One man’s interesting ideas for simplifying fishing rules

Bass - Belgrade LakesAfter reading about my proposed legislation to create a commission to simplify Maine’s far-too-complicated fishing rules, Frank Richards emailed me to say, “I read your blog on legislation to simplify the fishing rulebook with interest. I’ll be surprised if it passes. I don’t think the committee cares about the department’s long term inability to do better on this. But, it will be interesting to see what they have to say at a public hearing.”

Frank also told me that, “This April I exchanged an email with Mike Brown (at that time DIF&W’s Fisheries Division Director) on another subject. In a spur of the moment type of comment he solicited my ideas about the rulebook. Later, I sent him the attached as an informal letter.”

I think Frank’s ideas are interesting so  I’m going to share them with you today. Here they are:

Rulebook Notes – Originally a letter

The world is not going to end if the rulebook is too complicated. However, a comedian with a thick Downeast accent could do a routine about trying to decipher the regulations for some of the lakes.

Long term license holders are familiar with the rules for waters they fish on. When necessary, they can usually wade through the process of looking in two or three different places to decipher the codes for unfamiliar areas.

The rulebook is likely more of an issue to an out-of-state angler, who may be looking at it for the first time. It doesn’t make a good first impression to someone contemplating a choice between a fishing vacation in Maine or someplace else.

Let me start by supposing, if a Survey Monkey survey used the Moses database of people with fishing licenses to do a survey:

If asked: “Is the rulebook too complicated?” – Yes or No.

I predict that nearly 100% of license holders would answer “Yes”

If asked: “Does the existing rulebook make the Department look stupid?” – Yes or No.

Again, I predict that nearly 100% would answer “Yes”

I think the fundamental problem is the rules themselves. I don’t think any rulebook could easily summarize them.

Many lakes have an alphabet soup of special codes. You have to go to different places in the book to find out what they mean. It’s so complicated that someone has recently started to market an app to consolidate the codes into a text of the rules for a body of water.

It looks as if, for maybe 50 years, regional biologists have tried to create different rules to manage individual bodies of water. They have no reason to be thinking about the statewide complexity those rules create. That complexity has accumulated like sludge over a long period of time.

I think special rules for individual lakes and rivers should be de-emphasized as a management tool. In general, I don’t see enough resource protection resulting from those minor variations to justify the complexity all those S codes create.

By way of process, I would start by pretending all existing rules no longer existed. Then, I would create new statewide rules from scratch with the idea of making them as simple as possible.

I would try to have rules that apply to the state as a whole, not to individual lakes and streams. Many of the S codes might be reformulated as a uniform state rule.

By way of ideas about specifics,


I’d start with seasons. Statewide open water fishing would start at ice out. Ice fishing would start at ice in. There should be no A and B lakes, with slightly different seasons.

I believe the seasons were originally conceived to reduce fishing pressure. However, I question if in practice, a few weeks or so here and there makes any meaningful difference.

Bag Limit. I’d have one bag limit of 5 gamefish total for all water bodies, none for panfish, pickerel, and hornpout. Gamefish would be smallmouth/largemouth bass, trout, landlocked salmon, and lake trout.

People can remember the number 5, most of the time.

The bag limit, in my opinion, is a way to control slob anglers. Most serious fisherman today practice catch and release, with occasional exceptions for an almost ceremonial type meal.

In my opinion, bag limits have long ceased to be an effective management tool. If a fishery were so fragile that a bag limit of 5 fish was considered an issue, then maybe addressing that by designating the water as catch and release would be preferable to the complexity of differing bag limits.

Length limits

None for panfish, pickerel, and hornpout.

Also, no length restrictions on stocked trout. I think it’s preferable to have a simple rulebook than try to micromanage a stocked fishery, where they all die within a year or so anyway.

For game fish, I’d go with slot limits.

Largemouth/Smallmouth Bass – All fish between 12”-18” must be released.

Brook Trout – All wild fish between 8”-12” must be released.

Landlocked Salmon 12”-18” must be released.

Lake Trout 18”-24” must be released.

The slots are 6 inches to make them easier to remember.

The above seasons, bag limits, and length limits would do it for the rulebook statewide. Obviously, those proposed slots are arbitrary and off the top of my head.

Invasive Species

No length or bag limits on so-called invasive species, for now.

The role of species like pike, muskies, walleyes, carp, catfish etc. may take decades to sort out.

In the interim, I think it is counterproductive to try to simultaneously control their distribution and at the same time manage them as part of a de facto established fishery.


The best government is one that governs least. Somebody famous said that.

All bodies of water should allow 5 tip ups. I don’t think enough is accomplished by having a few waters with 2 trap limits to justify complexity the rule creates.

Also, there are a few places off limits to fishing, marked with red stakes. Sometimes the stakes are in poor repair. I’d review each area carefully to evaluate if it is worth the trouble of making the rulebook more complicated, or if there is some other way to address the problem at hand.

Wild trout waters.

The preceding would reduce the rule book for warm water and stocked fisheries down to just a few pages.

However, I think there should be a separate section of the rule book for unstocked, wild trout water. Wild trout are fragile and sacred.

Off the top of my head, I think that section of the book should include an alphabetic listing of such waters by county.

Except under extraordinary circumstances, I think 5 fish is still a reasonable bag limit. Most serious trout anglers practice catch and release. 5 fish sets a legal limit for occasional slob anglers. It also is enough fish so that people can enjoy a meal of wild trout, once in a rare while.

Generally, I think it is better to have a water designated catch and release, artificial lures only, and/or fly fishing only than fool around with length, bag limits, and other rules that are slightly different for different locations.

Also, in contrast to S codes, people can remember abbreviations like, C&R, ALO, FFO, and NLB.

I think a lot of the work of developing new rules would relate to enumerating wild trout waters and looking at each one individually; to evaluate using all tackle and methods, designating catch and release, fly fishing only, artificial lures only, no live bait, etc or deciding to go with some other regulation to protect the resource.


George Smith

About George Smith

George stepped down at the end of 2010 after 18 years as the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine to write full time. He writes a weekly editorial page column in the Kennebec Journal and Waterville Morning Sentinel, a weekly travel column in those same newspapers (with his wife Linda), monthly columns in The Maine Sportsman magazine, two outdoor news blogs (one on his website,, and one on the website of the Bangor Daily News), and special columns for many publications and newsletters. Islandport Press published a book of George's favorite columns, "A Life Lived Outdoors" in 2014. In 2014, George also won a Maine Press Association award for writing the state's bet sports blog. In 2016, Down East Books published George's book, Maine Sporting Camps, and Islandport Press published George and his wife Linda's travel book, Take It From ME, about their favorite Maine inns and restaurants.