Maine is home to two types of pickerel, the common chain pickerel and the redfin pickerel. Chain pickerel are native to the lower half of the state, which also has the northeastern most population of wild native redfin pickerel in the United States.
Redfin pickerel are listed under Maine’s Endangered Species Act as endangered. The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife designated them as such in 2006, and they are the only freshwater fish so classified. But there is no protection provided for the fish under state regulations.
The swamp darter is the only fish species in Maine designated as threatened.
Both species of pickerel have also been moved around Maine, with naturalized nonnative populations now found throughout the central and eastern part of the state. But they are as different as they are alike.
Chain pickerel and redfin pickerel are easily confused with each other, but while I have encountered chain pickerel approaching 30 inches, I have never seen a redfin pickerel over a foot long. Redfin pickerel also seem more adapted to moving water than chain pickerel, and may have a higher tolerance for cold water.
While many casual anglers fish for pickerel, very few serious anglers actively target them. This results in a level of biological ignorance in regard to the various species and subspecies of pickerel, as well as a lack of protection. Basically, Maine treats its pickerel the same as it does nonnative bass in the North Zone from a regulatory standpoint, even though they are often a wild, native fish.
There are two subspecies of redfin pickerel, Esox americanus americanus, and Esox americanus vermiculatus, known as grass pickerel. Grass pickerel are not found in Maine, and the closest population I could find is in extreme western New York. Further complicating matters is that redfin pickerel are often referred to as grass pickerel, similar to how we refer to ruffed grouse as partridge.
While chain pickerel are relatively common in Maine, redfin pickerel are rare and endangered. Even so, DIF&W does not have species code to account specifically for the subspecies, Esox americanus americanus.
According to a DIF&W blog entry, redfin pickerel are found in only two locations, both in the Merrymeeting Bay area of the lower Kennebec River system. But DIF&W’s lake and pond database shows only one population. There are no documented lake and pond populations of what DIF&W refers to as grass pickerel. But both are known to occupy rivers and streams as well, so there may be some undocumented populations.
For years, Maine had a 10-fish general law limit on chain pickerel. The regulation was changed to simply pickerel in 1983. While the former did not apply to redfin pickerel, the latter did. The 10-fish limit on pickerel stood until 2018, when it likely fell victim to DIF&W’s ongoing efforts to simplify our fishing rules. This effectively left redfin pickerel, an endangered species, with no length or bag limit.
Having a fish species classified as endangered with no protection from angler exploitation cannot be defended biologically, and is an anomaly in regard to endangered species which are usually protected from what is referred to as “take.” I suspect this was an oversight, and the result of the ongoing effort to simplify our fishing regulations.
In fact, a DIF&W blog post states, “Due to its status as endangered in Maine, if you happen to accidentally angle up a redfin, please let the fish go, unharmed, as quickly as possible.”
Unfortunately, without a rule requiring such, this is only a suggestion.
“[Redfin pickerel] are readily discernible from chain pickerel by their small size, noticeably short snout, and dark coloration with a distinctive vertical bar pattern.” DIF&W said.
Sportsmen are required to differentiate between spruce grouse and ruffed grouse, and black ducks from mallard ducks. So, there is precedent for separate regulations at the related species and subspecies level.
Making matters more complicated is that according to U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) there is a naturalized nonnative redfin pickerel population in the Down East region of Maine. This means that any protections afforded to the native populations in southern Maine, and they should be protected, cannot be extended to the nonnative populations in Down East.
As is often the case, simplifying Maine’s fishing regulations just isn’t as simple as it appears on the face. When we are not careful, we can orphan rare, wild native fish from protections, or protect nonnative and often invasive fish. While worth looking at, as you can see, simplifying Maine’s fishing regulations is not always in the best interest of the resource.