Glen Gisel, owner of Sebago Sport Fishing, reels in a 22-inch lake trout on Sebago Lake. The stock of trout has overwhelmed several lakes in Maine. State biologists believe catch-and-release practices are a major reason. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

SEBAGO — Glen Gisel hauled in a 22-inch lake trout from his boat on Sebago Lake and shook his head at how thin the fish was. He put the lake trout, also called a togue, on top of his cooler and did something he’s been doing a lot lately: He cut into its stomach to see what, if anything, it had been eating. There, he found a nickel-sized piece of tree bark – not your typical trout meal.

“This fish is starving to death,” Gisel said. “We should have seen some bones or the remains of some type of forage fish. In years past, even last year, that fish would have been spitting up smelts.”

The widespread practice of catch-and-release in waters across Maine has thrown many ecosystems out of balance, creating a vicious cycle: an overabundance of fish that leads to a lack of forage, resulting in scrawny catches that no one wants to keep. And, so, the fishermen throw them back – usually under the assumption that they’re helping.

To combat the problem, the state has been loosening fishing regulations on waters across the state, from southern Maine to the Rangeley Lakes to around Fort Kent, where catch-and-release has created an overabundance of togue and landlocked salmon, two species more frequently affected because they have long lives. On Sebago Lake, state biologists plan to propose the most liberal daily bag limit on togue since they introduced the species there in 1972.

But they still don’t think it will be enough to help the stunted fishery, at least until they can reverse long-held beliefs that releasing a fish is a beneficial conservation practice and that killing any catch that will not be consumed is wrong. In the meantime, biologists are trying to come up with more unconventional ways to thin the togue population.

“You can have all the regulations you want, if the population is not harvested from the water, you can’t manipulate those populations,” said Francis Brautigam, director of Fisheries and Hatcheries with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

HUMAN IMPACT

Without any human disturbance, an ecosystem would find a natural balance, Brautigam said. But in developed areas where state agencies manage fisheries for recreational use by stocking fish or setting bag limits, the natural balance is altered. When that happens, the fish become unhealthy and more vulnerable to disease and pathogens. In that state, a stressful event like a drought will more quickly result in a die-off.

When the same problems occur with land-dwelling animals, he said, it’s more obvious to the public, because they’re visible.

A collection of lures on Glen Gisel’s boat. Gisel owns Sebago Sport Fishing based on Sebago Lake in Standish. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The state has been trying, for at least the past five years, to mitigate the problem by setting unusually liberal bag limits (often no bag limit on fish under a certain size) on overpopulated lakes, but their rules, along with signs encouraging fishermen to keep their catch, haven’t been enough to reverse a practice that’s become so widespread over the past 25 or 30 years.

A study of catch-and-release practices in Sebago showed that, in the late-1970s, fishermen always kept their full bag limit of togue. That changed in the ’80s and ’90s to the point where fishermen were throwing back 30 to 40 percent of their catch. In the past several years, that figure has ranged from 40 to 64 percent. The change in behavior has caused what biologists call a stockpiling of the voracious, fast-growing fish in the state’s second-largest lake.

In Aroostook County and western Maine, two of the state’s premier wild trout regions, state regional biologists estimate 50 percent of the lakes and ponds suffer from an overpopulation of fish that they say is largely due to catch-and-release.

A 2016 report commissioned by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife showed that 84 percent of anglers statewide practice catch-and-release as a personal preference – and that only 4 percent fish to catch a fresh meal, the primary reason for keeping it.

Scott Davis, an assistant state fisheries biologist in Sidney, said he has seen ice fishermen throwing back their fish and asked them why.

“They say, ‘I figure to let them grow bigger.’ ”

SOLVING SEBAGO

The togue population in 28,700-acre Sebago Lake – which was estimated at about 43,000 in 2017, according to IFW – is estimated to be growing by about 4,000 fish a year, despite efforts to curb it that date back two decades.

In 2001, the Windham Rotary Club, in partnership with IFW, held the first Sebago Lake Rotary Ice Fishing Derby for the purpose of culling togue in order to help the lake’s salmon population. Four years ago, the Sebago Lakes Anglers Association, a group that formed in the early 1990s when the salmon fishery appeared to crash, started a similar annual open-water derby in September.

Gisel holds a 22-inch lake trout from Sebago Lake, where a more liberal bag limit is proposed. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The condition of the fish (a calculated indicator called the K-factor, which is weight relative to length) that were caught in the ice fishing derby in 2019 was the worst seen by biologists since 2003, said Jim Pellerin, the head fisheries biologist for the Sebago region. In addition, lake trout stomachs observed by biologists in the winter of 2019 indicated few smelts or landlocked alewives in the lake.

As for the salmon in Sebago, one of the original four watersheds of the prized game fish, their weight-to-length ratio in 2018 was tied for the third worst in the lake since 1970, and their catch rates dropped 42 percent from 2013 to 2017, which is approaching “unacceptable” for salmon fishermen, Pellerin said.

The bag limit for Sebago already allows fishermen to keep an unlimited number of togue under 26 inches in size, as well as one over 33 inches. Biologists are recommending that the IFW Advisory Council loosen the limit next year to one fish over 26 inches, meaning togue of all sizes would be fair game to keep.

The state also plans to partner with a local Sebago merchant this winter to provide a freezer where fishermen can drop off lake trout they catch and kill, but don’t want to eat, to be donated to wildlife rehabilitation facilities to help injured wildlife. If the drop-off program proves a success, more freezers will be placed at other locations around the lake.

“Some people ethically don’t want to kill fish if they don’t have a good use for it. The idea is to give another reason to kill the fish, a useful purpose,” Pellerin said.

Glen Gisel reels in a 22-inch lake trout on Sebago Lake last month. Trout have overwhelmed several lakes in Maine, and catch-and-release practices could be to blame. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Pellerin said other ideas the state is considering include a program that would turn dead fish into compost and a state-regulated commercial fishery, although Pellerin opposes the latter, he said, because there’s no market for it and could create conflicts with recreational anglers.

One thing Brautigam does not foresee happening in Maine is a state-mandated requirement for fishermen to kill certain non-native fish species, a measure rarely taken, though it is used by the federal government in Yellowstone National Park.

“Some people might view it as just unethical. It’s an area we tread lightly,” he said.

GROWING PROBLEM

The prevalence of catch-and-release was propelled by the Clean Water Act of 1974, when concerns grew about mercury and chemicals, like DDT, in the water, and by the formation of conservation groups like Trout Unlimited, focused on protecting fisheries.

Today, the state fish advisories discourage people from eating more than a small number of fish each month – generally no more than one to two freshwater fish in Maine, depending on the species and the body of water.

And fishing groups focused on restoring wild fisheries still advocate for catch-and-release. Matt Streeter, president of the Sebago Chapter of Trout Unlimited, said the group’s priority is native fish species, such as brook trout and landlocked salmon, and that the club supports culling the non-native togue population in Sebago, but promoting catch-and-release is still “central to Trout Unlimited’s mission.”

The result is that many fishermen still believe releasing fish always helps a fishery.

“I can tell you there are a lot of people in the conservation fishing community, and to some extent in our agency, that did have some concerns regarding the (over) harvest of fish, even though we had fishing regulations in place for many years,” Brautigam said. “The concern was some resources could be adversely affected. So there was this general encouragement of anglers to release fish.”

Social media also has contributed to the widespread belief that releasing fish always is better for the environment.

“Sometimes you see people keep a fish and post it, and other people will criticize them or shame them,” said Regional State Fisheries Biologist Frank Frost in northern Maine.

Victor Trodella, a Maine fisherman for 45 years, was surprised to hear that so many state biologists think catch-and-release is a problem because, from what he’s seen with brook trout, Maine fisherman seem to kill a lot more than anglers out West. He acknowledged, however, that they taste a lot better than landlocked salmon or togue.

Trodella praised the idea of donating fish caught in the lake to save injured wildlife.

“If they had a freezer around the lake, I’d bring fish to it, then the fish wouldn’t be wasted when it died,” he said. “Because it doesn’t matter how many regulations they change, it’s not going to make lake trout taste any better.”

Gisel measures a lake trout while fishing in Sebago. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

A RENOWNED REGION

The Rangeley Lakes region has been a famous fishing destination for nearly 200 years. But Regional Fisheries Biologist Dave Howatt said many of the waters there suffer from an overpopulation of trout or salmon.

In the once-renowned 6,700-acre Aziscohos Lake, the average size of 3- and 4-year-old salmon decreased from 11.9 inches to 10 inches and from 15.2 inches to 12.8, respectively, from 2000 to 2017. The average weight of an 8-year-old was around 2 pounds – less than half the size they are in Rangeley Lake, Howatt said.

Fern Bosse, a fly fisherman who has fished the lake for 50 years, calls it “a lost cause.”

Bosse keeps a diary of his fishing on the lake and said Aziscohos started to crash a decade ago. Now, he said, there are so many salmon under 12 inches in the lake, nobody wants them. Two years ago, he caught a salmon in the lake that had a crawfish in its stomach – a red flag.

Last year, the state implemented a more liberal daily bag limit in Aziscohos Lake, from three salmon at least 12 inches long and one larger than 16 inches to no bag limit on salmon under 16 inches in size. The Rangeley Region Guides and Sportsman’s Association and the Norway-Paris Fish and Game Club helped pay for the signs that ask fishermen to harvest salmon.

Howatt has seen people keeping as many as 20 salmon, sometimes as small as 6 inches (which he said can be nice as a fry, or even smoked). But he said it will take a few years to tell whether the liberal fishing law is working. If it does, Howatt said he’d like to use it on 16,300-acre Mooselookmeguntic Lake, which suffers from the same problem.

“I tell people it won’t hurt to take that 12-inch fish home. People have a hard time understanding. They look at me in compete disbelief,” Howatt said. “Fifty to 100 years ago, people killed everything. They wanted food. Now they just go to the grocery store.”

THE FISH RIVER CHAIN

Eagle Lake sits along Route 11 on the road to Fort Kent, one of the most accessible wild trout and salmon lakes in the most remote part of the state. Yet it’s another example of a fishery where wild salmon struggle because of an overpopulation of fish – largely caused by catch-and-release. In Aroostook County, where fishing always has been a way of life, that says something.

“I think (catch and release) really kicked in about 10 to 15 years ago,” said Frost in the Ashland IFW office. “People just don’t keep (a few) fish to eat as much as they used to. And I think then we really got into trouble.”

The lake also has wild, naturally reproducing lake trout and wild brook trout populations, and therein lies the problem: Three game fish competing for the same forage fish – in this case, rainbow smelts.

To address the problem, IFW changed the fishing regulations on Eagle Lake in 2016 to no bag limit on salmon less than 14 inches (and two over 14 inches), a change from the previous regulation of three salmon with a 12-inch minimum length, which was in place since 1998. It seems to be working, but Frost said more needs to be done to bring back a healthy salmon population.

“We need to convince anglers to continue, or even increase, harvest of their catches,” Frost said.

Frost thought the liberal bag limit on Eagle Lake would be a short-term need. But the shift in attitudes is not happening fast enough. So Frost said IFW may propose a similar liberal bag limit on togue in the lake.

Dave Dickinson has fished Eagle Lake for upwards of 60 years and said fishermen are no longer getting the “football-like salmon” with the fat bellies they once caught. Now 76, he worries about Maine’s most beloved wild trout and salmon waters as they become breeding grounds for stunted fish.

“My wife and I go up for a week to Eagle Lake. We rent a camp on the lake and troll. We always take a few fish. But we look around and nobody is keeping them,” Dickinson said. “They don’t want the short ones.”