Brook trout are the holy grail of Maine's fly fishers. Credit: Courtesy of Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture

One evening in May 1964, when I was 12, Dr. Donald Poulin of Belgrade loaded his son Paul and me into his new Scout International, and drove 10 minutes from his home to the thoroughfare connecting Great and Long ponds. An avid fisherman, Dr. Poulin tied a streamer fly to each of our fly lines. “Just drop it in the strong current,” he advised. “Strip out 50 to 60 feet of line and then strip it back in.” We each caught several handsome trout until it became too dark to see our lines. “OK, boys,” he said. “Time to go. We had a nice evening catching squaretails, didn’t we?” It was the first time I’d heard the brook trout’s colloquial name.

When he dropped me off at my home in Oakland, I raced inside happily carrying a 14-inch brook trout. What I remember most about that evening, though, was Dr. Poulin railing against the state’s plan to stock additional smallmouth and largemouth bass in the Belgrade Lakes. “Bass have voracious appetites,” he said, “and they’ll devour most of the young trout.”

The joy of catching brook trout spans generations of fishermen. In the mid-1800s, Henry David Thoreau caught his first Maine brook trout in the West Branch of the Penobscot River. In “ The Maine Woods,” published in 1864, Thoreau rhapsodized about the fish: “Before their tints had faded, they glistened like the fairest flowers, the product of primitive rivers; and he could hardly trust his senses, as he stood over them … these bright fluviatile flowers, seen of Indians only, made beautiful, the Lord only knows why, to swim there. … In the night I dreamed of trout-fishing; and, when at length I awoke, it seemed a fable that this painted fish swam there so near my couch.”

[This is why you should be fly-fishing for pike right now]

As I approach age 67, I’ve witnessed the collapse of the “painted fish” in the Belgrade Lakes. Dr. Poulin rightly predicted the impact of introduced bass on brook trout. He didn’t live long enough to witness the effects of northern pike — an illegally introduced brook trout killer — in his beloved lakes. Paul’s brothers take turns sharing a mounted, 6.5-pound brook trout their dad caught in Great Pond in 1965. Displaying it is bittersweet. “The mounted fish reminds me of my dad,” Paul said, “but also, the demise of a nationally renowned native trout fishery in our backyard.”

Although my bass fishing friends call me a brook trout snob, I remain a staunch, unapologetic native brook trout advocate. I’m in good company. The Native Fish Coalition — an energetic Maine grassroots organization — is in the forefront of protecting hundreds of Maine’s remaining high-quality, self-sustaining wild trout ponds from the detrimental effects of stocking of non-native invasive fish and hatchery-raised trout.

In 2005, Maine’s Legislature passed the heritage fisheries law — one that recognizes and protects the state’s wild, self-sustaining brook trout. In 2007, Maine’s unique blue back Arctic charr was added to the heritage fishery list. Today, 578 Maine ponds have been designated as heritage fish waters. Under statute 12461, individuals found guilty of stocking any fish in heritage waters are subject to up to six months incarceration and a $1,000 fine.

[Stocking Arctic charr in heritage pond is a bad idea, fish conservationists say]

According to Trout Unlimited, Maine is the last stronghold of wild self-sustaining brook trout in the United States. But even here the number of high quality trout waters is declining.

Brook trout populations are now threatened, struggling or absent in most of their historic range. That Maine is home to 90 percent of the country’s remaining native wild brook trout matters not to selfish fishermen who release bass into waters, such as the Rapid and upper Kennebec rivers, that were once teeming with brook trout.

The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife has also been guilty of grievous fish stocking programs that have harmed native trout. The fault lies primarily with fisheries and wildlife commissioners, most of whom lack a scientific background and are often selected by governors as political favors for campaign support. And here’s the problem: When politicians bow to public pressure from vocal interest groups and order the stocking of bass over the objection of professionals, state fisheries biologists are forced to toe the line or risk being reassigned or threatened with job loss. Ray “Bucky” Owen, who initiated programs to enhance wild brook trout populations, was an exceptional commissioner.

The late Roger AuClair, a venerated Moosehead Lake native brook trout biologist, once told me, “When commissioners and legislators are influenced by rabble-rousers, instead of fisheries biologists, they can cause irreversible damage to wild brook trout. Once non-native fish are stocked, there’s not much we can do to eliminate them.”

[Opinion: Listen to our wildlife biologists. We can avoid more quixotic boondoggles that way.]

Last May, the Maine Legislature wisely decided that native brook trout are worth more than their weight in gold, silver and copper by passing LD 820, the nation’s strictest mining laws. This was in response to a J.D. Irving Ltd. proposal to mine precious metals in northwestern Aroostook County. Testifying wild brook trout advocates reminded legislators that the 122nd Legislature passed the heritage fisheries law to protect self-sustaining brook trout waters. Irving’s open-pit mines risk spreading hazardous contaminants to some of Maine’s most cherished trout waters. Others reminded legislators that the state’s native trout fishery has historically generated millions of dollars for our economy by attracting fishermen from all over the world, including former presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower, and baseball legend Ted Williams.

A visionary brook trout conservationist, Dr. Donald Poulin died in May 1999. Mourners parading past his open casket at St. Theresa’s Catholic Church in Oakland couldn’t help but smile. The old fisherman was outfitted in his favorite fishing gear: beat-up red wool crusher hat, an assortment of colorful fishing flies, red L.L. Bean chamois shirt with a long cigar sticking out of a pocket, chest waders and his favorite bamboo fly rod.

“My dad loved native wild brook trout,” Paul said. “But he also knew that their conservation rested in the hands of future generations. And that’s why he made it his life’s mission to introduce native trout fishing to kids, like you and me. It’s now our generation’s turn to instill that same passion in our children and grandchildren.”

Ron Joseph is a retired Maine wildlife biologist. He lives in central Maine.

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