All it takes is one person dumping a few northern pike into a body of water to change a Maine fishery forever.
Registered Maine Guide Ryan Brod caught this central Maine pike on a fly. Credit: Courtesy of Ryan Brod

Long Pond was once a salmon angler’s dream.

During the 1970s the water, located in Belgrade and Mount Vernon, held big fish. The state managed Long Pond to focus on its salmon fishery, and enacted restrictions to bolster its population.

“It was very common to get a 5-pound salmon out of Long,” said Jason Seiders, a fisheries biologist for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. “If you lived in the Augusta area, you didn’t have to go all the way to Rangeley to go catch a nice salmon.”

But the number of salmon has plummeted in the Belgrade Lakes over the past 40 years. And the trend is spreading across Maine.

The illegal introduction of invasive species, especially northern pike, has transformed Long Pond. Anglers can catch huge pike there now, but the salmon are long gone. Successful salmon programs at Great Pond and Messalonskee also were abandoned after the pike took hold. They wiped out the smelts, the baitfish that are salmon’s main food source, speeding the demise of the salmon.

Pike can eliminate other fish species and take over lakes and ponds. And while many anglers welcome more opportunities to catch the large fish, the state fears that further illegal stocking of pike, black bass, black crappie and other invasive species poses a statewide threat to native coldwater fisheries that have made Maine a popular destination for anglers from around the world.

There’s little the state can do to prevent it.

A disturbing trend begins

Pike were first confirmed in the Belgrades in 1981, starting with Great Pond, North Pond and Little Pond. The waters also include Little Pond, Messalonskee Lake, McGrath Pond, East Pond, Salmon Lake and Ingham Pond.

Long Pond is among the worst-case scenarios for the 38 Maine lakes and ponds in nine counties where pike have been illegally dumped. There the pike devoured the smelts and salmon.

The state-stocked brook trout and salmon, the bass introduced about 100 years ago, and the rainbow smelts that served as forage are now minor players — if they can still be found at all.

“The northern pike is an apex predator. It’s at the top of the food chain,” DIF&W Director of Fisheries and Hatcheries Francis Brautigam said.

The voracious pike can completely take over a pond.

“I always tell people: Once they’re in, they’re in. There’s not a lot that we can do in terms of management,” Seiders said.

Pike not only consume most fish species, but also eat amphibians, juvenile waterfowl and almost anything else they can grab. They typically grow to be from 17 to 25 inches on average, but can reach 50 inches and 30 pounds. They have a mouthful of teeth and hunt by hiding behind vegetation and waiting to attack their prey.  

“They have a presence pretty much unlike many of the other species that may be native to some of these systems,” Brautigam said. “It’s not to say that those other species disappear. It just means that more of the production is going to be directed toward northern pike.”

After confirming the presence of pike in the Belgrades, the state briefly attempted to protect them in a few waters. The practice was quickly abandoned, citing a conflict with departmental goals.

“We can’t actively manage invasive species that we’re concerned about seeing further spread on,” Brautigam said.

DIF&W focuses on protecting native coldwater species such as salmon, brook trout and lake trout. The state also uses hatchery-reared fish like brook trout, brown trout and rainbow trout to provide sport fisheries in lakes and ponds statewide.

The dumping of nonnative fish in waters where they didn’t previously exist has increasingly stymied these efforts.

Complicating matters, there have been more recent introductions of two other invasive species, freshwater alewives and black crappie. The Belgrades also are dealing with increased phosphorus levels that lead to algae blooms and depleted water oxygen levels, which can kill fish and other organisms.

A fisheries puzzle

DIF&W has been caught in a dilemma when it comes to pike.

The department’s focus for years has been to protect and improve coldwater fisheries, especially native populations. But it’s also supposed to encourage people to fish and keep it sustainable for the future.

The state chooses not to manage pike because of their status as an invasive species and can do nothing to control them. That has forced DIF&W to undertake adaptive management, stocking other species in some of the Belgrades to provide another fish to target besides pike. 

“We worry that if the department invests in enhancing the quality of those [pike] fisheries, it will just encourage more illegal introductions, almost as if the department is condoning those fisheries, so we don’t actively manage them,” Brautigam said.

However, pike would not be the first invasive species to be managed.

Black bass, smallmouth and largemouth, have been in Maine for more than a century. They were introduced, both legally by fisheries managers and illegally by anglers, into numerous Maine waters.

Over time, bass have achieved popularity among sport anglers, which led to more illegal introductions. Smallmouth bass and largemouth bass ranked second and third, respectively, in angler popularity, according to a 2016 study conducted by the state.

That’s created complications for DIF&W.

The state manages bass as part of its efforts in the South Zone, but treats the fish as an invasive species in the North Zone, where they continue to spread through illegal stocking.

Go big or go home

With the Belgrades dominated by fish that can reach more than 20 pounds, anglers now specifically target pike in most of those waters.

The state record pike, caught by Lance Bolduc in 1998 at North Pond in Smithfield — where it is believed the first pike in the region were illegally introduced — was 31.2 pounds.

“They can grow upwards of 6, 8 inches — up to a foot even — within a given year, which is just unheard of,” Brautigam said.

There are 16 waters in Kennebec County and eight more in Androscoggin County that contain pike. Some anglers believe the state should maximize opportunities for them to catch pike. They contend the fish are already well entrenched and exist mostly in ponds where coldwater species are unsustainable.

“They’ve become established largely in fisheries with marginal water quality, and they give fly anglers an opportunity to target 20-pound predators in shallow water each spring and fall. That’s unique,” said angler and Registered Maine Guide Ryan Brod of Portland, who is an Outdoors contributor for the Bangor Daily News.

Brod suggested that, with some intervention by the state, anglers and guides might have better opportunities to catch pike. Promoting the Belgrades as a pike paradise could boost local businesses.

Scott Davis, a 35-year DIF&W biologist and Registered Maine Guide, said there has been an unmistakable shift among angler attitudes in the Belgrades since pike were thrust into the equation.

Anglers who are in their 20s and 30s never saw salmon in the Belgrades or had an opportunity to catch them, he said.

“[They] don’t know what it was like. Pike are the best thing since sliced bread, because they get huge,” Davis said. “A lot of people don’t care what the fish is, they just want a big fish.”

A good number of pike anglers believe releasing a fish back into the water will not only make it available for other anglers, but also allow it to get larger. Practicing catch and release with northern pike may have the opposite effect as there is a point of diminishing returns, biologists said.

After being introduced, a new species will thrive and grow faster than anything else in the system for the first seven to 10 years. Then the potential for producing large fish declines.

“Then we all say, ‘I remember when,’ 15 or 20 years down the road,” Davis said.

A body of water can only support a certain number of fish before growth rates slow. If few pike are permanently removed from lakes and ponds, they can become overcrowded.

That leads to an overabundance of small fish and fewer trophy-sized fish.

Dealing with the pike presence

In Long Pond, the pike have taken over for good, but that doesn’t mean the state isn’t trying to work around them. In the Belgrades, DIF&W is also stocking brown trout, rainbow trout or brook trout in selected waters.

For example, Long Pond is stocked with rainbow trout, which have shown the ability to survive long enough for anglers to hook up. At Messalonskee Lake, Great Pond and Salmon Lake, the state is experimenting with brown trout.

The brown trout programs at Great Pond and Messalonskee have been in place since the ’90s, after the salmon were extirpated, Seiders said. The state gave up on larger-scale stocking of brook trout, which had flourished in some of the waters.

Those efforts provide small numbers of brookies in some areas of high angler use, in what amounts to a put-and-take fishery. One example is the outlet dam on Messalonskee Lake.

Any brook trout distributed more widely across the lake would wind up succumbing to pike predation, Seiders said.

Although the program is still in the early stages, rainbows seem to have been able to coexist, at some level, with pike.

“Rainbows don’t need smelts to grow. They do better on smelts, but they don’t have to have them,” Davis said, stressing that the pike have all but eradicated smelts in the Belgrades.

Some of the rainbows survive for several years and reach 18 to 22 inches. For the state, that is at least a short-term victory.

Bracing for an uncertain future

Biologists face an uphill battle dealing with northern pike. In most waters where the fish have been introduced, they have taken over and are becoming the preferred target species.

Such is the case at Pushaw Lake near Bangor, where pike were first confirmed in 2003. And they’re spreading, having been found in the adjacent Stillwater and Penobscot rivers.

Officials fear pike will be dumped into more waters, imperiling traditional fisheries, including native brook trout and landlocked salmon habitat.

One legislative bill this session would prevent additional fishways at two dams on the Penobscot and Piscataquis rivers. Pike have made their way out of Pushaw and have moved upstream, posing a threat to coldwater fisheries located in the Millinocket region and Baxter State Park.

“It definitely would be trouble for both salmon and brook trout. We’re already experiencing issues with the salmon here,” said Registered Maine Guide Bryant Davis, who operates Maine Quest Adventures in Millinocket.


Davis said that’s because another invasive species, smallmouth bass, is distributed through parts of the lower west branch of the Penobscot. Pike might mean dire consequences for coldwater fish.

“They’re a lot bigger fish, which means they’re going to eat more fish and they’ll eat bigger fish,” Davis said. “It has the potential to devastate both the salmon and the brook trout.”

The state’s best weapon in preventing the spread of  invasive species is to educate people about the damage invasives inflict on fisheries. 

However, history indicates that anglers are often willing to break the law and make those decisions for themselves, leaving the state and other anglers to deal with the consequences.

All it takes is one person dumping a few pike into a body of water to change a fishery forever.

Pete graduated from Bangor High School in 1980 and earned a B.S. in Journalism (Advertising) from the University of Maine in 1986. He grew up fishing at his family's camp on Sebago Lake but didn't take...