Wildlife biologists say it may take up to four years for Maine’s wild brook trout population to fully recover from the significant toll it suffered during last year’s drought.

The worst affected areas were ponds and streams in central and southern Maine, the result of extreme drought conditions in nearly all of York and Cumberland counties as recently as September. More than 7 feet of snow this winter has ended Maine’s drought conditions in all but the southern tip of York County, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

But as fishermen prepare for the traditional opening day of freshwater fishing season Saturday, they worry that a recurrence of dry weather would create even more damage for wild brook trout.

“We didn’t fish last fall,” said Evelyn King of Cundy’s Harbor. “We used the drought as an opportunity to learn more about where the fish’s pools were, because the rivers were so low. If the drought continues, hopefully people will fish overstocked fisheries. That’s way better than stressing the wild populations.”

State officials have not placed restrictions on fishing for wild brook trout this spring, but biologists say they would not hesitate to react should the situation worsen.

“The (Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife) commissioner tends to be really protective of the wild trout,” said Tim Obrey, a state biologist in the Moosehead Lake region. “We would look seriously at taking some action.”

While biologists cannot quantify losses to the wild brook trout population, they said the evidence is everywhere. Streams and brooks dried up and low water prevented the fish from moving to colder habitat they tend to seek out. In addition, when brook trout are stranded and bunched up in shallow pools, they become easy prey for predators such as mink, otter and eagles.

“I would say the impact, particularly in stream systems, was very large,” said Jim Pellerin, a regional fisheries biologist in southern Maine. “We probably lost a lot of wild fish. Those systems are pretty resilient, and will bounce back in three to four years. Fishermen will see a big improvement in one to two years. But there’s no doubt it had an impact. Streams were almost dried up.

“I saw it being in the field. Anglers said they were seeing trout standing in pools.”

Maine is home to 97 percent of the wild brook trout waters in the eastern United States, according to Trout Unlimited. And almost 10 percent of Maine’s 6,000 lakes and ponds hold wild and native brook trout, according to the IFW.

Freshwater fishing in Maine brings in $319.1 million in revenue, according to a 2013 study commissioned by the state Office of Tourism. And wild brook trout are the prized game fish. The study showed 60 percent of Maine’s 342,354 fishermen prefer brook trout, while 47 percent of the 210,058 nonresident anglers favor brook trout, as well as smallmouth bass.

April 1 serves as the traditional opening day of open-water fishing, although now it’s more of a ceremonial occasion in the most-populated areas of the state. A law in 2010 opened many stocked lakes and ponds in eastern and southern Maine to year-round fishing. Open-water fishing is allowed in northern Maine starting on April 1, but this year there is still ice on many ponds. Gov. Paul LePage signed emergency legislation Thursday to extend the ice fishing season statewide until April 16.

Once ponds open across the state, biologists and fishermen will keep a close eye on the status of wild brook trout. Biologists, in particular, have seen the damage a drought can do.

Obrey said after the drought of 2000, Little Moxie Pond to the south of Moosehead lost most of its wild fishery.

“The wild fish population just crashed,” said Obrey, Maine’s brook trout specialist. “Any time you have a real shallow pond, when the temperatures get up into the 70s, it’s a lethal level.”

He said it will take the wild brook trout population two to three, even four years to recover. That’s because the larger fish are often more susceptible during a drought; smaller fish can escape farther up small underground spring holes. It takes brook trout two to three years to reach breeding age, Obrey said.

But, he added, brook trout are resilient, and they do rebound.

“There are ponds I know that have really small spring inlets. They are just trickles in the summer but the water is cold,” Obrey said. “If you walk up these spring inlets and follow them into the woods, you see brook trout fry that are 1 to 2 inches scatter everywhere. Bigger trout could not access these confined areas. So when there is a summer kill, a few larger trout may survive, but it is the fry that really rebuild the population.”

Maine’s fishing community is worried, and many anglers set their fly rods aside last fall to help.

“In my area around Rangeley … brook trout just seemed to delay their migration,” said fly fisherman Dave Bowie of Westbrook. “Hard to tell, but I know we never fished a number of waters including the Magalloway and Rapid (rivers) because we did not want to stress trout, if they were even there. I did observe trout spawning in the Kennebago over Columbus Day as usual, although the water level was much lower.”

Steve Heinz, a director with the Sebago Chapter of fish conservation group Trout Unlimited, said he saw many wild brook trout streams in the foothills of the White Mountains dry up last summer when he was replacing culverts.

Poor culverts can stop fish passage. So the Sebago chapter works to replace culverts to help the wild fish move between different waters. The group, which has 650 members, raised $400,000 to do the work.

Still, Heinz worries it won’t be enough to help brook trout thrive if a drought returns.

“My larger concern is that climate change is making our climate less stable with more frequent droughts making conditions harder for trout more often,” Heinz said.

Jeff Reardon, Trout Unlimited’s New England director, has been doing the same work around Maine, as well as working to preserve large tracts of land in brook trout habitat. He said if prolonged dry periods become more common, fishermen should just stop fishing to help wild brook trout populations.

“There were some areas where fish were really concentrated last summer and we observed some legal but unfortunate activity by anglers. When fish are stressed, it’s best to leave them alone,” Reardon said.

Registered Maine Guide Todd Towle agreed. Last summer, Towle closed his guiding business for the year.

“My business revolves around fishing for brook trout and salmon,” said Towle, a Kingfield resident. “So when we’re faced with conditions where we’ve lost fish, even if the state mandates catch-and-release or I do, the mortality is too great. People are delusional to think catch-and-release works 100 percent of the time. I found a lot of dead fish from hooking mortality last summer. When I see things along those lines, for me it’s a clear decision. People don’t come to fish in Maine for a hatchery system.”

Deirdre Fleming can be reached at 791-6452 or at:

dfleming@pressherald.com

Twitter: FlemingPph