Untangling Maine’s Fishing Rules
The rules that govern recreational fishing in Maine are complex, discouraging all but the most committed angler from participating in this enjoyable outdoor activity. Even experienced anglers have difficulty finding their favorite waters and applicable rules in the rulebook issued by the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (IF&W).
That rulebook is currently being revised and redesigned. The new book will be in force for 2010 and 2011 to save money (in the past a new book was issued each year). The book includes open water and ice fishing rules for the first time. Separate rulebooks were published for these activities in the past.
A few weeks ago I was asked to review the format of the new book by IF&W’s Fisheries Division Director John Boland. I would not wish this rulebook on my worst enemy. It is incredibly complex and difficult to navigate.
I accepted Boland’s challenge to select a few waters and try to figure out the rules that govern fishing in those waters. I selected three of my favorite waters: Nesowadnehunk Lake and Stream, South Branch of Trout Brook in Baxter State Park, and the Kennebec River. I pretended that I had never fished there.
It took me over an hour to figure out the rules that govern these few waters, and in the end, I failed. I missed some key rules that are not obvious as you work your way through the book.
My highest priority recommendation to Boland was to list all waters in alphabetical order, not by county and region and type of fishing. It is very difficult to find a water body and the specific regulations that apply to that water in this format, which includes multiple listings by region, county, and type of fishing.
Many anglers are not familiar with county boundaries, especially nonresidents. The selected regions (they organize the counties into regions) are not familiar to anyone. The multiple listings of counties are confusing. And the division of the book yet again by “waters open only to open water fishing” and “waters open to ice and open water fishing” adds to the complexity.
New Hampshire lists its waters in alphabetical order, and it is a much better format.
Of course, the real problem facing IF&W is this: we have too many fishing rules. They’ve turned a simple activity into a monstrously complex sport. If baseball was this complex, nobody would play the game.
Boland and his staff have tried over the past two years to simplify the rules, and they’ve made a good effort and had some success. But the department’s insistence that every water body is unique and must be managed as a single unit stymies any attempt to sharply limit the number of fishing rules.
Even after the department’s simplification initiative, there are thirty-one special rules applied to hundreds of waters, beyond the general rules applied to all other waters. The rules governing the Kennebec River, for instance, take three pages using very tiny print.
Here’s the description in the book for one of the twelve sections of the Kennebec River, with its own unique rules.
“From the downstream side of the Lockwood Dam to the upstream side of the Donald Carter Bridge (including the Sebasticook River downstream from Benton Falls Dam), open to open water fishing from January 1 – December 31, closed to ice fishing, single-hooked artificial lures only, landlocked salmon length limit 16 inches, brook trout 12 inches, rainbow trout 16 inches, brown trout 16 inches, total daily bag limit on landlocked salmon and trout 1 fish.”
Ready to go fishing?
There is an opportunity approaching, though, for Mainers to voice their concern about the rules’ complexity. The thousands of fishing rules governing Maine waters are now up for comment and approval. IF&W’s Advisory Council, a group of ten individuals appointed by the governor, must approve the rules, along with IF&W Commissioner Dan Martin.
They follow a three-step approval process. Step one comes on August 20, when the council is presented with the complete set of rules that will govern fishing for the next two years beginning January 1, 2010.
Step two includes a public comment period, including at least two public hearings. These are not yet scheduled, but will be publicized on IF&W’s Web site. Boland is also contemplating other processes to gather public opinion in addition to the hearings.
Most anglers will only be interested in the rules governing the few waters they fish, so a public hearing on all the rules isn’t the most effective way to get their attention and participation.
Step three, final approval of the rules, is scheduled for the council’s October meeting.
Maine anglers should not expect the fishing rules to be simplified any further in this round of hearings. But there is hope for the future. The Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, for which I toil, has launched a comprehensive fishing initiative including a major project to simplify the fishing rules and rulebook.
The simplification effort will be led by SAM’s Pickering Commission to Reduce and Clarify Maine’s Hunting, Fishing, and Trapping Laws and Rules. The Commission is named for its first chair, David Pickering, who died of cancer at the age of forty-seven in 2000.
In 1998 and again in 2001, the Pickering Commission reviewed fishing laws, rules, and publications and submitted extensive recommendations. Some were designed to create a user-friendly fishing rulebook with lots of information. Most of the recommendations focused on changes to the laws and rules.
Quite a few of the recommendations for law changes were enacted by the legislature. Many of SAM’s recommendations for the rulebook itself were achieved through an effort led by Don Kleiner when he served as IF&W’s Director of Information and Education. But Maine still has a long way to go to make fishing here a simple enjoyable stress-free outdoor activity.
That goal, unfortunately, has proven to be as elusive as a ten-pound landlocked salmon!