December 23, 2019 at 10:26 am
By Regional Fisheries Biologist Jason Seiders
Lake Saint George is certainly one of the most picturesque waters in the central Maine region. In addition to beautiful scenery, it boasts some of the best water quality and landlocked salmon habitat in the area. While many of our waters struggle with degraded water quality and marginal trout and salmon habitat, Lake Saint George provides ample habitat for salmon to live and grow to older ages. The presence of a robust smelt population, the salmon’s primary food source, promotes speedy growth and impressive looking individuals. Despite the great adult salmon habitat, Lake Saint George lacks suitable spawning and juvenile habitat, so the salmon fishery is maintained through annual stocking. Through several decades of study, MDIFW has determined a salmon stocking number that maintains a delicate balance between the number of salmon in the lake, the amount of food available, and the number of salmon harvested by anglers.
During our surveys in 2018, it became apparent that the delicate balance between fish and food was tilting heavily toward fish – too many salmon. The number of salmon in our nets was unexpectedly high, and fish growth had noticeably decreased. Angler use of Lake Saint George remains high, but as we have documented in several recent studies, fewer anglers are keeping their catch.
We decided to appeal to anglers through social media to encourage them to increase salmon harvest, especially during the upcoming ice fishing season. Additionally, we conducted a winter angler survey to document angler use and harvest during the winter of 2019. Anglers heard our call! The ice fishing season on Lake Saint George is just two months long; January and February. Despite the short season, we estimated angler use at nearly 2,300 anglers. Those anglers certainly did their part, harvesting an estimated 143 salmon during the two-month season.
So, how did this impact the quality of the salmon fishery? We recently conducted a trapnet survey of Lake Saint George salmon to check the results (if any) of urging a little more harvest. Our results are certainly encouraging. The average salmon during the fall of 2018 measured nearly 19-inches long and weighed 2.3 pounds. The average salmon in 2019 measured approximately 20-inches long and nearly 3 pounds! Additionally, the condition factor (a measure of a fish’s overall health) of individual salmon increased by approximately 6.5% over fish collected in 2018, indicating each fish was significantly more robust.
The takeaway message here is while each angler is free to practice catch-and-release or not, fisheries biologists set length and bag limits knowing that the fishery can sustain that amount of pressure. In this case, anglers can choose to practice catch and release and there will certainly be more fish to go around. On the other hand, if anglers keep an occasional salmon there will be more food to go around and larger fish will be the reward. As long as anglers follow the fishing rules and don’t keep more than their limit, it is highly unlikely to harvest your way into trouble. In the case of Lake Saint George, anglers harvested their way to bigger and better salmon.