Western Maine, late October…
First, we had to get a fishing license. Having crossed the state line from New Hampshire into Maine we came under the jurisdiction of the state Department of Inland Fisheries & wildlife and Leroy’s license was no longer valid. The State aims to provide sustainable management of inland and marine fisheries. Recreational fishing in New England is highly regulated and even more so in states such as Maine which depend heavily on the natural resource base to generate income. A 2013 study (https://www.maine.gov/ifw/docs/fishinginmaine-013.pdf) of the economic impact of freshwater recreational fishing in Maine revealed that direct spending by anglers amounted to $208.8 million per year, supporting 3,330 full and part-time jobs, and through multiplier effects contributing a total economic output of $319.2 million. Fish populations are managed through stocking programmes, license requirements for residents and visitors, and a wide range of rules regarding catch size and equipment that can be used in different locations at various times of the year.
We stopped by the local bait and tackle shop and picked up a one-day license ($11), some live bait, and local information on the fishing. The owner turned to his ‘Fishing Laws 2019’ guide and asked which pond we were going to fish. Every river, lake, and pond has regulations tailored to the local context, such as: when and where you can use live bait, minimum catch sizes, and timing of seasons for different species. Experience has shown that any relaxation of the rules that control how the resource can be accessed and used results in overfishing and/or some other form of damage (e.g. previously lead weights – and now plastic bait – that get left in the ecosystem).
Back at the pond, we got the canoe out from under the cabin – a nice little 14-footer – carried it down to a small sandy beach and launched onto the water. This pond, only about a square mile in size, has limited shoreline development and high-quality water. It also has a good variety of fish including Small and Large-mouth Bass, Catfish, Perch, and is stocked with Brook Trout under a state programme. Initially we paddled along the shoreline, stopping every now and again in little bays where Leroy could cast in. Over by a patch of reeds he caught a small perch and let it go. Then we were joined by a pair of Loons, also on a fishing trip. They gradually moved across the bay, diving under water and re-surfacing fifty or a hundred yards further away. We were surprised to see them here as we are heading into winter, and have already had a few frosts, and some snow on the high peaks just to the north and west. Once the pond freezes over the Loons will not be able to take off as they need water to get airborne and land. From this part of New England they tend to head towards the ocean and winter a little further south along the coast. They are one of the few birds that can live off fresh and salt-water fish, with special glands that enable them to get rid of excess salt.
Usually a pair of Loons need a square mile of water to provide enough fish to nest and breed successfully. This pond is slightly smaller, but the water quality and the aquatic ecosystem are clearly in good health. The neighbouring pond, which is significantly larger and only a short walk away, has at least two breeding pair; we heard them calling to each other the first evening we were here, the unique sound travelling a long way across the calm water.
We were not having much luck so moved out into the centre of the pond, into deeper water, looking for the elusive Trout. The air was almost still, just a slight ripple on the surface, and the shoreline a palette of autumn colours. A Loon surfaced nearby and watched us for a while then dived under and came up 50 yards away on the other side of the canoe. Her mate kept his distance. This pair have been coming back to the same pond for several years, indicating successful breeding over that time. The success rate for raising young is only about 50% with a wide range of predators on the lookout for easy prey both above (Eagles) and under (Snapping Turtles; Northern Pike) the water. During the first few weeks of life the chicks are able to find safety by climbing onto the backs of the parent birds, but after that are too big and more vulnerable to predators. A citizen science survey conducted annually since the mid-1980s suggests that the Loon population in Maine has been slowly increasing and is currently around 4,300 adults. The numbers of chicks recorded each year, however, has remained stable. Indicators suggest that the population remains at risk from the potential effects of climate change on lake dynamics, water quality, habitat, and food sources, and also from increased water-based recreational activities. (https://www.maineaudubon.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Loon-Guide.pdf)
Leroy changed the bait and added some weights to the line to sink it deeper. After a couple of casts he got a bite. “It’s either a fish or a log” he said. The rod was bending over and he played the line out a bit then slowly reeled it in, on the end was a brown bullhead (also called Hornpout), a bottom feeder. It was big enough to keep and supposedly quite tasty when caught in clear water as here, but he put it back, still thinking about the large Trout, and we changed location. The Loons had already decided there was not much food around us and moved off down to the narrow, marshy end of the pond. We were slowly drifting down that way when the Loons started calling to each other and there was another bird in the shoreline woods that we did not recognise also making a racket. Leroy looked up and spotted a pair of Bald Eagles, one of which was dropping rapidly to the surface of the pond. It pulled up short and skimmed the surface for a few hundred yards along the far shoreline before rising up over the low hill separating us from the neighbouring pond and disappeared. The recovery of Bald Eagles has been a success story across the country after they were almost decimated in the 1960s as a result of habitat loss, hunting and widespread use of DDT. They have recently been taken off the Endangered Species List and Maine now has over 500 breeding pairs. But indications are that due to population pressures their diet is changing to include marine birds, and there are reports of eagles taking Loon chicks, and even adults. [https://www.deseret.com/2009/5/17/20318407/voracious-bald-eagles-threatening-maine-s-cormorant-population]
After the eagles left the Loons gradually quietened down and calm returned to the pond. We didn’t get any more bites. The Trout, wherever they were hiding, were pretty safe from us. The light was fading as we paddled back towards the cabin, using the bright yellow leaves of a lone Birch set among a dark stand of Spruce to guide us into the landing spot. We pulled the canoe up onto the beach and turned it over, rain was forecast overnight, and walked up to the cabin. On the way in we picked up a few logs each from the woodpile but otherwise returned empty-handed. We certainly didn’t feel like the top predators in this environment.