State gets a hand counting thriving brook trout population

On one thing just about everyone agrees: The native brook trout is one beautiful fish.

It’s really a jewel,” said Chandler Woodcock, commissioner of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. “When you see them in their fall colors, it’s just breathtaking.”

Native brook trout were once abundant throughout Canada and the eastern United States, with populations extending through the Appalachians as far south as Tennessee and North Carolina.

Centuries of farming, development and habitat degradation forced the brook trout into a long retreat, to the point where they can be found only in a few remote ponds in many of the states that once featured thriving populations.

Maine is the only state where brook trout can be said to be thriving. Northern, western and Down East Maine feature 97 percent of all of the U.S. ponds and streams, as many as 1,000 ponds in all, where native fish still hold on.

To scientists, brook trout belong to the genus known as “char.” Maine’s wild brook trout are closely related to the Arctic char, a much rarer species, now protected in nine far northern Maine ponds that are the only places in the U.S. where they survive.

Separate populations of brook trout can be found in coastal streams throughout Maine and many other states, but the fish are much smaller and lack some of the characteristics that make the highland brook trout one of the country’s most prized sport fish.

Yet far less is known about this fish than one might think. The stronghold of brook trout is in remote areas where stocking is limited and access difficult.

As recently as a decade ago, only a small fraction of likely brook trout ponds had ever been surveyed by IF&W biologists.

As Ted Koffman — a former legislator and, until recently, executive director of Maine Audubon — put it, “The worry was that we’d lose more of the resource even before we’d documented what was there.”

An unusual collaboration of three partner organizations — Maine Audubon, IF&W and Trout Unlimited — have joined forces in the Brook Trout Pond Survey Project, which aims to fill that information gap and provide data that can guide future protection efforts.

Three years in, the project has sent 193 volunteer anglers to report on 258 remote ponds where there was no survey data. Some 112 ponds were recommended for detailed surveys by IF&W biologists, who confirmed brook trout in 34 of the 45 ponds they studied in 2012 and 2013.

The project has brought forth the best of what each of the three partners has to offer, said Jeff Reardon, who works full time for Trout Unlimited as its Brook Trout Project director.

TU has a lot of experience and knowledge about brook trout, but we didn’t have the volunteer reach to take on this kind of effort,” he said. Audubon, however, “has excelled at citizen science projects before,” with its habitat studies in southern Maine.

IF&W, at this point, “had the experts but not the funding to be able to carry this out,” he said.

As the surveys continue for a fourth year, “It’s worked out pretty ideally,” Reardon said. “The roles were carved out in the beginning, and we’ve been able to stick to them.”

A template for the survey project was established in a bill sponsored by Woodcock, then a state senator from the Farmington area, that became law in 2005. It established brook trout as Maine’s “Heritage Fish,” and charged IF&W with establishing lists of waters where protection could be offered.

Koffman said his interest in brook trout began back then, when the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine also made improving habitat protection for brook trout a prominent part of its legislative agenda.

IF&W prepared an “A list” of ponds in brook trout terrain where there had never been stocking of hatchery fish, and where live bait was unlikely to have been used. The latter is considered important because using bait fish, which sometimes escape, is considered a leading cause of introduction of non-native species. And when other species arrive, the notoriously finicky brook trout are likely to disappear.

There was also a “B list” of “wild” ponds that aren’t currently stocked but may have had introduced fish more than 25 years earlier.

The two lists were subject to a good deal of contention over the years, as various groups attempt to convince IF&W to add or subtract ponds from them. Just this spring, the IF&W budget bill merged the two lists into a single Heritage Trout Pond grouping, a move survey project members believe should strengthen the conservation effort and enable IF&W to concentrate solely on documenting fish habitat rather than settling boundary disputes.

The price of doing so was removing some potential prime habitat — 38 ponds, chiefly in the Allagash area and Fish River chain — where bait fishing is now allowed.

Woodcock acknowledged that decisions about individual ponds and watersheds aren’t always easy to make. “Some of the stocking data is sketchy,” he said. In fact, some of the earliest stocking efforts, nearly 100 years ago, were probably carried out by federal employees carrying backpacks. Merging the lists made sense, Woodcock said, particularly because ponds won’t be on the permanent protected list until they have confirmed brook trout populations.

Looking back now, one of the biggest challenges was getting started, said Koffman, who spent five years at Maine Audubon after leaving the Legislature in 2008; he’s now a candidate for state Senate in the Ellsworth-Bar Harbor area.

While Audubon is often identified with its bird counts and statewide loon survey, Koffman believes that conservation organizations must look more broadly to the habitats that support all wild species, including those that are widely hunted or, in the case of brook trout, fished.

Preserving species means spreading our net wider,” he said. “Brook trout are right in the middle of that. Where brook trout thrive is where a lot of endangered species can also be found.”

His staff pointed out that funding a new project would be difficult at a time, just after the financial crisis, when donations were down significantly.

Koffman was discussing the dilemma with an elderly friend, a lifelong conservationist, who unexpectedly offered to fund the project’s first year. That $20,000 donation was enough to get things rolling, including hiring a volunteer coordinator at Audubon, who began getting people into the field.

It was “really important” to get IF&W cooperation early, Koffman said, because “they have the expertise to make things work.” The protocol that was ultimately agreed upon was to send trained volunteers into the field the first year, which went “even better than expected,” Koffman said. That created enough likely brook trout ponds to help guide IF&W biologists in the second year, and the process has continued that way ever since.

Once it was up and running, the Brook Trout Survey Project attracted support from several foundations, and IF&W is using some federal funding to carry out its part of the effort. It will take several more years to do the initial surveys, but it now seems clear that, of the 1,000 ponds, all of the most promising ones will eventually be covered.

For Gary Corson, a Maine guide who’s been based in Farmington for 30 years, that’s the best possible news.

While brook trout don’t earn the kind of popular attention of deer and moose, for fishermen they’re No. 1, exceeding the appeal even of lake trout, landlocked salmon and small-mouthed bass, even though those species grow larger. An average brook trout runs about 13 inches after three years, though pond conditions yield fish anywhere from 8 to 17 inches. In angler surveys, brook trout consistently place first among both Maine and out-of-state license-holders.

There is a mystique about the fish, and for good reason,” Corson said. Not only are brook trout strikingly beautiful, they’re among the most challenging fish to catch. He’s guided hundreds of fishermen over the years, many from out of state, and it’s the brook trout that bring them back, year after year.

These are remote parts of Maine we’re talking about,” he said. “You’re not going to get many people just wandering by.”

The remoteness is part of the appeal, and also part of the challenge for the survey teams. Not every pond identified as likely to hold brook trout actually gets surveyed, Koffman said.

Even with DeLorme and GPS, it’s not easy. You might find yourself fighting through a mile of puckerbrush, or trying to wedge your way through spruce-fir thickets.”

The Heritage Fish designation isn’t arbitrary, either. There are documented brook trout expeditions going back to the 1850s, Reardon said. “The early accounts of the Allagash and what’s now Baxter State Park always mention brook trout.”

In Greenville and Rangeley, fabled fishing destinations, brook trout were the top fish in the 19th century, and still are, he said.

Corson has been active in the legislative battles over the past decade, and he often finds the process frustrating, as bait fishermen object to putting any new territory off limits. He said he’s also had to work to counter the influence of some IF&W regional biologists who don’t necessarily support a priority for brook trout throughout its range.

The protection plan, he noted, doesn’t require an active effort to restore fish or even enhance populations. “It’s two things, really,” he said. “No stocking, and no use of live bait.”

That may be enough, however. Existing fishing regulations vary almost pond by pond in much of rural Maine. Almost without exception, though, “the ones with the most restrictions have the best fishing,” he said.

Corson sees Woodcock’s selection as commissioner by Gov. Paul LePage as a positive step, and sees the new heritage list as promising. The survey effort, meanwhile is “a fantastic project” that helps provide the basis for ongoing protection, he said.

For his part, Woodcock thinks the conflicts between brook trout devotees and those who rely on bait and stocked fished can be resolved. “For the most part, there’s a pretty good separation,” he said. “The remote ponds need to be studied, but they’re not usually in competition with those seeking other fish.”

In the ongoing debate over which fish are truly wild — the descendants of those that evolved after the glaciers retreated 10,000 years ago — IF&W will begin genetic testing this year, including fish found through the recent surveys. “We can settle this using evidence, not anecdotes,” Woodcock said.

At Trout Unlimited, Reardon said that even the coastal brook trout, the smaller, more common relatives of the prized pond trout, help contribute to the species’ popularity. “You can catch brook trout almost anywhere in Maine,” he said. “Even in Portland, most kids can ride a bike to a brook trout stream a few miles away. Some of them are going to want to fish for brook trout all their lives.”

Woodcock says IF&W intends to continue to promote brook trout as a unique opportunity that Maine has in far greater abundance than any other state. And he sees volunteers who are now scouring remote ponds of Aroostook, Piscataquis and Franklin counties for brook trout as part of the next generation of fishermen.

I’d be surprised if some of them aren’t already out there, casting their lines,” he said.

Survey project depends on volunteersWhere volunteers are needed to survey ponds in Maine.

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