Maine is widely recognized as the last great U.S. stronghold of wild native brook trout. For more than 50 years, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife biologists have recommended that high-value brook trout waters should be managed with regulations that ban the use of live baitfish, and their use on wild-brook trout waters has been reduced greatly.
All the interior waters in Baxter State Park prohibited live fish bait in the mid-1960s — the most effective policy Maine ever implemented to prevent the spread of non-native fish. More than 40 years later, most Baxter ponds contain no baitfish species — and the brook trout are thriving.
More recently the Maine Legislature banned use of live fish as bait in any wild-brook trout lake or pond that had never been stocked. The Legislature has asked IF&W to look at similar policies on waters that have not been stocked in 25 years or more. In 2011, the IF&W adopted new rules banning use of live bait fish in about 30 lakes and ponds that were closed to ice fishing.
IF&W is now proposing to ban the use of live fish as bait on 16 additional designated wild brook trout lakes. Although some maintain this proposal is intended to close those waters to ice fishing, the sole purpose is to protect these waters from accidental release of non-native fish species that are known to have harmed brook trout in other Maine waters.
Seven of the 16 waters are already closed to ice fishing. The proposal would not close any of the other nine to ice fishing. Nor would it prevent anyone — in either open water or ice fishing season — from using dead baitfish, worms or any other kind of bait.
The regulation would prevent use of live fish as bait in order to reduce the risk of introduction of fish that compete with or prey on native brook trout. Baitfish are inadvertently released into the wild through normal use, through accidental spills from the bait pail and through careless dumping of unused bait.
Three of the 24 species of fish legally allowed as bait are not native to Maine and are invasive to every body of water here. While many of the remaining species of legal bait are native to some Maine waters, they not native to all waters in which they are legal to use.
Compromises such as certified bait only and water-specific species restrictions do not address the big picture. They do not address issues such as species misidentification, disease introduction and the transportation of live fish.
Invasive baitfish are now found in many Maine waters. Often there is more than one species. This includes Big Reed Pond and Wadleigh Pond, two of only 10 remaining native char waters in the continental United States.
This year we are looking at wild waters where ice fishing is allowed and a few waters that were overlooked last year — a total of 16 of the more than 1,100 Maine lakes and ponds managed for brook trout.
There is no denying the dangers of using live bait over wild brook trout. Responsible sportsmen know this. Removing live bait from these invaluable and irreplaceable resources is reasonable and necessary.
Anglers will still be able to fish these waters with worms, dead bait, lures and jigs. This includes ice fishing. They will still be able to harvest fish from these waters if they choose to do so. They will not need to buy new tackle, just change how they use what they already have.
Restricting the use of live bait is not about improving the fishing. It is not about excluding any group of anglers from using the resource. It is not an attack against a specific form of fishing. It is all about protecting the resource.
Clinton “Bill” Townsend, of Skowhegan, is a past president of Maine Rivers.