Occasionally, just for shock value, I tell folks the state should initiate a law forcing new anglers to pass a test before buying a license.

This comment can make jaws drop and get hot-tempered people barking, but facts support such a move, beginning with this one: New hunters must take a course on hunting ethics, safety and skills, and then they must pass a test before purchasing a license. Because this sport involves firearms, that law makes sense up to a point.

That point ends with statistics, though, that emphasize a general rule. Fishing accounts for far more deaths per year than hunting does, and in fact, well-documented figures show that angling ranks as the world’s most dangerous common life-recreation sport.

In Maine, drowning deaths may exceed a dozen per year. Can you imagine the outcry if more than 12 hunters died from gunshot wounds in 2010?

Also, year after year, sharp hooks and falls on wet rocks or docks injure far more Maine anglers than necessary hunting tools or typical hunting habitat inflict on our hunters.

A fishing course teaching boating and water safety might lower angler drowning deaths and injuries in the same manner that hunter-safety programs have helped make hunting the world’s safest life-recreation sport, a well-known fact among safety experts.

Years pass with no hunting shooting fatalities in all of New England, thanks to hunter-safety courses and mandatory hunter-orange clothing. It impresses me that upwards of 1 million people head into the woods with firearms without a fatal shooting incident for an entire 12 months.

A fishing course would also emphasize fish identification, important for folks killing their catch. Species ID is a must because of the different bag and minimum-length limits for each one.

In short, an angler may think he or she has killed five brook trout, but in truth, it’s five Atlantic salmon parr, an endangered species. Big trouble.

Before William Woodward and Dennis McNeish retired as fisheries biologists from the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, I asked them separately if it’s possible that most Maine anglers cannot tell the difference between juvenile brown trout, landlocked salmon and brook trout. They said their encounters with the fishing public had made them realize fish identification was a weakness with Maine anglers.

Whenever the topic of salmonid identification pops up on Maine fishing bulletin boards, goofy quotes are ultra-common, proving what the two biologists said.

Here are crucial salmonid identification tips:

Bottom fins on brookies have a white outside edge, then a thin black stripe next to the white and then reddish or orange on the rest of the fin.

Brookies also have red spots with blue aureoles around each one, and sometimes, these “halos” look faint but often enough are bright cerulean.

Older brookie backs have vermiculations (maze-like markings).

Lake trout have similar, white-edged bottom fins but no red spots, aureoles or vermiculations.

The fins on landlocked salmon are black to grayish and on browns, tannish to dark brown. No one should confuse a brown or salmon with the white-edged brookie or laker.

Contrary to popular notion, spot colors and body colors offer no surefire ID for browns and landlocks. Ichthyologists classify these two species in the same genus, so they do have undeniable similarities.

For laymen, though, observing the rows of teeth on the vomerine easily establishes whether it’s a salmon or brown. Browns have two rows of teeth on the vomerine, and landlocked and Atlantic salmon have but one row.

Page 99 of the new fishing-regulations booklet includes a brief explanation and clear diagram of the vomerine procedure. Open the mouth, even on small browns or salmon, and inspect the vomerine shaft, a foolproof method.

On brown trout, the peduncle in front of the caudal fin has a larger diameter than a salmon peduncle, and as identification, the difference in size works for me at a quick glance. However, I have caught browns and salmon in the Sheepscot for more than half a century, time to hone that observation skill.

Before leaving browns and salmon, I must mention one last thought:

Salmon have slate to black adipose fins, and browns have a reddish edge or reddish-orange spots on the adipose. Biologists have told me that laymen may put a finger behind a salmon adipose to lift it, and the pinkish hue from human skin makes the fin look reddish, causing the observer to think it’s a brown rather than a salmon. In short, stick with the vomerine.

Splake identification reminds me of an old column that appeared here. I quoted McNeish, who said counting fatty nubs (called pyloric caeca) on a portion of the viscera was the sure way to ID a splake. I wish I had never written that tidbit, because since then, readers keep saying it’s the “only” way to ID a splake from a brookie or lake trout, even though that column also pushed the thought that for 99.9 percent of identification purposes, a layman can trust looking at red spots to tell a splake from a brookie.

Brookies have red spots down the length of their sides, and each red speckle has a blue aureole. Splake will have but two or three red spots, or none, often just behind the gill plate, and no aureoles.

Forked as opposed to square tails can confuse folks, because all salmonid tails look forked when the fish relaxes the caudal fin. Also, according to McNeish, some splake may have a square tail, like a brookie, when that fin is erect.

The above advice may save lots of money in fines should a game warden step from the bushes and inspect the catch.


Ken Allen of Belgrade Lakes is a writer, editor and photographer. He has a new e-mail address:

[email protected]


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