When it comes to the quality of the sport fishery, once-fabled fishing lakes like Branch Lake, Green Lake and Beech Hill Pond have had their ups and downs. When I was a kid, Branch Lake was a red hot game fishery. Beech Hill gave up a record lake trout that has never been bested. In those days, Hanson’s Landing kept a big chalkboard near the dock. It was a fish tally board. It told a story every spring of lunker lake trout and jaw-dropping brown trout. Names of the proud anglers were chalked in beside their catches.
In my recollection, the absolute low point for Branch Lake’s sport fishery was what I call the “Do-Gooder’s Decade.” That was from 2000-2010, when a misguided coalition made up of Ellsworth municipal leaders and the Branch Pond Association (BPA) successfully denied public access to the lake. Without fair and equitable public access to the lake, the state, by policy, could not stock the lake to enhance the sport fishery. Consequently, the fishing, especially the salmon fishing, quickly went downhill.
Finally, in 2010, following a long and bitter struggle with Ellsworth city fathers, the state prevailed and built its long-sought public boat access ramp. With public access, the lake’s fisheries management program could begin anew. The fishery was in woeful condition. With a runaway population of small, stunted lake trout decimating the smelt populations, renewed salmon stocking was an iffy proposition. According to Downeast Fisheries biologist Greg Burr, a 2010 stocking of 8-10-inch salmon did not fare well. “A year and a half later,” says Burr, “the stocked salmon had only grown to an average of about 15 inches. Biologists consider this poor growth. We knew then that we had a forage problem (not enough smelts).”
So, in 2012 smelt eggs were introduced into Branch Lake. Methodically, the salmon stocking numbers were reduced to give the smelt a chance to take hold, and, at the same time, a six fish lake trout regulation encouraged a more liberal lake trout take. Biologists worked with local ice-fishing derbies to give cash incentives to fishermen to harvest small lake trout and reduce their populations, giving the salmon a better chance at the forage base.
Proper management of sport fisheries can be complex and, as we know from prior experience with other Maine lakes and ponds, sometimes counterintuitive. Like growing a good garden, nothing happens overnight.
Although we knew from this year’s anecdotal fishing reports that Branch Lake’s salmon fishery was making a remarkable comeback, it’s always helpful to get scientific validation. Burr reports that in one year and a half stocked salmon in Branch Lake have grown from 8-10 inches to an average length of 18 inches! This is what the fisheries biologists call A-plus grade. This is remarkable improvement from the early stocking results following the decade of poor fishing because of no management.
There have been similar improvements in the sport fisheries at Green Lake, Phillips Lake and Beech Hill Pond.
As Burr observed, “These lakes are really cookin’!” Ice fishermen can expect some exciting angling this winter on these popular sport fisheries with anglers at Branch potentially catching some of the biggest salmon of their lives.