AUGUSTA – State officials may ban the use of live bait by ice fishermen on 16 lakes in northern Maine to help protect wild brook trout, one of the state’s most sought-after freshwater game fish.

But sport fishermen said the proposal wouldn’t address the real threat to native brook trout waters — the illegal introduction of bass and other competing, non-native game fish.

Wild brook trout populations do poorly when forced to share the same water bodies with a lot of other species, said fisheries director Mike Brown of the state Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. Ice fishermen who dump their leftover live bait fish through the ice and into a pond or lake at the end of the day may be introducing a new species, he said.

The proposed rule was discussed Wednesday at the monthly meeting of the department’s advisory council. IFW Commissioner Chandler Woodcock told the council that the proposed rule was only a first step toward saving wild brook trout populations. Woodcock had promised to address threats to the state’s wild trout fishery when he took over the department in 2011.

“This is only an attempt to preserve the resource. The resource is what we’re looking at, and we’re trying to protect it as well as we can,” Woodcock said.

Maine is home to most of the nation’s wild brook trout waters, Brown said. The proposed live-bait rule would help protect 16 key headwaters that feed watersheds containing many of those wild brook trout populations, he said.

State officials said they would not release names of the 16 lakes until the proposal is reviewed by the Secretary of State’s Office, which could make changes.

Ice fishermen speaking against the proposal at Wednesday’s meeting said the intentional illegal introduction of larger fish species — such as bass and pike — is the real threat to Maine’s wild brook trout, not the accidental dumping of live baitfish during ice fishing season.

“I’m not hearing a good analysis of the real problem,” said Rick Denico of Vassalboro. “The real problem is bass fishermen moving the fish they want. Let’s fix the problem. I don’t know how to do that, but I know we’re not doing it with this.”

A half-dozen ice fishermen disagreed with the plan, including Rep. Paul Davis, R-Sangerville, chair of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. Davis said the proposed rule would threaten Maine’s ice fishing heritage.

“I’ve gotten a lot of calls in the last week on the live-bait issue. I would urge you to consider it as a wider issue and maybe put in legislation, rather than passing it through rule-making,” Davis said.

Others said IFW should drop the rule and instead ramp up its educational efforts to stop the illegal introduction of non-native fish.

“I’ve fished a lot of ponds (on the Allagash Wilderness Waterway) the past four to five years. And I was approached by maybe two (biologists). (Fisheries) people are just not getting around,” said Lee Thornton, whose family runs Nugent’s Camps on Chamberlain Lake.

But Woodcock stood by the proposed rule.

“We took the Allagash off the list (of 16 waters). It’s very historic. … But is it off the table? No. We will look at that in the future. There is no question we will,” Woodcock said.

The proposed live-bait rule will go to the Secretary of State’s Office next week. It will then be open to public comment for two months, including at three public hearings around the state, before the advisory council votes on the plan Nov. 15. The three public hearings will be Oct. 22, 23 and 24 at sites to be determined. 

Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at:

dfleming@pressherald.com

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