CHASE STREAM TOWNSHIP, Maine — Somewhere nearby, likely up this skidder path a few hundred yards, or perhaps down the wooded trail that will follow, is a pond. Emily Bastian knows it’s there. She knows it holds brook trout. But she’s not exactly sure of the best way to approach it.
“I’ve never been there, but it’s a pretty known pond, so there’s probably a trail,” Bastian explained. “If there’s not, we can use the GPS to get where we need to be.”
Where we needed to be was at the primary access point to this pond-that-will-not-be-named. That’s where Bastian, the Maine chair of the Native Fish Coalition, will place a sign that will alert anglers to the presence of some pretty special fish. Sunday’s adventure is one that will be replayed around the state in the coming weeks, as NFC volunteers install informational signs at similar waters.
Not that it’s always easy. Sometimes, the paths aren’t easy to find. Sometimes, the going gets rough — or muddy.
But today, Bastian is pretty confident that we’ve got a relatively easy trudge ahead of us.
“I looked at [this pond] on Google Earth before we came, and it looks like there’s a series of old logging roads,” she said. “I don’t think it’s going to be too challenging.”
It wasn’t. In fact, all we had to do was follow the fresh moose tracks to a small trail that led to the pristine little pond in remote Somerset County.
This pond, like many others in the area, is among 578 on Maine’s list of heritage fish waters. That means the brook trout that live here reproduce naturally, and that the pond has either never been stocked, or hasn’t been stocked for the past 25 years.
“They are supposed to be. They are. They’ve been here since the time of the glaciers. They’ve evolved here,” Bastian said. “And the rest of the ecosystem depends on those fish.”
And after receiving a $6,500 grant from the Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund, the Native Fish Coalition has launched an effort to post advisory signs at as many of those lakes and ponds as possible. The grant pays two-thirds of the cost of the project. The NFC is raising the rest.
The key pieces of the state’s heritage fish law: Once on that list, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife is not allowed to stock fish into it. And anglers are not allowed to use live fish as bait on those waters.
That live bait prohibition is key, and is clearly itemized on the signs the coalition is installing.
“We are not advocating for fishing, or access. It’s absolutely, 100 percent focused on the fish, the resource,” Bastian said. “Protect, preserve, restore. [We’re] restoring native fish through stewardship of the fish and the habitat. So while most of us are anglers, we are not, as a group, focusing on fishing. We’re focusing on fish.”
While the NFC isn’t promoting angling at particular spots, members recognize that these special ponds aren’t secret. In fact, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife keeps a list of those waters on its website.
By posting signs at spots where anglers access the water, the group is sending a not-so-subtle message to anyone heading out onto the water.
“Hopefully, for people who don’t know, it keeps them from doing something they’re not supposed to, and for other people who were intending to use bait, it gives them one last chance to change their minds,” Bastian said.
The Native Fish Coalition was formed a year ago when Bastian, native fish advocate Bob Mallard and former Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine executive director George Smith attempted to have legislation enacted that would have strengthened the protection offered under the existing heritage fish law.
That effort, which would have streamlined the way a lake or pond ends up on the list, and would have added protection to the tributaries to those heritage fish waters, did not succeed. Undeterred, they used that incident as the impetus to form the Native Fish Coalition, and ended up receiving aid from both the Maine DIF&W and the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, Bastian said.
Mallard serves as the NFC’s national vice chair, while conservation writer Ted Williams is the national chair. The group also has chapters in Vermont and New Hampshire.
Bastian said that the native brook trout, Atlantic salmon and arctic charr in Maine deserve special attention.
“We have a lot to protect. We still have arctic charr. We are the last, best hope for Atlantic salmon restoration,” she said. “And we have 90 percent — that’s a conservative estimate — of the remaining native, pond-dwelling brook trout in the country.”
A particular threat to those native fish: Invasive bait fish. That’s why outlawing the use of live fish by anglers is key. A few golden shiners or smelts falling off a hook while they’re still alive, or a bucket of them being tossed into a pond after a day of fishing, can have devastating effects on an ecosystem, she said.
Minnows or smelts can outcompete the native fish for limited food resources, and may even prey on just-hatched brook trout or charr. Keeping live bait away from those ponds is essential, the group says.
“If we can save just one [pond] from an invasive introduction, whether intentional or not, then this project has paid for itself many, many times over,” Bastian said. “Because reclamation is incredibly costly. And it’s not always completely effective. And [the state doesn’t] always do it.”
Bastian said the effort is just ramping up, and the NFC is looking for volunteers to post signs at their favorite ponds from the heritage fish list. A $20 donation will take pay for the sign and the hardware, and in-depth instructions will be provided. Among those instructions: Volunteers heading into the North Maine Woods will use only aluminum — chainsaw-safe — hardware to attach the signs to trees.
And for those who just want one of those spiffy signs to keep, Bastian can make that happen, too.
“We’re offering signs for sale, for personal use, to hang in your fly-tying room or in your cabin,” Bastian said. “It’s $55 a sign, which also covers shipping, and it acts as a donation to this project.”
Anyone interested in volunteering to help the Native Fish Coalition put signs up on heritage fish waters can contact Bastian at ME@NativeFishCoalition.org
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