FAIRFIELD— Biologists are asking local anglers for input and data as they prepare to study trout populations along the Kennebec River from Solon to Shawmut Dam in Fairfield.
“We want to get the word out to people and let them know the Kennebec River is an important resource and we do have things in place for the future,” Jason Seiders, Belgrade Lakes regional biologist for the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, said during a meeting Monday night.
The department is planning to release about 2,000 brown trout into the Kennebec this week, including 24 fish that have been tagged and will be studied over the next two years to collect information on why the fish are not growing as large as they have historically.
The species, which is not native to Maine, has been stocked in large amounts by the department consistently since 1994, said Seiders. They currently use three strains of brown trout: New Glouster, Seeforellen and Sandwich River. In 2012, the department stocked about 2,000 fish in the Skowhegan area, although on Monday Seiders said they have almost no information on whether anglers fish in that area.
“Overall we have very little data on this area. Are people fishing here? We really don’t know,” Seiders said.
Monday’s meeting, which focused on the Skowhegan and Shawmut regions of the river, was the last in a series of three public meetings hosted by the department and was attended by about 20 people, slightly fewer than the last two meetings.
Seiders said increased competition and stocking rates, genetics and temperature changes in the water are factors that could be contributing to the decline of the brown trout.
At Shawmut, which has historically been a very successful fishing area for brown trout, there has been a dramatic decline in the number and size of fish captured since the 1990s, said Seiders.
In the mid-1990s, the department began introducing rainbow trout to the river. There was also a movement to restore anadromous fish populations, including shad and alewives, to the river, said Seiders. Around the same time, the population of brown trout began to decline, he said.
In the mid 1990s it took about eight hours for the average angler to catch a legal brown trout, while by 2008 it took more than 100 hours, according to Seiders. Fishing regulations have been relatively consistent, he said. From 1983 through the mid 1990s, it was not uncommon for brown trout over 20 inches to be caught or for a brown trout to live to around age six. Today most brown trout are caught around age two or three, said Seiders.
“I can’t stand up here and tell you concretely what happened at Shawmut. We think it was a combination of factors that led to this decline,” he said.
Brian Donaghy, 30, of Unity, said Shawmut is important because it relieves fishing areas in other parts of the state from being over crowded and that something needs to be done to restore the fishery.
“We have nothing to lose, it seems,” Donaghy said. “Our economy is suffering; we have a fly shop that hasn’t been sold. The reputation is that no one really fishes there except for the die hards.”
Donaghy said he thinks the department should go back to stocking higher numbers of brown trout as they have done in the past in order to give the river a boost, the effects of which he said could last into the future.
Dick Behr, a fishing guide on the lower Kennebec, said he thinks the research the department is doing is important because it will determine whether there should be a brown trout fishery in the area.
Because of climate change and other environmental factors, he said it is possible that the water in that stretch of the Kennebec is no longer cold enough to support brown trout.
“If that’s the case maybe we should focus on stocking warm water fish,” he said.