Maybe this has happened to you.
You’re fishing, possibly in an unfamiliar lake, pond or stream, and you hook a fish. When you get it almost to the surface, you notice it’s a species you’re not allowed to catch.
What do you do?
It’s a scenario that could confront any angler fishing in Maine waters and what you do next may determine whether the fish survives.
Fishing regulations vary widely across the state, which means anglers need to know the laws for the waters they fish. Knowing those details, and being able to correctly identify different fish, can be the difference between enjoying a successful outing or facing the embarrassment, and possible legal ramifications, of harvesting a fish illegally.
“We manage waters for one fishery that can be very different from another one that’s just a couple miles away,” said District Game Warden Kyle Hladik, who works in central Franklin County.
“Special regulations are set by water, so it’s very important to look. You can’t assume that because one set of laws and regulations applies. One body of water, the next town over, might be different,” Hladik said.
Special laws include fly fishing only, a ban on barbless hooks, artificial lures only and restrictions on certain species. The latter includes federally protected Atlantic salmon, which can be found, along with numerous other species, in tidal rivers such as the Penobscot, Kennebec and Dennys.
Some Maine waters, including its two largest lakes, Moosehead and Sebago, also have different rules for ice fishing that prohibit the taking of some species because of higher likely mortality rates.
Knowing Maine’s fishing laws are the first step. The next is to know how to identify a fish and, if needed, to quickly and safely release it.
“Some basic guidance would be, if you realize you caught a species that is not legal to catch, to handle it gently, like with all fish,” Hladik said.
“A lot of fish that end up getting hurt or die when they get released is because they were either kept out of the water too long or handled roughly when removing the hook.”
If the realization is made when the fish is still in the water, every attempt should be made to release it without removing it. If the fish has been pulled from the water, hook removal should be done as fast as possible.
Water temperature and weather conditions also impact a fish’s chance for survival once it is out of the water. Warm water and hot weather take a toll on species such as trout and landlocked salmon.
During the winter, fish can be severely stressed when pulled onto the ice, especially if they are exposed to frigid temperatures and wind.
That’s part of the reason that at Moosehead Lake, ice fishing regulations include one that requires all landlocked salmon caught from Jan. 1 to Feb. 14 to be released alive, without being removed from the water.
“The fish might swim again and go right down the hole, but they’re much more likely to die after they’ve been out of the water,” Hladik said.
In general, there can be complications depending upon how a fish is hooked.
If it has swallowed a baited hook, the best practice is to cut the line. Hladik said most hooks will rust out in the fish in a relatively short amount of time.
That is preferable to attempting to surgically remove a hook that is deeply embedded or has been swallowed.
“It’s not ideal for the fish to have a hook inside of it, but it’s even worse when you yank out that hook and do all the damage that comes with pulling it back up out of the stomach of the fish,” Hladik said.
There are things anglers can do to reduce the possibility of injuring or killing fish. They include using barbless hooks, which are required on some Maine waters, or bending down or filing off the barbs.
Fly fishing, by its nature, means most fish are hooked in the corner of the mouth, meaning less mortality. Baited hooks, such as fishing with worms, have the worst impact on fish.
In the event an angler realizes they have inadvertently taken a prohibited species, it is best to report the incident to the local game warden.
“That way, you don’t wind up in a situation where you get caught trying to hide something,” Hladik said. “We do a lot of educating and we take a whole array of measures when we find a violation and we make a lot of judgments based on the situation and the factors.”