LAKEVILLE, Maine — Brianna Pelkie was only trying to help, but the bucketful of frisky landlocked salmon didn’t see it that way.
“Thanks for giving me a bath, fish,” the fisheries technician for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife said as she lifted her five-gallon pail and receive a tail-flapping, water-flinging greeting from the fish it held.
One fish got exactly what it sought … for a moment: Freedom.
“Run away,” Pelkie shouted with a laugh, before scooping the fish off the pavement and tossing it back in her pail.
Nearby, other DIF&W employees chuckled, then carried out the tasks that they and their colleagues around the state will repeat hundreds of times over the coming weeks.
Brian Campbell, a fisheries biology specialist, helped Pelkie carry buckets to a waiting boat, where fisheries biologist Kevin Dunham transferred each bucket into larger trash cans that would be fitted with aerators that would oxygenate the water during a brief trip out to deeper water.
And perched on the rails of a hatchery truck, fish culturist Derik Lee netted salmon out of holding tanks, dumped them into pails and lowered them to the waiting bucket brigade.
At this, the last stop Tuesday morning, the crew were stocking 1,500 “spring yearling” salmon from the Grand Lake Stream Fish Hatchery in Sysladobsis Lake. Earlier in the day, they’d put 700 in Kossuth Township’s Pleasant Lake and another 350 in Mushquash Lake.
“This year we’ve got about 75,000 to 85,000 [salmon at the hatchery],” Lee explained. “We go until we don’t have any fish left to put out.”
The Grand Lake Stream Hatchery produces salmon that are stocked throughout Washington County, and in parts of Aroostook and Penobscot counties.
But that process is repeated around the state as crews from other fisheries divisions and hatcheries help provide fishing opportunities for thousands.
“Without the hatchery program, there wouldn’t be much fishing at all as far as lakes and ponds,” Dunham said. “There’s a limited number [of waters] in the state that have [dependable] natural reproduction. In a lot of them, there’s not much for spawning areas, spawning habitat for the fish.”
That’s when the fisheries and hatchery crews get involved, formulating management plans that often include stocking fish that are hatched at state facilities.
Mark Latti, who handles outreach and communications for the DIF&W’s fisheries and wildlife divisions, said that each year, more than a million fish are produced and stocked in Maine out of eight existing hatcheries.
“Last year we stocked 1,380,938 fish in 734 different waters,” Latti reported via email. “Some waters are stocked multiple times in the spring and fall, and when it is all totaled up, we stocked 2,036 times last year.”
The methods for stocking vary as well. Latti said that while many fish are put in lakes by sluicing them through pipes directly from hatchery trucks, and others are taken out in boats like they were at Sysladobsis, still others are carried by ATV, or carried by hiking fisheries staffers. And in some cases, planes are used to stock remote ponds.
And anglers pay close attention to the stocking trucks. Consider: On the back of the truck Lee was driving is a large sticker: “See where we stocked yesterday,” it reads, directing curious anglers to log onto the state’s website to find a complete list of up-to-date stocking sites, along with information about what species of fish — and how many of that species — were introduced into each water.
“[Anglers] will be following the stocking truck for sure. Word will be out,” Dunham said with a laugh. “There will be people here [at Sysladobsis] this afternoon. There are probably people at Pleasant Lake, where we were this morning, and at East Musquash. I’m sure they saw that truck and word gets out in town. And anybody on the web, as soon as the driver gets back [to the hatchery] they’ll put in how many got stocked, where, and then everybody is in the know.”
Dunham admitted that sometimes fishermen don’t agree with the state’s stocking rates, which vary from lake to lake depending on management goals. But he said those management decisions are made based on available data that is always being updated.
Some lakes are stocked with many smaller fish. he said. That leads to a situation where the fish may not grow too large as they compete with each other for forage, but are readily available to catch. Other waters may be stocked at a lower level, which allows those fish to get enough food to grow large. It also tends to lower the catch rate by anglers.
“We try to get on a five-year rotation [of surveying lakes and ponds] so we can monitor each fishery,” Dunham said. “We go out throughout the summer, netting and checking the size quality — length, weight, condition — and we’ll adjust our stocking rates based on that.”
It’s a complicated consideration, he said.
“We can’t control, obviously, the forage base, so we have to be able to try to control the population size,” Dunham said. “If we put too many in, there’s just too many mouths to feed, and everybody loses. If we put too few in, then we get a larger fish, but the catch rate will be down, and people don’t like that, either. So it is a balancing act between the proper size [of fish] and the proper population size.”