3 easy ways you could break the law fishing in Maine

Ever since the introduction of laws regulating the taking of game and fish, people who rely on wild game for subsistence along with those who fish for sport have unwittingly broken those laws. What started out to be a reasonable and noble attempt at conserving wildlife has morphed into a complex bureaucracy replete with complicated and unintelligible regulations. To make matters worse, stiff penalties and fines are levied by the Maine legislature for innocent mistakes made inside the boundaries of good faith and common sense but outside of Maine’s general fishing provisions and special rule.

Here’s a look at some of the highlights of the 2017 Open Water & Ice Maine Fishing Laws and some example scenarios where you may break the law without realizing it.

arctic-char-filletThe law: Removal of Heads and Tails

“It is unlawful to alter the length of landlocked salmon, trout, togue, lake whitefish, and bass unless the fish are being prepared for immediate cooking. It is unlawful to possess or transport fish dressed in such a manner that the species of fish cannot be identified; unless the fish are being prepared for immediate cooking (smoking does not constitute cooking) (Title 12, §12601).”

The scenario:

It’s a crisp spring morning and the sun slowly rises over East Grand Lake in Danforth. The boundary waters shimmer with the promise of monster landlocked salmon lurking below. You and your spouse each catch your daily limit of two large salmon. Already, visions of a Maine-style surf and turf, venison loin and salmon steaks, are dancing through your head.

When you get home, the vacuum sealer comes out and the preparation begins. You cut the salmon into fat steaks, portioned out to go with the already portioned venison loins from November’s buck in the chest freezer. You look forward to an amazing meal several times throughout the year.

You also just broke the law. The rule states that you cannot remove the head or tail unless the fish is being prepared for “immediate cooking”. Freezing or smoking your catch does not count.

It’s understandable why you cannot lawfully remove the head and tail of fish after you’ve landed and are cleaning them as a game warden has no other way to determine if the fish is of legal length. Dressing the fish in a manner that makes the species indistinguishable is also prohibited and rightly so.

When does the regulating end though? By mandating how fish must be preserved for future consumption and how much must be eaten at once in your own home, Maine may be unduly creating law breakers out of responsible fishermen.

The law: Possession Limit (All Fish)

“A person shall not possess at any time more fish than may lawfully be taken in one day (Title 12, 12602-2).”

The scenario:

You’ve waited all winter for the opening of Mattagodus Stream. The ice is finally out and you make your way to your honey hole with fat brookies on your mind. The water is still ice cold, but the fishing is hot. You catch your daily bag, a pair of nice eight inch brook trout. They go in the freezer, with heads and tails attached of course, for grilling this weekend.

The next morning, you meet your neighbor in the dooryard. He regales you with tales of monster rainbow trout he was seeing in the West Branch stream. You grab your tackle and fly rod; you thank your neighbor and bee line to the banks of the stream. Your first cast lands the biggest rainbow you’ve ever caught. As you drop him in your creel, you are also breaking the law. Daily bag limit notwithstanding, you possess two trout in the freezer at home; that’s all you get to keep at one time.

This rule may be the most concerning to subsistence fishermen. The days of putting fish away to feed your family over the course of the year are but a memory with this regulation. The idea that you are forced to purchase commercially produced fish within an already constrained household budget instead of being permitted to catch and store your own legal daily bag mystifies me. This rule may be championed by catch and release sport fishermen but I suspect it puts an unneeded burden on those who fish for food and makes lower income rural families poorer.

fishing-lodgeThe law: Failure to Label Fish / Possessing Gift Fish

“It is unlawful to keep bass, landlocked salmon, togue (lake trout) or trout at any sporting camp, hotel, public lodging place or any place other than a person’s residence without attaching the name and address of the person who caught the fish (Title 12, §12608).”

“A person who does not possess a valid fishing license issued under chapter 913 may not possess a fish or any part of a fish given to that person except a person may possess in that person’s domicile a gift fish that was lawfully caught and is plainly labeled with the name of the person who gave the fish and the year, month and day the fish was caught by that person. This section does not apply to baitfish (Title 12, §12613).”

The scenario:

You have finally made time for a fishing trip up north. The cabin and canoe rental are paid for, the gear is loaded and you are on your way for some relaxing time on the water. Your first day on the lake is a productive one. You bring your catch of five brook trout back to your cabin and realize it is more fish than you need for your campfire meal this evening. You decide to give two fish to some elderly folks who live down the lane and are very welcoming every time you visit this lake.

You jump on the ATV with two fish bagged and wrapped in freezer paper leaving the other three in your cooler for dinner tonight. When you get back to the cabin you find a game warden waiting. He’d like to see your fish.

Having no worries about size or bag limits, you pop the cooler top for the warden to inspect. He informs you that because this is not your permanent residence, every fish you keep here must be tagged with your name and address. That’s three counts of failure to label fish.

What about the two fish you gave away? The game warden informs you that unless you tagged those fish with the same information, as well as the date on which you caught them, the elderly couple is breaking the law as well by possessing gift fish without a label.

Under these regulations, a simple act of kindness can put an unaware person, who may not even fish, outside of the law. The temporary lodging rule can also be a costly one. Why is there is no requirement to tag every ruffed grouse, snowshoe hare or squirrel taken during hunting season?

There has to be a better way

Each one of these example violations is punishable by a fine of at least $100 up to a $500 maximum. That fine is also per fish. While game and fish conservation laws may be necessary to ensure the health, vitality and continued population growth of wildlife, they do not need to be counter intuitive or financially debilitating.

Consider this: You are an avid bass fisherman on vacation at Mattakeunk Lake in Lee. You’ve picked this lake because it has a special rule designation allowing for no limit or size restrictions on bass. It is a spring fed, cold water fishery that is being overrun with warm water species. You are going to do your part in helping the native cold water species survive.

You fish for five days, taking six bass a day. Every night back at camp, unaware of the not so common sense rules outlined above, you fillet out your fish and package them on ice in your cooler to take home.

At the end of your trip you would have racked up 30 counts of removing heads and tails along with 30 counts of failure to label fish. The minimum fine accrued would be $6000 and the maximum fine you could receive would be a whopping $30,000.

Is it just me or is there something fishy going on here?

John Floyd

About John Floyd

John is a Registered Maine Guide, an NRA Certified Instructor and an NRA Certified Range Safety Officer. He is a former Staff Sergeant in the U.S. Army and was honorably discharged after an 8 year career in 2003. John is the owner of Tucker Ridge Outdoors in Webster Plantation, Maine.