SKOWHEGAN, Maine — Dozens of children crowded around Gene Arsenault on Friday to inspect a series of vials containing fish eggs in various stages of development.
“First question: Does anyone know where a fish comes from?” asked Arsenault, a fish culture supervisor at the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s Embden hatchery. Several small hands shot into the air and waved until Arsenault picked a girl in the front row.
“From the water!” she said, eliciting chuckles from the grown-ups present.
Next vial, next question.
“Do you see how they have fat little bellies? Those are their egg sacks,” said Arsenault.
“My Grampy has a bigger belly than that,” observed another girl to even louder laughter from the grown-ups.
Soon the biology lesson turned hands-on as each of several dozen children released about 100 brook trout into Hight Pond, a small reservoir in Skowhegan just off Route 150. Those 100 fish were brethren to more than 1.2 million fish the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife will release into Maine waters this year. While most of the fish are destined for Maine’s larger lakes and rivers to bolster the underwater population, the ones released into Hight Pond on Friday were meant to be enjoyed by the children present. Within a few weeks, they’ll probably all be caught, said Kevin Sousa, who works with Arsenault at the Embden hatchery.
DIF&W started stocking lakes and rivers last week, a little late compared to past years because of the cold spring, which delayed ice-out in many waterways. Some of the farm-raised fish — splake, brown trout, brook trout and salmon — are trucked to their new homes, while some of Maine’s more remote lakes and ponds are stocked with fish dropped from airplanes.
Bill Burkhart of Skowhegan said he has been a fisherman in Maine all his life but had never witnessed a waterway being stocked until after he read about Friday’s event in a newspaper about 10 minutes before it started.
“I rushed right down here, just to see the process,” Burkhart said as the children toted fish from a tank on the back of a truck to the water in 5-gallon buckets. Most of the brook trout were at least 8 inches in size.
Five-year-old Billy Albertson of Canaan, who struggled with a bucket containing two fish, has seen hard work while fishing before. Last year on Sibley Pond in Pittsfield, he landed a 22-inch bass and a smaller trout — on the same hook and same cast, according to his mother.
“It was quite an experience,” she said.
If the intent of Friday’s Hooked on Fishing event was to introduce kids to fishing — which organizers said it was — it was a success. Emily MacCabe, a DIF&W public relations specialist, gave away about 30 fishing rods, tackle and untold numbers of worms. She said the materials were purchased with donated proceeds from the national Hooked on Fishing program.
Some of the children, such as 6-year-old Sumyr Taylor of Canaan, who spent several minutes rooting around in a plastic container and inspecting the wriggly worms she found there, were less interested in the fish than others.
“I like fishing, but I love worms,” she said. “I find worms everywhere.”
Arsenault said the state’s eight fish hatcheries are Maine’s way of protecting a vital natural resource. Aside from giving children something wholesome to do, he said the fishing industry is an important economic driver.
“The biggest thing is protecting the resource,” he said. “It’s a resource that wouldn’t exist otherwise.”