Rolling along a woods road not far from Rangeley, a pile of fishing gear in his truck, an Old Town canoe strapped to the roof, Jeff Reardon is a man on a mission.
He and the seven-person posse that he’s leading are on the lookout for trout.
More accurately, they’re on the lookout for ponds that might, if they’re lucky, hold native, wild brook trout.
Of course, the ponds may hold nothing but moose droppings, leeches or tadpoles. Whatever the case, the information Reardon and others gather will be turned over to state fisheries officials to help mold future management decisions.
“A lot of these waters are small, relatively hard to reach, out of the way,” Reardon said, the Maine Brook Trout project director for Trout Unlimited. “They make you work. And the ones we’re going to today are about the easiest access ponds on that list.”
Ah. That list. Here’s where the story gets good.
Drive a few miles in any direction in Maine and you’re apt to find water. A stream. A river. A lake or a pond. And though the state’s fisheries biologists spend a lot of time surveying those lakes and ponds to create in-depth assessments of the water and its denizens, there are a few gaps in the data.
OK. More than a few. Some ponds — many, in fact — have simply never been officially visited by a state fisheries biologist or field crew. Thus, the list.
“Of the 6,000 lakes and ponds we have in the state, there’s a couple thousand that we haven’t surveyed yet,” said Joe Dembeck, who serves as the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s fisheries management supervisor. “With the 26 field staff that we have, that’s a lot of waters to try to handle.”
And that’s where Reardon, his crew, and a growing army of volunteers come in.
The DIF&W is collaborating with Trout Unlimited and Maine Audubon on an ambitious project that will eventually help cull a lot of waters from the list of waters that have never been officially surveyed by biologists.
The ponds aren’t unknown, after all. They’re right there on the map. And those volunteers, under the direction of project coordinator Emily Bastian, are heading into the woods to do a bit of advance work that DIF&W field crew staffers can follow up on later.
For this summer, 187 western Maine ponds have been targeted for visits by volunteers. Bastian said she has spoken to 175 potential volunteers over the past month and about 15 visits had been completed as of Thursday. Information provided by the volunteers will be evaluated to help Dembeck and his staff decide which ponds deserve closer scrutiny in the form of a formal survey.
“For us, on average, when we’re fully staffed, we’d probably do on the order of eight to 16 new pond surveys throughout the state in a year,” Dembeck said. “If we can get 80 done by volunteer anglers in just one of the regions in the state, maybe only 10 of them will have brook trout, but it still identifies what the other ones are or are not, and we can prioritize [future efforts].”
Ponds with trout are important. Those that turn out to be nothing but moose wallows are less so, as far as fisheries managers are concerned. Moose would likely disagree, but none could be reached for comment.
Volunteers fill out forms that document their visit and include vital information that will help field crews. If they catch trout, great. If not, there are other things to look for that can help indicate whether trout are likely to be found there. Canoes stored on the shore of a pond, or fish rising to eat insects are two things volunteers are told to look for. And just letting fisheries staffers know how the pond was accessed can be a vital piece of information.
“If you can get information from the volunteers just on how they got in and out … that kind of information can save a field crew a half a day,” Reardon said. “And if you save people a half a day per pond, times a couple hundred ponds, that’s actually a huge chunk of time.”
Dembeck started discussing the project a couple of years ago, but said Maine Audubon’s decision to fund Bastian’s position was a key component to its eventual launch.
“It just allows us to have constant interaction with the volunteers that [the DIF&W] can’t provide,” Dembeck said.
Maine enjoys a unique status: More than 97 percent of all the wild or native brook trout ponds remaining in the U.S. are in the state. Brook trout conservation in Maine is a big deal, and not just to Mainers: Also along on Thursday’s trip was Erin Mooney, Trout Unlimited’s national press secretary, who traveled to Maine from Washington, D.C.
Mooney said the collaborative nature of the project, teaming a state agency with Maine Audubon and her organization, is a creative approach toward trout conservation.
“I think the thing that’s unique about this is that the project brings together unique partners as a way to leverage success,” Mooney said.
Thursday’s trips afield met with mixed results: Two of the ponds showed no signs of trout, nor any angling pressure. The third, however, was teeming with small trout. After finishing work on the other two ponds, all three teams gathered at the third to trade notes … and to fish.
“It was an emotional roller coaster,” Mooney said. “First, no fish. Then we caught some great fish. And I think that’s the experience [volunteers] will have all around. They’ll find some ponds with fish, some without, and it’s a great way to get outside and accomplish a great task.”
Dembeck said the project could turn into a multiyear effort, if volunteers and the cooperating groups continue to support it.
And the work is invaluable, Reardon said.
“People look at Maine and see brook trout everywhere. They say, ‘What’s the conservation challenge?’” Reardon said. “That’s the point: It’s not too late here. We can do real meaningful work by keeping things the way they are. It’s a whole lot cheaper than having to restore them 50 years from now after we screw things up.”
For more information or to volunteer to take part in the project, contact Emily Bastian at 781-6180, ext. 207, or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.