Last week the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife proposed a new rule that would make 16 waters in the northern tier of the state subject to a ban on live bait.

If this sounds like an issue of little importance, take notice because it’s about heritage, rural Maine and a winter economy in areas of the state that depend on one.

And it is about to divide the fishing community around those points something fierce.

The proposed no-live-bait rule, if passed at the IFW advisory council’s meeting on Nov. 15, would prohibit the use of live bait in those 16 waters for open-water fishing and ice fishing. But really the rule targets ice fishermen, who are the ones who use live bait — and swear by it to catch fish.

At the heart of the argument is the problem of fishermen who illegally move fish species between water bodies, threatening Maine’s wild fish populations. The Class E crime that can draw a $10,000 fine is nearly impossible to prove and prosecute. It’s also one of the top threats to wild brook trout.

And that’s the common ground here: the gorgeous little squaretail.

At last count, Maine’s unique wild brook trout populations numbered 600, according to IFW, the most in any state in the Lower 48. That’s pretty special and like a call to arms for many.

“When I came in as commissioner, I wanted to make sure something was done for the wild brook trout. It is only an attempt to preserve the resource,” IFW Commissioner Chandler Woodcock told his advisory council Wednesday.

The shared love for Maine’s unique wild brook trout populations exists on both sides of the issue. But ice fishermen say live bait is not the problem, and won’t do much to protect the wild brook trout. They say the no-live-bait rule is the department’s panacea.

“I’ve been on the Allagash since my dad built the first cement bridge there in 1953. I have a lot of history. And in the effort to protect brook trout, the consensus is, bass moved on purpose is the problem, not live bait. Why go after the ice fishermen? Go after the problem,” said Rick Denico, who sits on the Allagash Wilderness Waterway governing board.

The ice fishermen of northern Maine say what IFW proposes to take away is not just a fishing method but a sport, a heritage and tourist draw.

Retired Game Warden Sgt. Dave Allen, who owns a sporting camp at the headwaters of the Allagash, said in a letter to Gov. Paul LePage that live bait is the mainstay of the sport. Take that practice away, Allen wrote, and you take away the winter tourist traffic heading to northern Maine.

“A large portion of our business is ice fishermen. Because of the remoteness and the limited access, most of these anglers come to this area for several days at a time. Most of the fishermen I have spoken with about this issue indicate if they were restricted to using dead bait and worms only, they would not travel that far to fish. These other methods are not as effective,” Allen said.

The debate was tossed around a public working group all summer before the proposed rule was announced at Wednesday’s advisory council meeting. So Denico, for one, didn’t wait before calling in backup.

“I told (Deputy Commissioner) Andrea Erskine that I was going on a pre-emptive strike and was going to raise hell and call everyone. And that is exactly what I am doing,” Denico said.

He asked the chairs of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Inland Fisheries and Wildlife to attend the council meeting. And Rep. Paul Davis, R-Sangerville, and Sen. Tom Martin, R-Kennebec, were there questioning the no-live-bait rule.

“There is no evidence to what they say. There is no science behind (the proposed rule),” said Davis, an ice fisherman.

But the debate will continue until the Nov. 15 advisory council vote, after it is aired at three public hearings, on Oct. 22, 23 and 24.

And while the issue of live bait is being contested, consider it a lesson in what it means to live in rural Maine: where there are unique wildlife species, where people devote their lives to enjoying and protecting them, and where outdoor recreation and the local economy are irrevocably linked.

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

dfleming@pressherald.com

Twitter: Flemingpph