RANGELEY – Two inches isn’t a big deal unless you’re talking landlocked salmon, say state fisheries biologists. It can mean a year spent in a lake gobbling up smelt, a salmon’s primary meal ticket.
An overabundance of wild young salmon caused by conservative-minded anglers taking catch-and-release to heart – along with reduced fishing pressure – has induced a major rule change this spring for Mooselookmeguntic Lake.
“Catch-and-release is not the end-all, and it doesn’t always mean better,” Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife public relations representative Bill Pierce said recently.
The minimum length limit for Mooselookmeguntic salmon was reduced from 14 inches to 12 inches, and the daily bag limit was increased from two to three fish. All three may be between 12 to 18 inches long, fisheries biologist Dave Boucher stated in his weekly fishing report, which was published by the state on Monday.
“These liberalized catch limits were recommended because wild salmon have become so abundant that the available (smelt) forage cannot support good salmon growth,” Boucher wrote.
Anglers in Rangeley account for higher release rates for legal fish than anywhere else in the state, Boucher said recently at the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife office in Strong.
“We’re seeing release rates as high as 70 to 80 percent, which means they’re harvesting 20 to 25 percent of fish they actually catch,” he added.
If the problem isn’t rectified, salmon growth will continue to decline in Mooselook, as will the growth of its world-class brook trout fishery, another consumer of smelt.
“If it goes severely in the wrong direction, all salmon life will be imperiled,” Boucher said.
At 16,300 acres, Mooselookmeguntic, or Mooselook Lake as most people call it, is the largest of the Rangeley chain of lakes.
In 2000, salmon regulations were changed to curtail the harvest of larger, older fish, those longer than 18 inches.
Boucher said the intent was to encourage anglers to take smaller, younger salmon, those 14 to 18 inches long, because fish this size are voracious smelt eaters.
But, creel surveys revealed that anglers continued to take larger rather than smaller salmon.
“The apparent unwillingness of anglers to harvest young fish has diminished the potential effectiveness of the new regulation,” Boucher said.
“There are currently several large age classes of salmon that are slow-growing, skinny, and downright unattractive,” he added.
Mooselook salmon spawn in a 12-mile stretch of the Kennebago River between Kennebago Falls and the lake’s Cupsuptic Basin.
Salmon caught during last year’s spawning run weighed less than a pound at 13 to 14 inches long.
“These fish were 5 to 6 years old, which is exceedingly slow growth. There are fish in Rangeley Lake that age that are up to 5 to 7 pounds and 23 to 26 inches long,” Boucher said.
He also blamed lower harvest rates on mercury contamination.
“The issue is ubiquitous throughout Maine, and, the attention that has received has played a role in people not wanting to consume fish,” Boucher said.
Growth rates could turn around within two to four years, if anglers who fish in Mooselook harvest their limits.
“If they don’t comply, or only a portion do, the recovery period will be much longer. It’s in the hands of fishermen themselves to bring this around,” Boucher said.
Wild salmon in Mooselook are a renewable natural resource, and, Boucher said, “harvesting a few meals will in no way destroy this fishery.”
“There are exceedingly abundant 12- to 18-inch fish that are exceedingly old, and, it’s time for them to move on, so, I would encourage readers to submit salmon recipes,” he said.