Friday, November 19, 2010

Maine Striped Bass Need A Hatchery For The Kennebec River

Maine’s striped bass fishing has become a marginal fishery after being considered world class in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. The short story is – 90 percent of Maine’s available fish are born in the Chesapeake Bay system and that system isn’t producing the stripers it ones did. That’s a story all its own. Maine’s Kennebec River does produce native fish which helps fill in a void in our available striper biomass. But that population of fish has also dwindled. So, what’s the answer to this complex problem?

The good news for a few years is that our striped bass fishing will be for big fish as the population mix of stripers consists of a few precious year classes of fish over 30 inches with few meaningful year classes following to fill in for the near future.

We in Maine can help ourselves by improving the production of striped bass in the Kennebec River. It won’t solve all our problems but it will help and we in Maine can control the effort while the Chesapeake Bay problems, commercial fishing and poaching are addressed by others.

Here's my take. We really don't have a good handle on striped bass spawning locations in the Kennebec River but the young of the year index has been established and notes that striped bass are spawning in the Kennebec and have been regularly since the stocking program began. There probably are some native fish doing the same. We just don't know.

During the early 1990's and early 2000's, the Kennebec River was recognized as a "World Class" fishery, a strong guide business component had been established and recreational anglers were having a great time catching varying sizes of striped bass by the dozens every day during the season.

During that same time frame, my logs remind me of the "GREAT" early season fishery we had beginning sometime around the 10th to 15th of May every year. These fish ranged from 28" to 40" plus and were present in schools, not just random singles and doubles.

I contend that these big fish were Kennebec River fish returning to spawn. Most of the larger fish from the Chessy and Hudson Rivers are still deep up those systems spawning, not yet migrating to Maine during mid May. As these early May fish passed through, they would continue to and up the Kennebec to disappear to some mysterious spawning grounds. I know someone knows these locations but just won't share the information.

By the time the early flush of Kennebec River spawners reached their upriver homes, migrating fish from the Chessy and a few from the Hudson Rivers would begin filtering into our systems around mid June and early July. WOW - another burst of big fish for us to enjoy.

Then around July 1, the Kennebec River spawners would begin to filter down the river providing another group of fish feeding on herring drops outs.

All this action before any dams were removed from the Kennebec. Now that a few dams are gone, striped bass have more habitat to spawn in and more nursery grounds to grow in.

Then the fish would settle in for the summer for great fishing through October. There were always plenty of big fish.

My contention is that over 20 years we fished out to many of the Kennebec River spawners with liberal regulations.

For instance - There is a well known nursery, feeding zone in the Kennebec River that holds very small stripers all summer long. They are like teenagers with a full refrigerator - EATING-EATING-EATING all summer long. I wanted that area closed to all fishing but couldn't rally any support for such a crazy idea. You can still see many boats there every day catching 8 to 12 inch fish one after the other. Guides bring sports there just to say they caught a fish today. That's a sad situation for the ones WORLD CLASS striped bass fishery.

There are and have been some special regulations on the Kennebec and surrounding areas to help protect the spawning stock. That's a good thing but the river needs more protection. Thinking out of the box thoughts include: No bait fishing or no bait fishing zones. No keep rules (catch and release only). Closed nursery grounds. No netting of bait by any means. Two rods per boat and possible more ideas. Perhaps Maine should have its own striped bass hatchery. Maybe new, strict regulations like these could be put in place with a sunset clause so they must be reviewed in say three to five years.

Just look at western state's trout waters to see what they have done to provide WORLD CLASS fisheries. Consumptive fishing will never create the ones $87 million Maine, recreational fishing attraction the Kennebec River had in the late 1990's and early 2000's.

We need a progressive thinking striped bass program in Maine's DMR, not just a "we need to study it" attitude. We need a "can do" program with leadership that will follow through on developing such a program without being prodded by outside interests. We need a real saltwater license. Some call it a registry. That’s just a play on words so you feel better about it. A registry doesn’t sound like a new tax. The license passed last year and is scheduled to be implemented for the 2011 season is an embarrassment. DMR needs money to develop a Maine striped bass program. Only a meaningful saltwater fishing license controlled entirely by DMR will provide funds to do that.

The Kennebec isn't the only Maine river that historically produced striped bass.

In 1995, Michael J. Little penned “A Report On The Historic Spawning Grounds Of The Striped Bass” in the Maine Naturalist magazine. If you can find a copy of the article you will be surprised. The abstract below is just a tease of what the report contains. Or go online at: to see options of purchase or go to your local library for online help. I was surprised at his findings. This report is quite interesting and worth your time to find. Send me an email for more details on how to get a copy of it.

It will take several years to improve the Kennebec striped bass stock. Action, not studies need to be brought forward sooner rather than later.

We are missing something in Maine. It's all about leadership in Augusta. Now is the time to influence the selection of that leadership. Any thoughts?

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