Brook trout in Maine are a special natural resource. The fish were designated as a State Heritage Fish in 2005. Aroostook County has dozens of lakes, ponds and flowing waters that are home to native and wild brook trout. Native populations, in this context, means naturally occurring, having never been stocked. Wild populations are spawned in the wild and may have been supplemented with stocking in the past.
I worked the Portage Lake district from November 1996 to April 2006. This district included the towns of Portage Lake, Nashville Plantation and 16 unorganized townships. There were fewer than 500 year round residents and the majority of the district stretched west from Route 11 to the Allagash Wilderness Waterway. Each township is 36 square miles in size. The size of this particular patrol area is considerable, approximately 648 square miles.
When patrolling such a large and remote area, it is crucial for a game warden to know where the fish and wildlife resources are plentiful and/or vulnerable. It is also important to know where the legal hunting and fishing pressure is. More importantly, it is critical to know who the poachers are and how they operate.
The vulnerable resource and the poacher were not always “out west” up in the “big woods.” I lived in the town of Portage Lake and had a right of way down to the lakeshore. I learned, from my own fishing experience, checking on fishing activity and talking with sportsmen that Portage Lake had a good, often overlooked, population of wild brook trout. Many people would drive by the lake on their way to the North Maine Woods Fish River checkpoint, destined for trout water miles from town. Some local residents and camp owners knew there were nice trout to be caught right at home, however. This was very dependent on the time of year and water conditions.
There was a period of time after ice out that the trout cruised and fed along the shallow shorelines and could be caught from shore on a bobber and worm. Using this tactic during the warm water period of summer would not be productive but it worked in the spring.
One May in the late 1990s I had become aware of a local fisherman who was inclined to violate the bag and size limits on trout. Portage Lake, at that time, had a two-trout, 12-inch minimum length limit with only one trout over 14 inches allowed. This was part of Commissioner Ray B. Owen’s quality fishing initiative from his tenure at the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife in the 1990s. Ray was a professor in the wildlife department at the University of Maine while I attended school there. He was also the Commissioner who hired me in 1994, making him one of my favorites that I worked for.
The poacher I was after had a lot of methods and places he would violate the fish limits. This particular time of year he would fish from shore in front of his sister’s lakeside residence. One day I looked across the lake with binoculars from the Maine Forest Service complex and observed activity on the shore at the sister’s place. I drove around the lake, hid my truck and walked back to a good vantage point. I didn’t conduct surveillance very long when the fisherman had a bite. I watched as he set the hook, reeled the fish in and carefully flipped it on shore.
Once he had it on shore, he pounced on his prize like a cat on a mouse. He then carried the fish toward the house and placed it near an ornamental windmill in the front yard. I wasn’t sure if it was too short or what exactly was amiss but it appeared a violation was afoot.
Shortly after, his sister, who apparently had been in town somewhere, drove into the yard. I heard bits of a short conversation about lunch, cooking and eating fish. I decided I had better get to the bottom of this before the evidence was cleaned, battered and fried. I returned to my truck and within minutes drove in the driveway.
I walked across the yard and greeted the fisherman who nodded and acknowledged me. As I got closer and was passing by the windmill I could hear that fish still shaking in a plastic bag where it had been hidden under the lawn ornament. I walked out on the dock and greeted the fisherman again. I inquired about the fishing. He told me it was no good. I asked if he had caught anything. He said he had not. I asked if he had even caught any chubs and he said no.
He didn’t seem to want to chat. All the while, I could still hear that fish shaking in the bag under the windmill. Finally I asked him if he could hear it, too. He gruffly asked what I was talking about. I told him. He said, “no, I don’t hear too good.” I told him I had watched him catch and place the fish there. He admitted he had other fish, as well. We walked up to the windmill and I inspected the bag. He had three short trout concealed in it. I summonsed him accordingly. It was early in my time serving as the local game warden and my dealings with this individual were far from over.
I was taught as a young warden that someone has to be the voice for the fish and wildlife. That voice is the game warden. In this case, I had a little assistance from the wild brook trout making noise in that bag. This wasn’t a gross violation of fish limits but I learned over the years that the cumulative effect of multiple small violations is the same as one big violation. This was a very intentional violation by a poacher who fished practically every day. Fisheries management, such as the quality fishing initiative, is necessary; as is the presence of game wardens to deter violations and enforce the law.