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When you think about a native Maine sportfish, what usually comes to mind for most anglers? Landlocked salmon, brook trout, and togue (lake trout for those living outside of the State of Maine), and perhaps cusk, are usually the ones that come would be thought of. However, there are a number of other species that are native to Maine’s waters that inhabit much of the state’s coldwater lakes and ponds. Species such as blueback trout (landlocked arctic char), as well as lake and round whitefish.
Unlike their more well-known cousins, these species are not as sought after by anglers due to being located in more remote water bodies that are difficult to access, or low catch rates due to the typical deep depths that they tend to remain in, which limits angling success, especially from fly anglers. Because of this, far fewer people are familiar with these salmonids, including the problems that they face today, mainly from invasive species.
For those who are unfamiliar with blueback trout, they are a coldwater species closely related to brook trout and togue, as all three are in the char family. Like togue, they spend most of their time in the deepest, and coldest parts of lakes and ponds, only coming into more shallow sections of lakes and ponds, or near the surface to feed, right after the winter ice melts before returning to their usual deep depths. The species mainly consumes aquatic insects as its primary forage, however, larger specimens have been known to prey on smaller baitfish, such as smelts in the few places where the two species evolved to coexist.
Historically, records indicate that prior to becoming extirpated from the Rangeley Lakes, they spawned in the tributaries that fed into the lake system. This ceased to occur once rainbow smelts and landlocked salmon were introduced to establish additional fisheries for both species, and their presence through competition for food, spawning space, and outright predation on adults and juveniles, led to the loss of bluebacks in the lakes. Currently, all known waters containing blueback trout only show intra-lake spawning, likely due to the lack of suitable spawning tributaries feeding into these waters.
Currently, the species is known to be in fourteen lakes and ponds in the state of Maine, ranging in size from 55 to 2,989 acres. Each of these lakes and ponds, regardless of their acreage, contains deep basins where the blueback trout spend most of their time throughout the year. Because they are restricted to these areas of lakes and ponds, they are highly vulnerable to extirpation when new species are introduced. Unfortunately, for many of the remaining ponds, this is the case.
Either through the intentional stocking of species such as landlocked salmon or togue, or from illegally introduced rainbow smelt, competing species have been introduced to a number of the fourteen known blueback trout waters left in Maine. The predicament that occurred in the Rangeley Lakes nearly occurred in Rainbow Lake as well, where due to upstream migration from Nahmakanta Lake through Nahmakanta Stream, landlocked salmon entered the lake. While
they tend to target rainbow smelt as their primary forage, landlocked salmon as evident in the Rangeley Lakes, will target blueback trout as well if present. Unlike the Rangeley Lakes, however, the landlocked salmon were targeted relentlessly to reduce their numbers in order to prevent them from becoming established in the lake, and a dam was constructed on the Nahmakanta Stream outlet of the lake to prevent any further individuals from continuing to enter the lake. To date, only a handful have been caught since.
While landlocked salmon have been proven to be harmful to blueback trout when introduced to their waters, both togue and rainbow smelt have been shown to be far more destructive. Prior to the general law ban on live bait in the north zone of the state, anglers would be able to use live bait on almost all ponds and lakes in the region, unless otherwise mentioned in locational specific regulations. This, along with illegal intentional stockings of rainbow smelt by anglers has led to the species establishing itself in many ponds and lakes that they are not native.
Among them, was Big Reed Pond, which had to be reclaimed back in 2007 in order to prevent the ponds blueback trout from being wiped out by the rainbow smelts due to competition for dissolved oxygen and food, as well as from predation of juveniles when they hatch as this time period coincides with the time when rainbow smelts start their spawning run.
Other locations with blueback trout such as Bald Mountain Pond, unfortunately, can’t have the same reclamation process done due to being too large to reclaim. Over time, the native blueback trout in these waters will likely become extirpated. One water, the largest in the state that currently still contains bluebacks, is currently being stocked with togue, which has been the most destructive species to blueback trout survival. Togue grow far larger than blueback trout, and in addition to competing with them for food, and directly prey on them, they also have been shown to hybridize with them, which is what has caused the species to become extirpated from Vermont and New Hampshire, most notably in Sunapee Lake, where they were given another notable name: the ‘Sunapee trout’.
Green Lake is the only one of the fourteen blueback trout waters in Maine where the bluebacks and landlocked salmon evolved to co-exist together (being one of four watersheds where landlocked salmon are native). In addition to landlocked salmon, rainbow smelt are also native to this lake, as well as Floods Pond which is roughly fifteen miles away. Due to this, neither landlocked salmon, or smelts have any negative impact on the blueback trout that are present in the lake. However, the introduced togue stocked by Inland Fisheries and Wildlife are
decimating the native species.
Due to the presence of togue, which grows far larger and much faster than the blueback trout, they have severely outcompeted them in the lake, and have greatly reduced their size and abundance. So much so in fact, that only a small handful of very small-sized specimens have been trap netted in recent years, when their continued presence in the lake was not even certain. In the past, specimens up to fifteen inches have been caught out of the lake, however, now most that are trap netted are roughly around four inches in length, and pushed to depths that lake trout tend to not be present in as frequently. If togue are continued to be stocked into this lake, the blueback trout may soon become extirpated.
However, the stocking of togue into lakes isn’t always inherently going to negatively impact the native species present. The two other native salmonids mentioned previously are facing similar threats to their continued survival from rainbow smelts as the blueback trout are in lakes and ponds where introductions have taken place. Like blueback trout, they are not a highly targeted fish, with both species being ranked last among preference of coldwater species, according to IFW angler survey data. Both species are incredibly difficult to catch during open water, round whitefish far more so than lake whitefish due to growing more slowly and to a much smaller size. As a result, very little targeted angling pressure is placed on these species, even in the winter when ice fishing allows for them to be more frequently caught compared to open water.
Because they share the same niche as rainbow smelt, they directly compete for the same resources. Data collected from Maine lakes where lake whitefish experienced introductions of rainbow smelt, their populations began to decline rapidly, and many became extirpated, such as in Fish River Lake, Moosehead Lake, and Carr Pond. This phenomenon is not unique to Maine. In the Great Lakes and in places in Canada, whitefish populations declined once rainbow smelts were introduced. Clearly, whenever rainbow smelts become established in bodies of water that contain whitefish, the whitefish populations begin to crash and become extirpated over time.
One of the ways to combat the decline of whitefish is to ensure that togue populations in these waters are large and robust. For example, when rainbow smelts became a major problem for whitefish in the Great Lakes, togue restoration efforts helped to reduce the rainbow smelt numbers, and the whitefish were able to recover. This is due in part to togue having a tendency to target rainbow smelts exclusively when they become available to them as a food source in favor of their natural prey like perch, minnows, suckers, small cusk, and even whitefish. The reasons for this are currently not known, however, it could come down to rainbow smelts being easier to hunt compared to their native prey.
By increasing the numbers of togue in ponds containing whitefish, either by reducing creel limits, or by stocking togue on top of those already present, the densities of rainbow smelts can be reduced, and consequently, whitefish populations should be able to rebound. Since the 1980s, IFW has estimated a 30% decline in sportfishing availability of lake whitefish due to populations of the species decreasing. As such, it should be paramount to prevent further losses of this species to ensure that future anglers can be able to target them as we are able to today.
With little data on population sizes or general information on round whitefish, their population estimates and changes over the same time period are not well understood. They could be fairing better than their lake whitefish cousins, as they don’t have as narrow of habitat requirements as they do. Round whitefish are also known to reside in flowing water, including parts of the St Croix, Kennebec, and St John Rivers. However, unlike lake whitefish, they are rarely caught, even while ice fishing, which makes them one of the most incredibly difficult fish to catch in the state.
With all that’s been said, it would seem that there is little hope for these species and the fisheries that they provide. However, this doesn’t have to be the case. Educating anglers on their
presence in our waters, as well as a small change in IFW stocking would go a long way in not only preventing further loss of these species, but in bolstering the fisheries that they currently provide. Take Green Lake for instance. We know that togue are deadly to the survival of blueback trout, yet are very helpful in reducing rainbow smelt populations in whitefish waters where they have been introduced. So, instead of stocking thousands of togue into Green Lake each year, IFW could instead put these fish into lakes and ponds up north where togue populations are low, or nonexistent, as a way to reduce rainbow smelt densities to bring the number of whitefish back up.
This would also greatly benefit the blueback trout in Green Lake. The stocking program of togue is required to maintain the fishery due to the lack of suitable spawning sites for the species in the lake. If stocking is ceased, eventually with angler pressure and no natural reproduction, togue would be removed completely in short time. This would allow the blueback trout to reclaim currently unavailable parts of the lake, where historically they would have been able to use. This could very well allow the blueback trout in the lake to regain historic sizes, and potentially, grow to the sizes of those in Floods Pond, as they being the only other population that evolved with rainbow smelts, hunted them as a food source, and can grow over four pounds in size.
By allowing the blueback trout in Green Lake to potentially grow to the size of those in Floods Pond, more angler attention would be directed towards the species. As Green Lake is also the only water containing blueback trout that is open to ice fishing, this would further incentivize anglers to target bluebacks in the lake, and possibly elsewhere. With increased angler attention, more support would come for their protection, and to help alleviate the burdens that other populations within the state are facing. This has been the biggest hurdle in protecting the species. Relatively few in the state are actively fighting to protect it, as relatively few know that it is even here, let alone where to fish for them. With a large and robust fishery in Green Lake, that is easy to access, and angle for, this could be the key to getting more resources to protecting the species in the other waters. But this can only occur if more people contact IFW to voice their concerns for the state of blueback trout in the lake, and support the Native Fish Coalition’s efforts to end the stocking program of togue in the lake.
While I’ve spent most of the time writing this saying how incredibly difficult it is to catch these three species, it is in fact still possible to catch them, even on flies. As mentioned previously, blueback trout can be readily caught on dry flies for a brief time period after the winter ice melts on their ponds and lakes, when they are near the surface and the shallow sections of the water to feed. During this period, dry flies can be used to catch them, however, for the vast majority of the open water season, trolling with streamers is the only method of readily catching them on a fly rod, as they remain at deep depths once water temperatures heat
up as the spring progresses.
Whitefish, on the other hand, are not so easy to catch on a fly rod. Because they almost exclusively feed on lake bottoms for aquatic invertebrates, with the only exceptions being stream/river dwelling round whitefish and larger lake whitefish that prey on small fish, most conventional methods of fly fishing would be ineffective at catching either species. However, this does not mean that flies can’t be used to catch them. While unconventional, using nymphs on a jigging rod during the ice fishing season, when most of them are caught during the year, can be very effective. Since they are benthic fish, which feed on aquatic insects as their main forage, beaded caddis, midges, and other small nymph patterns can be very effective when used close to the bottom during the winter months.
In addition to whitefish, the blueback trout in Green Lake, being open to be angled via ice fishing, can be caught using the same method. Since their diet consists exclusively of aquatic insects in Green Lake, in particular, the same types of nymph patterns can be used to jig one up in the lake’s deepest depths, mostly in the north basin.
While they may prove to be more difficult to catch, and are much less common across the state, they need the same level of care and angler awareness in order to provide healthy fisheries, and have robust populations. It can be easy to forget about species like these, when they rarely see much angler attention and aren’t as widely available. But it is critical for us to be more informed about them, and to spread awareness to the many plights that affect them in order for action to be taken to protect the species and their aquatic habitats. Otherwise, like caribou that once roamed the northern parts of the state, they too could become nothing more than a thing of the past.