Tim Obrey and his fisheries colleagues in the Moosehead Lake region have spent the past several years addressing a problem with no easy solution.
There were too many lake trout, or togue, for the forage base that existed in the state’s largest lake.
As a result, Obrey, Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s regional fisheries biologist for the Moosehead region, said that both togue and landlocked salmon were growing slowly, unable to find enough food.
Now, thanks to an ambitious plan that has been ongoing for five years, Obrey is happy to report that significant progress has been made.
During an interview that was followed by his regular fisheries report, Obrey said there were two key components to management efforts. First, reduce the number of mouths that had to be fed. And second, provide more forage — smelts — for those mouths to feed on.
“We were very close to the bottom of the bottom of the barrel in 2007,” Obrey wrote in his report. “Anglers may recall that at that time IFW biologists identified another ‘wave’ of togue entering the fishery at Moosehead Lake.”
Those fish, he noted, feed heavily on smelts and compete with salmon for that forage.
“We already had plenty of firsthand experience that high densities of togue caused severe growth problems for both salmon and togue, and this ‘wave’ of togue in 2007 was looking more and more like a tsunami,” Obrey wrote. “Therefore, in 2008 we liberalized the regulations to include no size or bag limit on togue less than 18 inches [long] and increased the bag limit to two fish for togue over 18 inches.”
Over the next three years, under that set of regulations, anglers removed tens of thousands of togue — perhaps as many as 80,000 — from the lake.
Obrey said that removing that many togue from Moosehead was essential.
“[Anglers] no doubt saved the smelt population from crashing even further,” Obrey wrote. “Removing these surplus togue saved tens (if not hundreds) of millions of smelt over the next few years.”
In addition, a local group of concerned anglers has joined forces to transport smelts from Thissell Pond to Moosehead over the past few years, adding more forage to the lake.
And now, for the fourth winter in a row, biologists tracked increased fatness in togue. And last fall, the salmon that were trap-netted were in the best shape in years: Only in 1978, Obrey reports, were salmon as fat, overall.
“Needless to say, we are very pleased with the positive trends in growth since the management changes were made in 2008,” Obrey wrote. “We are still cautious, however … any management change that would increase the number of predators would be a step in the wrong direction.”
What does that mean for anglers?
Don’t expect stocking rates on Moosehead to increase rapidly.
Do expect the condition of the fish you catch in Moosehead to continue to improve.
After a long battle, Obrey and state fisheries staffers deserve credit for making progress in the state’s iconic lake.