Battle of the Bait Buckets
How some ice anglers are sabotaging Maine lakes.
Wild trout water more beautiful than northern Maine’s Big Reed Pond doesn’t exist. It is embraced by one of the few remaining old-growth forests in the East. It is one of about 307 lakes in the nation (305 in Maine) that still sustain native brook trout undefiled by hatchery genes and one of only fourteen waters in the nation (all in Maine) known to sustain native populations of blueback trout, a grievously imperiled race of arctic char.
In the early 1990s, guide Gary Corson found smelts in Big Reed. Smelts are native to Maine but not to Big Reed. They’re legal bait in Maine but not in Big Reed. Someone — apparently in an effort to grow bigger brookies and bluebacks — had illegally introduced them.
It worked spectacularly. In fact, the bluebacks, which had averaged about ten inches (big for landlocked char) were suddenly attaining lengths of more than twenty inches. There was a problem, however: Survival of juvenile bluebacks all but ceased. The smelts were chowing down on blueback and brookie fry, then competing with surviving bluebacks for zooplankton. Corson, who used to fly his clients into Big Reed at least three times a week, says he wouldn’t fish there today. “In the deeper water we’d get the occasional two- or three-pound brookie; and the shoreline was full of smaller fish. Everything disappeared.” So it goes when baitfish are unleashed where they don’t belong.
Thousands of other native fish populations across America have been undone by baitfish introductions. Anglers have dumped bait pails on purpose and by mistake, and bait dealers have introduced non-native baitfish in order to have additional waters to seine. One thing is certain: if baitfish are used in water where they are not native, they will become naturalized.
While the literature is rife with warnings about the dangers to salmonids from non-native spiny-finned fish like perch and bass, it scarcely mentions baitfish. But the second problem contributes to the first. Few bait dealers know what they’re selling, fewer anglers know what they’re buying, and no one knows what they’re seining.
“I think we’re making some headway with baitfish introductions,” says Maine’s chief fish biologist, John Boland. “Ice fishermen [the primary baitfish users in Maine] are much more cognizant about not dumping bait down the hole.” Still, the level of ignorance is appalling. Most ice anglers receive their education not from managers like Boland, but from Internet, newspaper, and barroom commentary, much of it provided by baitfish dealers. For example, in the February 18, 2007, Kennebec Journal the head of the Maine Bait Dealers Association, Stephen Staples, offered the following about alleged dangers of baitfish becoming naturalized in salmonid habitat: “If that happens, so what? Shiners are much needed forage for our fisheries and not harmful to the watersheds.”
Try that out on the people who used to fish Oregon’s sprawling Diamond Lake, so high in the headwaters of the Umpqua River that it was fishless until rainbow trout were stocked circa 1912. The rainbows grew an inch a month, commonly reaching ten pounds. But sometime in the 1940s tui chubs were introduced by bait anglers or perhaps by bucket biologists as “much needed forage” for rainbows. The rainbows ate the chubs, but not enough to make a difference. The chubs cleaned out the zooplankton, slicing off the rainbows’ food chain at the base and enabling the proliferation of toxic blue-green algae on which the zooplankton had grazed.
In 1954 the state successfully reclaimed the lake with rotenone, and the trophy fishery recovered, eventually attracting a hundred thousand anglers a year. But around 1990 someone introduced chubs again. Again the chubs took over. In September 2006, at a cost of $6 million in federal, state, county, and private money, the state again reclaimed Diamond Lake, killing an estimated ninety million tui chubs. “In two or three years we hope the nutrients tied up in the chubs that were killed will recycle back into invertebrates and zooplankton,” says Rhine Messmer, of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. “We’ll then ramp up our stocking, and hopefully we’ll have the trophy fishery we had before.”
But such happy endings, if this turns out to be one, are rare. Most bait-infected salmonid waters are too big or have too many inlets, springs, or marshes to be reclaimed. We lose them forever.
Damage to native-fish habitat in the West, grievous as it is, palls beside damage in the East. One reason is that many western states have decent regulations (if not enforcement), while regulations in the East are hopelessly inadequate. Montana and Wyoming have banned live baitfish west of the Continental Divide — their best trout water. Washington and Oregon prohibit all live baitfish in freshwater. California has a virtual ban.
Maine, which has lost about 90 percent of its wild brook trout habitat but nonetheless retains an estimated 97 percent of all ponded native brook trout water in the nation, has also banned live baitfish in much of its remote trout water. But major brook trout strongholds — including the ninety-two-mile-long ribbon of lakes, ponds,
rivers, and streams known as the Allagash Wilderness Waterway — are still open.
Among the twenty-three species of baitfish Maine still permits are the golden shiner, lake chub, fathead minnow, and common shiner (which state biologists have determined pose a “moderate” threat to brook trout), smelt, longnose sucker, creek chub (a “high” threat), and white sucker (a “severe” threat — more severe even than yellow perch, brown bullheads, and largemouth bass, which it bans).
Only in Maine has the threat of baitfish attracted major media attention, including an article in the Wall Street Journal. The flap started in 2007 with two proposed pieces of long overdue and desperately needed legislation almost pathetically modest in their goals — akin to Oliver Twist asking for seconds on gruel.
One was introduced on behalf of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine (SAM). The bill would have banned live baitfish from fourteen of the “B List” ponds — where brookies are self-sustaining and haven’t been stocked in at least twenty-five years. It was “nothing but a continuation of the bill passed in 2005 that protects ‘heritage trout’ in 305 unstocked ponds — the ‘A List,’ ” declares Corson, who serves on SAM’s Fishing Initiative Committee. As Corson notes, ice fishing isn’t allowed on most B List ponds anyway. And even on those fourteen they would still be able to use jigs, worms, and dead baitfish (very effective for brook trout and lake trout when fished on the bottom).
The other bill, introduced on behalf of the Dud Dean Angling Society (DDAS), would have banned just four of the twenty-three legal species of baitfish — the ones the scientific literature lists as alien to the state. These are the spottail, blackchin, and emerald shiners, and the eastern silvery minnow. Emerald shiners are of special concern because they are primary vectors of viral hemorrhagic septicemia, a devastating fish disease now established in the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River System.
Whipping ice anglers into a froth of fear, loathing, and paranoia has been Maine’s property-rights community, which seized on the proposed legislation as a means of vilifying those who value native ecosystems — i.e., the ubiquitous liberal “greenies.” SAM, it alleges, has been infiltrated by “environmental extremists,” “eco-fundamentalists,” and “fly fishing elitists.” SAM, Trout Unlimited, and the “Duds” (DDAS) have conspired to push traditional anglers out of the way “so they can have the resource all to themselves.”
Among the more prolific of Maine’s conspiracy theorists is one Alfred Moore, of Milbridge, who spends his days crusading on Internet comment boxes, blogs, forums, and chat rooms against what he calls “the Environmental Industry” (always capitalized). According to one of his daily warnings, the “anti-live bait legislation could ban use of live bait forever.” He defines brook trout as “the ‘new’ Atlantic salmon” and proclaims that “Environmental Industry groups are already buying up land to ‘protect the natives,’ ” which he expects will soon be listed under the Endangered Species Act, first in the long list of federal statutes he detests.
A mantra from Moore and the rest of the Maine anti-bait-regulation lobby is that there’s no proof that spottail, blackchin, emerald shiners, and the eastern silvery minnow are non-natives. That’s true, but also irrelevant because a baitfish doesn’t have to be alien to a state to ruin a fishery — it only has to be alien to the body of water in which it is unleashed. Witness, for example, the fate of the brookies and bluebacks that used to abound in Big Reed Pond.
In the last decade or so the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife has done a much better job of managing the national treasure it has been entrusted with. Its brook trout specialist, Forrest Bonney, reports a significant increase in the percentages of older and bigger fish. Draconian bag limits — down to one fish on some ponds — have done wonders.
Thanks to scientists like Bonney and fisheries chief Boland, Maine has some excellent management policies in place. It’s just that, with so much political heat from special-interest groups like bait dealers, those policies don’t always get implemented. Considering all the department’s talk about the dangers of alien fish, you’d think it would want to prohibit use of at least the four baitfish it believes are alien to the state. But department officials testified against the DDAS bill, and, on the department’s advice, a legislative committee
recommended that only the blackchin shiner be banned. “Why?” I asked Boland.
Boland is a very good biologist, but his answer made no sense to me. He explained that the twenty-three species of legal baitfish are “extremely difficult to identify,” that “we don’t have reliable records for their distribution,” and that “it wouldn’t make a lot of sense to saddle the wardens with this kind of enforcement.” I can’t think of three better reasons to restrict the use of all live baitfish in and near wild trout water until biologists figure out what lives where.
As of mid-December, there were no announced plans to revisit baitfish limits in this year’s legislature.
Last year illegally introduced smelts, the same fish that destroyed the blueback trout fishery in Big Reed Pond, were found in Wadleigh Pond, long considered the best blueback trout water in Maine. Bluebacks occur only in Maine and only in a few ponds. They are desperately in need of Endangered Species Act protection. Yet education, enforcement, and legislative reform aimed at the species that most threaten them move at the pace of continental drift.
Native fish, especially wild salmonids, don’t have that kind of time.
Another version of this article originally appeared in Fly Rod & Reel.
- By: Ted Williams