A shore-spawning brook trout cruises in shallow water at Moosehead Lake. Credit: Courtesy of Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife

Editor’s note: This is the second of four reports on the thriving brook trout fishery in Moosehead Lake as fisheries biologists consider different management initiatives that would help protect the fishery, including larger shore-spawning trout that may be particularly vulnerable during the winter months.

As we discussed the current Moosehead Lake brook trout fishery, we had two focal areas. At a minimum, we need to protect the large concentration of shore-spawning brook trout in the Lily Bay narrows. And we need to consider providing some additional protection to the high-quality fishery that has developed lake-wide. Was there interest?

There are some general rules of thumb that we needed to be cognizant of, so if we did discuss a management change, it would be successful and effective. Natural fluctuations in fish populations can be significant year to year. Therefore, any change in regulations should impact a relatively large percentage of the population in order to see a measurable change. I prefer to see a regulation change impact at least 25 percent of the harvestable population at a minimum. Be bold — don’t nibble.

Also, we need to keep the regulations simple and easy to understand. We don’t want to make it harder for anglers to understand the laws. We want people to come here and have fun.

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Anglers often perceive regulation changes as open water anglers vs. ice fishing anglers, even though they are mostly the same people. So, we want to share the responsibility for improving or maintaining the trout fishing among both groups and not be overly restrictive on just one season.

There is also a real sausage-making process for actually implementing regulations. There’s peer review, administrative review, public review and hearings, an Advisory Council review, and ultimately a decision by the commissioner of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

The best advice for making regulations changes: Only do it when it’s necessary and keep it as simple as possible. (I know folks are rolling their eyes at the thought that we try to simplify the lawbook, but we really try.)

We considered several different strategies to reach the objectives. The first objective was to protect the Lily Bay area.

There were a couple possibilities. We could add another closed area in the winter. That precedent has already been set in places like Spencer Bay and Socatean Bay.

We talked about the “300-foot Law”. This law was in effect on Moosehead Lake from 1939 to 1977. The law basically stated that winter anglers could not fish within 300 feet of the mainland. However, they could fish next to shore around islands. The pros and cons depend on your perspective. It would definitely protect shore-spawning trout, in fact, all trout. This law would eliminate the vast majority of all brook trout fishing in the winter. It would also likely discourage winter anglers from coming to the lake, which impacts the local economy and could impact our efforts to control the lake trout population through winter harvest.

There were also some concerns about enforcing the regulation. One of the reasons the regulation was eliminated in 1977, was the difficulty in enforcement. Is a big rock 10 feet from the mainland an island?

We live in complicated times, remember that advice to keep it simple. In the end, the conversations migrated to an area closure in a key spawning location. I will get into the details of that proposal in the next report.

Based on thoughts from the public and from the stakeholder group, there seemed to be a lot of interest in adding further protections to brook trout in an effort to maintain the current trophy brook trout fishery. We discussed the pros and cons of various regulation options. We talked about a delayed season opening, like we have with salmon. Adding a second delayed season in the winter section of the lawbook seemed cumbersome, so if we went this route, the regulation should be the same as the salmon season: A February 15th opening. This would protect those fish spawning in January. However, it would still allow them to be harvested during the rest of the winter. Anglers could still target these fish but would not be allowed to harvest them. It could also discourage anglers from coming to the lake in January. In the end, the conversation steered away from a delayed season opening.

We already have a bag limit of one fish. Therefore, there was little room for change in bag limits. So, we examined different length limit strategies including minimum and maximum size limits, and slot limits. It would take a high minimum length limit to protect these big trout. The handling and hooking mortality would be excessive and reduce any benefits. A maximum length limit could offer a great deal of protection. It is easy to understand, would protect the biggest of the trout from harvest, offer lake-wide protection, and could still provide the opportunity for a photo op and release. The cons would be high hooking mortality on these big fish (likely around 30 percent) and anglers would not be able to keep a fish of a lifetime. This strategy got a lot of air time. We also discussed the potential benefits of slot limits. In general, the larger the protective slot, the better. Remember, we need to impact a significant portion of the population to see any change. Slot limits can be customized for maximum efficiency. They can, however, be more difficult to understand, and some anglers just oppose slot limits on principle. There is also the same concern of delayed mortality of released fish.

We tossed around all kinds of options while looking at data from decades of creel surveys. In the end, the spotlight shined on a protective slot limit for brook trout that could be applied to both summer and winter fisheries, including the East Outlet and Moose River. The slot limit could protect some of the large trout (3-5 pounds) from harvest year-round, but still allow anglers to take home a really big trout, if they desire. It could also allow for harvest of some smaller fish to satisfy those anglers that want to take a smaller trout home to eat. Nothing wrong with that. I will get into the details of what the department arrived at for a final regulation proposal in the next two reports.

Tim Obrey is the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s regional fisheries supervisor for the Moosehead Lake Region