Thomas Morrison of Winterport has a whopper of a fishing tale.
He was ice fishing with his son on Jan. 28 in eastern Maine. Only 20 minutes into their outing, they pulled an impressive fish through the ice — a salmon measuring 28 inches and weighing 5 pounds.
The thrill of the catch was later tempered by an unexpected development. Morrison didn’t realize, until after he posted a picture on the Maine Ice Fishing Facebook page, he had caught an Atlantic salmon.
A few Facebook group members noticed that a piece of the fish’s adipose fin — on top, back near the tail — had been clipped. The Maine Department of Marine Resources marks the adipose fin that way to indicate that the fish had been counted as part of its monitoring program.
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Atlantic salmon, which have been federally protected under the Endangered Species Act since 2000, return to some Maine rivers each year to spawn. Some even make their way up tributaries and into lakes. But for someone to actually catch one of these fish is an unusual occurrence. It happens about once every two years, according to the Maine Department of Marine Resources.
Fortunately for Morrison, who was unaware of the fin clipping, he practices catch and release.
“It was warm that day, and the fish was released alive and well,” he said.
Maine is home to the only native Atlantic salmon populations in the United States. For many years, the fish were a prized catch for sport anglers, who visited the Penobscot River in large numbers.
The Department of Marine Resources estimated 1,325 Atlantic salmon passed through Penobscot River dams in Orono and Milford in 2022. That’s the second-highest return in the last 11 years.
The department, which oversees the state’s sea-run fisheries, confirmed Atlantic salmon sometimes find their way to inland waters.
“Based on the photo and the size indicated, it appears to be a sea-run Atlantic salmon that has spent multiple winters at sea versus a grilse, which would have spent only one winter at sea and would be smaller,” a department spokesperson said. “While the body of water is not identified, we do know sea-run Atlantic salmon overwinter in some lakes in Maine.”
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News of the catch quickly reached the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a representative reached out to Morrison to hear his story.
“I would like to help inform everyone who is as enthusiastic as me about fishing in Maine so they can help educate fellow anglers about rules and regulations regarding Atlantic sea-run salmon and brown trout,” said Morrison, who hopes his experience will benefit other anglers.
Maine’s inland fishing laws include a special code, S-33, which sets the maximum length for salmon and brown trout at 25 inches in the 45 lakes and ponds that carry the restriction. Of those, 24 are located in Washington County and 14 are in Hancock County. All are connected to watersheds that include sea-run Atlantic salmon habitat.
“This special code is designed to protect sea-run Atlantic salmon because the average multi-winter sea-run Atlantic salmon is longer than 25 inches,” the Department of Marine Resources spokesperson said.
Morrison pointed out that the S-33 code does not apply to the water on which he was fishing, which he declined to identify. He predicted it will soon be added to the list.
The unusual Atlantic salmon catch coincides with a new initiative the Department of Marine Resources rolled out Friday.
“DMR is announcing an outreach program to help recreational anglers understand the applicable laws and best practices to protect endangered sea-run Atlantic salmon, including how to safely release one if it is accidentally caught,” the department said. “Since sea-run Atlantic and landlocked Atlantic salmon look alike, it’s important to know the laws that apply to the body of water you’re fishing in.”
The department stressed that whenever an angler is unsure about the identity of a fish, it is best to release it at once.
The state’s regulations on landlocked salmon are tied to its efforts to protect Atlantic salmon. In rivers and streams, there’s a 14-inch minimum and 25-inch maximum for landlocked salmon.
That’s because salmon measuring 14-25 inches are likely to be landlocked salmon, while those smaller than 14 inches and bigger than 25 inches have a high potential of being sea-run Atlantic salmon.
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The 14-inch minimum also applies to landlocked salmon in lakes and ponds, while waters with the S-33 designation set the maximum at 25 inches.
Juvenile sea-run Atlantic salmon, known as parr, also can be confused with brook trout, the department said. That is why the minimum size for brook trout is 6 inches.
If anglers find themselves in a situation similar to Morrison’s, they should immediately release the fish unharmed as soon as they recognize it’s an Atlantic salmon.
Anglers should review fishing regulations prior to visiting their favorite lake or pond. All the information can be found using Maine’s Fishing Laws Online Angling Tool.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly attributed the clipping of the Atlantic salmon. A partial fin clipping such as this one would have been performed by the Maine Department of Marine Resources.