By Paul F. Thibodeau

Concerns about Northern Pike Continue

The records in my fishing log state that the first fish of the season weren't caught until the end of May last year. Nevertheless this stubborn old Mainer was determined to pursue the spring's lethargic salmon in the renowned West Branch of the Penobscot River early in the season. On Monday April 16th, with 50 pounds of fishing tackle packed into my Toyota, I headed north around 6 a.m. towards Chester. A light fog hung over the Penobscot River and the North Chester bridge as I motored towards Route 116. 4 deer feeding right beside the road caught my eye and I contemplated taking a few snapshots for the Tea Pail. But 3 more cars coming in both directions discouraged me from stopping, and I continued on towards Woodville. Millinocket was bathed in early morning light as I drove through, past Smith Pond, and on to Ambejejus Lake. Patches of snow, still clinging to Mt. Katahdin with its steel-blue peaks, was an inspiring sight as I motored along the Golden Road.

In the distance, a vehicle stopped in the center of the tarmac suddenly caught my eye. My assumption was right...the driver was watching local wildlife. Quickly I pulled my car to the roadside, grabbed my digital camera, and stepped out. The scraggly-looking cow moose was browsing on the tops of roadside brush, and was not at all perturbed as I snapped several close images. Moments later I was once again headed for the West Branch.

When I reached a favorite section of the river beyond the Nesowdenehunk Falls, I donned my waders, and hiked into the pool. A light breeze rippled the relatively calm water as I tied on a brilliant floating streamer fly I had designed. After cautiously wading into the sun-dappled water I climbed onto a submerged rock and began to cast. On the 3rd cast a large fish suddenly rose just 10 feet before me and smashed the brilliant fly. Instinctively I raised the rod, but the quick fish vanished unscathed in the amber liquid.

Around 9 a.m. I trekked back to my car and drove upstream past the Big Eddy. Motoring along I flushed several flocks of bright crimson and orange sparrow-like birds feeding on the tarred thoroughfare. The tiny colorful birds would wait until the last moment before taking flight and landing in the roadside trees...within seconds of being hit by my car's windshield.
Once again I parked near the Telos Bridge, hiked along the rumbling river, and trudged through the dissipating snow and ice. Repeating the fishing scenario of 2 previous outings I was again unable to raise the river's lethargic game fish. Around 2 o'clock I made one more stop at the well-known Nesowdenehunk Falls, but never raised a fish.

As I hiked towards my Toyota parked at the side of the highway, I was met by a friendly angler.
"Hi, I like your outfit. It's a lot like mine, though your rod is better," he smilingly remarked.

Scott Lary is a retired border guard now living in Glenburn. The outdoorsman informed me that he fished the famous West Branch approximately 3 days a week all season long. Last year he took more than 50 salmon on streamers, nymphs, and dryflies. When I mentioned that I wrote a weekly outdoor article Lary informed me how concerned he was about the illegal introduction of pike into Pushaw Lake.

"If those aggressive fish aren't eradicated in that lake and the stream that runs into the Penobscot River, the salmon in the Penobscot will be devastated," Scott commented.

"Do you really think pike will move upstream to this portion of the Penobscot River?" I asked the concerned outdoorsman.
"The only thing that is currently stopping those aggressive fish from moving upriver are the dams at Veazie, Howland, and Medway. If that ravenous species reproduces, that will be the end of the Atlantic Salmon," the sport opined.

Pike were first reported in Pushaw nearly a decade ago and confirmed in the lake in 2003. Maine's DIF&W biologists have been actively monitoring the spread of the fish, trapping and killing them when possible, and asking anglers to do the same. Pike were illegally introduced into the Belgrade chain of lakes in central Maine in the 1970s and the DIF&W says the species now lives in at least 16 Maine lakes due to similar introductions or migration. Biologists and game wardens have said they suspect that people responsible for illegally introducing pike often do so to create a fishery for their own preferred species of fish.
There is a variety of opinions about the presence of pike, a particularly efficient predatory fish, in Pushaw Lake, and the vulnerability of the fish populations of the Penobscot River, and the Piscataquis River drainage. Several years ago a plan to reopen river habitat to sea-run fish including Atlantic salmon, drew criticism. In March 2009 anglers and biologists informed legislators that the Northern pike could decimate native fish. Other biologists have stated that fish we currently consider native, such as the smallmouth bass, and chain pickerel, were introduced to Maine waters years ago.

On April 23rd I met Nels Kramer at the IF&W Department office in Enfield. The biologist updated me on the monitoring of the expansion of the pike that were illegallly stocked in Pushaw Lake more than 10 years ago.

From 2006 to 2012 the IF&W fisheries staff have monitored the growth of the pike population in Pushaw Lake. The most successful effort has been the spring trap-netting. To date, the total number of males caught in 7-year period was 81, while 159 females have been netted in the inlet of Little Pushaw Stream. According to the biologist a female pike carries 9,000 eggs for every pound it weighs. That means the 39-inch, 15.4 pound female pike caught this spring had approximately 135,000 eggs in it! The Department kills most of those pike caught in the trap-nets, but a few have been implanted with tracking devices that will provide biologists with data concerning the movements and habitats of those fish.

I asked the scientist if he thought there was anything else that could deter the pike from moving into the Penobscot and Piscataquis Rivers, and protect the reclamation of the Atlantic salmon and other valuable species.

"Right now we have barriers at the West Enfield and Howland Dams that should help deter the upstream migration of the pike into those rivers. On June 30, 2011 and angler caught a 29-inch, 7-pound pike in the Penobscot River in Orono. The angler kept the pike and that allowed the IF&W fisheries biologists to confirm the identification of Northern pike in the Penobscot River," Mr. Kramer informed me last week.

Once established, populations of illegally introduced fish are nearly impossible to eradicate, especially in large waters such as Pushaw Lake. Vigilance its vital when protecting Atlantic salmon and trout, to name just two of our angler-favored game fish. If you witness any suspicious or illegal outdoor activities in our delicate outdoors, call Maine Operation Game Thief at 1-800-253-7887.

This moose munched happily on roadside spring growth, and was not disturbed at all by passers-by on the Golden Road. [See Tea Pail]