Over the last 38 years, “The Maine Sportsman” magazine has conducted a survey that covers hunting, fishing and environmental issues, and the results intrigue politicians, outdoors activists and interested public.

In the 2011 survey, 67 percent of the participants thought that the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (IFW) should reduce put-and-take trout stockings where fish could not survive for one full year because of inadequate habitat. Thirty-three percent were OK with the policy.

(The 2012 survey hasn’t been tabulated as of this writing.)

These figures faulting IFW’s policy sound more than reasonable, but outdoors politics in Maine often comes with complex reasoning for decisions. This one management question falls into that category.

According to fisheries biologists who have discussed this question with me in the last several years, DIF&W sometimes stocks brook trout in ponds with limited habitat because the department has closed many blue-ribbon brookie ponds to ice-fishing. This odd management tool gives ice fishers waters to fish for brookies, which strikes the winter crowd as fair.

(The survey question includes the word “trout,” but the bottom line really involves brook-trout stocking — not all trout species. Many Mainers love brookies but dislike brown trout and are OK with rainbows.)

In winter, these marginal ponds with brook trout attract legions and lose most of the trout before summer arrives. The few brookies left perish in August unless they can nose into a small, cold spring.

The alternative to this stocking program would be opening blue-ribbon brookie ponds to ice-fishing, which would infuriate quality-fishing advocates. Yes, it’s complicated for IFW to make everyone happy.

One question in 2011 depressed me. Fifteen years ago, a majority of participants favored more catch-and-release (C&R) waters, but in 2011, a little over six out of 10 felt we should have less C&R waters.

In the closing years of the 20th century, I thought this C&R question would continue rising toward 90 percent and more in favor of no-kill regs.

What happened?

I don’t pretend to know the definitive answer, but in my opinion, quality-fishing attitudes have declined in this state in the last 10 to 12 years.

Forty-four percent of the survey responders said IFW should spend less money on stocking and more on improving spawning habitat. This sounds so brilliant, but habitat restoration costs big bucks. Other states often spend a 5- to 6-figure number for a survey on a short stretch of river before spending a single dollar on actual restoration construction.

Along this line of improving habitat instead of stocking, please consider the following:

Most IFW stocking programs occur in waters with limited spawning or nursery habitats. In short, without stocked fish, there would be no salmonid fishery in myriad waters. Period.

Many of these places have perfect water quality, but they lack spawning and/or nursery areas. Without proper habitat, juvenile trout and salmon die without these essential places to grow up.

One alternative to spending big bucks on improving habitat has merit. Members from organizations or volunteers could work under a fisheries biologist to restore aqua-habitat, a great solution, but Mainers haven’t seen a concerted, annual effort in this arena. Leaders in at least one well-known organization in Maine have told me they simply don’t have the manpower.

Six out of 10 participants thought that DIF&W should not manage landlocked-salmon waters for the biggest possible fish. This answer continues through the decades in Maine because folks know that growing big fish requires strict regs. They want to kill a fish now and then for dinner.

This downturn toward quality fishing discourages me — a lot. Through much of my life, I have thought Maine folks would continue evolving toward quality-fishing measures, so the future would just get better and better. In the last few years, this survey shows that perhaps I was wrong.

I know. I know.

The survey allegedly reflects reader views from “The Maine Sportsman” magazine, but the fact is plain and simple. For three decades, participants showed a definite trend toward quality fishing, and in the last decade, that has changed.

(I say “allegedly reflects” because some participants have confessed to me that they take the survey but do not read the publication.)

Public attitudes must change toward a demand for quality fishing that equals the fervor we saw in the 1990s.

(As a disclaimer, let me say that I work for “The Maine Sportsman” magazine.)

 

Ken Allen, a writer, editor and photographer, can be reached at [email protected]


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