Hats off to smelt shamans

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It’s not uncommon for Maine sport fishing waters to come and go like the tides.

This is especially true for coldwater fisheries, where salmon survive on a steady diet of rainbow smelt. When a lake’s smelt population crashes, salmon numbers generally follow suit. For years, sportsmen and fisheries biologists viewed this salmon-smelt cycle problem with a shrug of resignation.

This may all be about to change. Some exciting things have been happening smelt-wise, breakthroughs that have been occurring with little fanfare.

A little background, first.

Back in the early 1990s, Moosehead Lake’s legendary sport fishery was in serious trouble. A group of concerned anglers, unwilling to lie back and fatalistically accept the declining fishery, resolved among themselves to “not just stand there, but do something.”

And they did.

Through the leadership of Ed Courtenay and others, this group formed the Moosehead Lake Fishing Coalition (MLFC).

In the early days, MLFC met with some resistance from state fisheries biologists, who bristled at the prospect of layman sportsmen second guessing their fisheries management approach.

But this coalition forged ahead undeterred, and put its money (and sweat) where its mouth was.

During that first decade, MFLC, working with state fisheries folks through a MDIF&W-sanctioned focus group, undertook a number of projects all aimed at helping the waning Moosehead fishery.

They launched a privately funded trout stocking program, a stream cleaning program, smelt run surveys, a water quality study, and a survey of the mysis shrimp, which were introduced years ago in hopes of providing an alternative food source for salmon.

Although all these projects helped some, taken altogether they pale in comparison to MFLC’s latest project, which MLFC President Stephen Cole, modestly describes as “our smelt effort.”

The coalition is doing what it can to help nature sustain a robust smelt population in Moosehead, the key to an equally robust sport fishery.

For three years, MFLC has been buying hatchery-raised smelt a half-million at a time from a private entrepreneur and, with official permission from state biologists, putting them in Moosehead Lake.

Incredibly, according to Cole, tagging surveys indicate that these artificially introduced smelt “are taking beautifully.” They are being found in the bellies of gamefish.

Now, if you are paying attention, your eyebrows should have been raised by the preceding paragraph and the term “hatchery-raised smelt.”

For years, scientists and biologists said that it couldn’t be done, you could not raise rainbow smelts in a hatchery environment.

Well, guess what? A retired Maine game warden, who has been in the bait business for years, has after 17 years of fish culture experimentation, found a way to raise smelt with survival ratios that range from 50 to 90 percent!

Enter John Whalen, owner and operator of Harmon Brook Farm in Canaan. When asked how he thought that he was able to cultivate this breakthrough in fish culture, Whalen cites two reasons. First, his powers of patience and observation that he learned as a Maine game warden.

“As a warden, you do a lot of watching,” he said with a smile.

Secondly, he learned that the scientific folks seem to take a regimented approach to their research.

“Often times, their research processes are fundamentally flawed, and they don’t seem to see it.”

He says that he spent hours watching how smelt behave under different conditions, and that it eventually helped him to think “outside the box.”

Whalen has forged a scientific alliance with a zoology professor from the University of New Hampshire, and plans to focus his smelt-rearing efforts toward an aqua culture business. Asked what kind of interest he has had from the fisheries folks at the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (MDIF&W), he said “moderate.” The best news is that Whalen recently got word that he had been approved to receive a $52,000 Innovative Research Grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

He said that he wouldn’t be surprised if the smelt project of the Moosehead group becomes a prototype for other Maine Fish and Game clubs, and angling organizations that have an interest in helping improve the smelt populations in state sport fisheries.

As for Stephen Cole and the Moosehead Lake Fishing Coaltion, they are to be commended for what they have done and how they have done it. Their deep concern for the quality of Moosehead’s sport fishery has gone far beyond words and expressions of concern. They have opened their wallets and spent long hours as volunteers cleaning streams, as well as planning and executing useful programs, including the most exciting and far-reaching of all: “the smelt effort.” Best of all, they have for the most part done it with diplomacy and good will in their working partnership with the fisheries folks at MDIF&W.

My hat is off to the smelt shamans, Stephen Cole, John Whalen and the entire Moosehead coalition. Their efforts remind us that in America some of our best leadership is found- not in Augusta or Washington or even academia – but out in the hinterlands among the workaday citizens.

V. Paul Reynolds is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal and former information officer for the Maine Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. His e-mail address is paul@sportingjournal.com.

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