By Roberta Scruggs
Created Jan 28 2008 - 7:22pm
Mainers just got back something they lost a long, long time ago. You may never want to go fishing on a long winter's night, but now you can.
Why was ice-fishing at night illegal, especially since night fishing on open water was not? Good question. But the answer has been forgotten. All we know now (thanks to Statehouse librarian Sheila Bearor) is that law has been on the books since 1899.
Maybe something tragic or outrageous happened on the ice in the winter of 1898. Maybe game wardens - there were only 60 statewide then - didn't want to work on winter nights when they were paid just $25 a year. And maybe the only answer is, "This is the wacky world of fish and wildlife laws."
Nat Berry, a former warden lieutenant, told me how one judge described those laws. "There is the Constitution of the United States," the judge said. "There is the Constitution of the State of Maine. And then there are the most difficult, complicated rules and laws on the face of the earth - Maine's fish and game laws."
People have tried - and tried and tried - to simplify them. Maine Gov. William Tudor Gardiner, for example, promised to do so in his 1929 inaugural address, saying the fish and game laws "stand as a marvel of redundancy and intricacy."
But it's not so easy to balance protection with the desires of sportsmen and the demands of law enforcement. Last I heard, there were around 4,000 fish and game laws on Maine's books. Matt Dunlap, who chaired the legislature's fish and wildlife committee before becoming Secretary of State, calculated about 80 percent of them passed between 1917 and 1931, when wildlife populations were at a terribly low ebb. But new laws are added every year.
This month, though, I'm celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Pickering Commission, the latest effort to simplify fish and game laws. It was named after its first chairman, the late Dave Pickering, longtime Cape Elizabeth police chief. He took that job partly because while hunting ducks one cold morning he'd climbed to the top of the high hill to call the Maine Warden Service on his cell phone and ask about a law. Got three different answers. Decided something had to be done.
The Sportsman's Alliance of Maine, a 14,000-member lobbying group for hunters and anglers, agreed and assembled the commission. "It's quite obvious that the problems we've been having with the warden service really brought this up to the surface," George Smith, SAM's executive director, said then.
Smith had been inundated with complaints about confusing laws and "cheap pinches." The final straw came when wardens surprised moose hunters in 1997 by reinterpreting the law prohibiting hunting from motor vehicles. That traditionally meant shooting from a vehicle or at least having a loaded gun. The "Aroostook 10" were nabbed even though they were just sitting or standing in the backs of trucks with unloaded guns. The citations sparked statewide controversy and embarrassed officials, who reduced the citations to warnings.
"When you are driving down the road, you and the state policeman sitting there know the speed limit," Smith said. "When we go into the woods, we don't know the speed limit. Only the warden knows the speed limit - and it changes from warden to warden."
As you might expect, this effort has included fighting, finger-pointing and frustration. The debate over fishing laws has been particularly acrimonious because fishermen and fisheries biologists come at it from opposite perspectives. The biologists think defensively, trying to keep bad things from happening. The SAM fishing committee also wants to protect fish, but when it comes to expanding fishing opportunities, they ask: Why not?
"We have pushed and prodded and put in legislation, proposed rules," Smith says. "We have overcome biologists' comments like `It will happen over my dead body.' Tremendous negative reaction. We overcame that and got people a lot of additional opportunities."
Change has come slowly, but it has come, says John Boland, head of the Fisheries Division.
"We've been kind of going through the book trying to sort out areas of inconsistency and trying to streamline the law book. Make it a little bit easier to understand," Boland says. "Instead of having 35 or 40 regs that pertain to brook trout, now we've pared that down to five or six. And we've done that with every species. And in addition to that, we've taken a look at some of the general laws to determine if they make sense or not. It is a piecemeal approach, there's no doubt. We just don't have the time to make the huge effort it would take."
Maybe fish and game laws will always "stand as a marvel of redundancy and intricacy." But some good things have come out of this decade-long effort.
When Boland asked his staff why ice fishing at night was illegal, they thought it must be for enforcement reasons. When he asked wardens, they thought it must be for biological reasons. In other words, nobody had a clue.
So even though no one could remember why, anglers were barred from ice fishing at night for 109 years. Now they aren't. To me, that's progress.
Roberta Scruggs is an award-winning reporter, columnist and editor. Her favorite subject is the Maine outdoors.