Outdoors in Maine: The ‘B’ waters redo

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The carpenter who I helped rebuild my lakeside camp into a year-round house had a saying that he used whenever one of us made a mistake. When a nail wasn’t driven straight or a stud was cut too short, “Paul,” he would quip,” it’s only a mistake if you can’t fix it.”

A rationalization maybe, but he had a point. We all make our share of mistakes. Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Chandler Woodcock and a couple of his fisheries managers made a whopper last year when they tried to muscle through a ban on the use of live fish as bait on 16 popular ice fishing waters in the North Woods.

That well-intentioned but overly ambitious brook-trout- protecting initiative went over like a boom box at a prayer vigil. There was an outcry. Not only from ice anglers, sporting camp operators, and baitfish dealers and fish and game organizations, but even regional fisheries biologists who, before they were muzzled, asserted that the ban was not good science, that there was no empirical evidence that released bait fish endangered brook trout populations.

The Department’s list of 16 waters took a public tromping. Under public pressure, the list was pared down to nine waters and then, after state lawmakers got involved, four of the nine banned waters were rescinded by legislative decree leaving just five. The controversy was embroiled in sub-issues. Some legislators were irate, feeling that they had been misled by MDIF&W’s front office, which was slow to produce a regional fisheries biologist for the lawmakers to question. Before the smoke had cleared, a key policymaker at Fish and Wildlife “retired” and the legislative fish and wildlife committee ordered MDIF&W to get its act together, to prepare a revised brook trout management plan by this winter.

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That has been done. The plan has been touted as a good one, a well-reasoned “compromise” that will be presented to lawmakers at a hearing in early February. Of the approximately 250 brook trout “B” waters that contain self-sustaining wild trout, about 200 will be simply added to the “A” list of wild trout waters that are already protected from ice fishing or the use of live fish as bait. In effect, the “B” list will no longer exist.

The remaining 40 “B” waters, which contain some self-sustaining wild trout and are stocked with lake trout and salmon and currently allow the use of live fish as bait (ice fishing), will be managed as they were before the baitfish battle. In other words, business as usual.

All of the diverse players seem pleased as punch about this resolution. Both sides in this bitter battle are claiming victory. Trout activist and guide Gary Corson, who no doubt had the commissioner’s ear from the get-go, claims that this “compromise” is what he wanted all along. Retired Game Warden Dave Allen, a member of the brook trout working group, who strongly opposed the baitfish ban on the 16 “B” waters, told me, “This is the first consensus I’ve seen as a member of the work group.”

It’s a regular love fest.

A fellow outdoor columnist, George Smith, has been uncharacteristically complimentary, almost swooning in his expressions of praise for the commissioner and his entire staff: “This is a major achievement for DIF&W,” writes Smith.

Not to be a skunk at a lawn party, but somebody needs to ask: “Why didn’t MDIF&W just do all of this in the first place and avoid all of the turmoil?”

It makes too much sense. Who cares whether the water was stocked with trout in1914 or 1960? If the pond supports self-sustaining wild trout, do what you can within reason to protect it, right?

With no compelling fisheries science to support the move, banning the use of live fish as bait on popular ice fishing waters was hardly “within reason.”

Yes, as my carpenter says, “It’s only a mistake if you can’t fix it.” The commissioner and his Augusta staff, with the critical input of regional fisheries biologists, have finally come to their senses, and have moved with dispatch to repair the damage. Good for them. A lesson learned. And good for the trout activists who get credit for forcing the dialogue in the first place.

However, if somebody is to be singled out for particular praise and presented a dozen roses, George, reserve the flowers — not for the Department, which was forced to change its imprudent approach — but for the real unsung heroes in this debacle-turned-compromise. State Senator David Burns, State Rep. Paul Davis, and a few other state legislators deserve the plaudits. They are the ones who responded swiftly to the concerns of sportsmen and “encouraged” Commissioner Woodcock and his policymakers to rethink their position and get things back on track.

All’s well that ends well.

The author is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal. He is also a Maine Guide, co-host of a weekly radio program “Maine Outdoors” heard Sundays at 7 p.m. on The Voice of Maine News-Talk Network (WVOM-FM 103.9, WQVM-FM 101.3) and former information officer for the Maine Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. His e-mail address is paul@sportingjournal.com . He has two books “A Maine Deer Hunter’s Logbook” and his latest, “Backtrack.”

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