Richard Wildermuth drove 18 hours from Pennsylvania to fish for Arctic char in Maine nine years ago. When he failed, Wildermuth returned in 2015 for a week of char fishing with a friend. And when his fishing net came up empty yet again, he returned last year – and finally landed one.

Wildermuth is not the only fisherman who has gone to extremes and traveled from so far away to catch the rare fish.

Maine is the only state in the continental U.S. that has Arctic char, or blueback trout. It’s found in only 14 waters in the state.

In recent years, word has spread. More fishermen who have had the wild fish on their bucket list have traveled here, said Frank Frost, the state’s fisheries biologist in northern Maine and its species expert.

Arctic char date back to the last Ice Age, when the glaciers retreated in the Northeast and left the deep-water fish in cold-water ponds and lakes. But in every other state outside of Alaska and Maine, the char populations have died off.

“It’s the crown jewel of fish. It’s just so damn hard to catch,” said Wildermuth, 38. “Believe me, I cursed Maine up and down and said I would never go back. It kept drawing me back. They’re just so unique. I wasn’t going to stop until I got one.

“When I did, I was beside myself. It was maybe 10 inches long, maybe 11. Still, I was so proud knowing I caught one. It was like an Olympic gold medal.”

RECLAMATION PROJECTS

Arctic char can turn a magnificent orange in the fall spawning period. But most of the year, the torpedo-shaped fish are unremarkable. They are silvery gray, but some can be a yellow or cream color. They don’t have markings like the colorful brook trout. And because char are found down deep and rarely cruise the shoreline, they aren’t easy to catch.

Yet fishermen come here to pursue the fish because it’s a rare and ancient species.

“We have the only populations of this lineage, the Acadian lineage,” Frost said. “There are another four lineages of Arctic char around the globe. This is the only wild, endemic char in the Lower 48 and we have the only populations of this lineage in the country. It’s a big deal for sure.”

The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife has completed its first reclamation of an Arctic char pond, which was threatened by an invasive species – the rainbow smelt. Since the char population in Big Reed Pond – just north of Baxter State Park – was recovered, word has spread through the fishing community. In the past two years, Maine’s Arctic char have been featured in several publications.

“The calls seem to be increasing,” Frost said. “Most of the calls have come in the past two to three years. It’s a high-profile project. Maybe it’s the press we’re getting.”

There are four Arctic char waters in Aroostook County, four in Piscataquis County, three in Somerset, one in Franklin, and two in Hancock. In 12 of those waters, the populations are endemic, dating back to the glaciers. In Long Pond in Franklin County and Enchanted Pond in Somerset County, state biologists introduced char.

The population in Wadleigh Pond in Piscataquis County also is being reclaimed, and the population in Bald Mountain Pond in Somerset County is threatened with an invasive fish species. So Frost is weighing options there.

The work to reclaim the wild population in 90-acre Big Reed Pond was done from 2007 to 2013. First, 14 wild char were removed and housed in a private hatchery near Fort Kent to use for breeding stock. Then the char were slowly returned to the pond after the smelts were removed in 2010 with a plant-based pesticide called rotenone.

From 2014 to 2017, Frost trapped char in the pond to see if the fish were reproducing and if the population was self-sustaining. By last spring, he determined the Big Reed Pond population was healthy and robust.

“Last spring our nets were catching a good number,” he said.

IT’S WORTH THE TRIP

Wayne Smith, a Hodgdon native who has lived in South America for 36 years, first returned to fish for char in his home waters in 1998, when he landed one. He hopes to return this September.

Smith, who lives in Colombia, said when he comes to visit his father this year, he wants to take him to the Arctic char waters of the Deboullie Preserve.

Before Smith graduated from Hodgdon High in 1972, he went to his grandfather’s camps in Aroostook County, where he read “Outdoor Life” and “Field and Stream.” When he first saw a photo of a char, landing such an ancient species in its endemic waters became his fishing quest.

“I can still remember when I was 7, seeing these golden trout,” Smith said. “My interest in trout was kind of born back then. I never lost the interest.”

Lowell Mason of Wilmington, North Carolina, came to fish for Arctic char in 2016. It was a trip he and his friends wanted to make since elementary school, more than 50 years earlier.

Mason, 67, said after landing an Arctic char in Maine, he hopes to return. He likened it to a spiritual experience.

“It’s a reverence thing. It’s something I wanted to do for a long time,” Mason said. “What you’ve got needs to be protected. They’re very special.”

Deirdre Fleming can be reached at 791-6452 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: FlemingPph

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