When a scheduled appointment at the University of Maine fell through on Thursday morning, Richard Jagels did what many other retirees likely would do: He went fishing.
Jagels ended up with a tale to tell, but it isn’t your average fish story. And while he ended up catching a seven-pounder, the mere presence of that fish in the Penobscot River was a sobering milestone for fisheries professionals who have spent years monitoring a species that was illegally introduced into Pushaw Lake .
While the species was expected to eventually work its way down through Pushaw Stream, into the Stillwater River and arrive in the main stem of the Penobscot — unconfirmed anecdotal reports have been making the rounds for a couple of years now — Thursday’s catch made it official.
Northern pike are in the Penobscot.
“It’s not unexpected,” said Richard Dill, a Maine Department of Marine Resources fisheries biologist who, along with Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife biologist Chip Wick, examined the fish when Jagels brought it to the Bangor Daily News office on Thursday afternoon. “It moved downstream, and it was just downstream of where the Stillwater dumps into the Penobscot. It was inevitable. Just a matter of time.”
While other reported pike in the Penobscot had not been kept for biologist confirmation, Jagels told Dill he wasn’t about to make that mistake.
“I knew that you wanted [pike] out and I also thought it was good to publicize so people do take them out of the water and not throw them back in,” Jagels told the biologist.
Jagels measured the fish as 31 inches long — biologists pegged it at 29 ¾ inches several hours later — and it weighed 3.1 kilograms, or seven pounds. Dill removed a bone from the fish that will be analyzed to determine its age, but the biologist estimated that the female fish was five or six years old.
Pike were first reported in Pushaw nearly a decade ago and confirmed in the lake in 2003. Fisheries biologists have been actively monitoring the spread of the fish, trapping and killing them when possible, and asking anglers to do the same. Pike were illegally introduced into the Belgrade chain of lakes in central Maine in the 1970s and the DIF&W says the species now lives in at least 16 Maine lakes due to similar introductions or migration. Pike are top-end predators that grow larger than other native Maine fish such as salmon and brook trout, and often feed on those species. Because of their size, pike often are targeted as game fish by anglers eager to tangle with a big catch.
Biologists and game wardens have said they suspect that people responsible for illegally introducing pike often do so to create a fishery for their own preferred species of fish. Once established, populations of illegally introduced fish are nearly impossible to eradicate, especially in large waters such as Pushaw Lake.
Dill said another pike was confirmed in Kenduskeag Stream about two weeks ago but that fish could have dropped down from Pushaw through an outlet that doesn’t connect to the Penobscot or could have been illegally introduced into another pond in the Kenduskeag drainage. He suspects, however, that the Kenduskeag pike made the same trip that Jagels’ did, swimming into the Penobscot from Pushaw Stream and the Stillwater.
Jagels said he wasn’t intending to catch a pike when he headed out.
“Usually I go there fishing for bass,” he said. “I had just my little one-man kayak and my ultralight spinning gear. I didn’t really think I was going to be able to land it because I didn’t have any grip or anything to grab it with.”
After a 10-minute fight, the fish tired and Jagels stuck a hand into the fish’s gills and hefted it aboard.
That wasn’t easy, either.
“I have almost no room for me in [the kayak]. Hardly any room for him,” Jagels said. “I shoved him up under the forward deck and he kept banging around in there. I didn’t have anything to knock him out with.”
Dill said he’d expect pike to be found in areas like the one Jagels was fishing: The stretch of water was slow-moving, shallow and weedy.
And while a 30-inch fish is sizable, it’s not a whopper as pike go.
“This fish is an average size. We’ve seen fish up to 15, 17 pounds already. They can eat fish up to half their body length,” Dill said. “And any water that they get into, they’re going to have an effect, whether it’s a cold-water fishery or a warm-water fishery.”
Dill said the presence of pike in Pushaw and the Penobscot River isn’t desirable. By the same token, it’s not dissimilar to situations that have developed in past generations. As a result, those who love and use the river will have to deal with the consequences of the actions of others who stock fish where they don’t belong.
“We’re going to see an ecological change out here in our Penobscot River, not unlike what we’ve seen before,” Dill said. “Smallmouth bass aren’t native. Chain pickerel aren’t native. One hundred years from now, the next generation, two generations later, will have always known pike to inhabit the Penobscot or parts of the Penobscot. And it will all seem like it’s normal to them.”