the population is and how it’s expanding and trying to remove all the fish we can.”
A year ago, the DIF&W captured and killed 38 pike at Pushaw. This year, with more funding and more trap nets, the count was at 78 pike as of Thursday.
And though Kramer knows he’s tilting at windmills, he’s not willing to entirely give up hope. To that end, he is proposing a fishing regulation that would send a powerful message.
It’s also a regulation that was not enacted when he suggested it five or six years ago. Unenforceable, Kramer was told.
Kramer’s new rule would be simple: “It is illegal to release any pike back into the Penobscot River drainage,” he explained. “Basically, if you catch a pike, you have to kill it.”
As for its enforceability, Kramer points west, where California has had an even more strict catch-and-kill law on the books for nearly a decade. In that state, anglers are required to cut off the pike’s head, call fisheries officials and keep the head frozen or refrigerated until those officials collect it.
“I’ve talked to [California fisheries biologists] and they just kind of snicker,” Kramer said. “They say, ‘[the rule being unenforceable] may be the case, but we’ve never had to enforce it because people get it.’”
Here, many still don’t get it. Bucket-stocking of lakes continues. Offenders prove virtually impossible to catch. The cycle continues.
While Kramer’s proposed law won’t stop the spread of pike that have already been introduced, it may serve to answer a key question in the bucket-stocking debate: How serious do we take these offenses?
Kramer, for one, takes them very seriously.
Perhaps more of us should follow suit, whether the result is “unenforceable” or not.
Cross your fingers for Doiron
Maine book lovers will pay close attention to an event that will take place in New York City on Thursday as this year’s Edgar Awards are handed out. Up for consideration: Paul Doiron, the editor-in-chief of Down East magazine, and his “The Poacher’s Son,” in the best first novel category.
The Edgars are handed out each year by the Mystery Writers of America. Doiron’s novel is one of five nominees.
I’m no doubt biased in favor of the Mainer in this grouping, but merely being nominated for the prestigious award is a huge deal.
Some advice from this corner: If you haven’t read “The Poacher’s Son” yet, you should. And if you’re already a fan, keep your eyes peeled for his follow-up novel, “Trespasser,” which will be released in June. Having recently read an advance review copy of Trespasser, I can tell you that it’s just as compelling as his debut … and it contains threads of a Maine true crime saga that many will instantly recognize.