Rangeley's lost trout, the Mooselook Wobbler, and Bass vs. Brookies.
Born in Maine
It's been exactly seventy years since John A. Green developed the Mooselook Wobbler on the shores of Mooselookmeguntic Lake, and the many varieties of this popular lure (above) have proven wildly successful at attracting trout, salmon, and other game fish in lakes across New England and Canada. Throw a little pump down your rod and the silver spoon turns into a wounded baitfish, vainly fluttering and darting away from a monster brookie's hungry jaws.
Rangeley's Lost Trout
The little blueback trout survived the Ice Age, but it was no match for sport fishermen.
Rangeley's reputation in the late nineteenth century as a world-class angling destination wasn't just savvy marketing. The lakes region had the actual trophy fish to back up its claim as the "Land of Fishing Legends." In 1886 an angler on Mooselookmeguntic caught a monster brook trout measuring 26.5 inches and weighing a whopping 12.5 pounds. For many years afterwards, this leviathan held the world record for the largest brookie ever caught by an angler.
Why did Rangeley brook trout grow so big? They were on a power diet of sorts. Originally the Rangeley watershed was home to two noteworthy coldwater species, brook trout and blueback trout (below). Actually a subspecies of arctic char, the little blueback - Salvelinus alpinus oquassa - rarely reached more than ten inches in length and served as the preferred prey species for large brookies. (Their Latin name, incidentally, commemorates their discovery in 1854 in Lake Oquassa, which was Rangeley Lake's Abenaki name.) Bluebacks lived in deep water for most of the year, only venturing into the shallows in October to spawn (when they were netted, trapped, jigged, speared, and otherwise molested by fishermen).
Unfortunately, the emergence of the Rangeley region as a renowned angling destination - drawing hundreds of well-heeled anglers from cities up and down the East Coast - meant doom for the bluebacks. As more and more anglers took to the waters, the brook trout suffered (the daily bag limit was an incredible fifty pounds per person). In order to keep the fishing experience worth traveling for, the Oquossoc Angling Association introduced landlocked salmon to the lakes in 1875 (rainbow smelt were also brought in as another forage fish). For the bluebacks, the ecologic effect was disastrous. In addition to facing another plankton-eating competitor in smelt, they now found themselves serving as food for two predatory species. By the early 1900s the native blueback trout of the Rangeley Lakes was extinct.
But the story ends on a hopeful note. Despite humanity's best efforts to make trouble for them, a renegade population of bluebacks and their other arctic char cousins survives in Maine. According to an "Arctic Char Management Plan" prepared in November 2001 by Frank O. Frost of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, twelve lakes in Maine - near the headwaters of the St. John, Union, and Penobscot watersheds - still harbor relic populations of char, including bluebacks. Floods Pond in Otis is one such outpost, and it is likely that char have survived there because the pond serves as one of Bangor's municipal water supplies and is off-limits to fishing. Nine other char waters are open to anglers, however - from Black and Debouille ponds in Aroostook County, to Enchanted in Somerset County. "The most endearing angling quality of arctic char in Maine," writes Frost "is the opportunity to catch a sometimes highly colored, native, and very uncommon fish in remote environments." It's not every day that you can drop a line in the water and hook a piece of history.
For more information on where to fish for arctic char in Maine, along with special restrictions, go to www.maine.gov and search for fishing regulations.
Bass vs. Brookies
The trophy waters of the Rapid River have become a battlefield between a native and an invasive species.
By Joshua F. Moore
The native, wild brook trout that live in the Rapid River near Rangeley have survived for centuries because of their ability to adapt to everything from floods to droughts, destructive loggers to eager dam builders. Today, the best hope for these trophy fish rests with the same creature that has always been its greatest threat: mankind. More than two decades after someone illegally dumped a few buckets of smallmouth bass into Lake Umbagog, the voracious "bronzebacks" have broadened their habitat to include everything from Umbagog to Lower Richardson Lake - including the 3.2-mile stretch of fly-fishing-only water that comprises the Rapid River. Juvenile brookies have become appetizers for the predacious smallmouth.
Consequently the smallmouth have reproduced, the number and size of trout in the river have dropped. Containment is not an option - a trout might roam the entire length of the river in a single day during the spring and summer as it searches for the tastiest insects - and so installing barriers such as those that have been built to keep the bass from entering or leaving small waterbodies such as B and C ponds nearby is impractical on the Rapid River. The bass have made a home in the river, and all that can be done now is to make that home as unwelcome as possible, fisheries biologists say.
"Short of poisoning the whole watershed, this is not a problem that is going to go away," remarks Jeff Reardon, New England conservation director for Trout Unlimited. "We're into the management phase of dealing with a species that we wish wasn't there, but is."
Developing a management plan for the Rapid River has been priority number one for Trout Unlimited, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, and various Rangeley-area conservation groups practically since bass were first discovered in the river back in the late 1980s. Proposals have included everything from electrically shocking the bass to encouraging large-scale harvests of the fish, but biologists say the best solution may well be to use the river itself against the newcomers. Dave Boucher, a state fisheries biologist, says that for the past two years he has been testing the impact of periodically "flushing" the river during bass spawning season by increasing the flow out of Middle Dam from its normal level of about four hundred cubic feet per second to around 1,200. These scheduled pulses of water, released several times each night during late June and early July, appear to cause some of the bass to abandon their young at the "nests" they have built in the river and to retreat to more tranquil water in Lake Umbagog and Pond in the River. The young fry stand little chance of survival in the river without an adult to protect them, and though a mature bass may return to spawn again later in the year, these offspring do not usually have the chance to grow enough to make it through the winter. And because brookies are not spawning when the flows are increased, the pulses have little impact on trout. (Whitewater rafters, who also use the Rapid River, also welcome the higher water levels, Reardon says.)
The tests, funded by more than $120,000 raised through a national campaign sponsored by tackle dealer Orvis and through smaller fund-raisers in the Rangeley area, appear to show that the flushing is having an impact in the Rapid River. "We've only done this for two years and our consultants are still writing up their report, but we definitely had an impact on adult bass and saw some attrition of bass fry," Boucher remarks. But he emphasizes that the pulses of water are hardly a silver bullet that will eradicate the problematic smallmouth. "The tests appear to be very site-specific: if the male sets up his nest in a place with good cover, behind some good rocks or something, then there was little change [in the bass population]."
Indeed, if it is adopted permanently, fluctuating the flow of the Rapid River would only be one piece of a management philosophy for Rangeley's storied stream. The catch-and-release limits that were put in place in 1996 will almost surely remain, and biologists will continue to research new ways of keeping the bass population in check. "We've looked at targeted removal of the yearling bass, where we could go in there and electrofish and remove the offending bass, but this is something that's going to happen forever," Boucher explains. The ultimate impact of the introduction of smallmouth bass, as well as the measures being taken to control it, will probably not be fully understood for decades to come, fisheries experts say, but in the meantime the Rapid River has become a poster child for the perils of introducing a fish into a waterway. "One of the most interesting things for us as biologists is to study and document what the impact will be of introducing bass to a prime trout water," Boucher says. "We'll continue to use this as a teaching tool to tell people that moving fish around is not a good idea."
Scientists and anglers alike are quick to point out that while the Rapid River is under threat, it remains one of the premier trout waters in the nation. "The river is known worldwide for its large brook trout, and you can still catch some really good-sized brookies - in the four-plus-pound range," says Rocky Freda, a fishing guide from Bethel who regularly takes clients to the Rapid River. "The difference these days is that you probably catch twenty bass for every trout." (Many anglers admit to resorting to their own fisheries-management practice when faced with such an overpopulation, employing a technique cheekily referred to as the "land release.") But even the bass can't distract from the special experience of fly-fishing the Rapid, especially from mid-May to July. "There are a lot of other good rivers that have brook trout in them, but they don't have the brand that the Rapid does," Freda declares. "When you get to the river, and you're right down on it, you think you're back in the bush. You can't write the book any better than what the river is all about."
Reardon, too, says Maine still has the opportunity to preserve a fishery that is the envy of the angling world. "We're talking about managing intact populations here, where other states are talking about managing scattered remains of populations," he says. "The quality of the brook trout fishery is still extremely high - it's still one of the best brook trout fisheries in Maine."
Even scientists like Boucher recognize that keeping native, wild brook trout in the Rapid River is a struggle that goes beyond preserving one particular species of game fish. "The Rapid represents a significant part of the cultural heritage of the Rangeley area," Boucher remarks. "That area was colonized by people who went up there seeking these trout. They are part of our natural and cultural history, and they're exceedingly valuable to us."
Land of Legends
It's no wonder the Rangeley Lakes, shown below in a Farrar's map dating from 1876, spawned not only some of Maine's largest trout but also its most famous fly tiers and fishermen (and women). The chain of lakes, streams, and rapids that extends from Umbagog Lake, on the New Hampshire border, through Welokennabacook and Molechunkemunk (now called Lower and Upper Richardson lakes, respectively) and up through Mooselookmeguntic and Rangeley lakes is an angler's paradise that collectively covers some eighty square miles. A large percentage of the land is held in permanent conservation easements, so this part of western Maine ought to continue producing fish stories for many generations to come.