Anglers surprised by Maine’s strict proposed limits on bass tournaments

By Billy Kobin, Bangor Daily News Staff

AUGUSTA — A proposal from the state to end bass fishing tournaments in northern Maine is drawing the ire of conservation groups.

The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife issued in June the proposed rule changes to fishing regulations, with one point tucked into the middle of the nine-page document now grabbing the attention of various anglers.

The proposal caught state lawmakers and outdoors groups off guard. While the vast majority of bass fishing tournaments happen in southern Maine, opponents to the proposed ban noted small communities in the northern part of the state see an economic boost from the events.

“Bass tournaments are not permitted in any waters within the North Zone,” the proposed change says, defining the area as Aroostook, Piscataquis, Somerset and Franklin counties, along with Oxford County north of the Androscoggin River and Penobscot County north of routes 11 and 157.

Other proposed changes from Francis Brautigam, the head of the state’s inland fisheries and hatcheries, relate to two State Heritage Fish Waters and an added regulation to protect sea-run Atlantic salmon in a Hancock County pond, among several changes that would take effect in 2024. The department is accepting public comment on the proposal until Thursday.

Bass are not native to Maine and were introduced in the 1800s into certain lakes. In recent years, they have been illegally introduced into northern lakes. While managed as a sport fish in southern Maine, bass are considered an invasive species in the North Zone, where coldwater sport fish, like salmon and trout, are more prevalent.

The state wants to take away any rules suggesting it supports the proliferation of bass in the North Zone, Brautigam said, adding the change would only affect about five water bodies that host less than 5 percent of organized bass tournaments here and help the coldwater species.

“We’re trying to prevent the loss of something that makes our state unique,” he said.

Not many residents are aware of the proposed change regarding bass tournaments, but once more do, “I think things will get ugly,” said David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine.

Trahan also said continuing to allow derbies in which fish are caught, weighed and killed rather than released is also concerning to conservation-minded anglers like himself, while the state would continue to allow tournaments in more southern areas of Maine.

“A lot of these [northern] areas really have a tough time bringing people to their communities,” Trahan said. “By banning them, you’ve just impacted local economies where these tournaments are a big deal.”

The Penobscot County Conservation Association is also against the proposed ban. The association hosted its annual Schoodic Lake Charity Bass Tournament earlier this month in Piscataquis County. Its leaders have said the two-day event brings in thousands of dollars that go to Maine-based charities and support local communities.

“We think there are some people on the lakes who don’t like the tournaments and…caught the ear of [the department] and are pushing this only for their own reasons,” Woody Higgins, the association’s president, said. “I think it’s smoke and mirrors myself.”

For all types of sportfishing, an American Sportfishing Association study published in 2021 found the industry in Maine brought in $343.3 million from retail sales and nearly $75 million in local, state and federal tax revenue while supporting more than 4,600 jobs.

Lawmakers on the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee said Monday they had not yet heard about the proposed North Zone bass fishing tournament ban, otherwise noting they considered but did not pass a bill this session to remove bass limits in Washington County rivers.

“That just befuddles me,” Rep. Jim Thorne, R-Carmel, said of the proposal.

Sen. Jim Libby, R-Standish, also mentioned the proposal in the weekly Republican radio address, asking listeners to “oppose this ridiculous rule.”

The Legislature does not get to take up the proposed rule change, which Trahan said he would prefer in this case. That’s because lawmakers are aiming to adjourn for the summer after meeting one more day next week to vote on any final bills or vetoes from Gov. Janet Mills. His group could push for a law to overturn any change next year.

“There are always other ideas to [solve] problems that are worth exploring,” Trahan said.

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