March 17, 2010

Northern pike spreading fear


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Jack Milton/Staff Photographer: Eliot Stanley, of Casco, shows a 41-inch, 17 and one-half pound Northern pike , Tuesday, May 6, 2008, that he caught from his dock on Sebago Lake Saturday. The pike had a 14-inch salmon in its stomach.

Jack Milton

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Jack Milton/Staff Photographer: Tuesday, May 6, 2008: The large head of a 41-inch, 17 and one-half pound Northern pike that Eliot Stanley, of Casco, caught from his dock on Sebago Lake Saturday. The pike had a 14-inch salmon in its stomach.

Jack Milton

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Staff Writer

CASCO — The biggest northern pike ever caught in Sebago Lake could signal big trouble for the lake's salmon population, according to fishery officials.

The 17½-pound, 41-inch pike that Eliot Stanley caught Saturday in Kettle Cove shows that landlocked salmon will have to overcome a voracious predator to rebound to their historic levels.

That became clear on Tuesday when Stanley gutted his catch and found a 13-inch salmon.

''There is nothing you can really do in a lake the size of Sebago, especially when they start spawning. (Pike) are here for the long haul,'' said Francis Brautigam, a regional fisheries biologist.

At 28,770 acres, Sebago is the second-largest lake in Maine. It has historically been a destination for landlocked salmon. The salmon gets its scientific name -- Salmo Sebago -- from the lake.

The northern pike, a carnivorous fish known for its large teeth and voracious appetite, eats everything from turtles and baby loons to ducks and other fish.

It is not native to Maine -- the first northern pike was discovered in Sebago Lake in 2003, after being introduced illegally.

Stanley's big catch has upset many fishermen and merchants in the area, and is causing biologists to expect the worst.

''Whoever did this, put these in the lake, have no idea what they did,'' said Carroll Cutting, who owns Jordan's Store on the west side of the lake. ''To put pike in this lake, it's terrible. It's irreversible, and it's just going to get worse as time goes on.''

Tom Noonan, director of the annual Sebago ice fishing derby, said the growing pike population could ''radically alter the lake'' as a fishing destination.

He wasn't alone in his fear.

''That's like putting a piranha into a neighborhood swimming pool,'' said Don Allen, president of the Sebago Lakes Anglers Association.

The huge pike is also of concern to the area's tourism industry, said Barbara Clark, executive director of the Sebago Region Chamber of Commerce.

''Yes, it makes me worried, because salmon is a very poplar sport fish and people come here to fish for the salmon,'' Clark said.

But, she added, ''Do I think they will totally stop fishing on Sebago? No, I don't. They come here not just for salmon.''

Brautigam said that in the 1980s, as many as 52,000 fishermen a year came to fish for landlocked salmon in Sebago. Now, only 16,000 to 20,000 come, because of the decline of the salmon as other fish -- such as lake trout -- have been introduced and proliferated.

Still, the salmon population had been showing signs of rebounding.

After decreasing the number of salmon stocked in the lake and transferring smelt eggs -- the salmon's food of choice -- into Sebago to improve the forage, state fisheries biologists have found salmon in the lake that are fatter than they were four years ago.

Stanley saw that for himself, when he caught a 4-pound salmon last summer off his dock in Kettle Cove.

It was his biggest salmon in 11 years of fishing on the lake.

But Brautigam said the northern pike is now at the top of the food chain in the lake, so landlocked salmon have to compete for smelts.

''Our hope was, when they first were discovered, that through public awareness we could get them removed,'' Brautigam said. ''But of course, it has been five years, and we saw juvenile pike a few years ago. They're here.''

Brautigam said reports of 11- to 15-inch pike a few years ago meant the population had grown to a point where it could not be removed from the vast lake.

At this point, state biologists can only try to keep the pike population as low as possible.

''They are considered an opportunistic fish, and by that I mean it will feed on any stuff it can fit in its mouth,'' Brautigam said.

When Stanley caught the pike Saturday from his dock, he fought the aggressive fish for 30 minutes before landing it with a net.

Brautigam said the long fight certainly meant that the hook grabbed the side of the pike's mouth, clear of the rows of sharp teeth -- which is exactly what happened.

''The amazing thing to me was, it took a little smelt bait,'' Stanley said.

''I knew it was a big fish, I could tell. I've never dealt with such a powerful fish, and I've fished in the Gulf of Mexico,'' he said.

After getting it into one net, which broke, Stanley managed to get the pike on the dock and into another net.

He carried it to shore to make sure it didn't get back into the water.

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

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Additional Photos

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Jack Milton/Staff Photographer: Eliot Stanley, of Casco, reads Tuesday, May 6, 2008, a fishing diary entry his wife Julia Adams wrote describing him catching a 41-inch, 17 and one-half pound Northern pike from his dock on Sebago Lake last Saturday. The pike had a 14-inch salmon in its stomach.

Jack Milton


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