Live Fish as Bait: It’s Time State Biologists Stop Defending It


Live Fish as Bait: It’s Time State Biologists Stop Defending It

Bob Mallard, NFC National Vice Chair

At a recent public hearing in regard to a proposed prohibition on the use of live fish as bait in Maine’s North Region, retired Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (MDIFW) biologist Paul Johnson defended the use of live fish as bait by comparing the number of species of fish found in Moosehead Lake today versus when they first started keeping records.

Per Johnson, not much has changed at Moosehead regarding its species assemblage and the lake is heavily fished with live minnows. The implication was that live bait is not an issue. This statement was misleading due to the fact that Moosehead was being fished long before MDIFW had reliable records and some of the damage may have already be done.


Johnson also stated that three of the nonnative fish, smallmouth bass and white and yellow perch, now found in the lake were gamefish and the result of "bucket biology,” not the use of live fish as bait. While that is likely the case with regard to bass and white perch, yellow perch are just as likely to have entered the system via their use as self-trapped live bait.

While many Maine anglers admittedly target white perch, yellow perch are not nearly as popular making it less likely they were deliberately introduced. MDIFW biologist Greg Burr recently made a similar unsubstantiated statement about how landlocked alewives found their way into Beech Hill Pond.


Per MDIFW, there are twenty-five species of fish in Moosehead Lake.  Twenty-two of these fish were first reported in 1944, apparently the first time they surveyed the lake and more than 100 years after tourists began coming to the lake to fish, often with live minnows: 


Twelve of the species now found in Moosehead Lake are listed as legal-to-use “baitfish” by MDIFW.  Of the five species of fish that are clearly nonnative, along with the bass and perch, two were introduced by MDIFW – landlocked salmon and smelt.  Johnson himself introduced mysis shrimp into the lake, a species of crustacean blamed for the collapse of the salmon fishery at Flathead Lake in Montana.  


For comparative purposes, let’s talk about Big Reed Pond, a small remote pond in northern Maine recently reclaimed to try to save rare native Arctic charr.

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Big Reed Pond had ten species of fish in it at time of reclamation. It was purported that six of these, or 60% of the species found in the pond at the time, were nonnative minnows, including highly invasive smelt. Unlike Moosehead Lake, Big Reed Pond is very lightly fished and likely was not fished at all for decades after people started fishing Moosehead.


Like Moosehead Lake however, seven of the fish were first reported in 1958 - the first time MDIFW formally surveyed the pond. The other three species, all of which are minnows (smelt, creek chub, and pearl dace) were first reported in 1991, 1992, and 2006 respectively. How did these nonnative minnows get there?

The introductions of smelt and other species [of minnows] appear to be the result of using live fish as bait…  - Former MDIFW Fisheries Division Director Mike Brown
Rainbow smelt and creek chub were first observed [in Big Reed Pond] in the early 1990s, likely having been introduced in the late 1980s, when anglers were targeting trout and charr by jigging live bait in deep water. That practice was legal at that time. - Former MDIFW Fisheries Division Director Mike Brown

While MDIFW has spoken up loudly against nonnative bass, crappie, pike, muskies, as well as koi, they have been far less vocal, or worse, defensive, when it comes to baitfish. Even the verbiage on the link to their invasive species page is deliberate-stocking centric, “Illegal Fish Stockings Threaten Maine Lakes and Rivers.” And their invasive fish poster shows only gamefish:


A nonnative fish is a nonnative fish regardless of what it is, where it comes from, or how it got there.  While not all nonnative fish are technically “invasive,” both gamefish and baitfish can be.  In fact, Maine has lost 3 out of 11 rare native Arctic charr populations to nonnative invasive fish in the last decade, all of these involved baitfish, smelt, not gamefish:


And I lost my favorite brook trout pond to nonnative baitfish as well, golden shiners. Once the finest wild native brook trout pond I had even seen, the brook trout population, and insect life, has been seriously compromised. How did the shiners get there? The use, albeit illegal, of live fish as bait...


The number of native salmonid waters in Maine compromised, or worse, by nonnative baitfish actually exceeds the number compromised by nonnative gamefish – and by far.  At what point will MDIFW accept this fact and respond accordingly, and by that I mean stop protecting “traditional fishing methods” and the “bait industry” and start taking a fish-first position that recognizes all nonnative fish as an equal threat.