Brook trout angler survey could help market Maine’s unique resource

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FARMINGTON — Anglers who fish in Maine want to catch large, wild, native brook trout from remote rivers and streams and tend to stay in camps or seasonal homes, rather than inns. They also rely heavily on local knowledge, rather than traditional tourism sources.

Those are some of the results of a recently released survey on brook trout angling compiled by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension in collaboration with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and several Franklin County fishing guides.

Nearly 40,000 questionnaires were sent out to nonresident and resident fishermen who bought fishing licenses online in 2009. The response was high: 31 percent of nonresidents and 25 percent of residents responded.

The study is a snapshot of anglers’ preferences and perceptions of Maine’s fisheries and will be used to provide direction on ways to improve the state’s unique brook trout fishery and promote it, officials say.

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“Maine has a precious resource and is the last stronghold for wild brook trout. For decades, we have done a good job protecting it,” said John Boland, director of fisheries operations for the state. “We also recognize it as a good commodity for marketing and attracting anglers from around the world.”

According to the report, there are brook trout in 1,135 lakes and ponds in Maine, with 627 of those supported by naturally reproducing fish populations. Nearly 300 have been stocked but not within the past 25 years; 127 have never been stocked and support pure genetic strains; and 170 are zoned by the Land Use Regulation Commission as remote trout ponds.

Of the 32,000 miles of streams in Maine, about 22,250 miles support brook trout and virtually all are wild species.

“What the survey found was that anglers are interested in catching big fish,” Boland said. “They are very interested in fishing wild rather than stocked fish, and they like fishing for species that are being protected or conserved. We also found eating the fish they catch is not their highest priority.”

“Although Maine has a vast number of lakes and ponds that are terrific trout fisheries, anglers say they prefer moving water. The survey could lead us to look at redesigning our regulations so they can be more consistent with what these anglers want,” he said.

Registered Maine Guide Todd Towle, owner of Kingfisher River Guides in Kingfield, was involved with the development of the survey.

“I would hope the state takes a real hard look at the data. When the customer speaks, you should listen,” Towle said.

“I don’t really think this survey will help just my business,” he said. “It can help area businesses that provide services fishermen use. Lodging, restaurants and outdoor gear shops will all benefit from a quality fishery.”

“Just think what an economic boost a river like the Sandy could provide to that area,” he said. “I don’t know anyone who is complaining about having too many customers right now.”

Fishing wouldn’t be the cure-all for Maine’s sluggish economy, but it could be a “cog in the wheel of recovery with some creative thought and an ability to try new ideas,” he said.

Maine Guide Bob Dionne, owner of Aardvark Outfitters in Farmington, also was part of the survey project. He said the state’s fisheries are “definitely underutilized.”

“Studies have shown no other state has as many wild brook trout as Maine does and the fish here grow to a size that is very uncommon in any other part of the United States,” he said.

Yet Maine is competing for anglers with states such as Colorado, Montana and Oregon where there are more catch-and-release waters that hard-core anglers seek, he said.

Game fish are too valuable to be caught only once, he said. “When you have a unique resource, why would you not get maximum economic benefit out of it?”

And to dispel the perception that fly-fishing is an elite sport, Dionne said the state needs to do more to make brook trout fishing better for all fishermen.

“We need a long-term plan that uses the best practices from places that are successfully marketing their fishing,” he said. “There is so much economic potential and we have done very little to market what we have.”

 Among the survey’s findings:

• Both resident and nonresident “hard-core” brook trout anglers show strong preference for fishing self-reproducing brook trout populations that have never been stocked or have not been stocked in more than 25 years. Stocked brook trout ponds are clearly least preferred.

• The two most important factors in choosing to fish for brook trout in Maine are the availability of wild and native brook trout populations and the availability of remote waters to fish.

• Nonresidents and residents differed sharply on regulated waters. Nearly 60 percent of nonresidents are more likely to fish waters with catch-and-release regulations as opposed to 38 percent of residents.

• In planning fishing trips to Maine, 59 percent of nonresidents used the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife website and rated it fair to excellent. Nearly 80 percent relied on local knowledge as sources of information, and about 90 percent said they do not use traditional tourism information.

The Web-based survey was proposed and developed by the Cooperative Extension’s Marc Edwards, the tourism and economic development professional from the Franklin County office, after hearing from fisheries biologist Forrest Bonney, guides and tourism officials about the need to better promote the sport.

“The Extension’s role is to provide objective, resource-based information and the hope is that this survey will spark debate on opportunities that can expand the market without damaging the resource,” Edwards said.

Other initiatives at the state level include a working group of concerned guides, sporting camp owners, fish biologists and others who are studying the brook trout resource and will be making recommendations.

The agency just launched a new Maine Fishing Guide on Google Earth to assist anglers in locating the most common sport fish. Visitors can download the application at www.maine.gov/ifw/fishing/fishingguide to view satellite maps of the state’s lakes and streams for a wealth of data.

bjespersen@beeline-online.net

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