Smallmouth encroachment of the Rapid River
This is nothing new to the flyfishers in Maine, but I wanted to share this recent article with others to again underline the effects of illegal introductions.
Sunday, August 24, 2003
Angling for a solution
By DEIRDRE FLEMING, Portland Press Herald Writer
Copyright © 2003 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.
TOWNSHIP C — Unlike many rivers in Maine, the Rapid River falls more than 1,000 feet within several miles, creating an unusual riverine system that is a fisherman's haven full of productive pools and world-class brook trout fishing. Its physical habitat and water temperature is such that the river is home to an abundance of insect life, enough to produce many large brook trout.
The Rangeley region river eventually drains into Umbagog Lake in New Hampshire. It's there that bass were illegally introduced several years ago. The prolific fish quickly became well established and in 1998, the smallmouth bass had reached the lower Rapid River, according to the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
Last year, bass were found farther up the river.
Now, the fishery that has been sought after by anglers from around the world for more than 100 years will lose its value in the next few years, say state biologists.
"Within five years, the big ones will move out," said biologist Forrest Bonney. "Brook trout only live to be 5 years old. The big brook trout anglers are catching now are from 3 to 4 years old."
On a hot August day, William Ruprecht only had a short walk from the house he was helping to refurbish down a grassy bank to fish the Rapid River. Ruprecht has been living in Rangeley since 1981 and coming to the Rangeley area to fish the Rapid since 1971.
He enjoys fishing for bass. But saving one of Maine's few natural trout hatcheries makes sense, he said.
"People are really worried about it, and I guess I am too. I don't know enough about bass. All I know is I like to fish," Ruprecht said. "Fishing is fishing. But I talk to a lot from people from Maine. People are dead against bass being in there."
Whitney Carter bought Lakewood Camps on Lower Richardson Lake two years ago with his wife and parents. Carter didn't know about the numbers of bass in the Rapid River then, but he worries now.
The remote, pristine Rangeley Lake region has less development compared to other popular fishing destinations and, for that reason, Carter said it will always be a favorite spot for anglers. But in five to 10 years, he said, he'll have to market it as a bass fishery more than as a trout-fishing destination.
Then, Carter said, it will mean an end to the throngs of fly fishermen who come from New Zealand and Europe to spend days searching for bugs under rocks and duplicating them in fly patterns before spending hours on the Rapid River fishing for large brook trout.
They'll start going to more northerly waters, like those in Labrador, Carter said.
The system of lakes that connects to the Rapid River starts in Rangeley Lake and runs through five different lakes.
At the south end of Mooselookmeguntic Lake, the lake connects to Upper Richardson, which flows into Lower Richardson Lake. There it drains into the Rapid River at Middle Dam.
Most recently, bass were found in Lower Richardson Lake, according to sporting camp owner Carter, who gave a bass caught there two weeks ago to state biologists.
Bonney has the 10-inch bass in a freezer in Strong.
According to Bonney, it is impossible to extirpate the smallmouth species in the Rapid River and doing nothing to cull the population will mean the demise of the brook trout. To combat the problem of the growing numbers of bass, the department has proposed regulations.
On Aug. 11 in Rangeley, the department held a public hearing on proposed fishing regulations that would open up the Rapid River to fishermen using spinning rods, as well as fly rods, increase the number of landlocked salmon fishermen could take there, and close a section of the river the last two weeks of September, a popular time for fly fishermen.
The department has proposed the regulations to increase the daily bag limit on salmon from one to two a day in order to protect the brook trout. There already is no bag limit on bass in the river; the department is encouraging anglers to catch and kill bass there.
In addition to the proposed regulations, Gov. John Baldacci recently signed legislation that will make it illegal to transfer live fish to help stem the spread of illegally stocked fish, a problem which has reached epidemic proportions in Maine.
From 1986 to 2000, there were 59 documented illegal bass introductions statewide, according to the department.
The new legislation makes it illegal to take any legal fish, except baitfish and smelts, from inland waters and transport them. Before, it was illegal to remove fish from one fishery and move them to another, but wardens had to catch a person dumping the fish in a body of water.
Now, violators will lose their fishing license and face a fine of $1,000 to $10,000 just for transporting fish.
Col. Tim Peabody of the Maine Warden Service said these laws are "an important tool for us in combating the epidemic of illegal stockings."
But even catching those responsible for spreading bass around the state would not reverse the chain of events illegal introductions have caused in some prime fishing waters.
"I've had people say to me, 'We know who put bass in Umbagog,' " said Jeff Reardon, New England conservation director for Trout Unlimited. "This is hard enough to do . . . that it takes some thinking to do it. I don't think a kid with a bait bucket did it. Somebody made a decision to move bass from one to the other."
Retired warden Eric Wight wonders how rules can be enforced in places like Township C, where the mouth of the Rapid River is found.
"A warden could not stay there all summer. It's not practical, even reasonable. The point is, the river already suffers from overcrowding," Wight said. "I feel if we open it up to general law (artificial lures only), we've opened a Pandora's box . . . It's extremely difficult to enforce. It would be quite safe (breaking the law) with the Warden Service numbers down."
There are already 7,000 anglers each year who fish the Rapid River, according to the department.
The river right now is fly fishing only. Opening it up to spincasters as well would creating even more traffic on the short river.
"When you see 17 people fishing in the same pool at 4:30 in the morning in June, that's unimaginable up in the wilderness," Wight said. "It doesn't need any more pressure."
State biologists readily point out that the artificial lures only regulation is not popular among anglers.
"A lot of anglers did not like the sound of artificial lures only, even for a good cause," Bonney said. "In their words, it should always remain fly fishing only."
The closure of the river after Sept. 15 will hurt area guides and sporting camps, such as Lakewood Camps.
But Carter said Lakewood is willing to weather the effects of the regulations for the cause of helping the brook trout.
Still many who live in the region and work for the state wonder how much good the regulations will do.
"It's very bad," Bonney said when asked of the future of the river. "The bass are not just competing (with the trout) for food and space, they're preying on them."
At Cornell University, graduate student Brian Weidel has used an electro-fishing technique to eliminate some of the bass in a 660-acre lake in the southwest Adirondacks, a lake he said is similar to Pond in the River in the Rapid River.
Weidel said he eliminated about 28,000 bass over the course of three years, enough to help the brook trout fishery there come back to where it was 50 years ago, when the bass were introduced into the lake.
The boat he uses, which Weidel said cost $25,000, has a platform equipped with a high-voltage power unit that sends an electric current into the water, paralyzing the fish. People at the bow then net the fish, killing the invasive species and throwing back the native fish.
He demonstrated the technique in Rangeley in June.
Assistant regional biologist Dave Boucher said the department would have to purchase a boat to use in the Rapid River to adopt the same bass-removing procedure, and then it wouldn't have the staffing to do the job, a job that would have to be done frequently.
"This has to be a forever thing," Boucher said. "We're not going to have any hope of getting rid of bass entirely."
The process, Weidel said, is not intended to eliminate the bass, but it can bring back the numbers of forage fish, which helps the native game fish to thrive again.
However, Weidel said the process of removing large numbers of bass can cost anywhere from $1,000 to $20,000 a year.
Reardon said financially strapped Maine has no choice but to find a way to invest in some process of culling the smallmouth bass population in the Rapid River.
"I think doing nothing isn't an option," Reardon said. "The regulations will not do harm, they may do some good. If for nothing else, they may be an educational tool. . . . But I don't think by themselves they will solve everything."
Based on the public sentiment he's heard, Ruprecht agreed something more needs to be done to save the world-class trout fishery.
"I haven't heard anything positive about what they think people can do, other than close down (the Rapid River to fishing)," he said.