The wild and native fish are a vital natural resource that provide an economic boost to the state.
By Deirdre Fleming, Staff Writer
Portland Press Herald news story
Robert and Teresa Proctor of Atlanta have fished in New Zealand, Alaska, Chile, Belize and the Amazon. But every summer they travel to Libby Camps in Aroostook County in pursuit of wild and native brook trout.
“Brook trout are also native to Georgia. But a 9-inch brook trout is really big here,” said Robert Proctor. “We really enjoy catching (larger brook trout) in the combination of river and still water fishing that we get at Libby’s.”
The brightly colored “squaretail” is a top draw for fishermen who head to sporting camps in northern Maine. Wild and native brook trout are a vital natural resource that provide an economic boost to the state, but biologists are wary of invasive fish species that could threaten pristine waters where they thrive.
Maine is home to 97 percent of the wild brook trout waters in the Eastern United States, according to Trout Unlimited. Almost 10 percent of Maine’s 6,000 lakes and ponds – 555 in total – feature wild and native brook trout, according to Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
Wild brook trout waters are those that have not been stocked for 25 years and have naturally reproducing populations. Native waters have never been stocked and hold brook trout populations that date back to when glaciers receded at the end of the Ice Age.
“When you are talking about native (trout), Maine really does have a lot going for it,” said Keith Curley, Trout Unlimited’s director of government affairs in Virginia. “Out West you have wild populations of rainbow and brown trout that are the backbone of the storied Western trout rivers. But they’re not native.”
MILLIONS IN REVENUE
A 2013 study commissioned by the Maine Office of Tourism showed freshwater fishing in Maine generated $319.1 million in revenue. The survey, conducted by Southwick Associates Inc. in Fernandina Beach, Florida, showed more than half of Maine residents and nearly half of out-of-state fishermen favor brook trout.
Maine Office of Tourism Director Carolann Ouellette said it’s a “reasonable assumption that the most popular species generates more economic contributions.”
The study showed 60 percent of Maine’s 342,354 resident fishermen prefer brook trout, while 44 percent also fished for smallmouth bass. The study showed 47 percent of the 210,058 nonresident anglers favor both the brook trout and smallmouth bass.
“I would say that 90 percent of our fishing business is out-of-state people looking to fish for wild or native brook trout,” said Matt Libby, the co-owner of Libby Camps. “They won’t even fish in one of our very few stocked ponds that we have in our area. People are looking for native fish.
“Now that so many places have stocked fish, people don’t want to feel like they’re just driving behind a hatchery truck.”
Maine’s native brook trout date back to when the glaciers receded, according to former state fisheries biologist Forrest Bonney in his book “Squaretails.”
In 2005, the Maine Legislature enacted a bill denoting the native Eastern brook trout the state’s “heritage fish” and prohibiting competitor fish from being stocked in wild brook trout waters. Soon thereafter, DIF&W began surveying wild brook trout waters to create a clear inventory of all of Maine’s wild and native brook trout populations.
In the month ahead, Maine Audubon and Trout Unlimited will use dozens of volunteers to explore remote ponds believed to have native brook trout.
‘THERE’S AN ALLURE TO IT’
Knowing where these waters are helps sporting camp owners market their rustic lodges.
Harvey Calden, who has owned Tim Pond Camps north of Rangeley for 35 years, said 90 percent of his clients come for the native brook trout, and half come from out of state. They spend $200 a day at his lodge for a cabin, meals and a boat to fish the remote pond.
“The fight on the end of the line is twice what it would be for a (hatchery) fish that is twice as big. They’re really strong,” Calden said.
It’s the same story at the northern tip of Maine at 130-year-old Red River sporting camp, which sits within a 22,000-acre of public reserve land that is home to 17 wild brook trout waters.
“The single biggest question I get asked is: ‘Are your fish native?’ ” said Red River owner Jen Brophy. “It’s just the mystique about catching a native trout, it’s something wild, it’s not farm-raised. There is an allure to it.”
Some fishermen who come to the North Maine Woods for a remote fishing experience know nothing about the native brook trout. But sporting camp owner Igor Sigorsky said once they are educated, they’re hooked.
“It definitely would be fair to say we as sporting camp owners are selling the wild and native trout and it works,” said Sikorsky, co-owner of Bradford Camps near Allagash. “And yet, we are the ones who have to teach them this.
“Maine does a good job selling lighthouses and lobsters and the coast, but it does not do a good job selling the inland stuff.”
Walter Kimball of Andover, Massachusetts, has been a regular at Libby Camps since 2001.
“Here in Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire, so much trout fishing depends on stocked fish,” he said. “We love fishing for native brook trout in Maine because they only live in the most beautiful places and it is unusual.”
Libby said the 40 remote ponds around their sporting camp have some wild brook trout that grow to 20 inches.
Kathy Hoerbinger of Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, said she and her husband, Marty, have fished all over the world, most recently Mongolia, but their “hearts are at Libby Camps” because of the trout are native and wild.
DANGER OF ILLEGAL INTRODUCTIONS
As celebrated as Maine’s wild brookie is, there are concerns about its future. The fear of illegally moved fish that are put in waters by fishermen is the greatest danger.
Trout Unlimited lists illegal introductions the No. 1 threat to Maine’s wild populations.
“We’ve got smallmouth bass and muskie in the St. John River, and knocking on the door of the Aroostook River and Allagash River watersheds,” said Frank Frost, the regional state biologist in northern Maine.
But Frost said at least in northern Maine, where the lion’s share of the state’s wild brook trout waters are located, a regard for the native fish has grown among the locals.
“I think people (in Aroostook County) know they are our No. 1 fish. I think people up here appreciate the beauty and type of habitat they exist in. We’ve seen that over the past 20 years,” Frost said.
“The (illegal introduction) of other fish here is not like it is in central and southern Maine. They are a huge part of our culture and our history.”
And the fact the state began 10 years ago to remove wild brook waters from stocking consideration helps, sporting camp owners say.
“It’s getting better now. Now the state realizes, wild and native is the way to go,” Libby said.